Understanding the origins of religious hatred
Early in my career, I worked on early modern British history, with a special focus on religious conflict and violence. As I look back on that work, I see ever more parallels to the manifestations of religious hatred and bigotry that so trouble the contemporary world. However distant these events, they really do have much to tell us today.
In the seventeenth century, Britain was officially an Anglican, Protestant nation, which strictly penalized Catholic practice. Even so, large dissident minorities of recusants — that is, Catholic resisters or rejecters — survived in certain regions, mainly to the country’s north and west. In normal times, these recusants were largely left alone, but occasionally they were subjected to ferocious outbreaks of violence and persecution. The worst of these crises happened between 1678 and 1682, when many Catholic clergy and lay leaders were imprisoned, and dozens executed in response to an outbreak of paranoid hysteria that we call the “Popish Plot.” By far the greatest savagery occurred in one area on the borderlands between England and Wales, in the counties of Monmouth and Hereford.
Five priests from this area died on the scaffold, and several more in prison. Three were hunted to death, “being martyred by the misery and sufferings of their hiding-places on mountaintops, and in the woods, and dens, and caves of the earth.” Many lay people also suffered. Some local magnates became full-time priest-hunters, who dedicated themselves to rooting out Catholic manifestations of all kinds. And they were successful. Only in this area was a thriving Jesuit mission wholly eliminated.
But why was the bigotry here — in contemporary terms, the “Anti-Popery” — so extreme and homicidal? The surprising answer became clear when I looked at the origins of the worst fanatics. In virtually every case, the Protestant extremists were themselves from Catholic backgrounds, and in years gone by, they had actually assisted and sheltered priests. Commonly, these men derived from families split between Protestants and Catholics, which had produced Catholic clergy. Mixed Protestant-Catholic marriages were very common in this region.
The priests that they were seeking out were not just neighbors, but usually, they were close relatives. The extremists were recent defectors from the old faith, doubly zealous perhaps to justify the new spiritual world-view they had adopted, and to extirpate its enemies.
One classic example of this pattern was a squire named Charles Price, a fanatic who led an armed assault on the local Jesuit headquarters, and who hunted to death one of the priests. Even after the man was dead, Charles Price insisted on exhuming the body to confirm his “kill.” The priest who was the object of such pathological hatred was one Walter Price, his own cousin. Moreover, other priests had very recently remarked what a good friend and supporter Charles Price had always been. Suddenly, though, he turned violently against that faith, and used the political crisis to destroy his old friends.
Another man who became an anti-Catholic activist and informer was one Edward Turberville, who came from a family that had had dozens of members jailed for Catholic loyalties between 1580 and 1620. His own brother was a Benedictine abbot, and in the whole seventeenth century, he was one of only a handful of non-Catholic Turbervilles. Like Price, he was a recent convert from the Catholic faith that he now sought to destroy.
In this area at least, the “Popish Plot” crisis looks rather like a family feud, if not a civil war within the old Catholic community.