Friday, January 07, 2011


Here is a wonderful book – full of scholarship and well-written, often as gripping as a spy novel, and packed with information to help us appreciate the long and painful journey we have made to reach relatively free and tolerant societies in the advanced world.

The Elizabethan era has long been one of my favorites – a time of great change, a notable step towards the modern era, a time packed with high adventures and important achievements, a time of great writers and adventurers, and the time of one of Europe’s greatest princes (Elizabeth herself used the term prince), and I have read a good many books. So it was pleasantly surprising that Alice Hogge offered a number of details and anecdotes of which I had little or no knowledge.

Elizabeth’s special deputy, as it were, in hunting down Catholic priests in hiding and recusants (Catholics who refused to join the Church of England, despite fines and punishments) assisting them, Richard Topcliffe, was an extraordinarily hideous figure. I had read references to him before, but here are some facts and events of which I was unaware.

Elizabeth herself is known to have been tolerant in people’s dissenting religious beliefs, so long as they were kept private and a public show was made of keeping to the laws governing England’s new church arrangements. Everything religious in that time was unfortunately also charged with political meaning, and if ever there were a lesson for keeping church and state separate, this tale is it.

The Parliament of that day was increasingly under the influence of the Puritans, and Elizabeth had to make compromises with them despite not agreeing with their nasty excesses, a story both of the dawning of a new religious era and the decline in the power of the monarch as part of the long journey towards democratic government.

Still, the details offered of Topcliffe’s special relationship with Elizabeth are surprisingly unpleasant to learn.

But it was a terrible time - one we can barely fully appreciate - especially after Elizabeth’s excommunication in 1570 by Pius V giving Catholics the “right” to get rid of her, Philip II’s 1588 massive Armada and other efforts to overthrow her, assassinations and civil wars in Europe, various plots in England, and Elizabeth’s own great insecurity over her throne, considering all that came before her with her tyrant father and her terrifying half-sister Mary, and then that rather demented but charming contemporary claimant to the throne, Mary, Queen of Scots, always involved in plots.

The story of Nicholas Owen, craftsmen and builder of many ingeniously-conceived “priest hides” in English Catholic great homes, is a wonderful one. I was pleased that the author gave a substantial discussion of his admirable and heroic efforts.

The terrible irony of those times was that so many good people on both sides – Catholic and non-Catholic – were swept away in a great tide of terrible events brought on by a smaller number of fanatics and paranoids. Ms. Hogge gives us a very vivid sense of this. She also gives us a good sense of the terrible extremism – just as bad as the worst Catholic plotters – of the emerging extreme Protestants, the various Puritan groups who were as ugly and murderous as the bloodiest Popes.

The story continues after Elizabeth – she died in 1603 – with the first of the Stuart kings, James I , a king who started with much promise and delivered little in religious and other matters, and on to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, whose dark corners and ambiguities Ms Hogge outlines. Ms. Hogge takes us to the end for some of the key characters of the era, but of course the end of her book was not the end of religious strife. It is a tale of executions, torture, and exile.

I loved the way Ms. Hogge gave us an afterward relating the hunt for Catholics in England then to the situation of Muslims today in Western countries.

This is altogether an admirable and excellent book, and I recommend it highly.