Arguing with Peter Hitchens

I’ve had some recent exchanges with PH on Twitter about the Reformation.


My own argument about the Reformation is not who was more violent – that’s not the real issue, serious though it is, but rather, that the Reformation was a top-down imposition of religion upon the populace. This is in contrast to the Protestant propaganda that the Reformation was essentially a grass roots movement and inevitable. It was nothing of the kind. This change in religion was catastrophic because the religion was changed from the true religion to a false one and the result has been modernia, with all its problems, including destroying bakers’ livelihoods because they won’t bake gay cakes, and putting men into the women’s bathrooms. This was the inevitable result of the break with Rome, which was forced upon the English people. It is why we had The Sixties. Mine is an argument against Whig history, which as I understand it, is the idea that all was pretty much terrible, until the Reformation and Glory and all that good stuff, at least until the 20th C. It is irrelevant to argue against this contention by pointing out that Catholicism was made the state religion by Constantine, for so it was, and a good thing, too. My concerns are about correcting the overarching historical narrative.

The Point of Issue

In our exchanges, Mr Hitchens informed me that the original matter he and others had been arguing was the qualitative difference between Mary’s persecution of Protestants for their faith alone, and Elizabeth’s (undoubtedly harsh) treatment of individuals who posed a political threat to her.

Even though this argument doesn’t interest me much, I thought it would be worth pointing out Cobbett’s perspective. It is not necessary for a Catholic to defend any of Mary’s policies in order to be a good Catholic, and I have never defended her policies. It’s also not necessary to do so in order to show that the Reformation was a bad development, or that Elizabeth’s reign was despotic and unjust, far from her myth.

Cobbett, who wrote “A History of the Reformation” in 1824, was an Anglican, and doesn’t defend Mary’s policy regarding heretics either, but he does illuminate it and give some points to discuss.

Here are some of his article titles, FYI:





His basic position is that the whole of Christendom had been Catholic for hundreds of years and then the break came in England with Henry and Betsy, very much for the worse. He says:

as it is called, was engendered in beastly lust, brought forth in
hypocrisy and perfidy, and cherished and fed by plunder, devastation, and by rivers of innocent English and Irish blood; and that, as to
its more remote consequences, they are, some of them, now before as in that misery, that beggary, that nakedness, that hunger, that everlasting wrangling and spite, which now stare us in the face and
stun our ears at every turn, and which the “Reformation” has given us in exchange for the ease and happiness and harmony and Christian charity, enjoyed so abundantly, and for so many ages, by our Catholic forefathers.

His argument is that Betsy was a great hypocrite and the worst woman who ever lived, not excepting Jezebel herself. She swore to Mary she was Catholic saying she prayed God that the earth might open and swallow her, if she were not a true Roman Catholic, and which is the only reason she was named as Mary’s heir, and then violently persecuted her people for not abandoning the religion she had so lately professed, only because she didn’t want to risk losing the crown she had hypocritically gained.

She knew that she had no hereditary right;
she knew that the law ascribed her birth to adultery. She never could
think of reigning quietly over a people the head of whose Church
refused to acknowledge her right to the crown. And resolving to wear
that crown, she resolved, cost what ruin or blood it might, to compel
her people to abandon that very religion, her belief in which she
had, a few months before, declared, by praying to “God that the earth
might open and swallow her alive, if she were not a true Roman Catholic.”

Regarding Mary’s policy against heretics (and I have not edited the typos) he says:

246. We have seen, in paragraph 200 and 201, what a Babel of
opinions and of religions had been introduced by CRANMER and his
crew; and we have also seen, that immorality, that vice of all sorts,
that enmity and strife incessant, had been the consequence. Besides
this, it was so natural that the Queen should desire to put down all
these sects, and that she should be so anxious on the subject, that
we are not at all surprised that, if she saw all other means
ineffectual for the purpose, she should resort to means of the utmost
severity that the laws of the land allowed of, for the accomplishment
of that purpose. The traitors and the leading rebels of her reign
were all, or affected to be, of the new sects. Though small in
number, they made up for that disadvantage by their indefatigable
malignity; by their incessant efforts to trouble the state, and
indeed, to destroy the Queen herself. But I am for rejecting all
apologies for her, founded on provocations given to her: and also for
rejecting all apologies founded on the disposition and influence of
her councillors; for, if she had been opposed to the burning of
heretics, that burning would, certainly, never have taken place. That
burning is fairly to be ascribed to her; but, as even the malignant
HUME gives her credit for sincerity, is it not just to conclude, that
her motive was to put an end to the propagation, amongst her people,
of errors which she deemed destructive of their souls, and the
permission of the propagation of which she deemed destructive of her
own? And, there is this much to be said in defence of her motive, at
any rate, that these new lights, into however many sects they might
be divided, all agreed in teaching the abominable doctrine of
salvation by faith alone, without regard to works.

247. As a preliminary to the punishment of heretics there was an
Act of Parliament passed in December, 1554 (a year and a half after
the Queen came to the throne) , to restore the ancient statutes,
relative to heresy. These statutes were first passed against the
LOLLARDS in the reigns of RICHARD II. and HENRY IV. And they
provided, that heretics, who were obstinate, should be burnt. These
statutes were altered in the reign of HENRY VIII., in order that he
might get the property of heretics; and, in that of EDWARD, they were
repealed. Not out of mercy, however; but because heresy was,
according to those statutes, to promulgate opinions contrary to the
Catholic Faith; and this did, of course, not suit the state of things
under the new church, “as by law established.” Therefore, it was then
held, that heresy was punishable by common law, and, that, in case of
obstinacy, heretics might be burnt; and, accordingly, many were
punished and some burnt, in that reign, by process at common law; and
these were, too, Protestants dissenting from CRANMER’s Church, who
himself condemned them to the flames. Now, however, the Catholic
religion being again the religion of the country, it was thought
necessary to return to ancient statutes; which, accordingly, were re-
enacted. That which had been the law, during seven reigns, comprising
nearly two centuries, and some of which reigns had been amongst the
most glorious and most happy that England had ever known, one of the
Kings having won the title of King of France and another of them
having actually been crowned at Paris; that which had been the law
for so long a period was now the law again: so that here was nothing
new, at any rate. And, observe, though these statutes were again
repealed, when ELIZABETH’s policy induced her to be a Protestant, she
enacted others to supply their place, and that both she and her
successor, JAMES I., burnt heretics; though they had, as we shall
see, a much more expeditious and less noisy way of putting out of the
world those who still had the constancy to adhere to the religion of
their fathers.

248. The laws, being passed, were not likely to remain a dead
letter. They were put in execution chiefly in consequence of
condemnations, in the spiritual court, by BONNER, Bishop of London.
The punishment was inflicted in the usual manner; dragging to the
place of execution, and then burning to death, the sufferer being
tied to a stake, in the midst of a pile of fagots, which, when set on
fire, consumed him. Bishop GARDINER, the Chancellor, has been, by
Protestant writers, charged with being the adviser of this measure. I
can find no ground for this charge, while all agree that POLE, who
was now become Archbishop of Canterbury, in the place of CRANMER,
disapproved of it. It is also undeniable, that a Spanish friar, the
confessor of Philip, preaching before the Queen, expressed his
disapprobation of it. Now, as the Queen was much more likely to be
influenced, if at all, by POLE, and especially by PHILIP, than by
GARDINER, the fair presumption is, that it was her own measure. And,
as to BONNER, on whom so much blame has been thrown on this account,
he had, indeed, been most cruelly used by CRANMER and his
Protestants; but, there was the Council continually accusing all the
Bishops (and he more than any of the rest) of being too slow in the
performance of this part of their duty. Indeed, it is manifest, that,
in this respect, the Council spoke the then almost universal
sentiment; for though the French ceased not to hatch rebellions
against the Queen, none of the grounds of the rebels ever were, that
she punished heretics. Their complaints related almost solely to the
connexion with Spain; and never to the “flames of Smithfield,” though
we of latter times have been made to believe, that nothing else was
thought of; but, the fact is, the persons put to death were chiefly
of very infamous character, many of them foreigners, almost the whole
of them residing in London, and called, in derision by the people at
large, the “London Gospellers.” Doubtless, out of two hundred and
seventy-seven persons (the number stated by HUME on authority of Fox)
who were thus punished, some may have been real martyrs to their
opinions, and have been sincere and virtuous persons; but, in this
number of 277, many were convicted felons, some clearly traitors, as
RIDLEY and CRANMER. These must be taken from the number, and we may;
surely, take such as were alive when Fox first published his book,
and who expressly begged to decline the honour of being enrolled
amongst his “Martyrs.” As a proof of Fox’s total disregard of truth,
there was, in the next reign, a Protestant parson, as Anthony Wood (a
Protestant) tells us, who, in a sermon, related, on authority of Fox,
that a Catholic of the name of GRIMWOOD had been, as Fox said, a
great enemy of the Gospellers, had been “punished by a judgment of
God,” and that his “bowels fell out of his body.” GRIMWOOD was not
only alive at the time when the sermon was preached, but happened to
be present in the church to hear it; and he brought an action of
defamation against the preacher! Another instance of Fox’s falseness
relates to the death of Bishop GARDINER. Fox and BURNET, and other
vile calumniators of the acts and actors in Queen Mary’s reign, say,
that GARDINER, on the day of the execution of LATIMER and RIDLEY,
kept dinner waiting till the news of their suffering should arrive,
and that the Duke of Norfolk, who was to dine with him, expressed
great chagrin at the delay; that, when the news came, “transported
with joy,” they sat down to table, where GARDINER was suddenly seized
with the disury, and died, in horrible torments, in a fortnight after
wards. Now, LATIMER. and RIDLEY were put to death on the 16th of
October; and COLLIER, in his Ecclesiastical History, p. 386, states,
that GARDINER opened the Parliament on the 21st of October; that he
attended in Parliament twice afterwards; that he died on the 12th of
November, of the gout, and not of disury; and that, as to the Duke of
Norfolk, he had been dead a year when this event took place! What a
hypocrite, then, must that man he, who pretends to believe in this
Fox! Yet, this infamous book has, by the arts of the plunderers and
their descendants, been circulated to a boundless extent amongst the
people of England, who have been taught to look upon all the thieves,
felons, and traitors, whom Fox calls “Martyrs,” as sufferers
resembling St. Stephen, St. Peter, and St. Paul!

249. The real truth about these “Martyrs,” is, that they were,
generally, a set of most wicked wretches, who sought to destroy the
Queen and her Government, and under the pretence of conscience and
superior piety, to obtain the means of again preying upon the people.
No mild means could reclaim them: those means had been tried: the
Queen had to employ vigorous means, or, to suffer her people to
continue to be torn by the religious factions, created, not by her,
but by her two immediate predecessors, who had been aided and abetted
by many of those who now were punished, and who were worthy of ten
thousand deaths each, if ten thousand deaths could have been endured.
They were, without a single exception, apostates, perjurers, or
plunderers; and, the greater part of them had also been guilty of
flagrant high treason against Mary herself, who had spared their
lives; but whose lenity they had requited by every effort within
their power to overset her authority and the Government. To make
particular mention of all the ruffians that perished upon this
occasion, would be a task as irksome as it would be useless; but,
there were amongst them, three of CRANMER’s Bishops and himself! For,
now, justice, at last, overtook this most mischievous of all
villains, who had justly to go to the same stake that he had unjustly
caused so many others to be tied to; the three others were HOOPER,
LATIMER, and RIDLEY, each of whom was, indeed, inferior in villany to
CRANMER, but to few other men that have ever existed.

Cobbett addresses the burnings:

The “fires of Smithfield” have a horrid sound; but, to
say nothing about the burnings of Edward VI., Elizabeth, and James
I., is it more pleasant to have one’s bowels ripped out, while the
body is alive (as was Elizabeth’s favourite way), than to be burnt?
Protestants have even exceeded Catholics in the work of punishing
offenders of this sort. And, they have punished, too, with less
reason on their side. The Catholics have one faith; the Protestants
have fifty faiths: and yet, each sect, whenever it gets uppermost,
punishes, in some way or other, the rest as offenders. Even at this
very time, there are, according to a return, recently laid before the
House of Commons, no less than fifty-seven persons, who have, within
a few years, suffered imprisonment and other punishments added to it,
as offenders against religion;

Here is Cobbett’s perspective on Mary, his final paragraph on her life:

258. As to the mass of suffering, supposing the whole of the 277
persons, who suffered in the reign of Mary, to have suffered solely
for the sake of religion instead of having been, like CRANMER and
RIDLEY, traitors and felons as well as offenders on the score of
religion; let us suppose the whole 277 to have suffered for offences
against religion, did the mass of suffering surpass the mass of
suffering; on this same account, during the reign of the late King?
And, unless Smithfield and burning have any peculiar agony, any thing
worse than death, to impart, did Smithfield ever witness so great a
mass of suffering as the Old Bailey has witnessed, on account of
offences against that purely Protestant invention, bank notes?
Perhaps this invention, expressly intended to keep out Popery, has
cost ten times, if not ten times ten times, the blood that was shed
in the reign of her, whom we still have the injustice, or the folly,
to call the “bloody Queen Mary,” all whose excellent qualities, all
whose exalted virtues, all her piety, charity, generosity, sacred
adherence to her faith and her word, all her gratitude, and even
those feelings of anxiety for the greatness and honour of England,
which feelings hastened her to the grave: all these, in which she was
never equalled by any sovereign that sat on the English throne,
ALFRED alone excepted, whose religion she sought to re-establish for
ever; all these are to pass for nothing, and we are to call her the
“bloody Mary,” because it suits the views of those who fatten on the
spoils of that Church which never suffered Englishmen to bear the
odious and debasing name of pauper.

An Additional Point

PH said that the policy of Elizabeth towards Catholics being required to attend Anglican services couldn’t be considered as persecution in those days of burnings etc. The basic argument was that Catholics should have attended to save themselves from punishment, because there was nothing objectionable to Catholic doctrine in the services. Of course, the objection is that even to attend such a service is to be seen as condoning the break with Rome, which is schism, which is clearly at odds with Catholic doctrine.

I replied that I did count her policy as persecution of Catholics, to which he replied “Then you have lost all sense of proportion”.

This simply assumes that the Catholic conscience must judge in the same way that PH’s conscience judges. If you hold the position that it doesn’t matter to God where or how you worship, then of course it’s no big deal to expect other people to do likewise, especially to avoid severe punishments. It is also always dangerous for the Catholic’s soul to simply “go along to get along.” It’s a danger to the soul and when many Catholics do this in a nation, it’s a danger to the Faith in that place.

Regarding proportion, of course there is one thing worse than violent, physical death: Hell. It’s a dangerous thing to disobey the certain judgement of your own conscience. I hope I would never do this. Having said that, my argument was that I counted it as persecution, not that I consider attending a non-Catholic church to be physically worse than being burned, beheaded, ripped, quartered etc.

Comment Policy: I moderate the comments here heavily. If you wouldn’t say something to me, in front of my children in my own home, don’t say it here. That’s the rule. I don’t censor opinion as such, but there are limits related to civility and what’s commonly acceptable conversation in front of children in someone else’s home. This is a Catholic blog – you’re not in Kansas any more, Toto.

This entry was posted in "Anything worth doing"... etc., Cobbett, History, Truth. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Arguing with Peter Hitchens

  1. Martin Wheatley says:

    Though no longer a catholic communicant, much appreciate what you have posted. I took issue with PH opinion that Marian executions were malicious whereas Elizabethan ones were justifiable because priests and their supporters were simply breaking the law. A pity that he cannot be more magnanimous about those awful times. His column for the most part much appreciated as he documents national decline.

  2. louiseyvette says:

    Thanks for your comment, Martin. I’m glad you took issue with it. I don’t think it’s defensible, and yes, it’s a pity. I enjoy his column a great deal.

  3. Thomas Gormally says:

    Just one minor point you seem to be confused about. When people say Constantine made the Roman empire Christian, do not concede this to them as it is not true. The edict of Milan simply made Christianity religio licita, that is a legal religion to practice. He simply decriminalised it. Theodosius was the one who made it the official religion.

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