Friday, September 15, 2006
Many of the significant episodes of persecution - such as the execution of Roman Catholic priests in the reign of Elizabeth, and again at the time of the Popish Plot a century later - are already familiar to anyone who has studied the history of the period. Much more disconcerting, however, are the smaller, apparently spontaneous, outbreaks of mob violence directed against religious minorities.
In 1623, when a house in Blackfriars collapsed under the weight of people attending a secret Catholic service, a hostile crowd gathered to throw stones at the dead and injured as they were hauled from the wreckage. At about the same time, a Catholic priest captured in Dover was sewn into a bear's skin and exposed in the town centre "to be torn in pieces by dogs and sported with as a monster", before being rescued by some kindly passers-by.
This tradition of mob violence lasted well into the era of enlightenment. Walsham ends her book in 1700, but finds space for the Sacheverell Riots of 1710 and the Gordon Riots of 1780. Indeed, she could have gone further still, and discussed the anti-Ritualist riots of the 1850s, which show that even in the mid-19th century popular anti-Catholicism was a powerful force.
Yet at the heart of the book lies a paradox: that while many Anglicans regarded papists and Nonconformists as the enemies of Church and state, they seem to have lived, for most of the time, on perfectly friendly terms with their popish and Nonconformist neighbours. This is encapsulated by an incident during the Gordon Riots, when a group of rioters, incited to attack a house where Catholics lived, replied: "What are Catholics to us? We are only against popery!"
Walsham argues that tolerance and intolerance went hand in hand. The practical toleration granted to Catholics and Dissenters was, she suggests, the very reason why they were denounced with such ferocity. This was one of the defence mechanisms that enabled people to cling on to a belief in religious uniformity in the face of widespread religious diversity.