The question ‘who would be a catholic’ is posed in the context of English history.

Today, we take it almost for granted that we can freely and openly practice our religious faith and not be discriminated against when it comes to doing military service, being eligible for a job, having the right to vote in a government election, owning property and other assets of wealth.

But for something more than two hundred and seventy years, they were exactly the civil rights denied to Roman Catholics in England on account of their faith.

And I call them Roman Catholics because catholicism is centred upon the Vatican city in Rome and catholics swear their allegiance to the Pope as their supreme head.

Events began to unfold in 1530 when Henry VIII sought papal permission to divorce Catherine of Aragon but was refused by the Pope and was thereby ex-communicated.

It was the beginnings of catholic oppression in England.

Monasteries centuries old were first dissolved and then destroyed,  the Anglican Book of Prayer was introduced by Queen Elizabeth I and catholics were subjected to recusancy and fines of a shilling for not attending anglican church services on a Sunday.

The town of Stratford upon Avon in England is typical of catholic closseteers who were anglicans by day and catholics by night.

The Shakespeare family were known for their catholic loyalities and William Shakespeare was not shy to make reference to it in many of his plays.

From 1559 until her death in 1603, Elizabeth I established England as a dominant protestant state and catholics were very much in the minority.

Nevertheless, the English nation was as paranoic as its unmarried and childless monarch about who would succeed her and her closest advisers would play no mean part in the final outcome.

There were several supposed catholic attempts to whisk the realm away from Queen Elizabeth during her lifetime, notably the Babington Plot which brought about the execution of Elizabeth’s catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, in 1587.

Of course, there was the Spanish Armada which came asailing at England’s coastal borders a year later and the fluffed rebellion of the Earl of Essex in 1601.

Ultimately, two men would have the greatest bearing on the outcome for the English monarchy and for catholics in England in general.

They were Father and Son William and Robert Cecil.  Their interventions and influence drove the anti-catholic propaganda to the hilt.

James Stuart, King of Scotland and son of the fated Mary Queen of Scots, would be invited to come south of the border and become the next monarch of England.

He was a staunch protestant with catholic sympathies.

Not surprisingly, while Robert Cecil, succeeding his father as the closest counsel to the monarch, saw a situation to manipulate and to oppress catholicism in England even further,  English catholics thought at first that this might be their chance to gain status quo in the open practice of their faith,

When English catholics realized that was not going to happen (and it did not take long), a group of dissidents met to discuss a plan about assassinating the new King and his ministers, having him replaced with either his daughter Princess Elizabeth or the Spanish King.

There were thirteen members at the end in the grand conspiracy which became known as the Gunpowder Plot and was planned for Tuesday 5th November 1605, the first state opening of Parliament by King James.

Many of the conspirators had participated too in the Essex rebellion and had either got away scott-free or been able to buy their way out of jail.

Needless to say, the Gunpowder Plot did not succeed.

An anonymous letter was sent to a catholic lord a few days beforehand hinting not to attend Parliament on 5th November.  The letter was passed to Robert Cecil who coyly waited until the eleventh hour before catching the explosives expert, Guy Fawkes, ‘red-handed’ in the cellar below the Parliament building where forty barrels of gunpowder was stored and ready for detonation.

The thirteen conspirators all met their end by one means or another.  Some were pursued and shot, others were captured and executed.  One man was poisoned in the Tower of London.

The direct consequence of the failed plot was for citizens of England to swear allegiance to the crown over the papacy or be subjected to civil penalities.

For some, this was too much of a conscience to bear and chose to rest their soul by ‘kicking the bucket’, a term coined for a person who voluntarily hangs himself and then kicks the bucket away to pass away.

Things got a little better for catholics following the Civil War 1642-1660 but it was not until 1829, thanks to an Irishman named Dnaiel O’Donnell (not the popular singer today of the same name!) that religious freedom would be ordained for catholics in line with protestants.

Emanicipation was not as yet a trendy buzzword but what evolved for catholics would follow in later decades for slaves, indigenous people, women and workers.

There was once such a thing as the divine right of Kings and the legitimacy of hereditary nobility.

Not anymore.

Yet still to this day, the English monarchy is as anglican as the day on which it was conceived and an English royal is forbidden by law to marry a Roman Catholic.

And do you know?

I still remember the story I heard in childhood of the little boy who sang in Elizabethan times ‘the Twelve Days of Christmas’ as if his life depended on it.

Now I know why.

Who would be a catholic?


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