Patricia Bernstein

Religious Freedom Could Have Been Established in England as Early as 1688

The Glentaggart family in my novel A Noble Cunning suffers from anti-Catholic religious persecution, which lasted for over 200 years in Britain. But the persecution of that family and thousands of other British Catholics could have ended long before it did, if King James II had had his way. In the midst of all the bloody upheavals over religion in Europe, Britain came close to granting all of its citizens religious freedom in 1688, long before tolerance was available in other European nations.

From the time of Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517, through to the reign of James II and beyond, Europe was repeatedly engulfed in extremely violent religious conflict.

Most of the British populace became aggressively anti-Catholic because of a series of events including:

  • Queen “Bloody” Mary’s efforts to force the British back into Catholicism (1553-58)
  • Catholic plots against Queen Elizabeth
  • The threat of the Spanish Armada
  • Guy Fawkes’ attempt to blow up Parliament and King James I on behalf of persecuted Catholics (1605)
  • Rumors that Catholics caused the Great Fire of London in 1666
  • The Spanish Inquisition
  • The Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685, which drove almost all Protestants (Huguenots) out of France. Thousands of Huguenot refugees settled in England. A Huguenot plays a brief but key role in my novel A Noble Cunning.
  • The propaganda of Protestant sects which depicted the Pope as an arch-devil and the mass as an abomination
Edward Oldcorne; Nicholas Owen by Gaspar Bouttats line engraving, mid 17th century
This engraving by Gaspar Bouttats depicts Edward Oldcorne, a Catholic priest (foreground), and Nicholas Owen, a Jesuit lay brother (background), being tortured in the Tower of London. Owen was famous as the primary builder of priest holes in England, secret chambers where Catholic priests could hide when houses were searched by raiding parties looking for them. Owen died in the Tower as a result of torture in March 1606. Oldcorne was executed in Worcester in April 1606. Oldcorne was beatified in 1929. Owen was canonized in 1970 and is considered the patron saint of illusionists and escapologists.
Edward Oldcorne; Nicholas Owen
by Gaspar Bouttats, line engraving, mid 17th century
NPG D17092
© National Portrait Gallery, London

The British not only worried about any effort to re-establish Catholicism as the official state religion but also about invasion of England by the Catholic nations France and Spain.

From the late 1500s to the late 1700s, severe laws were in effect in England that prohibited Catholics from hosting a priest, hearing a mass or even owning religious objects such as a rosary. Catholics could not hold public office, vote, or own land, and everyone was required to attend Church of England (Anglican) services or pay a fine. The anti-Catholic laws were more stringently enforced at some times than at others but were always available when someone wanted to initiate a new campaign against Catholics.

King James II, a Catholic married to a very pious Catholic queen, wanted to improve conditions for fellow Catholics in England, who had been treated for generations like traitors in their own country. A Declaration of Indulgence, also called the Declaration for Liberty of Conscience, was proclaimed by James II in 1687. Probably inspired or even written by the famous Quaker William Penn, the Declaration was intended to grant religious freedom to everyone, even including Jews and atheists! We Americans, who enjoy the benefits of religious liberty, would expect that everyone would have rejoiced at the prospect of complete freedom to follow one’s conscience in Britain, far in advance of the rest of Europe.

But many citizens did not trust James II, who, in addition to being a Catholic, was not blessed with the charm and strategic skill of Charles II, the brother who had preceded him.  Those who opposed the Declaration of Indulgence thought the entire project was a plot to give more power to Catholics and eventually force the nation to return to Roman Catholicism. As for the elites, the Whig Party was aligned with the Protestants and was intent on maintaining power.

Enter William of Orange, Stadtholder of the Dutch states. William was a grandson of King Charles I married to Mary, daughter of James II and granddaughter of Charles I. Using the excuse of an “invitation” from a group of nobles opposed to James, William invaded England and deposed James II, whose forces were quickly overwhelmed in the so-called “Glorious Revolution.” Poor James, who had always feared that he might be executed as his father was in 1649, fled to France.

James’ trailblazing Declaration for Liberty of Conscience faded into historical obscurity. Catholics in England were persecuted for another 100 years and beyond. To this day, a reigning monarch in Great Britain may not be a Catholic.

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