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To most Englishmen it was axiomatic that their state was Protestant and had been forged in battle with militant Catholicism. It was this attitude of mind that considered itself under assault during the "Age of Reform" which began roughly a decade or so before Victoria ascended the throne in 1837. Anti-Catholic sentiment in England, often of an extremely virulent nature, as in the Murphy Riots and Orange Lodge was as old as the Reformation itself. The Victorians were very familiar with their own Reformation and seventeenth-century past. Indeed, (as in Northern Ireland today, keen historical awareness lay behind much Victorian anti-Catholicism. To many Victorians Catholicism conjured up vivid pictures of plots against their Protestant state (several plots against Queen Elizabeth, Guy Fawkes, 1605, Titus Oates and the Catholic Plot of 1680, for example) or of the Spanish Inquisition, the Armada of 1588, or the invasion of Ireland by Louis XIV to put the deposed Catholic monarch, James II, back on the English throne (the Battle of the Boyne, 1690).

An integral part of Protestant historical consciousness was the martyrdom of English Protestants under Henry VIIII's daughter and Elizabeth's half-sister, "Bloody Mary." Foxe's Book of Martyrs (1563), detailing in the most gruesome way this martyrdom, was enormously popular in the Victorian period and one nineteenth-century introduction exhorted the reader: "Let us then hold up this inhuman system [persecution by Catholics] to merited execration, let parents teach their children and children teach their children to dread and oppose this abomination of desolation" (Ingram Cobbin, ed., Foxe's Book of Martyrs (1875), .iv, quoted Norman 13). Norman rightly points out that in the Victorian period there were those who, in their opposition to Catholicism, argued (as one put it) "we are fighting anew the battle of the Reformation" (Quoted in Norman 42). As a generalization one might say that "the [average] Englishman knew himself to be Protestant. The memories or legends of his history . . . were vague but powerful in his feelings that popery was un-English and ought legally to be discouraged" (Chadwick I, 7).

The emergence of England as a sovereign independent state during Henry VIIII's Reformation, the "golden age" of Elizabeth 1 (1558-1603), the triumph, in the seventeenth century, of representative institutions, religious freedom, and capitalism, and the emergence of England as a great power were all associated with struggles against Catholicism. Thus to many Victorians the greatness of England, its liberties and its genius or essential national character, dated from the Reformation, and its economic strength was associated with the Protestant Ethic. As even John Henry Newman, the leading figure in the Oxford Movement conceded after he converted to Catholicism, "As English is the natural tongue, so Protestantism is the intellectual and moral language of the body politic" (John Henry Newman, Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England (1851), 366, quoted in Norman, 19).


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Last modified 1992.