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They kept the faith

Catholic Gentry in English Society: the Throckmortons of Coughton

ASHGATE, 294PP, £60 ■Tablet Bookshop price £54

f one were to ask the fabled “ordinary man on the street” about Catholicism’s place in the nation’s past, the chances are that one would be informed that all the Catholics vanished after the Reformation and only returned with waves of Irish immigration. The unfortunate tendency to whitewash Catholicism out of England’s national history may persist, but this enlightening collection of essays, edited by Professor Peter Marshall of Warwick University and Abbot Geoffrey Scott OSB of Douai Abbey, with a foreword by David Starkey, presents a very different version of events. In plotting the course of one family who maintained their Catholicism, it plots the history of England from a Catholic point of view. The Throckmorton family has lived at Coughton Court in Warwickshire since 1409. Following Henry VIII’s break with Rome, the main branch of the family remained Catholic, fluctuating between outright recusancy and occasional conformity as the religious climate demanded. This tension between loyalty to Rome and Protestant England ran through all the Throckmorton generations. The first to have to deal with it was Sir


George Throckmorton. In an excellent and thoroughly readable contribution, Peter Marshall brings into focus the latent danger of living through Henry VIII’s rule. Sir George features in one of the few documented cases of someone telling the schismatic king, face to face, what the country thought of his outrageous behaviour. Occasional periods of incarceration in the Tower of London unsurprisingly followed. Nevertheless, he benefited from the spoils of monastic land and outwardly conformed. In short, Sir George Throckmorton, like other Catholic gentry, did his best to dodge the conflicting demands of Henry’s reign. While their Catholicism saw the family’s political power decline, they continued to behave like Protestants of similar social standing, managing their estates, hearing petitions from tenants and so on. They were still part of mainstream society. In the lead-up to the Civil War, the Throckmortons honed another trait of their survival: hedging their bets. Michael Hodgetts’ piece on the Gunpowder Plot is a prime example: the family was related to several of the plotters but nothing certain is known of their involvement. It is all a case of smoke and mirrors. The Civil War saw the family again drawn

from Reformation to emancipation Edited by Peter Marshall and Geoffrey Scott OSB

01420 592974

since the seventeenth century. Yet, as the family’s political and social power grew, their influence within the Catholic community diminished. The ultramontane view, which came to dominate the English Church in the nineteenth century, was totally alien to the Throckmorton clan. Sir Charles Throckmorton commented that the only subscription he would make for Pugin’s cathedral in Birmingham “would be a barrel full of powder to blow it up”. This overview leaves the

into national events. Roundheads were encouraged to loot Catholic homes and Coughton duly suffered. The instinctive sympathies of the head of the family, Sir Robert Throckmorton, lay with the royalists but, whereas his brothers fought for the king, he prevaricated. Abbot Geoffrey Scott, in the volume’s other outstanding contribution, comments that the same political elasticity was on show after the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688. The chapel at Coughton may have been destroyed and the family torn over the Old Faith and loyalty to the Stuarts, yet they opted for lily-livered conformity to the new political regime. Pertinently, Catholics maintained the oldest English links to the continent. The family maintained close ties with the Benedictine convent of Paris, where several Throckmorton daughters lived, as well as with the English Benedictines and secular clergy of the same city. Paris was, at the time, the spiritual home of Jansenism and Gallicanism. As such, it was these European links that encouraged the Throckmortons to become the leading English Catholic liberal family, mingling recusancy and reform.

Catholic Gentry in English Society is perhaps strongest when conveying the subsequent cisalpine mindset and the battle for Catholic emancipation. Sir John Courtenay Throckmorton was anticlerical, a moderniser, imbued with Enlightenment principles, who dismissed the Pope as a mere foreign prelate; yet he died just before his efforts in aid of Catholic emancipation became reality.

It is here, at the book’s end following the 1850 restoration of the Catholic hierarchy, that the Throckmortons faced a final irony. Sir Robert George Throckmorton, the eighth baronet, became the first Catholic MP to represent an English constituency

2 October 2010 | THE TABLET | 25

Throckmortons where it found them. Three hundred years had elapsed and the family was back in the political mainstream. Religiously, however, they were outsiders, this time, poignantly, from a community they had done so much to maintain. James Kelly

Ann, Daughter of Sir Francis Throckmorton by Nicolas de Largillière (1656-1746), at Coughton Court, Warwickshire. National Trust Photographic Library/ John Hammond/ The Bridgeman Art Library


John Wilkins was editor of The Tablet from 1982 to 2003.

Michael Cullinan is a priest of Westminster Diocese and BA Divinity course leader at the Maryvale Institute, Birmingham.

John Cornwell‘s latest book is Darwin’s Angel. Fergus Kerr is the editor of New Blackfriars.

James Kelly is research assistant at Queen Mary, University of London.

Brian Wicker is chairman of the Council on Christian Approaches to Defence and Disarmament.

David Abulafia is professor of Mediterranean history at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Gonville and Caius College.

John Pridmore is a retired Anglican priest.

Riva Devereaux is The Tablet’s spiritual reading critic.

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