Catholics in Britain and Ireland, 1558-1829

By Vidmar, John C. | The Catholic Historical Review, April 2000 | Go to article overview

Catholics in Britain and Ireland, 1558-1829


Vidmar, John C., The Catholic Historical Review


Catholics in Britain and Ireland, 1558-1829. By Michael A. Mullett. [Social History in Perspective.] (New York: St. Martin's Press. 1998. Pp. xii, 236. $ 55.00.)

The period of time from Queen Elizabeth's accession to the throne of England to the Third Reform Bill has drawn the attention of several modern authors anxious to prove that Roman Catholicism underwent a sea change during 250 years of persecution. Continuity with the medieval past, according to Professors John Bossy and Hugh Aveling, was simply lost. Tridentine models of worship and governance swept away previous English medieval practices. Professor Mullett's admirable survey of the period does not dispute this conclusion directly but renders it almost unimportant. The author treats the Roman Catholic Church within the larger framework of the whole of Britain and Ireland and does so from the point of view of survival. The difference in 1829 is not that the Roman Church had become a "separating community;" but rather that it had become a social heresy. No longer did it prevail in English society as it did in 1530, or as it did in Southern Europe or Spanish-speaking America (so heavily influenced by Trent), but rather it had survived in a remarkable way amazingly intact. While Trent required majority communal membership within identifiable political units, and broad support from and co-operation with the political authorities, this did not happen in Britain or Ireland. And the author's conclusion is that Catholicism "was little the worse for it (p. 198).

Professor Mullett's deceptively slim volume is a chronicle of British and Irish Catholicism's resilience in the midst of official persecution. In no other European countries affected by the Reformation did it survive so well. He is not afraid to agree with standard observations: that the English and Welsh Catholic gentry (largely not Tridentine in sympathy by the late 1700's) played a large role in the continuance of Catholicism, that Gaelic Scotland provided some Catholic durability, and that Irish nationalism was obviously crucial. But he also provides supplementary insights into the phenomenon of Catholic survival, especially when it comes to Ireland. Papal interest in Ireland and England, he maintains, was markedly greater than it was in Scotland. Not only did Pope Paul III support political resistance movements, such as that of the Fitzgerald resistance and Manus O'Donnell in 1537, but as early as 1535, the same pope appointed bishops to rival those appointed by Henry VIII. …

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