As an uncompromising atheist, Roy Hattersley is an unlikely candidate to tell the story of the Catholic Church in Ireland and Britain, but he does so in masterly style, as Michael Duggan discovers 

ACCORDING to the Introduction to this book, the history of the Catholic Church in Great Britain and Ireland is “a series of adventure stories, some of which have happy endings”. Roy Hattersley, however, is still an unlikely fit for the role of storyteller. Grand Old Man of British Labour Party politics, and a writer with 25 books under his belt, Hattersley is an uncompromising atheist.

Nevertheless, religion, “the belief in the unbelievable”, fascinates him. On balance, he believes that Catholics on these islands have been more sinned against than sinning. Theirs is “a triumph of faith and a victory for the moral certainty that provides the confidence that reasonable doubt cannot provide.”

I wasn’t completely convinced by this argument. Moral certainty is by no means the exclusive preserve of Catholics. Totalitarian regimes, including several that despised the Church, have come and gone with no shorter a supply of moral certainty than the Vatican’s. Instead, it was doctrinal, not moral, convictions — about Transubstantiation, Purgatory, intercession by the saints and the Blessed Virgin, justification by faith and, of course, the status of the Pope — that led Catholics to endure dungeon, fire and sword. Indeed, how much better things might have been if more Christians in the sixteenth century had been truly mindful of the moral certainties of their religion: thou shalt not kill, blessed are the peacemakers, and so on.

As the first chapter unfolds, the persecution and executions are running mainly in the opposite direction to the rest of the book with the Church struggling furiously to stamp out the new heresies of the Reformation. But then in 1534, on a single say in London, a monk, three priors and a vicar were executed for denying that the King was head of the Church.

An unlikely candidate tells story of the Catholic Church in Ireland and Britain

Enter the first great hero of Hattersley’s five-centuries-long tale: Bishop of Rochester and martyr for the faith, John Fisher. Fisher “never resorted to the brutality that was endemic in society”. Erasmus called him “the one man of his time who was incomparable for uprightness of life, for learning and for greatness of soul”. As the procession of English Catholic martyrs begins to wend its way through history, Hattersley’s unbelief is no obstacle to his admiration.

The promised happy endings are slow in coming. Hattersley devotes a chapter and more to that amazing, half-forgotten episode in English history, the Pilgrimage of Grace: a revolt in the north of England against the suppression of Holy Days, the closure of local monasteries and other consequences of the Reformation, that might have toppled Henry VIII. It was a “good, if hopelessly, naive fight”, ending in carnage and executions. The sixty-eight year old mother of Cardinal Pole was beheaded simply for possessing a coat of arms decorated on one side by the wounds of Jesus, the symbols adopted by the Pilgrimage of Grace.

One reads with dismay of the religious and political violence which ebbed and flowed throughout the successive attempted theocracies of Henry (“impartial in his inhumanity” and the “most unreliable and inconsistent theologian in England”), his son Edward and his daughters Mary and Elizabeth. The willingness to both inflict and accept horrendous suffering is staggering.

At least, the teachings of Jesus meant Christianity had within it the means to recover from the madness of heretic burning. An anonymous letter to ‘Bloody Bonner’, Bishop of London under Queen Mary, demanded to know “where prove you that Christ and his Apostles killed any man for his faith?” And Catholic martyr-to-be, Edmund Campion, was able to write to his pursuers: “I have no more to say but to recommend your case and mine to Almighty God, the Searcher of Hearts, who sends us His grace and sets us to accord before the day of payment, to the end we may at last be friends in Heaven, where all shall be forgotten.”

Hattersley isn’t afraid to slay some of Eng

lish history’s sacred cows. The idea of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of civil liberties instituted when William of Orange assumed the throne is “nonsense”, given the vindictive, vicious anti-Catholic measures. Hattersley argues that fear of the Catholic threat, among both the English establishment and the mob, took on the character of a “neurosis”, never more pronounced than in the “concoction” of the Popish Plot of 1678-81. “Although there was no plot,” he writes, “twenty-four plotters (seventeen of them priests) were arrested, convicted and executed.” The last victim was Oliver Plunkett: hung, drawn and quartered after a show trial in Westminster Hall.

English Catholics gradually came to accept the need to learn to survive in “an irrevocably Protestant nation”. However, if Protestantism was irrevocable, the Catholic Church in England was “invincible”. Despite small numbers, and persecution and harassment stretching into centuries, it would not die. And the Irish, of course, were digging their heels in too, driven by their “indomitable piety”.

There is a fascinating chapter on the turmoil in nineteenth-century Liverpool, both within the Church and in wider society, about how to respond to the influx of the Irish poor. Here another hero emerges: Fr James Nugent, all-purpose reformer and friend of the destitute. We then catch a glimpse of Fr Matthew administering the temperance oath to a forty-thousand-strong ecumenical rally on Glasgow Green. Cardinal Manning of Westminster also emerges as a hero of sorts for his obsessive commitment to justice for the Irish, manual workers and the poor.

Roy Hattersley: His father was a parish priest in Nottingham, before running away with his mother. Roy was their only child. Picture: Andrew Parsons/PA
Roy Hattersley: His father was a parish priest in Nottingham, before running away with his mother. Roy was their only child. Picture: Andrew Parsons/PA

As the twentieth century rolls round and the book draws towards its conclusion, Hattersley still has his work cut out for him — perhaps more than anywhere else, as much of what he writes about is not just history, but the stuff of living memory.

The story of Ulster Catholics from partition to The Troubles makes inevitably dismal reading. There is an heroic and at least partially successful attempt to cram the story of Vatican II into fifteen pages. The Gordian Knot of the Church’s teaching on sexuality, and all its troubling ramifications, are fairly examined. Hattersley is robust in his criticism without being vindictive. The chapter on sexual abuse concentrates almost entirely on England, but there is, of course, no shortage of grim parallels with Ireland.

Specialist historians will pass judgement on the overall accuracy of Hattersley’s accounts of each era and the validity of his judgements. (Hattersley’s fellow peer, Lord Alton, may take him to task for his dismissal of Pius XII for an “unheroic response” to the rise of Nazi Germany.) Irish readers will find it easy enough to spot some factual errors in a book that is, to be fair, largely about England.

But, as a storyteller, Hattersley is excellent, blending character, event and context almost to perfection. And he has quite a story of his own to tell too. In 1973, Hattersley discovered that his own father, a local government official, who had just passed away, was also a Father.

Frederick Hattersley had been a parish priest in Nottingham when he agreed to instruct Enid Brackenbury ahead of her marriage to a Catholic collier. He then performed the wedding ceremony. Two weeks later, the priest and bride ran away together, eventually married and, for forty-five years, “they lived in bliss”. Roy was their only child.

The Catholics: The Church and its People in Britain and Ireland from the Reformation to the Present Day

Roy Hattersley

Chatto & Windus, £25.00


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