The Church of England, The Defiled "Panther"

May 2001By William J. Tighe

William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania.

Ancient Faith and Modern Freedom in John Dryden’s The Hind and the Panther.  By Anne Barbeau Gardiner. The Catholic University of America Press. 266 pages. $69.95.



John Dryden (1631-1700) converted to Catholicism in 1686 during the brief reign of the Catholic James II (1634-1701) who succeeded his brother Charles II on the English, Irish, and Scottish thrones in 1685. He was to be “replaced” in 1689 by the joint rule of his son-in-law (and nephew) and daughter, William III (d. 1702) and Mary II (d. 1694), after his flight to France in December 1688. James II had fled in the midst of the desertion of key individuals in whom James had placed his trust to William and his invading Dutch army. This flight was, in turn, to be construed in February 1689 by a “Convention” summoned by William as an abdication, and the Convention was, in turn, to offer the “vacant” throne to William and Mary, a process subsequently named, by the victors of course, the “Glorious Revolution.”

James’s “fault” in the eyes of his opponents, was his presumed desire to impose Catholicism on England as the established religion. His professed aim of removing all legislated religious “tests” for public office and conferring the free exercise of religion upon all “honest and peaceable people” — Catholics, Protestant dissenters, “sectarian” groups like the Quakers (William Penn, the most prominent Quaker of the day, was a strong supporter of James’s efforts) and even the Jews (legally barred from England since 1290) — was thought to be only a pretext; and the threat that a re-establishment of Catholicism would require families owning lands, which before the Reformation had belonged to the Church, to return them was an effective weapon in the hands of James’s opponents. A more favorable evaluation of James’s policies would argue that his true aim was the establishment of a wide degree of religious freedom, but this might not have been all that assuring to the king’s Protestant subjects. Their fear was precisely James’s and his English Catholic co-religionists’ hope: that once Catholicism could be professed openly and without stigma, a tide of conversions would swell the ranks of English Catholics.

James was a bit of a hypochondriac, who felt that he would not have long to reign, and his two daughters from his first wife (who died in 1670), Mary (b. 1663) and Anne (b. 1665), had been removed from his custody in 1673 when his conversion to Catholicism became public knowledge due to his refusal to comply with the Test Act passed that year (he had been Lord Admiral of England up to that point). Mary and Anne were subsequently raised as Protestants with a strong anti-Catholic animus.

When James became king in 1685 he had been married for over a decade to his Italian Catholic second wife, Mary of Modena, but the marriage had been childless, and it was assumed that in due course James would be succeeded by his passive elder daughter, the wife of William of Orange (a.k.a. William III), Statholder of the Netherlands, whose efforts were generally credited with saving the Dutch from conquest by Louis XIV’s France in 1672-73. William was the best approximation of a heroic Protestant leader in late 17th-century Europe.

James therefore thought that he had to work fast to achieve his goals and get the requisite legal changes enacted in such a way that his likely successors would not be able to undo them. But when his first Parliament, in 1685, refused to repeal the religious Test Acts of 1661 (which excluded non-Anglicans from public office at the local level), 1673 (which excluded them from public office at the national level), and 1678 (which excluded Catholic peers from the House of Lords and reiterated the previous Act’s requirement of annual reception of Communion in the Church of England and the taking of a solemn oath abjuring belief in the transubstantiation of the bread and wine in the Eucharist as a condition of public employment), James then suspended and eventually dissolved the Parliament and embarked on the risky course of seeking to remodel the English parliamentary electorate so as to produce a parliament more amenable to his desires.

Equally risky, and even foolhardy, was the king’s reaction to the refusal of the 1685 Parliament, dominated as it was by the Tories, to go along with his desire to repeal the Test Acts. Both the Tories and the Whigs were anti-Catholic, but while the Tories were equally hostile to Catholicism and English Protestant dissent, they regarded the latter as more dangerous to the Church of England and did not make anti-Catholicism central to their political program, as did the Whigs. In the aftermath of his failure to win the Tories over to his “tolerationist” policies of 1685 (although the king and the Tories agreed on virtually all other issues), James appealed to the Whigs for support by dismantling the almost total monopoly of public offices that the Tories had achieved, thanks to the support of Charles II. James’s policy was to prove a calamitous failure: Few Whigs were won over to support the king, as their rallying to William in 1688 was to prove, while many leading Tories were alienated by what seemed to them the king’s ingratitude for their past support of his rights.

So long as one of James’s Protestant daughters remained as heir-apparent, Whigs and Tories alike seemed disposed to wait out James’s reign in the hopes of better days to come, but the birth of a son to the king and his second wife in June 1688 moved a number of prominent Whigs to begin the plotting that was to result in William’s landing in Devon in November 1688, including the dissemination of the bogus tale that James’s purported son was a foundling child smuggled into the palace in a “warming pan” at the instigation of the king’s “popish” advisers in order to divert the succession from the Protestant heirs.

A number of officials and courtiers to James converted to Catholicism in hope of advancing their careers, most of whom reverted to Protestantism after 1688. But John Dryden’s conversion had been more profound, and it stuck. He was to endure the loss of his positions of Poet Laureate and Royal Historiographer.

His serious theological interests had been expressed in his poetry and dramatic works long before his conversion. Although Dryden’s immediate family background was Puritan, he reached a position of high-church “throne-and-altar” Anglican “Toryism” in the 1660s, well over a decade before the terms “Tory” and “Whig” came into use. In poems as diverse as Absalom and Achitophel (1681) — an attack on the Whig leader the Earl of Shaftesbury (Achitophel) and his attempt to enact a law to exclude James from the succession to the throne in favor of Charles II’s oldest illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth (Absalom) — and Religio Laici (1682) — Dryden’s fullest statement of what amounted to a precociously “Anglo-Catholic” view of the Church of England and its theological stance — Dryden’s theological seriousness and his search for a church possessing credible authority in religious matters were evident. A year after his conversion to Catholicism, Dryden published The Hind and the Panther, “a brave and brilliant poem of 2,500 lines to explain and justify his choice, as well as to invite his countrymen to join him in his newfound faith,” as the author describes it in her Preface.

Gardiner’s book is a detailed explanation of Dryden’s poem and its use of scriptural and literary sources, as well as its contribution to the campaign — whose realization in his lifetime was the principal goal of James II — to repeal the Test Acts. Dryden’s poem, Gardiner states, has generally been considered a failure as poetry and satire: profane in tone and overladen with animal imagery (the Catholic Church as a hind, or female deer; the Church of England as a panther; and aggressive Puritan nonconformity as a wolf). The aim of Gardiner’s book is to overturn that judgment, and to instead “show that Dryden’s poem has a grand and unified design that has hitherto gone unnoticed.”

The book is divided into two parts: “Ancient Faith” and “Modern Freedom.” The first part unpacks the imagery of the poem, most of which is drawn from the Old Testament Canticle of Canticles (otherwise known as the “Song of Songs” or “Song of Solomon”) and from a long patristic and medieval interpretive tradition, with Jewish antecedents, that saw the Canticle not as a celebration of erotic love between men and women, but of the love between Christ and the Church, and of the wooing by Christ of the “Jewish Church” that had rejected Him (earlier Jewish exegetes had viewed it as a parable of God’s love for His people Israel). The image of the “two churches” comes directly from this tradition, and Gardiner shows how the lush animal imagery is not Dryden’s own invention: it comes partly from the Canticle of Canticles itself, partly from other biblical books, and partly from the ancient bestiary book Physiologus.

As an example of the care that Dryden took with the poem’s symbolism one may note the fundamentally positive nature of the panther as a symbol. According to the bestiaries the panther was famed for its “sweet breath,” which was equated with intelligence and eloquence. Although the English “panther” had been defiled and corrupted by Henry VIII (here Gardiner notes the Vulgate reading of Canticle 8:5, “Under the apple tree I raysed thee up: there thy mother was corrupted, there she was defloured”), she was potentially redeemable. One reason for this hope was that, as Gardiner notes, Dryden saw the Church of England of his day as more schismatic than heretical: He saw it as ambiguous on the issues separating Catholicism and Protestantism rather than clearly Protestant. He seemed to believe that the essential nature of the panther was expressed in Henry VIII’s “schismatic Catholicism” and the high-church tenets of Archbishop Laud and Caroline divines. As Gardiner notes, “this is a very Anglo-Catholic panther.” Nevertheless, the panther is — to shift the metaphor — a branch severed from its root, and Dryden sees her declining in wisdom and respect by “committing adultery with the wolf,” that is, by allying herself with the rabidly anti-Catholic English Protestants within her bosom and without, people who despise her for the Catholic traits she retained at the Reformation.

In the second part of the book, Gardiner demonstrates how Dryden incorporated into his poem all the principal arguments for toleration, against the belief that the Tests were required for the security of the Church of England and its established status. These included an argument for compassion (for those disabled from using their talents in the service of their country); an argument that the Tests arbitrarily deprived certain Englishmen of their native rights; an argument that the Test Act of 1678 deprived Catholic peers of their property right to a seat in the House of Lords; an argument that the Test Acts meant that the English were no better than the two European peoples with whom the English had been most at odds in the latter part of the 17th century: the Calvinist Dutch (who systematically excluded Catholics from most sections of public life) and the Catholic French (who in 1685 had deprived French Protestants of the freedom conferred on them in 1598 and had begun a systematic campaign of forced conversion); an argument that the Test Acts’ oath against Catholic beliefs about the Eucharist unjustly stigmatized Catholics as idolaters; and an argument that by using reception of the sacraments as a political test the English Parliament (and the Church of England) had sacrilegiously abused religious rituals and had made it possible and even necessary for individuals to do likewise by receiving Communion only to qualify for public office. To these arguments, which Gardiner demonstrates were common to the advocates of repeal, Dryden added a seventh argument, a variation on the argument about idolatry (and another example of the adultery of the panther with the wolf), an argument pertaining to the addition of the “Black Rubric” to the Book of Common Prayer in 1661, which insisted that kneeling to receive Communion did not betoken any adoration “unto any Corporal Presence of Christ’s natural Flesh and Bloud…for that were Idolatry, to be abhorred of all faithful Christians.” This addition, argued Dryden, not only stigmatized Catholic — and for that matter Lutheran — beliefs as idolatrous, but also aligned the Church of England clearly with the heretical beliefs of Zwingli, and Wycliffe before him, as well as with groups who had in earlier years shown themselves to be more relentless foes of that Church than Catholics had been.

Gardiner splendidly achieves what she set out to do, and I recommend this book unreservedly to those interested in John Dryden, Restoration Literature, English Catholicism, or Anglicanism. I also recommend Dryden’s poem, which has not wholly lost its topicality, as witness the use of lines from the poem as epigraphs to the chapters of Fr. Aidan Nichols’s book The Panther and the Hind: A Theological History of Anglicanism (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1993), as well, of course, as the adaptation of Dryden’s title as the title of Nicholas’s book (which was reviewed in the Oct. 1993 NOR).



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