Patricia Bernstein

Religious Freedom was a Long Time Coming

Wars over religion plagued Europe from the beginning of the Protestant Reformation well into the 18th century. While Catholics dominated France and Spain, a spirit of virulent anti-Catholicism prevailed in Britain.

When I began to write my novel A Noble Cunning, based on the true story of persecuted Catholic noblewoman Winifred Maxwell, I was shocked to learn of the extreme oppression of Catholics in Britain for a period of over 200 years. In fact, to this very day, the ruling monarch in Great Britain may not be a Catholic! 

Winifred Maxwell, Countess of Nithsdale with dog
Winifred Maxwell, Countess of Nithsdale

Draconian Laws

Catholics were not murdered en masse or expelled from the country as Jews had been in 1290, but they could not practice their faith. Priests, celebration of the mass and even religious objects like rosaries were all forbidden. A series of draconian laws provided that Catholics could not hold public office, vote or buy land. Everyone was required to attend Church of England services or pay a fine. Of course, to the many splintered sects of Protestants that evolved, the Church of England was just about as bad as Roman Catholicism, and they also suffered from some of these laws. But public opposition to the various Protestant sects dissipated more quickly over time than hatred of Catholics.

When Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch, died in 1714, over 50 relatives to Anne were skipped over solely because they were Catholics. The finger of fate finally landed on the first Protestant in the series of relatives, George Louis, the Elector of Hanover, a minor German potentate. George was a Lutheran who spoke almost no English and knew next to nothing about Britain. Nevertheless, he was picked up and plunked down on the British throne as King George I. But Catholics were sick to death of being oppressed and thought their best chance to end it would be to depose George and install a real English-born prince, James Francis Edward Stuart, the “king across the water.”

James was the son of King James II, the last Catholic to rule Britain, who had been hustled off the throne in 1688 in the so-called “Glorious Revolution.” The young prince had been raised in exile in France. His supporters were called “Jacobites” because Jacobus is Latin for James

King George I

It’s not hard to see why even many British who were not Catholic also opposed submission to a foreign king. To make matters worse, George was a sordid, unappealing character whose wife Sophia Dorothea had referred to him behind his back as “pig snout.” Having divorced Sophia and installed her in a kind of permanent house arrest in Germany, George arrived in England with two mistresses in tow, one tall and emaciated who was called “the Maypole” and the other enormously fat, who was known as “the Elephant.” These two and George’s other retainers proceeded to use their positions close to the king to line their pockets.

King George I

The Jacobite Rebellion against George kicked off in August 1715, but was badly managed and had already fizzled out by November. In A Noble Cunning the redoubtable Winifred Maxwell is represented by my heroine Bethan Glentaggart. A victim of anti-Catholic persecution all of her life, Bethan learns that her beloved husband Gavin has been condemned to death for his participation in the Jacobite Rebellion and is shut up in the Tower of London awaiting his execution. The climax of the story revolves around Bethan’s fierce determination to find a way to save her husband’s life.

Read the rest of the story at A Writer of History.…..

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