October 15, 2009

An Historical Irony

Catholics fought in the English Civil War. Parliament accused the King of using papists to do his work on the battlefields of England and increasingly on the battlefields of Ireland. In part this accusation was tied up with the ethnic politics of English domination of the British Isles, fears of Irish barbarism and Irish massacres- but in part it was a religious prejudice. Englishmen consumed Foxe's Book of Martyrs with its grisly tales of the fates of Protestants under a Catholic regime, knew about the savagery of religious warfare between the Protestants and Catholics in the Thirty Years War (as well as in earlier conflicts stretching back to the time of Luther) and since 1570 there was always the possibility, lurking in Protestant Anglophone minds, that the Catholic minority were a fifth column, dedicated to fulfilling the Pope's excomunication and slaying the English King or Queen. Indeed one of the moments that precedes the English Civil War is the Bond of Association (1585) in which the nobility of England associated in declaring that should Elizabeth I be killed, then they would lynch her most likely successor Mary Stuart, the Catholic Queen of Scotland (then a prisoner in England).

Catholics were not the flavour of the month for most Protestants and it was believed by some and said by many that their strength lay behind the King's armies. William Shiels in a section of an article published in this collection examines the claim and what he finds is I think rather interesting. What Shiels finds is that Catholics did fight predominately for the King- they were a resource that Charles used. However in county studies, say of Worcestershire, Shiels finds that most Catholics remained neutral. A fascinating picture emerges though if you look at where most Catholics were recruited to the King's army. In Puritan heartlands such as the south midlands or East Anglia, only 10% of the King's officers recruited from the region were Catholic: however the figures for Northumberland 39%, Durham 38% and Lancashire 60% were very different. Shiels explains the differences by suggesting that in the north and west, Catholics remained active politically in the local arena whereas in the south and east, Catholics had been drummed out of local politics and become more quietist.

It is an interesting theory. There are two reasons for caution. The first is demographic- there may simply have been more Catholics in the north and therefore naturally the King will have recruited more Catholics. Our results may be skewed. The second is that as Newman has commented, very few of the King's Catholic officers directly held office within the commonwealth. Newman's conclusion is important but officeholding is not the same as influence- and the persistence of a large Catholic landed class in the north and west meant the persistence of large Catholic influence in counties like Lancashire and Cumbria. If we accept Shiel's argument, and at the moment I am prepared to partly accept it, it prompts a further reflection about historical irony. It was Charles I's ancestors using the power and strength of the English and later British monarchy who exterminated Catholics in the southern counties: Henry, Elizabeth and Charles's father James all were active anti-Catholics. In the civil war, Charles needed the Catholics of England to rally to his banner and found south of the Wash that there were too few to do so: his ancestors had been too successful and therefore the army that protected the monarchy was smaller than it might have been.

If I were a puritan or religious at all I would detect providence. Being neither this is yet another irony of history.


edmund said...

If one wants to be providential and ironic-perphaps it's worht noting this was triggered in large part (i'd say more than 50%) by Charles seeking to modify the religous settlemtn in a less puritan and more "Catholic" direction. Even though he was still i'd say a Protestant and definetely not a Roman Catholic, arguably it was by turning his backs on his ancestors that he created this problem.

So very appropiate after all?

Gracchi said...

Possibly- I'm not sure that is how Charles would have defined matters himself though!