Open Season on Catholic History in the U.K.?

January 2004By Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She is author, most recently, of Ancient Faith and Modern Freedom in John Dryden’s The Hind and the Panther (Catholic University of America Press).

The Construction of Martyrdom in the English Catholic Community.  By Anne Dillon. Ashgate (802-865-7641). 474 pages. 69 illustrations. $104.95.. .



This book is one of 44 in a series called “The St. Andrews Studies in Reformation History.” Among these, only two titles contain the word Catholic, and both have a sting in them: Hatred in Print: Catholic Propaganda and Protestant Identity During the French Wars of Religion, and the second, Anne Dillon’s The Construction of Martyrdom in the English Catholic Community, 1535-1603. What is the meaning of construction here? It means that 16th-century English Catholics “created” their martyrs as “texts” to be used for “propaganda.”

This book was begun as a dissertation under Eamon Duffy at Cambridge University and was encouraged by several major scholars, including John Bossy and Catharine Pickstock. The latter read the work “at every stage of its metamorphosis.” It is well worth examining for what it reveals about the view of English Catholic martyrs acceptable today in British academe.

In the first chapter, Dillon lays her groundwork: She argues that the English Catholics who wrote about their martyrs were simply responding to previous accounts of Protestant martyrs published by John Bale and John Foxe. She gives no evidence for this claim of close, pervasive, and unmistakable verbal borrowing. She simply assumes that it is the case. This premise is what allows her to portray the English Catholic martyrs as “texts” that were “constructed” as a tit-for-tat reply to the Protestants. It allows her to put the flesh-and-blood reality of the English Catholic martyrs at a considerable distance.

Dillon devotes an entire chapter to St. Margaret Clitherow, a mother of four who, at the age of 32, was pressed to death on March 25, 1586. Her crime was sheltering Catholic priests. She was placed on the floor with a sharp rock under her back, and a door with “8 hundred weights” was laid on her. She died in fifteen minutes. Dillon writes: “If Margaret Clitherow, the martyr, had not existed, she would have had to be invented; indeed, perhaps in many ways she was invented, since the martyr is constructed almost wholly in and by the text.”

By reducing the saint to a virtual “text,” she sets aside the grim reality of her brutal and unjust death. Dillon explains that “the Assize records, which predate 1607, and those of the Council of the North are lost,” so there is “no official account available of her trial and execution.” The “text” in which Margaret is “constructed” is a manuscript of 30,000 words called trewe reporte that began to circulate among the Catholics of York in May 1586, about a month after the saint’s death. Here we have a detailed account of her life by Fr. John Mush, her own confessor, one distributed right after her death when all the witnesses were still around. No Protestant or Catholic of York ever denied that Margaret Clitherow had been known and martyred there. Yet Dillon says, “Margaret Clitherow becomes the text itself.” This maneuver allows her to treat the saint as only a virtual reality, and hence without admiration or compassion.

Why would English Catholics “construct” a “text” like trewe reporte? Dillon thinks they did it as a tit-for-tat response to Bale’s story of the Protestant martyr Anne Askew. For many pages Dillon turns our attention to Anne Askew, whom she considers admirable for her “autonomy.” On the other hand, she faults St. Margaret for her “total submission” to her confessor, finding an “underlying eroticism” in her humility and giving the name “secret assignations” to her visits for religious instruction. Secondly, Dillon says the “text” was “constructed” to urge the English Catholics to accept “separatism” and “dependence on the priesthood.” This was not easy, since there were laws obliging everyone, under heavy penalties, to attend a Protestant service every week. Dillon never even hints that these laws amounted to a coercion of conscience or persecution. Instead, she characterizes them blandly as “the legally enforced, minimum state demands of attendance.” Minimum state demands! The implication is that the English Catholics made a fuss about nothing when they suffered and died for the Mass. It was the English Catholic leaders who were to blame, Dillon says, for their “refusal to compromise.” It was they who deployed a “text” like Margaret Clitherow as a “tool” to encourage a corporate “act of refusal which brought suffering and depravation.” It was they who provoked the government to use the death penalty: “So long as the recusant [i.e., Catholic] community defined itself through refusal and uncompromising isolation, the symbol of that elimination [i.e., martyrdom] continued to be generated by government.” This sentence bears rereading. It’s an astonishing case of blaming the victim. You see, dear reader, not only is St. Margaret Clitherow reduced to a virtual “text” here, but her brutal martyrdom is turned into a mere “symbol” generated by the government after those “uncompromising” Catholics provoked it. Has less sympathy ever been shown for a persecuted religious minority?

Dillon observes that Margaret Clitherow followed “the Jesuit teaching of an extreme spiritual sectarianism.” Yes, she calls the Catholic faith sectarianism! When St. Margaret chose to cling to the universal Church, she was clinging to a little sect! Dillon also makes this remark about the timing of St. Margaret’s martyrdom: “The actual date of the execution of Margaret Clitherow is perhaps of lesser importance than the textual significance of dating it thus.” Since her death occurred on March 25, both the feast of the Annunciation and Good Friday that year, Dillon implies that this is literary “construction.” Yet Divine Providence often writes poetry like this with the life of a saint.

When Fr. Mush, the author of trewe reporte, ends by praying to St. Margaret Clitherow to intercede for him, Dillon informs us that he is having a “spontaneous reversion” to medieval piety. She mistakenly believes that the Council of Trent absolutely forbade such prayers. So despite her hundred-page bibliography and all the English Catholics she mentions as having consulted in her “Acknowledgements,” she has serious blind spots about the Catholic religion. But this is nothing compared to her constantly using two different standards for Catholics and Protestants. For instance, she repeats frequently that 16th-century Catholics regarded Protestants as bound for Hell. She doesn’t mention that Protestants of that era regarded Catholics as bound for Hell as sons of the Antichrist. Although Catholics believe that those outside the Church could be saved if they were invincibly ignorant of the true Church, in the 1580s, of course, many of their persecutors were apostate Catholics (no one hates the Church like an apostate), and so could not be “invincibly ignorant.” It is usually forgotten that Queen Elizabeth herself was a Catholic at her coronation: She was crowned by Catholic bishops in a Catholic service and took a solemn coronation oath to maintain the Catholic Church as she found it after Mary Tudor’s reign.

When Dillon writes about Protestants killed for their beliefs, she makes us feel, and rightly so, that real people suffered unspeakably for the sake of conscience: “the vast majority of Foxe’s subjects had been put to death for religion,” so “the recent history of the Protestant Church could be related by the heroes of the struggle.” Note that she uses the word heroes for Protestants, whether English or French, as when she mentions “Crespin’s accounts of the Huguenot heroes of the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre.” But she does not give Catholic martyrs this designation.

Dillon presents the persecution of Huguenots in France as real and wrong. But she presents the persecution of Catholics in England as only virtual — and very excusable. She writes, “France was creating Huguenot martyrs,” and for the Huguenots, “persecution was a lived experience.” Ah, so the suffering involved flesh and blood — and was real. But then she turns to England and tells us that Catholic martyrdom was only a “spectacle” for “propaganda”: “The Catholics therefore utilized the spectacle of the scaffold for propaganda in Europe” because they needed to “finance seminaries and printing presses.” There was a “market” for martyr-construction because Europeans were “anxious to buy” stories of “cruelty, torture and martyrdom.” In the following lines, she states that not just the Catholics who wrote about martyrs, but even those who suffered on racks and scaffolds, saw Catholic martyrdom as a constructed “text”: “There was one further level of construction in all of these texts. Beneath the political and legal deployment of the image of the martyr lay the priests’ own self-construction in the imitation of Christ.”

You see, we are to imagine that the Catholic men who were first hanged, then cut down alive, castrated, their hearts and entrails cut out, and their bodies hacked in quarters — this, only for their priesthood — were not looking to eternity all the while, but were consciously constructing themselves as texts for a human audience! Only in academe could such a lack of common sense pass muster.

Much of this book is devoted to explicating the “gruesome and explicit” pictures of English Catholic martyrdoms drawn by Richard Verstegan and reproduced here on 69 pages. These pictures show the unspeakable cruelties that were part of hanging and quartering and various other tortures inflicted on Catholics. Once again, Dillon turns these real horrors into virtual reality: She speaks of the “rhetoric of the image” used “to construct English Catholic martyrdom” and of Verstegan’s telling people what his “paymasters” wanted them “to believe.”

But the most astonishing passage in this book is the one where Dillon suggests that the Catholic martyrs were traitors. First, she declares that Verstegan’s pictures attempted to “overturn the Protestant construction of treason” under which most of the English Catholics were executed. Then, speaking of John Rigby, a 30-year-old layman who died for having been reconciled to Catholicism by a priest and for thereafter refusing to attend Protestant services, she writes: He believed “in an orthodoxy which was at variance with that religious orthodoxy whose acceptance was demanded by law,” and so he became “under the prevailing legislation, a traitor, in spite of his protestations to the contrary under oath.” Note well: a traitor, in spite of his protestations to the contrary. In other words, he perjured himself by denying he was a traitor!

There is more than a hint of contempt in Dillon’s reference to Jesuit Edmund Campion’s “restless relics” traveling across Europe “to be shared among the inner circle,” or to the Jesuit Thomas Pilchard’s “redundant personal appearances” after his death, or to the Jesuits’ “staged exorcisms,” where the relics of English martyrs served as “weapons of dénouement.” She insinuates, too, that Campion broke under torture and betrayed those who had sheltered him.

Her last chapter is devoted to the Jesuit Robert Persons’s Treatise of Three Conversions (1604), a work she interprets as showing that, had Catholics gotten the upper hand again in the 17th century, they would have begun to burn Protestants anew as in Tudor times. She writes: “the ‘wolves’ in the Protestant community would have been subjected to a terrible inquisition and the burnings would have begun.” The implication is that the English martyrs are not to be pitied because they would have done the equivalent to their persecutors if the situation had been reversed. First of all, she finds this supposed Catholic program to burn heretics only between the lines of Persons’s text. It is her inference. And even if it were so, it would only be one man’s private opinion. She never proves that other English Catholics agreed with this or envisaged such a renewal of violent persecution. France had just found peace in the toleration of Huguenots under the Edict of Nantes. English Catholics would have welcomed such a liberty of conscience, but they would have to wait another two centuries.

Dillon declares with understandable bitterness that “nowhere” did Persons show regret or say that the Protestants killed under Mary Tudor “should have been spared,” though he did “put forward the opinion of ‘divers learned, godly & wise men [who] much doubt, whether the course held in those dayes of burning such people were expedient or noe.’” It would have been remarkable indeed had Persons apologized for the sins of Mary Tudor’s government in the style of Pope John Paul II. Despite all her research, Dillon doesn’t realize that it just wasn’t done in those days. The rule was, on all sides, to write apologetics rather than to apologize. Ironically, Dillon herself, living in a supposedly more ecumenical age, does not express regret for the martyrdom of English Catholics or say they should have been spared. On the contrary, she defends the laws they resisted as making minimum demands and blames them for uncompromising isolationism.

In Bishop Challoner’s Memoirs of Missionary Priests, we find a dialogue that reveals just what those English Catholics died for. It was recorded at the martyrdom of the priest Robert Johnson, on May 28, 1582:

“Sheriff — Dost thou acknowledge the Queen for lawful Queen? Repent thee, and notwithstanding thy traitorous practices, we have authority from the Queen to carry thee back.

“Johnson — I do acknowledge her as lawful as Queen Mary was. I can say no more; but pray to God to give her grace, and that she may now stay her hand from shedding of innocent blood.

“Sheriff — Dost thou acknowledge her supreme head of the Church in ecclesiastical matters?

“Johnson — I acknowledge her to have as full and great authority as ever Queen Mary had; and more with safety and conscience I cannot give her.

“Sheriff — Thou art a traitor most obstinate.

“Johnson — If I be a traitor for maintaining this faith, then all the kings and queens of this realm heretofore, and all our ancestors, were traitors, for they maintained the same.

“Sheriff — What! You will preach treason also, if we suffer you?

“Johnson — I teach but the Catholic religion.”

Then Johnson’s execution began. In this passage we see what the state demanded and what Catholics refused to the point of shedding their blood: It was nothing less than to put the English monarch in the place of the pope and to abandon the faith of their fathers.

The 16th-century English Catholics did not “construct” their martyrs. Rather, it is this book that attempts to “construct” them anew as rhetorical ploys, mere shadows without substance or reality. But it won’t work. Nothing is more real and solid than the immortal victory and unfading glory of these martyrs.



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