Had there been no Reformation would England have been spared Brexit?

Ireland’s image as rebel nation where each Catholic suspected of treason persisted for hundreds of years

According to Cardinal Reginald Pole the English Reformation was result of Henry VIII's "fleshy will" and "carnal concupiscence".

It is easy to understand why the most powerful man in Mary Tudor's Catholic England chose to attribute the rejection of Rome to the basest of motives. But he knew that that his analysis was, at best, an over-simplification.

The King's determination to marry Anne Boleyn and the Pope's refusal to endorse the divorce which would have made it possible was more the occasion than the cause of the historic schism.

The king had come to believe that affiliation to Rome no longer represented his best interests. His nominee for pope had been rejected. South America had been divided, with pontifical approval, between Spain and Portugal.


The English Reformation was political - certainly not theological. By the end of his life Henry was having men burned to death for denying the basic truths of Catholic theology. But he had become "both pope and emperor in his own kingdom." He was an early convert to what Bernard Shaw, in St Joan, called "the heresy of nationalism."

The Scottish Reformation was an altogether more intellectual an event. Merchants from the Hanseatic League, who traded into the west coast ports, brought with them the polemical works of Martin Luther and the Scots joined with much of northern Europe in condemning the Catholic Church for its corruption.

The ‘kirk’ became the community - embedded in the life of the people in way with which the Church of Rome (which was still seeking indulgences, the purchase of forgiveness) could not compete.

For a few years a sentimental attachment to Mary Queen of Scots moderated the attacks on Catholics and Catholicism. But John Knox, denouncing the "whore of Rome", was more the voice of Scotland.

Rebel nation

If Ireland had remained a quietly subservient English colony, it might have been allowed to continue in its devout Catholicism without interruption. The English establishment only listened to Ireland when the Irish forced themselves on England's attention.

But in 1534 , the year in which Henry confirmed England's independence with the Acts of Supremacy and Succession, Lord Thomas, the heir to the Earl of Kildare, announced that his allegiance was to Rome, not the apostate king of England, and called on Pope Paul III and the Holy Roman Emperor to support him in his campaign to throw off the tyrant's yoke.

The insurrection was easily put down. But Ireland had begun to establish itself in the English mind as a rebel nation in which every Catholic was suspected of treason. The reputation persisted for over four hundred years.

The Reformation could only have come to Ireland if it had been imposed by force. It was not only the size of the task which deterred England from attempting the impossible.

Henry felt no missionary zeal and Thomas Cromwell, who urged the Reformation on, was interested in cementing an alliance with the northern European Protestant states, not proselytising for a faith in which he barely believed. Attempts were made, from time to time, to reduce the risk of rebellion by settling Protestants in the most rebellious Irish counties.

But Anglo-Irish relations were more typified by the purge than the plantation. In 1641 Galway and Munster rose up 'to shake off the tyranny of England' and to establish the right 'to exercise our holy religion.' Both uprisings were suppressed with a brutality which was justified by the invention of atrocities - including 'the boiling of little children' - which, it was claimed, were being committed against 'poor Protestants.'

Oliver Cromwell, who prided himself on 'not meddling with any man's conscience', made an exception for Irish Catholics. "If by liberty of conscience you mean liberty to exercise the mass....let ye know that where the Parliament of England have power, that will not be allowed of."

The parliament of England had less power in Ireland than Cromwell hoped. So attacks on Irish Catholics and Catholicism were sporadic and usually followed the revelation of a ‘papist conspiracy,’ real or imaginary.

Oliver Plunkett

The execution of Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh was typical. At the height of the hysteria which followed the bogus exposure of a fictitious Popish Plot to assassinate Charles II and install a Catholic monarch in his place, Plunkett prudently went into hiding. He was captured after a year and prosecuted for treason.

The indictment included the obviously absurd claim that he had levied subscriptions from the clergy in his diocese in order to finance the recruitment of 70,000 irregulars to support a French invasion of England. He was tried in Dundalk and found not guilty. So he was transported to England and tried again. It took a London jury twenty minutes to convict him of "promoting the Catholic faith." He was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn.

The prosecution of Saint Oliver Plunkett - acquitted in Ireland but convicted in England - illustrates the fundamental difference between the English Reformation and the Reformation as it affected Ireland.

The English rejection of Rome was home grown and, by the time that it reached its height, during he programs and purges of Elizabeth I, it was generally accepted - with different degrees of genuine commitment - by the people.

When attempts were made to impose the Reformation on Ireland - albeit sporadically and haphazardly - the imposition was made by an alien nation and was, rightly, regarded as an affront to Irish nationhood as well as denial of Ireland’s faith.

Religion of Revolt

In England - initially as a result of the fear of invasion from Catholic France and Ireland, Protestantism was the religion of patriotism. In Ireland - Wolfe Tone and Charles Stuart Parnell not withstanding - Catholicism was the religion of revolt.

Protestant patriotism made England insular. At the climax of the Elizabethan Reformation, William Shakespeare was capturing the spirit of the age by writing about "a fortress built by nature." Catholicism made the Irish look outwards.

Brexit folly

When I was a student, opponents of the nascent common market called the idea of a European alliance ‘political Catholicism.’ At the time I denied what I thought a libel. Now, still an unreligious European, I am not so sure. Catholicism teaches that there is a world beyond the local parish. Had there been no Reformation, England would have been spared the folly of Brexit.

English Catholics will disagree, but it is possible to ague that Catholicism is not suited to the English temperament. It is a religion for the naturally religious, based on an unshakable body of belief and the absolute authority of the Church as represented by the Pope, the Bible and the teaching of the early fathers.

The Church of England’s Christianity à la carte is much more suited to English empiricism and Anglo Saxon scepticism. Those qualities made the English theologically foot-loose and despite, all the claims to independence of mind, inclined to accept whatever religious practices allowed them to get on with more important aspects of life than religion.

By the end of Elizabeth’s reign Protestantism had taken root. But until then most of the population accepted the religion of the sovereign’s choice - often not being sure what it was. There were many martyrs - Protestant when Mary was on the throne as well as Catholic during the reigns of Henry and Elizabeth. But martyrs are, by definition, not representative of the community as a whole.

Throughout the whole three reigns of the Reformation, there were plenty of attempted palace coups but only one popular uprising - the noble, but doomed, Pilgrimage of Grace.

Catholic rights

Irish Catholics were less quiescent and, during the two hundred years that led up to the Act of Union and the voluntary dissolution of the Dublin Parliament, what should have been a self-evident truth was gradually accepted by the English establishment.

Lord Castlereagh made the point with stark simplicity. "Until Catholics are admitted into a general participation of rights...there will be no peace or safety in Ireland." So - as with the Easter Rebellion of 1916 and the Six Counties civil rights marches fifty years later - Ireland's capacity to cause trouble played a part in the progress of reform.

The other stimulus was the product of a different sort of Irish militancy. The war against the American colonies was going badly and the English army was in desperate need of men. The Irish Relief Act, as well as abolishing most of the historic penalties imposed on Catholics -limitations on residence and travel, restrictions on employment and extra taxation - removed the prohibition on Irishmen serving with the colours. It even gave Catholics - who processed the property qualification - the right to vote.

Twenty more years were to pass before a Relief Act reduced the penalties which were imposed on English Catholics and it was not until 1829 that the Catholic Emancipation Act conferred equal democratic rights on members of both faiths in both nations.

Progressive churchmen had long believed that ‘the faith of us English Catholics depends on that of our brethren in Ireland’ and insisted that ‘if their claims are overlooked, ours will never be thought worthy of notice.’

But, ironically, it was one of the ‘Irish brethren’ who forced the English government to choose between emancipation and a break down in parliamentary government. Daniel O’ Connell exploited an anomaly in the Irish relief Act which gave Catholics, of a suitable financial status, the right to stand in parliamentary elections but did not allow them, if elected, to take their seats in the House of Commons. He fought a by-election in Co Clare and won by a landslide.

The British government, led by the Duke of Wellington, had to choose between emancipation and the chaos that would follow a general election in which every Irish seat would be won by a candidate who could not sit in parliament. As was so often the case, the English establishment chose to bend rather than break. It was said that Wellington assembled Tory peers and told them, ‘Attention! Round about turn. Quick march!’

Private prejudice

Legal discrimination was over but private prejudice still blighted the lives of many English Catholics - especially after the Great Famine, and the mass migration which followed, brought thousands of destitute Irish families to England. Their arrival gave the Catholic Church in England a new vitality and, for the first time, a base among the urban working class.

But it also created social problems in the areas where they congregated. The letters of Irish priests, writing home from Victorian England, constantly express dismayed surprise that potential new members of their congregation no longer attend mass and that the moral conduct of single men - and some married women - falls to unacceptable levels once they have crossed the Irish Sea.

The notion that Irish Catholics drank too much and worked too little combined with the equally scurrilous nonsense they are England’s natural enemies - a calumny that was reinforced by the Easter Rising and the subsequent civil war, even though priest after priest condemned the violence.

Historically Catholicism is uneasy in England and even the most English and self-confidant of Catholics is careful not to appear too confident of Rome’s ultimate victory.

When, during the course of a seventieth birthday interview in 1993 , the late Cardinal Basil Hume mentioned the conversion of England - a blessing for which English Catholics pray each Sunday - he thought it necessary to clarify the limit of his aspiration in a public apology.

The Archbishop of Canterbury graciously accepted that no offence was intended. He could afford to be generous. He was Primate of an irrevocably Protestant nation.

Roy Hattersley’s The Catholics: The Church and its People in Britain and Ireland from the Reformation to the Present Day will be published by Chatto & Windus on March 2nd.

He is the former deputy leader of the British Labour Party . He will speak at the Mountains to Sea dlr Festival in Dun Laoghaire's Pavilion Theatre on Sunday, March 26th. Tickets €12 from paviliontheatre.ie