One of the most depressing things about modern Britain is the lack of awareness of the country’s Christian past. Christian faith has been effectively exiled from public life. Yet the Christian, and specifically Catholic, heritage surrounds us everywhere, from the great cathedrals to the Houses of Parliament, designed in the neo-Gothic style to resemble a medieval church. Yet this heritage is at best ignored and, at worst, derided by the country’s elite. In this discouraging environment works like Joseph Pearce’s Faith of Our Fathers are a breath of fresh air.
Pearce’s book, which is essentially a Catholic history of England, begins by discussing the legends that have made England ‘a Christ-haunted country’. There is the legend that the boy Jesus himself set foot in England. This is encapsulated in the popular patriotic song ‘Jerusalem’, sung by millions at sporting events and concerts, but which many who sing it doubtless have no idea what it really means. Pearce calls ‘Jerusalem’:
a pious legend, indicative of the deep faith of the English people and expressive of the fervent desire for Christ’s physical presence on their native soil, thereby sanctifying it and making it His own. It is the hope that something would be true because it should be true.
A similar legend concerns Joseph of Arimathea who supposedly arrived in 63 AD and planted his staff on a hill in Glastonbury. From the staff bloomed a tree which has become known as the Glastonbury Thorn. Blossoms from the Glastonbury Thorn are sent to the Queen every Christmas and can sometimes be seen in the background during her Christmas broadcast. Glastonbury was supposedly the location of the Holy Grail, also brought there by Joseph of Arimathea. The legendary figure of King Arthur is described, Christ-like, as ‘the once and future king’.
Pearce paints a vivid picture of several ‘golden ages’ in the Catholic history of England and their abrupt and sometimes violent endings. The first such age is the period following the consolidation of Anglo-Saxon power in England, the 7th and 8th centuries. This age saw the birth of English literature with the first English poet Caedmon being a monk. The epic poem Beowulf was probably written in this era. St Bede wrote the first work of English history. The Anglo-Saxon period is very rich in saints, many of whom bear names which have vanished into history. England’s first Benedictine monastery was founded by St Eanswith in 630 at Folkestone in Kent. The famous abbeys at Ely and Barking were founded by Sts. Etheldreda and Ethelburga, respectively. An apparition to St Egwin, bishop of Worcester, led to the establishment of an early Marian shrine at Evesham, Worcestershire.
This early golden age ended abruptly with the Viking invasions that devastated the country. But it was recovered with greater glory following the triumph of Alfred the Great. Pearce supports the contention of Hilaire Belloc that Alfred was a saviour of Christendom:
When Alfred became king of England in 871, Christendom was under siege. Barbarian hordes were pressing Christian Europe from the north and east, and Islam was threatening conquest from the south.
With much of Italy and Spain under Muslim rule and the east still pagan, only France, Germany and the British Isles remained under Christian control. Pearce sees Alfred’s victory at Edington in 878 as a key battle in the history of Christendom.
England’s next golden age was that era of the medieval period in which the country became known as ‘Merrie England’. Pearce places particular focus on a central feature of this era: the religious ‘mystery plays’, the purpose of which was to convey key episodes in salvation history to a public, most of whom would have been illiterate. Pearce provides vivid descriptions of these plays and how they were performed:
The plays were performed on pageant carts, which were so expensive to make and maintain that several guilds would bear and share the financial burden. These were essentially mobile theatres, containing several stage sets, as well as a closed space to serve as a dressing room. Since some of the plays called for an upper level from which angels might descend, one can only imagine the ingenuity and craftsmanship that their construction must have demanded.
It is in this era that the English language re-emerges, having been relegated to inferior status after the Norman Conquest, and flourishes in the work of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland. It is in Langland that we have the first literary references to that quintessentially English legendary medieval character, Robin Hood. For Merrie England was a mixture of myth, legend, and reality as evocatively described by Pearce:
It is an England in which daily life beat in rhythm with the heart of the liturgical year, an England evoking visions of villages coming together on feast days at fairs and other festivities, honouring the saints with rambunctious levitas, as well as solemn gravitas. It is an England in which Robin Hood and his Merry Men fight tyranny with Christian charity…It is an England evoked idyllically by Tolkien in his depiction of the Shire and its simple rustic inhabitants, who “love peace and quiet and good tilled earth” and who laugh, eat, drink, and are always ready for the slightest excuse for a party. This is the stuff of myth and legend, of course, but such “stuff” can grow and flourish only from seeds of truth planted in fertile cultural soil.
He further states:
The song of Merrie England is sung by the unsung people, the ordinary folk in village and farm, who are not mentioned in history books. They do not make history but they are history. It would, therefore, be remiss of any history of True England if those who are its true heart are not evoked and honoured.
Destruction and rebirth
One of the most important events in the history of the Church in England is, of course, the Reformation in which Catholicism, the religion of the country for nearly a thousand years, was comprehensively destroyed and Catholics reduced to a tiny, insignificant minority.
Pearce chronicles this in detail, beginning with what he calls the ‘Tudor Terror. First came Henry VIII’s assumption of the role of head of the church in England and the subsequent suppression of the monasteries. Pearce sees Henry as a forerunner of modern totalitarian rulers:
The king’s usurpation of the religious rights of the Church, and therefore the religious liberties of his subjects, set in motion a process of secular nationalism that would lead to the rise of the sort of secularism which ripens into secular fundamentalism. When the state gets too big for its boots, trampling on religious liberty, it is not long before the boots become jackboots, trampling on the defenceless and the weak, and piling up the bodies of its countless victims.
Following Henry’s death, during the reign of his son Edward VI, the Mass was abolished, altars destroyed, and a new Protestant service imposed on all. After a brief restoration of Catholicism under Mary, the persecution and martyrdoms began again under Elizabeth. Pearce movingly describes many of the stories of the martyrs as well as telling the story of the underground church with its ‘priest holes’ and overseas seminaries and schools.
The last martyrdoms took place in 1681, but following the Revolution of 1688 new laws restricting Catholicism were put in place. Pearce seeks to correct the record with the regard to England’s last Catholic king, James II, who was overthrown in 1688. He was not the intolerant bigot he is frequently presented as. As king, he attended Mass as a private individual, not as monarch. He kept the government largely in Protestant hands but promoted religious toleration. Pearce quotes William Cobbett, a Protestant but critical of the Reformation as it had taken place in England, in summarising James’s real crime:
James II … wished for general toleration…He issued a proclamation suspending all penal laws relating to religion, and granting a general liberty of conscience to all his subjects. This was his offence. For this he and his family were set aside for ever!
The Penal Laws barred Catholics from public office, from practicing law and serving in the armed forces. They could have no schools, religious houses, or public places of worship. These laws persisted in one form or another until 1829, though until 1910 the monarch was required at his accession to make a declaration against transubstantiation and condemning the Mass as idolatrous and superstitious.
The century following emancipation were times of spectacular growth for Catholicism. As a writer primarily known for literary biographies, Pearce focuses considerable attention on literary figures and what he calls the three Catholic literary revivals: the first taking place in the mid-19th century and being represented by John Henry Newman, the second in the early 20th under Chesterton and the third under Tolkien in the mid-20th century. The dramatic growth of Catholicism during this period and its adoption by leading literary and artistic figures would contribute to what Pearce calls the last golden age of English Catholicism:
In Newman’s wake, a host of writers joined the Church, some of whom are still well-known and others, popular in their own day, are now forgotten. It was, however, in the twenties and thirties that the number of literary converts increased rapidly…Such growth prompted the historian Sheridan Gilley to declare that “the era between the world wars was something of a golden age in the history of Catholicism in England.” In fact, the whole period from Newman’s conversion in 1845 and Chesterton’s death in 1936 was a golden age.
I hoped that Pearce might give a more detailed commentary on the current state of Catholicism in England, but what he does say in this regard is telling:
The English seminaries at Lisbon, Upholland, Ushaw, and Wonersh all closed, the inevitable and God-forsaken fruits of theological modernism and sexualized relativism, liturgical abuse and sexual abuse going hand in hand.
But Pearce sees in the more traditional orders a hope of renewal:
In 2020, there were over a hundred priests, seminarians, and religious sisters and brothers from the British Isles in solid, tradition oriented orders in various parts of the world. There is no vocations crisis in these orders; perhaps, as in days of yore, these English men and women, forced into exile to pursue the priesthood and religious life, will return as missionaries to their native land, filling with evangelical zeal the vacuum caused by relativism.
By highlighting the glories of England’s Catholic past, Pearce illustrates well what England has lost in abandoning the Catholic faith but gives hope for what might be revived in the future.
Faith of Our Fathers: A History of True England
By Joseph Pearce
Ignatius Press, 2022,
Paperback, 384 pages
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