I’ve recently become fascinated by English recusant history. Having come across an article about Robert Southwell online some time ago, I’ve been meaning for a while to find out more. Despite my degree in Literature, and my love of the English Metaphysicals, I’d somehow managed to resist Southwell. We didn’t cover him as part of our studies, which majored on Herbert and Donne, and I think in my ignorance I confused him with Crashaw, whose Baroque style I’ve always found uncongenial, and who of course belonged to a later generation of English Catholic poets.
Over Christmas and New Year I finally got round to reading Anne Sweeney’s literary biography of Southwell, Snow in Arcadia, and in parallel with this I dipped into Sweeney’s and Peter Davidson’s recent edition of the 16th century Jesuit’s Collected Poems. The latter was a revelation: I read Southwell’s sequence of poems on the Virgin Mary and Christ, from the Waldegrave Manuscript, straight through. This was the finest sequence of lyric poetry I’d encountered since being bowled over by Fernando Pessoa’s ‘The Keeper of Flocks’, written under the heteronym of Alberto Caeiro (and of course completely heterodox in its approach to the Christian story).
Moreover, it’s impossible to avoid being captivated by Southwell’s personality and his sheer heroism. (Far from being the duplicitous reactionary of Protestant myth, one comes to understand why Geoffrey Hill titled his essay on the poet ‘The absolute reasonableness of Robert Southwell’.) The same is true of his fellow saint and martyr, Edmund Campion. I’m currently engrossed in Evelyn Waugh’s brief hagiography of the latter, which is much more of a page-turner than I’d expected (despite the occasional intrusion of Waugh’s mid-20th century political conservatism). The story of Campion’s life, like that of Southwell, certainly overturns many of the myths about the English Reformation and the Catholic ‘threat’ that one grew up with.
The same is true of the work of the great Catholic revisionist historian, Eamon Duffy. At Christmas I also read his Fires of Faith, which challenges accepted wisdom about the reign of Queen Mary. Like his earlier, and equally engaging, Stripping the Altars, Duffy’s new book confronts us with compelling evidence that, far from being the corrupt, senescent shell which conventional history books present to us, late medieval and early modern English Catholicism was a vibrant tradition which still commanded the devotion of a majority of the population.
What lies behind this new interest of mine in the early recusants? I think it’s partly an extension of my general fascination with English history – and the early modern period is one about which I know very little, despite having covered the Tudors and Stuarts many years ago for ‘O’ Level. I’m also intrigued by the notion of a secret, underground faith, and impressed by the tenacity and devotion of those who stuck to their traditional beliefs in spite of almost unbearable deprivation and persecution.
Finally, as I continue to oscillate between my powerful attraction to, and abiding doubts about, Catholic Christianity, this exploration of a key period in English Catholic history may indirectly serve to deepen my understanding of, and love for, the faith for which the recusants were prepared to suffer so much. Of course it’s important for me to directly confront the intellectual challenges to belief which hold me back, but perhaps faith also grows by other, more subterranean means – which includes reading about and being captivated by the faith and example of those who have gone before.
I know this blog has yet to attract many readers (it would probably help if I posted more often), but if you do happen to find your way here, and you can recommend a good, general book on recusant history, particularly in the Tudor period, I’d be grateful. Most of the books I’ve come across have focused on specific individuals, such as Southwell and Campion, but it would be good to have a general overview of English Catholicism in the late 16th century.