From The Imaginative Conservative
By Joseph Pearce
History is full of surprises. One such surprise is the manner in which the secularist cataclysm of the French Revolution prompted a religious revival across the Channel in England. It was indeed ironic that the new spirit of absolute religious intolerance in France following that country’s Revolution of 1789 prompted a new spirit of relative toleration of Catholicism in England. “When I went to France,” wrote the historian and political commentator William Cobbett, who visited the country in 1792, “I was full of all the prejudices that Englishmen suck in with their mother’s milk against the French and against their religion: a few weeks convinced me that I had been deceived in respect to both.”
The English people in general and the aristocracy in particular were shocked by the barbarism of the French Revolution and the infamous Reign of Terror that followed in its wake. As stories of aristocrats, priests and nuns being guillotined came to the attention of the people of England, there was a spontaneous outpouring of sympathy for the Revolution’s victims. England opened its doors to Catholic refugees from France, leading to an influx of new Catholics, adding to the waves of Irish immigrants who had begun arriving in England’s cities during the previous decades. Among the refugees were some eight thousand emigré priests, admitted by the government and permitted to not only practice their faith but to minister to English Catholics.
In May 1795 a small group of English Benedictine nuns, whose abbey in France had been turned into a prison after the Revolution, arrived at Dover after being imprisoned for over a year. “They must have presented a sorry sight,” wrote an anonymous Benedictine chronicler. “Sixteen women, starved and prematurely aged, without roof or means of support, clad in the cast-off clothing of French peasants.” Arriving in London, the nuns were taken under the wing of the Marchioness of Buckingham and, two weeks later, they began running a new Catholic girls school near Liverpool.
The Weld family, based at Lulworth Castle in Dorset, was especially active in supporting priests and religious who had fled from France. This staunch Catholic family provided a house for the exiled English Jesuits at Stonyhurst in Lancashire and established a community of Trappists at Lulworth. They also provided support for the exiled Poor Clares of Graveline, who had found a safe haven at Plymouth in Devon, and established a community of Visitation nuns at Shepton Mallet in Somerset. Many other stories could be told of the experiences of those English religious congregations based in France, especially communities of nuns and sisters, comprised of the daughters of old recusant families, forced into exile by England’s anti-Catholic laws, who made their way back to England, in the presence of considerable peril, as the anti-Catholic fervor reached its cataclysmic crescendo after the revolution.
Michael Blount, whose ancestor of the same name had known the martyrs, Robert Southwell and Philip Howard, built a chapel in the Gothic style at Strawberry Hill in Middlesex to provide a place of worship for Catholic emigrés who had fled the Revolution. To the west of Strawberry Hill, in Reading in Berkshire, a significant community of French refugees had settled, each of whom had their own story of terror to tell. More surprising perhaps is the terror experienced in France by the English priest, Fr. John Lingard, later to receive fame as the author of a multi-volume history of England. He had been a seminarian at Douai in northern France at the time of the Revolution and had witnessed a French acquaintance being dragged by the mob, presumably to his death. When Fr. Lingard sought to intervene, a cry went up from the mob of “le calotin à la lanterne!” (the priest to the lamppost), which was the revolutionary cry calling for priests to be lynched. Faced with the anger of the mob, Fr. Lingard took to his heels and ran for his very life.
In the light, or more correctly the shadow of the French Revolution, coupled with a general disgust of the extreme bigotry that had animated the Gordon Riots of 1780, the popular view of many English people had been moderated with respect to the Catholic Church. The sort of knee-jerk anti-Catholicism that had characterized Oliver Goldsmith’s “anti-papist” four volume “history” of England, published in 1771, was decidedly out of favour by 1791, when a fifteen-year-old Jane Austen, the daughter of a minister of the state religion, wrote her own “History of England”, which lampooned and satirized the anti-Catholic stance of conventional history books. In stark and remarkable contrast to such history books which overlooked the tyranny of Tudor England, except for the reign of Mary Tudor, the teenage Miss Austen depicted Elizabeth I as an unmitigated tyrant and considered Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, to be the martyred victim of Tudor tyranny. In supporting Mary Stuart against the anti-Catholic Tudors, the young Miss Austen was countering the pride and prejudice of her times and was exhibiting the sense and sensibility that would make her one of the finest and most perceptive novelists of the following century.
This aesthetic sensibility was also present in the poetry of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose jointly-authored volume of verse, Lyrical Ballads, published in 1798, would herald the birth of a distinctly English Romanticism, very different from its counterparts in France and Germany, and as counter-revolutionary in spirit as French and German Romanticism had been revolutionary. Although Wordsworth and Coleridge had initially been attracted by the French Revolutionary cause, the full horrors of its butchery and totalitarianism, carried out in the name of “reason” against religion, caused them to recoil in the direction of Christianity. Both poets rejected their youthful agnosticism and pantheism and embraced Anglican Christianity, expressing their rediscovery of beauty in the poetry of praise.
One of the fruits of English Romanticism was the rise of neo-medievalism, heralding a rediscovery of the beauty of the Catholic middle-ages by a new generation of English poets, artists and thinkers. At the forefront of this neo-medievalist revival was Kenelm Digby, whose defence of chivalry, The Broadstone of Honour, published in 1822, remained enduringly popular and influential for the remainder of the century. It struck a chord with a new generation of Englishmen who were seeking something more noble and edifying than the spirit of self-serving cynicism that had characterized the Regency period. This neo-medieval spirit would inspire the Gothic Revival in architecture, the Pre-Raphaelites in art, and the Oxford Movement within the Church of England, the last of which was a movement within the Anglican church which sought to embrace a “catholic” understanding of the liturgy and a “catholic” interpretation of ecclesiology. These three neo-medieval movements would sow the seeds of what would become a Catholic cultural revival in the English-speaking world.
The new mood of religious toleration, the unexpected fruit of the religious intolerance in France, had led to the perception that the Catholic Church was once more in the ascendant. “It is really become fashionable to be a Catholic,” the recusant Frances Jerningham remarked in 1819, a reflection of the fact that she was now counting members of the royal family among her associates. The Duke of Sussex, younger brother of the future King William IV, had visited the stately home of Sir George and Frances Jerningham in August 1819, admiring the portrait of Mary Tudor in the library and being “delighted” with the Catholic chapel in which the organist played God Save the King as he entered. In the following year, the new king, George IV, had written a note in Latin to Pope Pius V, the first time a reigning English monarch had corresponded with the pope since England’s Revolution in 1688. Pope Pius was understandably “pleased” to receive such a courteous overture from England’s new king, answering it in the same cordial spirit.
This new spirit of acceptance of Catholicism was praised by William Cobbett, in the opening chapter of his History of the Protestant Reformation. Writing in 1824, Cobbett rejoiced that “[t]ruth has … made great progress in the public mind in England within the last dozen years”:
Men are not now to be carried away by the cry of “No-Popery” … and it is now, by no means rare to hear Protestants allow that, as to faith, as to morals, as to salvation, the Catholic religion is quite good enough; and a very large part of the people of England are forward to declare that the Catholics have been most barbarously treated, and that it is time that they had justice done them.Justice would be done five years later, in 1829, with the passing of a law granting emancipation to England’s Catholics, ending a period of almost three centuries of state-sponsored persecution. Such was the unforeseeable blessing that the French Revolution bestowed upon England, albeit contrary to the designs of the revolutionaries. Such are the ways in which the hand of Providence writes with crooked lines, bringing ineffable good from unutterable evil. May these lessons from history bring hope to all men of good will in the midst of the dark days and darkening daze of cancel culture.