A Brexiteer’s guide to English Catholicism

Roy Hattersley’s error-strewn book ignores women and the crucial European connection

The Catholics
The Catholics
Author: Roy Hattersley
ISBN-13: 978-1784741587
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
Guideline Price: £25

Roy Hattersley is a no-nonsense atheist avowedly fascinated by religion, which he prefers in its more pungent manifestations, characterised by “brash vitality” and “belief in the unbelievable”. His attraction to Catholicism in particular stems in part from what he takes to be its unflinching “gospel of certainty”. But his interest probably owes rather more to the fact that, 10 days after his father’s death, in December 1972, he discovered from a letter of condolence that Frederick Hattersley had once been a Catholic priest and that, 40 years earlier, he had renounced his priesthood, and his membership of the church, to elope with a newly wed parishioner.

In some senses, therefore, Hattersley’s new history of Catholicism in England (with passing excursions to Scotland and Ireland) is an attempt to connect with his beloved father’s abandoned past. Written with opinionated trenchancy, his survey of five centuries is peppered with judgments that are often contestable but seldom bland.

Unsurprisingly, given Hattersley’s career as a politician, his book is strongest on the political relationship between Catholicism and the British state, and he tells that story with vigour. But the book’s value as an exploration of the inner history of the British Catholic community itself is very much more questionable.

Irritating errors

In the first place the book is littered with irritating errors of fact, crying out for rigorous editorial intervention. The liturgy is repeatedly misnamed “the litany”; Wyatt’s 1554 rebellion against the marriage of Queen Mary and Philip II of Spain is postdated by three years; Henrician parishioners receive “Anglican communion” years before Anglicanism was created; Thomas Cromwell’s allegedly “passionate and personal” views on the Eucharist, expressed “in the crude language of a soldier”, are illustrated by an extract from a treatise written by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer 10 years after Cromwell’s death; the 18th-century bishop Charles Berington is confused with his cousin Joseph, the radical polemicist and historian, and his surname misspelt; seminary staff fleeing the French Revolution are said to have relocated to Oscott, in the English midlands, rather than to their real destination, St Edmund’s College in Ware, just north of London; and James Anthony Froude appears as an early Catholic novelist.


As these and many more mistakes suggest, Hattersley appears to have worked without the help of a competent research assistant. A more serious consequence is that his book relies on a limited range of secondary works, many of which have been superseded by more recent research (a fact obscured by the absence of any publication dates from his bibliography and notes).

One of the book's few heroes is the Jesuit martyr, Edmund Campion, but Hattersley draws on Evelyn Waugh's elegant but derivative study published in 1935 rather than the deeply researched recent biography by Gerard Kilroy. Similarly, Hattersley's principal guide to one of his book's villains, Thomas More, is the late Jasper Ridley's ferociously partisan onslaught on More's reputation, The Fanatic and the Statesman, where More features, predictably, as the fanatic.

Hattersley makes no pretence to scholarly intent, and there is of course an honourable place for popularising surveys that distil the results of specialist research for a wider readership. But in this instance his manifest lack of acquaintance with much of the best recent scholarship drastically reduces his book’s value.

The history of Catholicism in England, once written mainly by Catholics for Catholics, has in recent years been transformed by a flood of academic studies: Thomas McCoog, Gerard Kilroy and Victor Houliston on the Elizabethan and Stuart Jesuits; Geoffrey Scott on the Benedictines; Ann Dillon and Peter Lake on the community-building role of martyrdom; Michael Questier on the aristocratic patronage networks that sustained Catholicism under persecution; Paul Arblaster and Katy Gibbons on the English exiles; Michael Williams and Daniel Johnson on the English seminaries in Europe; and Gabriel Glickman on Catholic adherence to the Stuart cause.

Alison Shell and Christopher Highley have challenged the exclusion of major Catholic writers from the Elizabethan and Stuart literary canon, while the very concept of "recusancy", or abstention from Anglican worship, as a defining characteristic of the Catholic community has been called into question in Alex Walsham's study of the crucial role of "church papists" in sustaining Catholic identity. The consequent rethinking of the shape of English Catholic history has been reflected in the renaming of the key journal, Recusant History, as British Catholic History.

But not a single one of these authors makes it into Hattersley’s bibliography; conceptually his book might have been written 40 years ago. And readers looking for close analysis of such matters as Catholic numbers, the social make-up of the Catholic community, or the rise and fall of clerical vocations will look in vain.

Deafening silence

Perhaps the book’s most deafening silence is its almost total lack of interest in the history of women. John Bossy drew attention 40 years ago to the crucial role of women in sustaining Catholicism in penal times, and a major research enterprise based at Queen Mary, part of the University of London, has recently drawn attention to the significance of the thousands of richly documented British women who entered religious communities in Europe. Neither the feisty and confrontational Elizabethan martyr Margaret Clitheroe nor that most remarkable of foundresses Mary Ward, whose community of activist “galloping girls” shocked Counter-Reformation cardinals but survive today as the Congregation of Jesus, even make it into his index.

Recent scholarship has emphasised the involvement of British Catholics in Europe and the wider Counter-Reformation more generally, matters on which Hattersley has very little to say. But what marked Catholics out from other religious dissenters was that all their clergy were trained on the Continent, the sons of the Catholic gentry were educated there, and English women pursued vocations, or education, in European convents. For all their often stridently self-conscious Britishness, English Catholics were a community inextricably tied to Europe.

Hattersley, to his credit, is an ardent opponent of Brexit, but, ironically, in confining these crucial European connections to faint noises off, he has inadvertently written a Brexiteer’s guide to the history of English Catholicism.

Eamon Duffy is emeritus professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Cambridge. His most recent book is Reformation Divided: Catholics, Protestants and the Conversion of England (Bloomsbury Continuum)