Oliver Cromwell's Policy toward the English Catholics: The Appraisal by Diplomats, 1654-1658

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For four years there were reports in western Europe concerning the persecution of the English Catholics by the Lord Protector, so that it was not unusual for the Catholic foreign diplomats residing in London to include their current views of their predicament in many surviving letters in the files of their foreign secretaries.1 At least seven of these diplomats were appointed during this period, and a close look at their reactions can offer a new and informative picture of the recusants as they saw it at different occasions. There were four princes usually represented. The Doge of Venice followed the custom of appointing a representative for a short term so that there were three Venetians sent to the Lord Protector. For a year and a half Lorenzo Paulucci was Agent and secretary and then recalled in July, 1655. His successor, Giovanni Sagredo, had the rank of ambassador but was appointed elsewhere after eight months, and his embassy was closed for nine months. In April, 1657, Francesco Giavarina reopened it, but he too served for less than a year until January, 1658. As will be seen, all three were curious about the Catholics and enjoyed giving them access to their embassy chapels.The grand duke of Tuscany was pleased with the services of his veteran agent, Amerigo Salvetti, who limited access to his chapel to Italian traders and visitors, but wrote bulletins about the regime's restraints on the "papists." His son Giovanni, born in London, was named his successor in April, 1658. As the diplomats of Portugal were concentrating at this time on commercial agreements, they will not be included here. There remain the diplomats of the two great monarchies of western Europe, Spain and France, who played more visible roles in the Catholic question at different times but without competition.

Alonso de Cardenas of Spain was at first the most prominent of all. he had arrived in London in 1638 and maintained many links to the Catholic community in and near London through his well-staffed chapel. His one confrontation with Cromwell occurred when he requested the custody of the aged English priest John Southworth, who had been condemned under a mandate of the protector, and was refused. The priest became the sole martyr of this regime, but remained a drawback to Cromwell's ineffective efforts to gain the friendship of Catholic princes.2 Cardenas had to close the Spanish embassy in October, 1655, after Cromwell's misguided attack on Santo Domingo led to his costly naval war against the domains of Philip IV In mid-1656, accordingly, Antoine de Bordeaux assumed a new role among the resident Catholic diplomats, as shall be seen shortly.

The laws against Catholics were enacted a decade earlier than when Cromwell accepted the office of protector in December, 1653. The Long Parliament passed a new law on March 27, 1643, requiring a Catholic aged twenty-one or over to subscribe on demand to an "oath of abjuration" which denied specific traditional Catholic beliefs. If this was refused the offender suffered "sequestration" of his estate, which meant that two-thirds of his "lands, rents, goods and chattels" were to be possessed by a county commission of sequestrations, who leased the property to non-Catholics, who paid rent to the exchequer. Furthermore, if a royalist, the Catholic faced a loss of four-fifths of his estate.3 This draconian penalty had been preceded by the act of February 3, 1643, that required each Catholic to pay every tax assessment at twice the official rate, and lastly by an act of February 23, by which any tithe still attached to a Catholic's inherited lands was also confiscated.4 Obviously, all sequestered properties risked two more hazards in that any incompetence by the new proprietor could produce a decline in both value and income, which might take years to recover after the retxirn of the property to the Catholic owner.5 Regional studies have shown that the Catholic minor gentry with typical lower income "almost certainly suffered more severely than the greater gentry and the peerage," since sequestration usually forced them to sell a small part of their holdings. …