When England Lost the Faith
By Robert Hugh Benson
Publisher: Neumann Press
Review Author: Elaine Hallett
How was Catholic England transformed into a Protestant country in barely 50 years? This is the question that Eamon Duffy tried to answer in two recent books, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 and The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village. Commenting on the latter book, a New York Times reviewer observed that Duffy “disputes the idea that Protestantism took root because Catholicism was in decline, arguing that the Reformation was a top-down revolution imposed by powerful Tudor monarchs on a still vibrantly Catholic society.” Because forces in recent decades have been imposing secularizing “reforms” on the U.S. Catholic Church in similar ways, so that in many parishes the Mass strongly resembles a Protestant service, Duffy’s work on 16th-century England has a special relevance to 21st-century America. It alerts us to the ways in which secularization can trivialize and demean our liturgy.
For this reason, Neumann Press’s new editions of Robert Hugh Benson’s dramatic novels set in Tudor England are pertinent and welcome. The King’s Achievement and Come Rack, Come Rope are already in print. Others — By What Authority? for example — may follow. Benson, having been newly ordained a Catholic priest, began around 1904 to write about how the policies of the Tudor monarchs affected the religious life of their subjects. He was fascinated by the disruptions that the harsh policies of King Henry VIII and his daughter, Queen Elizabeth, caused in English life, especially in family life. In Benson’s novels about the Tudor monarchs, royal policy is such that subjects find themselves continuously forced to choose between the state and the Church, and it is by their choices that Benson’s characters define themselves. Benson believed that “the most inalienable gift that the rational soul possesses is that of Choice. All other faculties may wax and wane…. But the will is always itself — acting and choosing — and cannot cease: there is no such thing as indecisiveness in reality — it is no less than a rapid alternation of decisions. Ultimately, therefore, the rational soul becomes not what it necessarily understands, nor what it superficially loves — but that which it chooses.” The heroes and heroines in the Benson novels make admirable choices and stick by them.
Benson’s title, The King’s Achievement, refers to an accomplishment for which Henry VIII is well known — this King purged his realm of the Catholic faith by denying the authority of the Pope as chief among bishops and declaring himself sole head of the Church in England. More specifically, the “achievement” is Henry’s destruction of the monasteries whereby, as Francis X. Connolly remarked, Henry “at one blow enriched himself, persecuted his fellow men, and obliterated the symbol of England’s ancient Catholic life.” Queen Elizabeth’s achievement in Come Rack, Come Rope and By What Authority? is to purge the land of those last daring priests, many of whom were trained at Douay in France and sent into England to minister to the clandestine Catholic population, and who risked their lives to offer the holy Mass for the faithful.
In these novels, The King’s Achievement, By What Authority?, and Come Rack, Come Rope, Benson focuses not on the royal personages whose policies create religious chaos in the country they rule — Henry and Elizabeth are background figures — but on characters whose lives are affected by the decisions made at court and the machinations of those who make it their business to enforce the royal will. In these novels the conflict is between the old Faith — what one character refers to as “the Religion” — and the new doctrines introduced by Luther and Calvin. In all three novels, because of the state’s attempt to usurp divine authority, brother is divided against brother, son against father, mother against son, neighbor against neighbor. In all three, Benson excels in constructing highly dramatic situations that make the plots absorbing, suspenseful, and always surprising.
The King’s Achievement — set in the years in which Henry attempts to annul his 20-year marriage to Catherine of Aragon in order to wed his mistress Anne Boleyn and quarrels with the Pope in the process — tells much the same story as Eamon Duffy tells in The Stripping of the Altars. But where Duffy employs the documentary style to convey the everyday realities of the lives of Catholics living in England before and after the Reformation by amassing information culled from archival records, Benson draws upon the techniques of fiction. In The King’s Achievement one finds dramatic confrontations, traps and escapes, ironic reversals of fortune, imprisonments, trials, and even a love story. The plot focuses on two brothers from an aristocratic Catholic family closely associated with the court — the younger, Chris Torridon, a loyal Catholic with yearnings for the contemplative life, and the elder, Ralph Torridon, whose yearnings are for more worldly goals, position and power. Each gets the vocation he chooses. Chris enters the Carthusian monastery at Lewes in Sussex, and is eventually ordained. The older brother accepts a position at court under Henry VIII’s protégé, Thomas Cromwell, and becomes one of the nefarious Visitors who, on the King’s behalf, go around to convents and friaries to investigate — or more accurately, to intimidate — the cloistered folk. His job is to be sure that the Priors and Abbots renounce the Pope and take an Oath of Obedience to Henry. His position also allows him to cart away whatever treasures he can locate in each monastery he visits — gold or silver chalices, precious embroidered vestments, reliquaries — with the “justification” that clerics who have such items are violating their own vows of poverty. Thus, as Benson constructs his plot, the division of brother against brother escalates from a simple matter of each brother having made a different choice when their sovereign takes the newly emerging Protestant line to a situation in which the Protestant brother will actually be the agent in charge of ousting the ordained brother and his fellow monks from the monastery in which they are living the contemplative life. Ralph’s adherence to Cromwell’s anti-Church policies also brings him into conflict with his Catholic fiancée, Beatrice Atherton. Benson keeps before us the question, Will Ralph Torridon continue to choose ignoble over noble actions when through such choices he risks losing Beatrice, who finds his choices increasingly ruthless?
The opposition in the plot of By What Authority? is between neighbors — the Catholic family of Maxwells who live in Great Keynes Hall and the Protestant family of Norrises who live next door in Dower House. In the early stages Hubert Maxwell and Isabel Norris, who are strongly attracted to each other, are warned by their respective parents to guard their emotions, since marriage between them would be impossible. The two fall in love, nevertheless, and the dramatic question becomes, Will they, can they, marry? The situation escalates when, much like the couple in O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi,” each gives up all for the other and changes religions — Hubert becomes a naval officer under Sir Francis Drake and, swayed by the influence of his captain, turns Protestant, thinking to please Isabel, while Isabel, impressed by the humility and devotions of Hubert’s aunt, a nun whose convent had been closed under Henry VIII, finds herself ready to enter the Catholic Church. Divisions increase as each pursues his new commitment, until inevitably, Hubert, as Magistrate of the area, finds himself in the position of having to prosecute Isabel and her Catholic friends. The dramatic question then becomes, Can these Catholics escape the imprisonment and death that is the lot of practicing Catholics under Queen Elizabeth?
In Come Rack, Come Rope, Queen Elizabeth’s proclamations against the “Papists,” along with the fervor of her agents to hunt down and execute Catholic priests, puts enmity between a father and a son. Benson begins this novel with the father’s decision to apostatize. Recusants were required to pay heavy fines for the “privilege” of not attending the state church. Penalties for attending a Catholic Mass were even heavier, and harboring a priest was tantamount to treason. As the novel opens, Mr. Audrey worn out and impoverished by his long-standing loyalty to the old Faith, has just announced “that he could tolerate it no longer; that God’s demands were unreasonable; that, after all, the Protestant religion was the religion of her Grace, that men must learn to move with the times, and that he had paid his last fine. At Easter, he observed, he would take the bread and wine in the Queen’s church.” And Mr. Audrey orders his son, Robin, to accompany him. This causes the son, who has all the resiliency and stubbornness of youth, to give up his beloved Marjorie and flee to a seminary in France to become a priest. The son, of course, returns to minister to the Catholics in his native area of Derby, just around the time that friends of his organize a plot to kill Elizabeth and put the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. Marjorie, in the meantime, provides sanctuary in her home to persecuted priests (Robin himself will in time be driven to hide there). Benson’s Come Rack, Come Rope renders in great detail the joys and sorrows of priests who risk their lives to bring the Sacraments to Catholic families. His plot forms itself around two profound themes. First, through the unfolding of events in the subsequent lives of father and son, the plot reveals that the sacrifices God required of Robin work toward the reclamation of his father. Mr. Audrey realizes at his son’s execution that his own apostasy was a sin against the Holy Spirit. Second, Benson describes with great beauty how both Robin and Marjorie, who might have married had life gone its ordinary way, are illumined by their chosen lives of unstinting dedication to Christ and His Church. Robin and Marjorie give up each other for the love of Christ, but as a result are transformed into new Christs: Their earthly love is transcended and becomes a grander love that makes the love of God manifest on this troubled soil of Derby.
As events proceed — in all three novels — we learn of the ways in which Catholics are persecuted. In The King’s Achievement, Benson uses the plights of the Catholic bishops, John Fisher, and of England’s Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, persons who refuse to accept Henry VIII’s break with Rome and the Pope, to demonstrate how far Henry would go to quell opposition to his goals. Both Fisher and More are put to death. Benson also achieves a great deal by allowing us to be close witnesses of the terrifying Visitations, so that we experience the bewilderment and the fear of those cloistered priors and monks whose daily devotions and religious loyalties are being redefined as treasonous under the new inquisitions. The martyrs whose activities we follow in By What Authority? are Sir Robert Persons and Edmund Campion, and in Come Rack, Come Rope, the novel’s protagonist is Robin Audrey. Benson first shows their work as priests in offering the Mass in a country in which it is treasonous to administer the Sacraments and then lets us see the courage with which captured priests endure torture and, ultimately, martyrdom.
Readers interested in probing further into the lives of the Catholic martyrs in Benson’s novels, St. John Fisher and St. Edmund Campion, can look at recently issued biographies of these men. Michael Davies has written a life of John Fisher that focuses on the conflicts between Henry VIII and this bishop, one of very few bishops who remained loyal to the Pope when Henry VIII wrenched the English Church away from its allegiance to Rome. Also available from Neumann Press is a biography of Edmund Campion written by William Cardinal Allen in 1582. Cardinal Allen was instrumental in building up the seminary at Douay where priests were trained for the desperate work of serving the faithful in England. He was Campion’s Superior and personally witnessed many of the events he recorded. (Well worth searching for in library catalogs or at used bookstores is Evelyn Waugh’s excellent biography of Edmund Campion. This fine book was in Sophia Institute Press’s catalog for some years but the edition sold out and Sophia unfortunately cannot supply it at the moment.)
Benson’s books have a particular relevance for our times. Though the penalties for loyalty to the old Faith are gruesome, the books are not. These are not books that revel in violence; rather, they depict heroic souls giving their all for their love of Jesus. Come Rack, Come Rope should in fact be required reading for all young people who are lukewarm with regard to the Faith. And all of these novels show us how important it is to remain true to the Church when elements within attempt to trivialize the Mass and the Sacraments.
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