chapter  1
30 Pages

Introduction: The Catholic Gentry in English Society

ByPeter Marshall, Geoffrey Scott

Early modern Catholic history has begun to come in from the cold. Recounting the vicissitudes of the Catholic community was once regarded as a distinctly specialist historical project, marginal, if not unconnected to the main themes of England’s social, cultural and political development. Catholic history was largely left to the Catholics themselves, and the emphases of the account were what one would expect from a self-conscious minority, deeply aware – well into the twentieth century – of its peculiar status within the nation. Catholic history was ‘recusant history’, a story of resistance and refusal, of separation and survival. Its principal focus was the clerical mission, beginning in the 1570s and punctuated by persecution and martyrdom, by confinement in the prisons of the Elizabethan and Stuart state, or in the priest-holes of sympathetic manor houses. The Catholic laity, particularly the gentry, were not marginalised from this account, but the emphasis was ever on their separateness, on their being identified and fined for the statutory offence of recusancy, and on the inward-looking practice of a faith in which, as Lord Vaux claimed when presented for not attending church in Bedfordshire in 1581, the gentry manor house might be ‘a parish by itself’.1 The study of post-Reformation Catholicism took a major step forward in 1975, when John Bossy published his The English Catholic Community 1570-1850. This ambitious synoptic account brought scholarly rigour to its subject, eschewing the hagiographical tone of some earlier studies, and presented Catholicism as (sociologically speaking) a species of non-conformity. But Bossy’s was an avowedly internalist study, concerned with ‘the body of Catholics as a social whole and in relation to itself’; his subject was the society of Catholics, rather than Catholics in society.2