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Above: What Innocent III Never Smelled Like

The 1630s and 1640s in England, the years leading up to the Civil War and the eventual divestment from King Charles I of his head, were marked by anti-Catholic panics of a furor that likely make the paranoias of early 21st century America seem fairly tame.

In the century since Henry VIII had divorced the Church of England from the Church of Rome in order to divorce himself from Catherine of Aragon, English ecclesiastical life was characterised by the tension between “High Church” and “Low Church” tendencies, where the former denotes those who sought to maintain ritual and an episcopal hierarchy similar to Roman Catholicism while the latter refers to those who desired greater reform toward a more Calvinist theology and presbyterianPresbyteros” (???????????) is a New Testament-era Greek word meaning an “elder”. I don’t know why I never bothered to look that up before. form of church governance.

Under Charles, Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud restored various bits of ceremonial such as reverence for the Eucharist, denounced the Low Church “Puritans”, and — most galling — retreated from Calvinist doctrines of predestination. Laud followed the doctrine of Arminianism which allowed that humans could through goodness and repentence work toward salvation, but to hardcore Calvinists allowing for anything but predestined election by God was tantamount to saying that one could buy one’s way into heaven — such thinking was little better than, say, papal indulgences. As William Rous, stepbrother of William Pym (Charles’s chief opponent in Parliament), put itQuoted in: Purkiss, Diane, The English Civil War, 2006, p 100.:

[A]n Arminian is the spawn of a Papist; and if there come the warmth of favour upon him, you shall see him turn into one of those frogs that rise out of the bottomless pit. And if you mark it well, you shall see an Arminian reaching out his hand to a Papist, a Papist to a Jesuit, a Jesuit gives one hand to the Pope and the other to the King of Spain; these men having kindled a fire in our neighbor country, now they have brought over some of it hither, to set on flame this kingdom also.

The “neighbor country” here is most likely Ireland, which had seen recent unrest and was viewed as an insidious source of Popish peril. A further threat was seen from Charles’s Catholic wife, Henrietta Maria, with her large retinue of priests and Jesuits and her successes in converting members of the aristocracy. But also note that neither Charles nor Laud had the slightest interest in converting or reinstituting Roman Catholicism in England.

So anyway, the Charles Johnsons and Bill Kristols of the 17th century were busily out churning pamphlets making sure that everyone was seeing Papist plots behind every hedgerow. Mobs of patriotic Englishmen were besieging and sacking the homes of Catholic gentry as if that would keep the menace of Popery from their shores. By early 1641, Charles was pressured into issuing an edict ordering all Catholic priests to leave the country (except Henrietta Maria’s courtiers, natch).

In August 1642, a priest named Hugh Green was captured. Though he was at that time attempting to leave England, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. From the gallows, Green tried to give a speech denouncing heresy, but was silenced as a “blasphemer”. “Then he prayed instead for unity, for peace, for the king, and forgave everyone. He called a Catholic woman, Elizabeth Willoughby, to him and she came, and he asked her to say goodbye to his fellow-prisoners, and he blessed her and five others.”All quotes and details about Hugh Green are from Purkiss, pp 137-9.

(Warning: what follows is quite graphic and brutal.)

Though there was trouble finding someone willing to pull away the ladder, Green was finally hanged. He made the sign of the cross three times while dangling. Then he was cut down. Elizabeth Willoughby recorded what happened next:

The man that was to quarter [Green] was a timorous unskilful man, by trade a barber, and his name was Barefoot. He was so long dismembering that he came to his perfect senses and sat upright. […] Then did this butcher cut his belly on both sides, and turn the flap upon his breast, which the holy man feeling put his hand upon his bowels, and looking on his bloody hand laid it down by his side, and lifting up his right hand he crossed himself, saying three times, Jesu, Jesu, Jesu Mercy! The which, although unworthy, I am a witness of, for my hand was on his forehead … all the Catholics were pressed away from him by the unruly multitude except myself … Whilst he was thus calling upon Jesus, the butcher did pull a piece of his liver out instead of his heart, and tumbling his guts out every way to see if his heart were not among them; then with his knife he raked in the body … Methought my heart was pulled out of my body to see him in such cruel pains, lifting up his eyes to heaven, and not yet dead. Then I could no longer hold, but cried, Out upon them that did so torment him. His forehead was bathed in sweat, and blood and water flowed from his eyes and nose. And when on account of the gushing streams of blood his tongue could no longer pronounce the saving name of Jesus, his lips moved, and the frequent groans which he uttered from his inmost heart were proof of the most bitter pain and torture which he suffered.

After Green endured a half hour under the ministrations of Barefoot, another Catholic woman persuaded the sheriff that Green might be given release from his agonies. Green’s heart and genitals were then burned. His head was used for a game of football — “which proved that the man had no power — but since they believed Catholics were in league with the powers of darkness, they put sticks in the eyes, nose, and mouth, and buried the head near the scaffold”. They had decided against putting his head on the town gates as a warning as “a previous priest had been so displayed and God had punished the town with the onset of plague”.

When I first read the above account, my initial reaction was: have any of these wingnuts, that is the ones who believe that Muslims or Arabs are violent and brutal in a way “we” could never be, ever read this kind of story from our own history? It’s not like it’s difficult to find records of such stories in the history of Western countries. It’s not even necessary to go back to 17th century England — 20th century America saw lynchings enacted as a form of festive community outing. I fear, however, that the cocoon of exceptionalism is far too good at repelling the messages of history.

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