Alternative Histories: Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

We don’t ‘do’ television here at the monastery but a quick skim through Facebook this morning produced a handful of interesting comments on the BBC’s latest period drama, ‘Gunpowder’. As a Catholic of a certain age, I’m familiar with the story of English recusancy; so it was fascinating to read the responses of those who aren’t. It set me thinking about the way in which alternative histories co-exist and the influence they have on succeeding generations.

I have only to see one of the tiny chalices and small Mass stones carried by recusant priests and I am back in the stifling heat of a loft where Mass is said quietly, with one ear always on the alert for danger. I am on the dark seashore waiting for a priest who has slipped across the Channel to bring the sacraments to my kinsfolk, knowing that if he is caught it means certain death. If I am male, I am forbidden a horse worth more than twelve shillings, fined if I do not attend the services of the Church of England, subject to all kinds of petty inconveniences and disabilities. If I am female and want to become a nun, I need a licence from the Bishop of London to be able to go abroad, where the only monasteries for Englishmen and women are. And all this while my fellow countrymen are bursting with self-confidence and creativity, laying the foundations of empire and much that is less controversial which we can glory in today. Yet for me, as for many Catholics, the alternative history, the hidden stream, remains powerful. How does it affect us?

I think, in the first instance, it reminds us that faith is precious and freedom of religion a hard-won blessing not to be taken for granted, that we must be willing to make huge sacrifices to preserve. Sacrifice isn’t a fashionable concept these days, but it is an essential part of the Christian vocabulary. I am not very brave myself, but knowing the sacrifices made by my forebears means I could never lightly give up Catholicism or accept any other form of Christianity, no matter how much I value and appreciate its followers and the insights it has been given. I am sure my Protestant friends would say the same, but perhaps the memory of ‘anti-popery’ gives a special force to my conviction. Either that or the natural stubbornness of the Wybournes!

Secondly, I think awareness of the way in which Catholicism survived in England makes us more conscious of the debt we owe to others and the interconnectedness of England and the Continent. I think of the other countries of Europe as being friends not foes—places that gave refuge to English Catholics when life was difficult for us here, and still welcoming today because we share the same faith and sacraments. We have a long history in common. The overseas foundations that played an important role in the lives of English Catholics from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries were followed in the nineteenth by an influx of mainly French and Belgian and later, Irish, religious who set up schools and other institutions over here. I was myself taught by religious who came originally from France, Belgium and Spain. Does the internationalism of the Church have a psychological effect? I’d say it does, but as the schools run by religious close and fewer clergy study abroad, one must question whether the sense of belonging to a larger whole is waning, and with it any lingering sense of the ‘foreign’ nature of Catholicism. At one time, to be a Catholic was regarded by many as being unpatriotic. Now, most people don’t care; or they try to stretch the definition of ‘Catholic’ to include whatever they want it to include. If people object to Catholicism nowadays, it is because of what the Church teaches, not because Catholicism is seen as ‘foreign’.

A few very personal ramblings which I make public for one reason only: although I have concentrated on something I know from the inside, the history of post-Reformation Catholicism in England, there are many such ‘alternative histories’ that inform the thoughts and feelings of our fellow citizens. It is easy to be dismissive — especially when one is ignorant of the peculiar force such a history may have for the one who shares it. It is also easy to be over-sensitive — especially if one is a bit wishy-washy about what one believes to be important oneself. What is not so easy is being willing to learn. One of the things I found strangely moving as I skimmed through those Facebook comments this morning was the repeated ‘I didn’t know that.’ I think of some of the people I have met — Vietnamese, refugees from Amin’s Uganda, Syrians — and find myself wondering what their ‘hidden histories’ are and how they affect their lives in Britain today. I have a hunch I might be shocked and shamed were I to find out.