Thursday, July 9, 2009

Oxford Martyrs (The Catholic Version)

The X marks the spot where they used to burn people at the stake. I cannot think of any American Universities were people have ever been put to the stake for coming out on the wrong side of an academic debate; they are just denied tenure.

I visited a Dominican monastery here in Oxford. I feel a certain kinship to the Dominicans ever since I took a Facebook quiz and found out that the Dominicans are the monastic order I am best suited for. (The quiz was a big hit around the department. There may not be many religious Catholics, besides for one person who is in fact a Dominican priest, but there are many medievalists and early modernists with backgrounds in church politics. Most of us ended up as Dominicans. I guess it has something to do with our bookish sensibilities. My Mormon friend, Logan Smith, came out a Franciscan, but he answered the questions with that intent since he studies them.)

I found a pamphlet at the monastery titled “Catholic Martyrs of Oxford.”For those unfamiliar with English History, the Oxford Martyrs refers to a group of leading Anglican figures burnt at the stake under the reign of the Catholic Mary I (r. 1553-58).

As the pamphlet notes: Oxford’s most famous martyrs are the bishops Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer, who died courageously for their Protestant faith by being burnt to death, ironically the same method they themselves had approved of (when they still enjoyed the Crown’s favour) for dealing with stubborn Catholics and other heretics.

The pamphlet goes on to point out that five Catholic martyrs were executed in Oxford and proceeds to give their stories. Four of them, Thomas Belson, George Nichols, Humphrey Pritchard, and Richard Yaxley, were captured at St. Giles Inn and were hanged on July 5, 1589. Nichols and Yaxley, being priests, were drawn and quartered as well. The fifth martyr was George Napper, a priest, who was hanged, drawn and quartered on November 9, 1610. I guess it helps if your side has a Foxe’s Book of Martyrs with its pretty pictures.

A simple pamphlet is just not going to compete.

I find it interesting that this Catholic pamphlet, in a sense, acknowledges the martyrdom of Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer as something admirable. I guess in this modern world one has to be more ecumenical even when discussing this most unecumenical act. Let us face it; either these Protestants were servants of the Devil or their Catholic executioners were murderers. There is not a whole lot of wiggle room here.

The funny thing about the persecution of Catholics during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I was that “technically” it was legal to be a Catholic as long as you acknowledged the supremacy of the monarch as the head of the English Church and not the pope, were not a Catholic priest, did not aid or abate any Catholic priests and did not take part in any Catholic masses. The penalty for any of these things was death. So one could not actually be a Catholic. During the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, approximately two hundred Catholic priests and laymen were executed. Their crime was not heresy, but treason. It was treason to believe that the pope was the proper head of the Church and to take part in a Catholic mass. One of the interesting implications of this was that, since these people were not being executed as Catholics and because technically speaking being a Catholic was not a crime, many of these Catholic martyrs, when given the chance to speak their last words, gave very Catholic sermons and no one could stop them.


Anonymous said...

I am afraid that your remarks are erroneous in a large number of ways. Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley never approved of burning Catholics for their beliefs nor were Catholics persecuted or executed under Queen Elizabeth or King James simply for being Catholics or for claiming that the Pope was (rightly) head of the Church. The English Acts of Supremacy made the holder of the Crown supreme governor of the Church. When the Papal Bull of 1570, Regnans in Excelsis, claimed to depose Elizabeth, the Queen, her Privy Council and Parliament took steps to ensure that it could not and would not be out into effect. Catholics who maintained that this claim to depose the monarch was valid or could be put into operation were subject to the treason laws but these were only applied in times of emergency when there were conspiracies against the Queen's life or severe external threats. By and large, the late-Tudor regime dealt very subtly with English Catholics, who were, by 1580, a tiny minority of the population - perhaps, 1 to 1.5 per cent of the population - and preferred to round up priests sent from the continent and expel them or confine them rather than execute them. This handling of the threats from recusancy and from missionaries trained abroad is one of the major reasons why England did not experience the wars of religion that afflicted France and the Low Countries at this time. Comparisons between the larger-scale persecution of Protestants under Queen Mary between 1553 and 1558 and Elizabeth's treatment of Catholics between 1558 and 1603 are not secure as academic historians specialising in this period have long known.

Izgad said...

The statement about Cranmer and company supporting the burning of Catholics was a quote from the pamphlet, which I was neither endorsing nor attacking. This post was about finding this “me too” pamphlet and my reactions to it. I do not know of any Catholics being burned during the reign of Edward VI, though Catholics were executed under Henry VIII; the most famous of them being Thomas More. Another Catholic executed was the nun Elizabeth Barton who claimed to prophesize against Henry VIII because of his annulment.

As I say at the end, Catholics were not simply executed for being Catholics. It is complicated. As a historian, I believe it is important to get beyond the tolerance versus intolerance game. In a situation such as sixteenth century England, the situation was too complicated for such a dichotomy. As long as you are dealing with a government whose claims to authority are based on religion then any form of religious dissent is going to dabble in treason. So unlike in the 21st century, where former Prime Minister Tony Blair can convert to Catholicism, attending a Catholic mass in sixteenth century England was not a politically neutral act. It was more the equivalent of helping Al Qaida run a Mosque to recruit followers.