Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

A Penny for the Guy

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

A Penny for the Guy

Article excerpt


WITHIN TWO WEEKS of his return from Rome in 1586, Father Robert Garnet had been selected to be the superior of the Jesuit mission in England. For twenty years he persisted: traveling, hiding, celebrating the sacraments, and coordinating the movements of his brother priests. By 1606, however, Garnet stood on a scaffold outside St. Paul's cathedral. Refusing to recant, he was hanged-executed for his purported role in the treasonous conspiracy called the Gunpowder Plot.

Although the government had for decades been trying to stir up paranoid fury against Papists in general and Jesuits in particular, the London mob's reaction to Garnet's hanging was not what the royal ministers had hoped. It was reported that the crowd lunged forward and pulled on his legs, hastening his death to minimize suffering. It worked. Garnet died m the hanging, and so was not alive during the usual climax of the execution of Romish priests: drawing and quartering, removing the still-beating heart of the condemned, holding it before his eyes and announcing, "Behold the heart of a traitor!"

All that was done, of course, but as Garnet's fellow Jesuit John Gerard reported, the crowd stayed silent, withholding its usual lusty "God save the King." There was an ambiguity at the heart of England's Catholic problem: Fears that the Catholic Church was ready to overthrow the British monarchy were matched by a desire that England not be known as a country that persecuted its citizens for religious beliefs.

The story of the Gunpowder Plot has often been told, with due attention given to the Jesuit element of the story. In God's secret Agents, however, Alice Hogge follows a different path, focusing with great skill on the Jesuits and their mission to England. Genuine aspects of the Jesuits' presence and sensibility, she argues, were expanded by English paranoia to produce the unjust accusation that the Jesuits had been the instigators of the Gunpowder Plot-along with nearly every other thwarted effort to overthrow the government throughout the sixteenth century.

Perhaps Hogge, who is not an academic historian, was drawn to the period by her Recusant ancestry and her background in theater. The characters who people her narrative are participants in a high drama. Hogge tells the story thoroughly and with just the right amount of detail: enough to draw us into the landscape, but not so much that we are overwhelmed with complexities. The narrative reads as smoothly as a novel-but this is not fiction. The individuals were real, their struggles and anguished, and their blood really did spill on English soil.

Hogge's tale begins toward the end of the sixteenth century, when English Catholics suffered under the "Penal Laws," the government measures, enacted and expanded over the course of the century, that were designed to make the practice of Catholicism difficult. The laws banned Catholics from certain professions, prohibited the celebration of the Mass, mandated attendance at local Anglican parishes, and banned priests from the country. Increasingly burdensome fines were levied on those who refused to attend the local government-sanctioned church, to the point at which Lord Grey, no Catholic, remarked in 1593, "I was under the impression that our purpose hitherto was merely to keep the Papists humbled and in subjection so that they should cause no trouble. We have sucked them dry and reduced them to extreme poverty. Now we strive to harass them yet further. It is plain to me we are persecuting religion."

And why did the Papists need to be humbled? Because they were, it was believed, inherently treasonous. In 1570, Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth and declared her a heretic and a pretender to the throne-thereby, on paper, releasing English Catholics from loyalty to her. …

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