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Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1536-1572: The Reformers and Pacifist-Anabaptists   Leave a comment


Luther’s Last Decade and His Legacy:

In the final decade of his life, Luther became even more bitter in his attitude towards the papists. He was denied another public hearing such as those at Worms and Speyer, and he managed to avoid the martyrdom which came to other reformers, whether at the stake or, in the case of Zwingli, in battle (at Kappel in 1531). He compensated by hurling vitriol at the papacy and the Roman Curia. Towards the end of his life, he issued an illustrated tract with outrageously vulgar cartoons. In all of this, he was utterly unrestrained. The Holy Roman Empire was a constitutional monarchy, and the emperor had sworn at his coronation that no German subject should be outlawed unheard and uncondemned. Although this clause had not yet invoked to protect a monk accused of heresy, yet when princes and electors came to be involved the case was altered. If Charles V were faithless to that oath, then he might be resisted even in arms by the lower magistrates. The formula thus suggested by the jurists to Luther was destined to have a very wide an extended vogue. The Lutherans employed it only until they gained legal recognition at Augsburg in 1555. Thereafter the Calvinists took up the slogan and equated the lower magistrates with the lesser nobility in France. Later historians were accustomed to regard Lutheranism as politically subservient and Calvinism as intransigent, but the origin of this doctrine was in the Lutheran soil.


Martin Luther was made for the ministry. During his last years, he continued to attend faithfully to all the obligations of the university and his parish. To the end he was preaching, lecturing, counselling and writing. At the end of his life, he was in such a panic of disgust because the young women at Wittenberg were wearing low necks that he left home declaring that he would not return. His physician brought him back, but then came a request from the counts of Mansfeld for a mediator in a dispute. Melanchthon was too sick to go, and though Luther was also very ill, he went, reconciled the counts and died on the way home.

His later years should not, however, be written off as the splutterings of a dying flame. If in his polemical tracts he was at times savage and course, in the works which really counted in the cannon of his life’s endeavour he grew constantly in maturity and artistic creativity. Improvements in the translation of the Bible continued to the very end. The sermons and biblical commentaries reached superb heights. Many of the passages quoted to illustrate Luther’s religious and ethical principles are also from this later period.

When historians and theologians come to assess his legacy, there are three areas which naturally suggest themselves. The first is his contribution to his own country. He called himself the German prophet, saying that against the papist assess he must assume so presumptuous a title and he addressed himself to his beloved Germans. The claim has been made frequently that no individual did so much to fashion the character of the German people. He shared their passion for music and their language was greatly influenced by his writings, not least by his translation of the Bible. His reformation also profoundly affected the ordinary German family home. Roland Bainton (1950) commented:

Economics went the way of capitalism and politics the way of absolutism, but the home took on that quality of affectionate and godly patriarchalism which Luther had set as the pattern of his own household.

Luther’s most profound impact was in their religion, of course. His sermons were read to the congregations, his liturgy was sung, his catechism was rehearsed by the father of the household, his Bible cheered the faint-hearted and consoled the dying. By contrast, no single Englishman had the range of Luther. The Bible translation was largely the work of Tyndale, the prayer-book was that of Cranmer, the Catechism of the Westminster Divines. The style of sermons followed Latimer’s example and the hymn book was owed much to George Herbert from the beginning. Luther, therefore, did the work of five Englishmen, and for the sheer richness and exuberance of vocabulary and mastery of style, his use of German can only be compared with Shakespeare’s use of English.

In the second great area of influence, that of the Church, Luther’s influence extended far beyond his native land, as is shown below. In addition to his influence in Germany, Switzerland, Hungary and England, Lutheranism took possession of virtually the whole of Scandinavia. His movement gave the impetus that sometimes launched and sometimes gently encouraged the establishment of other varieties of Protestantism. Catholicism also owes much to him. It is often said that had Luther not appeared, an Erasmian reform would have triumphed, or at any rate a reform after the Spanish model. All this is, of course, conjectural, but it is obvious that the Catholic Church received a tremendous shock from the Lutheran Reformation and a terrific urge to reform after its own pattern.

The third area is the one which mattered most to Luther, that of religion itself. In his religion, he was a Hebrew, Paul the Jew, not a Greek fancying gods and goddesses in a pantheon in which Christ was given a niche. The God of Luther, as of Moses, was the God who inhabits the storm clouds and rides on the wings of the wind. He is a God of majesty and power, inscrutable, terrifying, devastating, and consuming in his anger. Yet he is all merciful too, like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord… 

Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans and Pacifists:

The movement initiated by Luther soon spread throughout Germany. Luther provided its chief source of energy and vision until his death in 1546. Once Luther had passed from the scene, a period of bitter theological warfare occurred within Protestantism. There was controversy over such matters as the difference between ‘justification’ and ‘sanctification’; what doctrine was essential or non-essential; faith and works; and the nature of the real presence at the Eucharist. This is the period when Lutheranism developed, something which Luther himself predicted and condemned. The Schmalkald Articles had been drawn up in 1537 as a statement of faith. The Protestant princes had formed the Schmalkald League as a kind of defensive alliance against the Emperor. The tragic Schmalkald War broke out in 1547 in which the Emperor defeated the Protestant forces and imprisoned their leaders. But the Protestant Maurice of Saxony fought back successfully and by the Treaty of Passau (1552), Protestantism was legally recognised. This settlement was confirmed by the Interim of 1555. It was during this period that some of the Lutheran theologians drove large numbers of their own people over to the Calvinists through their dogmatism.

The Battle of Kappel, in which Zwingli was killed, had brought the Reformation in Switzerland to an abrupt halt, but in 1536 John Calvin (1509-64) was unwillingly pressed into reviving the cause in French-speaking Switzerland. Calvin was an exiled Frenchman, born in at Noyon in Picardy, whose theological writings, especially the Institutes of the Christian Religion and numerous commentaries on the Bible, did much to shape the Reformed churches and their confessions of faith. In contrast to Luther, Calvin was a quiet, sensitive man. Always a conscientious student, at Orléans, Bourges and the University of Paris, he soon took up the methods of humanism, which he later used ‘to combat humanism’. In Paris, the young Calvin had encountered the teachings of Luther and in 1533, he had experienced a sudden conversion:

God subdued and brought my heart to docility. It was more hardened against such matters than was to be expected in such a young man.

After that, he wrote little about his inner life, content to trace God’s hand controlling him. He next broke with Roman Catholicism, leaving France to live as an exile in Basle. It was there that he began to formulate his theology, and in 1536 published the first edition of The Institutes. It was a brief, clear defence of Reformation beliefs. Guillaume Farel, the Reformer of Geneva, persuaded Calvin to help consolidate the Reformation there. He had inherited from his father an immovable will, which stood him in good stead in turbulent Geneva.  In 1537 all the townspeople were called upon to swear loyalty to a Protestant statement of belief. But the Genevans opposed Calvin strongly, and disputes in the town, together with a quarrel with the city of Berne, resulted in the expulsion of both Calvin and Farel.

Calvin went to Strasbourg, where he made contact with Martin Bucer, who influenced him greatly. Bucer (1491-1551) had been a Dominican friar but had left the order and married a former nun in 1522. He went to Strasbourg in 1523 and took over leadership of the reform, becoming one of the chief statesmen among the Reformers. He was present at most of the important conferences, or colloquies of the Reformers, and tried to mediate between Zwingli and Luther in an attempt to unite the German and Swiss Reformed churches. His discussions with Melanchthon led to peace in the debate over the sacraments at the Concord of Wittenberg. He also took part in the unsuccessful conferences with the Roman Catholics at Hagenau, Worms and Ratisbon.

In 1539, while in Strasbourg, Calvin published his commentary on the Book of Romans. Many other commentaries followed, in addition to a new, enlarged version of the Institutes. The French Reformer led the congregation of French Protestant refugees in Strasbourg, an experience which matured him for his task on returning to Geneva. He was invited back there in September 1541, and the town council accepted his revision of the of the city laws, but many more bitter disputes followed. Calvin tried to bring every citizen under the moral discipline of the church. Many naturally resented such restrictions, especially when imposed by a foreigner. He then set about attaining of establishing a mature church by preaching daily to the people. He also devoted much energy to settling differences within Protestantism. The Consensus Tigurinus, on the Lord’s Supper (1549), resulted in the German-speaking and French-speaking churches of Switzerland moving closer together. Michael Servetus, a notorious critic of Calvin, and of the doctrine of the Trinity, was arrested and burnt in Geneva.


John Calvin, caricatured by one of his students, during an idle moment in a lecture.

Calvin was, in a way, trying to build a more visible ‘City of God’ in Europe, with Geneva as its base and model. In his later years, Calvin’s authority in Geneva was less disputed. He founded the Geneva Academy, to which students of theology came from all parts of western and central Europe, particularly France. Calvin systemised the Reformed tradition in Protestantism, taking up and reapplying the ideas of the first generation of Reformers. He developed the Presbyterian form of church government, in which all ministers served at the same level, and the congregation was represented by lay elders. His work was characterised by intellectual discipline and practical application. His Institutes have been a classic statement of Reformation theology for centuries, as is evident from the following extracts:

Wherever we find the Word of God surely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to the Institution of Christ, there, it is not to be doubted, is a church of God.

We declare that by God’s providence, not only heaven and earth and inanimate creatures, but also the counsels and wills of men are governed so as to move precisely to that end destined by him.   

Lutheranism strongly influenced Calvin’s doctrine. Like Luther, Calvin was also a careful interpreter of the Bible. He intended that his theology should interpret Scripture faithfully, rather than developing his own ideas. For him, all knowledge of God and man is to be found only in the Word of God. Man can only know God if he chooses to make himself known. Pardon and salvation are possible only through the free working of the grace of God. Calvin claimed that even before the creation, God chose some of his creatures for salvation and others for destruction. He is often known best for this severe doctrine of election, particularly that some people are predestined to eternal damnation. But Calvin also set out the way of repentance, faith and sanctification for believers. In his doctrine, the church was supreme and should not be restricted in any way by the state. He gave greater importance than Luther to the external organisation of the church. He regarded only baptism and communion as sacraments. Baptism was the individual’s initiation into the new community of Christ. He rejected Zwingli’s view that the communion elements were purely symbolic, but also warned against a magical belief in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament.

The Calvinists went further than the Lutherans in their opposition to traditions which had been handed down. They rejected a good deal of church music, art, architecture and many more superficial matters such as the use of the ring in marriage, and the signs of devotional practice. But all the Reformers rejected the authority of the pope, the merit of good works, indulgences, the mediation of the Virgin Mary and the saints, and all the sacraments which had not been instituted by Christ. They rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation (the teaching that the bread and wine of the communion became the body and blood of Christ when the priest consecrated them), the view of the mass as a sacrifice, purgatory and prayers for the dead, private confession of sin to a priest, celibacy of the clergy, and the use of Latin in the services.They also rejected all the paraphernalia that expressed these ideas, such as holy water, shrines, chantries, images, rosaries, paternoster stones and candles.

Meanwhile, in 1549 Bucer was forced to leave Strasbourg for Cambridge, and while in England, he advised Cranmer on The Book of Common Prayer. He had a great impact on the establishment of the Church of England, pointing it in the direction of Puritanism. Although he died in 1551, his body was exhumed and burned during the Catholic reaction under Queen Mary. Bucer wrote a large number of commentaries on the Bible and worked strenuously for reconciliation between various religious parties. In France, the pattern of reform was very different. Whereas in Germany and Switzerland there was solid support for the Reformation from the people, in France people, court and church provided less support. As a result, the first Protestants suffered death or exile. But once the Reformed faith had been established in French-speaking Switzerland and in Strasbourg, Calvinists formed a congregation in Paris in 1555. Four years later, over seventy churches were represented at a national synod in the capital.


Henry VIII may have destroyed the power of the papacy and ended monasticism in England, but he remained firmly Catholic in doctrine. England was no safe place for William Tyndale to translate the Bible into English, as Henry and the bishops were more concerned to prevent the spread of Lutheran ideas than to promote the study of Scripture. Tyndale narrowly escaped arrest in Cologne but managed to have the New Testament published in Worms in 1525. He was unable to complete the Old Testament because he was betrayed and arrested near Brussels in 1535. In October 1536 he was strangled and burnt at the stake. His last words were reported as, Lord, open the king of England’s eyes. In the meantime, Miles Coverdale completed the translation, which became the basis for later official translations.


The title page of the first Bible to be printed in English: Miles Coverdale’s translation (1535). Coverdale had helped Tyndale to revise his translation of the Pentateuch.

Though the king’s eyes were not immediately opened, a powerful religious movement towards reform among his people was going on at the same time. Despite the publication of the Great Bible in 1538, it was only under Edward VI (1547-53) that the Reformation was positively and effectively established in England. The leading figure was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, supported by the scholar, Nicholas Ridley and the preacher, Hugh Latimer. Cranmer (1489-1556) was largely responsible for the shaping the Protestant Church of England. Born in Nottinghamshire, he was educated at Cambridge until he was suddenly summoned to Canterbury as Archbishop in 1532, as a result of Henry VIII’s divorce crisis. There he remained until he was deposed by Mary and burnt as a heretic at Oxford in 1556. He was a godly man, Lutheran in his theology, well read in the Church Fathers, a gifted liturgist with an excellent command of English. He was sensitive, cautious and slow to decide in a period of turbulence and treachery. He preferred reformation by gentle persuasion rather than by force, and, unlike Luther, also sought reconciliation with Roman Catholicism. Like Luther, however, he believed firmly in the role of the ‘godly prince’ who had a God-given task to uphold a just society and give free scope to the gospel.


Archbishop Cranmer (pictured above) was responsible for the Great Bible (1538) and its prefaces; the Litany (1545) and the two Prayer Books (1549, 1552). The driving force of Cranmer’s life was to restore to the Catholic Church of the West the faith it had lost long ago. When the Church of Rome refused to reform, Cranmer took it upon himself to reform his own province of Canterbury. He then sought an ecumenical council with the Lutherans and Calvinists, but Melanchthon was too timid. His second great concern was to restore a living theology based on the experience of the person and work of Christ. Thirdly, he developed the doctrine of the Holy Spirit which lay behind his high view of scripture and tradition, and the meaning of union with Christ. He was brainwashed into recanting, but at his final trial in 1556 he put up a magnificent defence and died bravely at the stake, thrusting the hand that had signed the recantations into the fire first. The Martyrs’ Memorial at Oxford commemorates his death, together with those of Ridley and Latimer whose deaths he had witnessed from prison a year earlier.

Several European Reformers also contributed to the Anglican Reformation, notably Martin , exiled from Strasbourg. These men, Calvinists rather than Lutherans, Bucerbecame professors at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Under the Counter-Reforming Catholic Queen Mary (1553-58), with Cardinal Pole as Archbishop of Canterbury, about two hundred bishops, scholars, ministers and preachers were burnt at the stake. Many Protestant reformers fled to the continent and became even more Calvinist in their convictions, influencing the direction of the English Reformation when they returned at the beginning of Elizabeth I’s reign. The young Queen gradually replaced the Catholic church leaders with Protestants, restored the church Articles and Cranmer’s Prayer Book. She took the title of Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Her Anglican church kept episcopal government and a liturgy which offended many of the strict Protestants, particularly those who were returning religious refugees who had been further radicalised in Calvinist Switzerland or France.


Scotland was first awakened to Lutheranism by Patrick Hamilton, a student of Luther, who had been burned for his faith in 1528. George Wishart and John Knox (1505-72) continued Hamilton’s work, but Knox was taken prisoner by the French in 1547 and forced to serve as a galley-slave. When freed, he studied under Calvin at Geneva and did not return to Scotland until 1559, when he fearlessly launched the Reformation. He attacked the papacy, the mass and Catholic idolatry. The Catholic Mary Queen of Scots opposed Knox, but was beaten in battle. Knox then consolidated the Scots reformation by drawing up a Confession of Faith (1560), a Book of Discipline (1561) and the Book of Common Order (1564). While the Scottish Reformation was achieved independently from England, it was a great tragedy that it was imposed on Ireland, albeit through an Act of Uniformity passed by the Irish Parliament in 1560 which set up Anglicanism as the national religion. In this way, Protestantism became inseparably linked with English rule of a country which remained predominantly Catholic.


Western Europe during the Wars of Religion, to 1572.


The Empire of Charles V in 1551 (inset: The Swiss Confederation)

In Hungary, students of Luther and Melanchthon at Wittenberg took the message of the Reformation back to their homeland in about 1524, though there were Lollard and Hussite connections, going back to 1466, which I’ve written about in previous posts. As in Bohemia, Calvinism took hold later, but the two churches grew up in parallel. The first Lutheran synod was in 1545, followed by the first Calvinist synod in 1557. In the second half of the sixteenth century, a definite interest in Protestant England was already noticeable in Hungary. In contemporary Hungarian literature, there is a long poem describing the martyr’s death of Thomas Cranmer (Sztáray, 1582).  A few years before this poem was written, in 1571, Matthew Skaritza, the first Hungarian Protestant theologian made his appearance in England, on a pilgrimage to ‘its renowned cities’ induced by the common religious interest.

Protestant ministers were recruited from godly and learned men. The Church of England and large parts of the Lutheran church, particularly in Sweden, tried to keep the outward structure and ministry of their national, territorial churches. Two brothers, Olav and Lars Petri, both disciples of Luther, inaugurated the Reformation in Sweden. The courageous King Gustavus Vasa, who delivered Sweden from the Danes in 1523, greatly favoured Protestantism. The whole country became Lutheran, with bishops of the old church incorporated into the new, and in 1527 the Reformation was established by Swedish law. This national, state church was attacked by both conservative Catholics and radical Protestants.

The Danish Church, too, went over completely to Protestantism. Some Danes, including Hans Tausen and Jörgen Sadolin, studied under Luther at Wittenberg. King Frederick I pressed strongly for church reform, particularly by appointing reforming bishops and preachers. As a result, there was an alarming defection of Catholics and in some churches no preaching at all, and a service only three times a year. After this, King Christian III stripped the bishops of their lands and property at the Diet of Copenhagen (1536) and transferred the church’s wealth to the state. Christian III then turned for help to Luther, who sent Bugenhagen, the only Wittenberger theologian who could speak the dialects of Denmark. Bugenhagen crowned the king and appointed seven superintendents. This severed the old line of bishops and established a new line of presbyters. At the synods which followed church ordinances were published, and the Reformation recognised in Danish law. The decayed University of Copenhagen was enlarged and revitalised. A new liturgy was drawn up, a Danish Bible was completed, and a modified version of the Augsburg Confession was eventually adopted.


Heddal Stave church, Norway.

This form of construction is characteristic of this part of Scandinavia

The Reformation spread from Denmark to Norway in 1536. The pattern was similar to that of Denmark. Most of the bishops fled and, as the older clergy died, they were replaced with Reformed ministers. A war between Denmark and Norway worsened social and political conditions. When the Danish Lutherans went to instruct the Norwegians, they found that many of the Norwegians spoke the incomprehensible old Norse, and communications broke down. In Iceland, an attempt to impose the Danish ecclesiastical system caused a revolt. This was eventually quelled and the Reformation was imposed, but with a New Testament published in 1540.

Calvinists held an exalted and biblical view of the church as the chosen people of God, separated from the state and wider society. They, therefore, broke away from the traditional church structures as well as the Roman ministry. The spread of Calvinism through key sections of the French nobility, and through the merchant classes in towns such as La Rochelle alarmed Catherine de Medici, the French Regent, resulting eventually in the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572. Philip II faced a similarly strong Calvinist challenge in the United Provinces of the Netherlands. In 1565, an outbreak of anti-Catholic rioting could not be contained because all the available forces were deployed in the Mediterranean to defend southern Italy from the Turks and to lift the siege of Malta. The spread of Calvinism was a coral growth in ports and free cities, compared with the territorial growth of Lutheranism which was dependent on earthly principalities and powers.

In this, the free churches later followed them. These churches were mainly fresh expressions of Calvinism which started to grow at the beginning of the next century, but some did have links to, or were influenced by, the churches founded in the aftermath of the Radical Reformation. Only three groups of Anabaptists were able to survive beyond the mid-sixteenth century as ordered communities: the ‘brethren’ in Switzerland and southern Germany, the Hutterites in Moravia and the Mennonites in the Netherlands and northern Germany.


In the aftermath of the suppression of Münster, the dispirited Anabaptists of the Lower-Rhine area were given new heart by the ministry of Menno Simons (about 1496-1561). The former priest travelled widely, although always in great personal danger. He visited the scattered Anabaptist groups of northern Europe and inspired them with his night-time preaching. Menno was an unswerving, committed pacifist. As a result, his name in time came to stand for the movement’s repudiation of violence. Although Menno was not the founder of the movement, most of the descendants of the Anabaptists are still called ‘Mennonites’. The extent to which the early Baptists in England were influenced by the thinking of the Radical Reformation in Europe is still hotly disputed, but it is clear that there were links with the Dutch Mennonites in the very earliest days.

Reformers, Revolutionaries and Anti-Semites:

Luther had early believed that the Jews were a stiff-necked people who rejected Christ, but that contemporary Jews could not be blamed for the sins of their fathers and might readily be excused for their rejection of Christianity by reason of the corruption of the Medieval Papacy.  He wrote, sympathetically:

If I were a Jew, I would suffer the rack ten times before I would go over to the pope.

The papists have so demeaned themselves that a good Christian would rather be a Jew than one of them, and a Jew would rather be a sow than a Christian.

What good can we do the Jews when we constrain them, malign them, and hate them as dogs? When we deny them work and force them to usury, how can that help? We should use towards the Jews not the pope’s but Christ’s law of love. If some are stiff-necked, what does that matter? We are not all good Christians.

Luther was sanguine that his own reforms, by eliminating the abuses of the papacy, would accomplish the conversion of the Jews. But the coverts were few and unstable. When he endeavoured to proselytise some rabbis, they undertook in return to make a Jew out of him. The rumour that a Jew had been authorised by the papists to murder him was not received with complete incredulity. In his latter days, when he was more easily irritated, news came that in Moravia, Christians were being induced to become Judaic in beliefs and practice. That was what induced him to come out with his rather vulgar blast in which he recommended that all Jews be deported to Palestine. Failing that, he wrote, they should be forbidden to practice usury, should be compelled to earn their living on the land, their synagogues should be burned, and their books, including The Torah, should be taken away from them.

The content of this tract was certainly far more intolerant than his earlier comments, yet we need to be clear about what he was recommending and why. His position was entirely religious and not racially motivated. The supreme sin for him was the persistent rejection of God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ. The centuries of persecution suffered by the Jews were in themselves a mark of divine displeasure. The territorial principle should, therefore, be applied to the Jews. They should be compelled to leave and go to a land of their own. This was a programme of enforced Zionism. But, if this were not feasible, Luther would recommend that the Jews be compelled to live from the soil. He was, perhaps unwittingly, proposing a return to the situation which had existed in the early Middle Ages, when the Jews had worked in agriculture. Forced off the land, they had gone into commerce and, having been expelled from commerce, into money-lending. Luther wished to reverse this process and to accord the Jews a more secure, though just as segregated position than the one they had in his day, following centuries of persecutions and expulsions.

His advocacy of burning synagogues and the confiscation of holy books was, however, a revival of the worst features of the programme of a fanatical Jewish convert to Christianity, Pfefferkorn by name, who had sought to have all Hebrew books in Germany and the Holy Roman Empire destroyed. In this conflict of the early years of the Reformation, Luther had supported the Humanists, including Reuchlin, the great German Hebraist and Melanchthon’s great-uncle. Of course, during the Reformation throughout Europe, there was little mention of the Jews except in those German territories, like Luther’s Saxony, Frankfurt and Worms, where they were tolerated and had not been expelled as they had been from the whole of England, France and Spain. Ironically, Luther himself was very Hebraic in his thinking, appealing to the wrath of Jehovah against any who would impugn his picture of a vengeful, Old Testament God. On the other hand, both Luther and Erasmus were antagonistic towards the way in which the Church of their day had relapsed into the kind of Judaic legalism castigated by the Apostle Paul. Christianity, said Erasmus, was not about abstaining from butter and cheese during Lent, but about loving one’s neighbour. This may help to explain Luther’s reaction to the Moravian ‘heresy’ in terms which, nevertheless, only be described as anti-Semitic, even by the standards of his time.

The story told in Cohn’s great book Pursuit of the Millennium, originally written six decades ago, is a story which began more than five centuries ago and ended four and a half centuries ago. However, it is a book and a story not without relevance to our own times. In another work, Warrant for Genocide: the myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, published in 1967, Cohn shows how closely the Nazi fantasy of a world-wide Jewish conspiracy of destruction is related to the fantasies that inspired millenarian revolutionaries from the Master of Hungary to Thomas Müntzer.  The narrative is one of how mass disorientation and insecurity have fostered the demonisation of the misbelievers, especially the Jews, in this as much as in previous centuries.

We can also reflect on the damage wrought in the twentieth century by left-wing revolutions and revolutionary movements, which are just as capable of demonising religious and ethnic groups, including Jews, through their love of conspiracy theories and narratives. What is most curious about the popular Müntzer ‘biopic’, for example, is the resurrection and apotheosis which it has undergone during the past hundred and fifty years. From Engels through to the post-Marxist historians of this century, whether Russian, German or English-speaking, Müntzer has been conflated into a giant symbol, a prodigious hero in the history of ‘class warfare’. This is a naive view and one which non-Marxist historians have been able to contradict easily by pointing to the essentially mystical nature of Müntzer’s preoccupations which usually blinded him to the material sufferings of the poor artisans and peasants. He was essentially a propheta obsessed by eschatological fantasies which he attempted to turn into reality by exploiting social discontent and dislocation through revolutionary violence against the misbelievers. Perhaps it was this obsessive tendency which led Marxist theorists to claim him as one of their own.

Just like the medieval artisans integrated in their guilds, industrial workers in technologically advanced societies have shown themselves very eager to improve their own conditions; their aim has been the eminently practical one of achieving a larger share of economic security, prosperity and social privilege through winning political power. Emotionally charged fantasies of a final, apocalyptic struggle leading to an egalitarian Millennium have been far less attractive to them. Those who are fascinated by such ideas are, on the one hand, the peoples of overpopulated and desperately poor societies, dislocated and disoriented, and, on the other hand, certain politically marginalised echelons in advanced societies, typically young or unemployed workers led by a small minority of intellectuals.

Working people in economically advanced parts of the world, especially in modern Europe, have been able to improve their lot out of all recognition, through the agency of trade unions, co-operatives and parliamentary parties. Nevertheless, during the century since 1917 there has been a constant repetition, on an ever-increasing scale, of the socio-psychological process which once connected the Táborite priests or Thomas Müntzer with the most disoriented and desperate among the poor, in fantasies of a final, exterminating struggle against ‘the great ones’; and of a perfect, egalitarian world from which self-seeking would be forever banished.  We are currently engaged in yet another cycle in this process, with a number of fresh ‘messiahs’ ready to assume the mantles of previous generations of charismatic revolutionaries, being elevated to the status of personality cults. Of course, the old religious idiom has been replaced by a secular one, and this tends to obscure what would otherwise be obvious. For it is a simple truth that stripped of its original supernatural mythology, revolutionary millenarianism is still with us.


John H. Y. Briggs (1977), The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.

Sándor Fest (2000), Skóciai Szent Margittól, A Walesi Bárdokig: Magyar-Angol történeti és irodalmi kapcsalatok. 

Norman Cohn (1970), The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages. St Albans: Granada Publishing.

Roland H. Bainton (1950), Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Nashville, USA: Abingdon Press.

András Bereznay (1994, 2001), The Times Atlas of European History. London: HarperCollins.





Posted February 4, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Anabaptism, Anglican Reformation, anti-Semitism, Apocalypse, Austria-Hungary, Britain, British history, Christian Faith, Church, Commemoration, Early Modern English, Egalitarianism, Empire, English Language, Europe, France, Germany, Henry VIII, History, Humanism, Hungarian History, Hungary, Ireland, Irish history & folklore, Jews, Linguistics, Lutheranism, Martin Luther, Medieval, Mediterranean, Messiah, Middle English, Migration, Millenarianism, Monarchy, Music, Mysticism, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, New Testament, Old Testament, Papacy, Reformation, Remembrance, Shakespeare, Switzerland, theology, Tudor England, Uncategorized, Warfare, Zionism

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Kit ‘Catesby’ Harington’s ‘Gunpowder’. Was 17th-century Britain really so brutal and sickening?: A response to Rebecca Rideal’s article in ‘the Guardian’, 24 October.   Leave a comment

Kit Harington, Liv Tyler and Sian Webber in Gunpowder.

Above: Kit Harington, Liv Tyler and Sian Webber in Gunpowder. ‘This was a century of fierce religious conflict which was defined by conflict wrought by the competing powers of state battling for supremacy.’ Photograph: Robert Viglaski/BBC / Kudos.

The following article appeared in The Guardian last week, and it not only got me thinking about my favourite period in British and European history, one which had me dressing up as a Roundhead army chaplain in the Sealed Knot, but also researching into both my own ancestors from that period and those of ‘Kit Harington’. Just as it’s quite likely that my own ancestors were on both sides of the Gunpowder Rebellion, as it should more properly be called, it is certain that this was the case with those of the now famous actor. As a historical event, it is not unsurprising that the ‘Plot’ should be seen as a precursor to the full-scale civil wars which were to dominate the middle years of the century both in Britain and on the continent, but the nature of the actual and potential violence involved was more reminiscent of the previous century than it was of the battles, sieges and skirmishes which provided the context for the fratricide of the new one. Life in the 1600s remained as ‘nasty, brutal and short’ as it had done in the 1500s, but for most of the population this was due to the virulence of pestilences in Britain, whereas in Tudor times many had lived in terror of the violence of the state towards the adherents of the Catholic cause on the one hand, or Protestantism on the other. The Peace of Augsburg of 1555 had given both sides the right to impose their faith on the other through the rulers of the cities and states in which they lived. Civilian Catholics were massacred in the North of England, the Huguenots were massacred on St Bartholemew’s Day 1572 in France and thereafter ‘harried out of the land’ by Louis XIV, and the Dutch fought a guerilla war against the Spanish Empire’s Counter-Reforming zeal. In all of this, torture and the torch were the main weapons of oppression of both individuals and whole communities. Against this backcloth, plots and counter-plots became the order of the day in Elizabeth’s reign. Admittedly, had the 1605 Plot succeeded in blowing up the entire Establishment at Westminster, it would have dwarfed even the Spanish Armada in the scale of its attempt to restore Britain to Catholic Christendom, but in its abject failure it mirrored the Earl of Essex’s ‘Rebellion’ against Queen Elizabeth of four years earlier.

When battles and skirmishes are re-enacted, the attempt to portray the nature and extent of the violence on TV is often shielded from the viewer by the rapid repetition with which it occurs, together with the sheer scale of the events depicted. Massacres of baggage trains are beginning to be shown, but generally the violence is seen as occurring between armed forces roughly equal in their power of arms. Despite this, I was recently reminded of the importance of the unsentimental portrayal of violence in children’s literature from this period, in reading Captain Maryat’s Children of the New Forest to my eleven-year-old son. Maryat made no attempt to shield his young readers from the results of violent acts on the individual.  To depict the more personal and individual violence inflicted by powerful states in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in massacres and executions, it is the inequality of power which needs to be depicted. That is one reason why I find the reaction to violent ‘re-enactments’ and representations of historical realities so surprising, especially when they come from historians.

Gunpowder: viewers shocked by violent scenes in BBC drama

Unnecessarily gruesome and brutal”, “sickening” and “gore-filled” are just some of the ways Kit Harington’s new BBC series, Gunpowder, has been described by viewers and critics.

The series follows the events of the plot to blow up the House of Lords in 1605 and, during the first episode, we saw a Catholic woman crushed to death as punishment for her faith, and a Jesuit priest hanged, drawn and quartered. We saw the blood. We saw the guts. We saw the pain. Unsurprisingly, some viewers were shocked, and have argued that the explicit violence was gratuitous and too much for a Saturday night TV show.

But when it comes to history on television, too often the brutal reality of everyday life is brushed under the sumptuous carpets of romantic period dramas… Dramas such as Gunpowder (and, indeed, ‘Peaky Blinders’ and ‘Harlots’) provide a crucial insight into a violent past that modern Brits need to confront.

What’s more, it is only by understanding this past that we can begin to fully understand the religious persecutions of our history and the country we live in today. That Gunpowder is shockingly violent is undeniable, but what is also undeniable is that it provides an authentic glimpse into the real, raw world that 17th-century people had to endure.

Actually, another reason for my surprise at the way some critics have reacted, is that ‘it’s all been done before’. There was an excellent historical drama on the Plot in 2005 (with Robert Carlyle as James I) which also contained graphic violence, including the gruesome execution of Jesuit priests. What was most interesting, however, was the way in which James I’s change of policy in reviving the more barbaric forms of execution was justified with reference to the Jesuit belief that martyrdom would result in them going straight to heaven, without passing through purgatory. In the film, both James and his wife, Anne of Denmark, agree that only a slow and agonising death would act as a deterrence. Although the violent solution may be very much of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, there is little doubt that the failure of deterrence used by powerful but democratic states today leaves them vulnerable to terrorism on a small-scale, as well as on a larger one. Yet we are critical when counter-terrorist forces use even discriminatory violence to ‘take out’ suspect terrorists ‘in theatre’ in order to prevent them from mounting further attacks and to deter others from joining the ‘jihadis’.

Arguably, the gruesome death of my own ancestors, the Wintour brothers, made them more central to the Plot as it occurred than even Catesby, whom they recruited as a ‘celebrity’ leader, though he himself was a recent convert to Catholicism. In the end, it was the brothers, from a long line of noble and gentlemen recusants, degraded through persecution, who paid for their choice and his mistakes by facing the Scaffold, since both ‘financiers’, Catesby and Percy, were killed (allegedly by the same musket-ball) at the siege at Holbeach. It was the gruesome death of two brothers with the right to wear Plantagenet coats of arms, which finally terrorised the Catholic gentry of the Midlands into submission and put an end to the Plantaganet plotting which had continued since their defeat at Stoke Field in 1487. Elizabeth’s policy of fines and imprisonment had failed, hence the reintroduction of more barbaric methods of torture and execution. I shall be interested to see how well this dilemma is portrayed in this series, or whether it simply succeeds in substituting one ‘celebrity’, Guy Fawkes, for another, Robert Catesby.

Perhaps Kit Harington might have made his drama less violent, and at the same time more interesting, by paying homage to the other side of his family, who were just as involved in the events of 1603-5 as the Catesbys and the Wintours. In addition to being a direct descendant of Robert Catesby through his mother, from whose maiden name he acquired his middle name, Catesby, Christopher  (or ‘Kit’ from Shakespeare’s contemporary playwright, Christopher Marlowe) Harington is directly descended through his paternal grandfather,  Sir Richard Harington, 14th baronet, to the sixteenth century Haringtons, to Sir James Harington of Exton, Rutland and his sons. Sir John Harington, created 1st baronet Exton at the coronation of James I, was a close member of the courts of both Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. Sir James Harington, the third son, became 1st baronet of Ridlington, from whom Kit Harington’s father is directly descended.

Sir John Harington became guardian and tutor to the King’s daughter, Elizabeth, on whom the Midland Rebellion centred, and who was spirited away to the walled city of Coventry from Harington’s home at nearby Coombe Abbey on the night the plot in London was ‘discovered’ by the King and Cecil. This followed their receipt of the anonymous warning letter,  which both Catesby and Percy claimed to have been written to Lord Monteagle by Francis Tresham, the thirteenth plotter. But Tresham pleaded his innocence, and recent evidence suggests that the letter have been written by Henry Percy, Duke of Northumberland, Thomas Percy’s own cousin and patron. He was also the man most likely to become Elizabeth’s Protector, had the Plot succeeded. Both Thomas and Henry had been frequent guests at Coombe Abbey, so both would have known the young princess well. In an extraordinary act of bravado Catesby had planned to go hunting with James just before the opening of Parliament, but was warned of the ‘betrayal’ by Monteagle’s servant.

Harington accompanied the Earl of Warwick, Fulke Greville, in his pursuit and besieging of the rebels at Holbeach House. He had himself been made High Sheriff of Rutland under Elizabeth and was Greville’s Deputy Lieutenant in Warwickshire. Sir John had acquired Coombe Abbey on his marriage to Anne Kelway. Though the Haringtons were a Rutland family, they claimed descent from the Scottish Bruces, hence their closeness to the royal family. Harington had accompanied Mary Queen of Scots on her progress from Staffordshire to Fotheringay in Northamptonshire, and his wife attended on Anne of Denmark, James’ Queen consort, during her stay in Edinburgh, as well as on the couple’s progress to London in the spring of 1603. The Princess Elizabeth broke her journey to attend the coronation two months later, and had been just seven years of age when her new governor brought her to live at Coombe Abbey in October. It remained her chief place of residence between 1603 and 1608. There she formed a close friendship with Harington’s niece, Ann Dudley. It is said that they could often be seen going off for walks in the nearby woods, or sitting together in the beautiful formal gardens that immediately surrounded the house.

The second baronet Exton, John Harington, born at Coombe in 1592, was a close friend and companion of Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, on 5 January 1604 he was created, along with The Duke of York and others, a Knight of the Bath. In September he went a foreign tour with John Tovey, a master of the free school at Guildford, who later became Elizabeth’s Tutor and Chaplain during her time at Coombe, when he was master of the Free School in Coventry. While abroad, young John corresponded in French and Latin with Prince Henry. After seven weeks in the Low Countries, where he visited the universities, courts of three princes, and military fortifications, he went to Italy in 1608. He wrote from Venice (28 May 1609) announcing his intention of returning through France to spend the rest of his life with his royal friend. Henry’s death (6 November 1612) greatly grieved him, as it did his sister (I have written about their sibling relationship elsewhere on this site). The following year, Elizabeth married Frederick V, Elector Palatine and Lord Harington accompanied her to the Electoral Palatinate, but died at Worms, Germany on his way home in 1613. After his death his estate at Exton was sold to pay his creditors, so the young Lord Harington had only the Coombe estate to fall back on. Aged 21, he never recovered from the debts his father had incurred in providing royal hospitality, and continued to grieve deeply for Prince Henry. He died in 1614 and was buried at Exton with an eulogy from John Donne.

Not only did Coombe host Prince Henry on an occasional basis, in addition to the Princess, but the Harington’s second home also provided lodging to several Scottish and English noblemen, including two Percies, a Devereux, a Hume and a Bruce. The combined households of the Prince and Princess numbered 141 above and 85 below stairs. At one point, Lord Harington was entertaining no fewer than 426 guests at the Abbey, of whom 207 were in receipt of salaries and a further 97 were employed by the architect Inigo Jones, who had been hired to carry out renovations at this time.

Above: Elizabeth Stuart, aged 7 (1603, at Coombe?)


Right: Elizabeth, aged 10 (1606)


It may have been Thomas Percy’s frequent visits to Coombe which led to the plot to capture the royal princess. The rebels may have hoped that Prince Henry would have been there too. He was only two years older than Elizabeth in 1605, aged 11. If he was in the House of Lords with his father, as Prince of Wales, he would lose his life. Thomas Percy, as a member of the royal household, was trying to find out what the plans were, but seems not to have succeeded in doing so before the fuse was about be lit. He visited his cousin on 4th November, to find out how much Northumberland, and perhaps others, knew about the plot. The younger of James’ sons, Prince Charles, was quite a sickly child, and was not expected to long outlive his brother, although he was second in line before Elizabeth. Percy had visited him on 1 November to try to ascertain his whereabouts on 5th.

It therefore seemed to be a lower-risk strategy to kidnap Elizabeth from her country residence than to attempt to smuggle Charles out of his rooms in Whitehall, where he would have been surrounded by guards. In any case, the people would surely warm to a talented young woman as Queen who, even at the age of seven, was displaying all the skills of her illustrious aunt and namesake, and James had probably not yet fixed the succession in any case.

At Allhallowtide on 31 October, 1603, Catesby had sent for his cousin Thomas Wintour, who was at Huddington Court in Worcestershire with his brother Robert. As descendents of both the Golafre and Huddington families, they were entitled to wear the baronial coats of arms of both families. Thomas was educated as a lawyer and had fought for England in the Low Countries, but in 1600 had converted to Catholicism. Following the Earl of Essex’s failed rebellion, he had travelled to Spain to raise support for English Catholics, a mission which the authorities would later describe as comprising part of a ‘Spanish Treason’. Although Thomas declined his invitation, Catesby again invited him in February the next year. They were related through the wealthy recusant Throckmorton family of Coughton Court in Warwickshire, which was to feature in the plot. When Wintour responded to the summons he found his cousin with the swordsman John Wright. Catesby told him of his plan to kill the king and his government by blowing up “the Parliament howse with Gunpowder … in that place have they done us all the mischiefe, and perchance God hath designed that place for their punishment.” Wintour at first objected to his cousin’s scheme, but Catesby, who said that “the nature of the disease required so sharp a remedy”, won him over.

Despite Catholic Spain’s moves toward diplomacy with England, Catesby still harboured hopes of foreign support and a peaceful solution. Wintour therefore returned to the continent, where he tried unsuccessfully to persuade the affable Constable of Castille to press for good terms for English Catholics in forthcoming peace negotiations. He then turned to Sir William Stanley, an English Catholic and veteran commander who had switched sides from England to Spain, and the exiled Welsh spy Hugh Owen; both cast doubt on the plotters’ chances of receiving Spanish support. Owen did, however, introduce Wintour to Guy Fawkes, whose name Catesby had already supplied as “a confidant gentleman” who might enter their ranks. Fawkes was a devout English Catholic who had travelled to the continent to fight for Spain in the Dutch War of Independence. Wintour told him of their plan to “doe some whatt in Ingland if the pece with Spaine healped us nott”, and thus in April 1604 the two men returned home. Wintour told Catesby that despite positive noises from the Spanish, he feared that they “the deeds would nott answere”. This was a response that in Nicholls’s opinion came as no surprise to Catesby, who wanted and expected nothing less.

A monochrome engraving of eight men, in 17th-century dress; all have beards, and appear to be engaged in discussion.A contemporary engraving of eight of the thirteen conspirators, by Crispijn van de Passe; Catesby is second from the right.

Early in June 1605, Catesby met the principal Jesuit in England, Father Henry Garnet, on Thames Street in London. While discussing the war in Flanders, Catesby asked about the morality of “killing innocents”, in other words, the royal children who would be at the state opening of Parliament. This continued to prick the consciences of the plotters right up until 4th November, which is why they sought opportunities to kidnap all three of the children. It is also notable that this is what sets them apart from more recent terrorists, who have no such moral qualms in sacrificing children to their cause. Garnet said that such actions could often be excused, but according to his own account during a second meeting in July he showed Catesby a letter from the pope which forbade rebellion anyway. Catesby replied, “Whatever I mean to do, if the Pope knew, he would not hinder for the general good of our country.” Father Garnet’s protestations prompted Catesby’s next reply, “I am not bound to take knowledge by you of the Pope’s will.”Soon after, Father Tesimond told Father Garnet that, while taking Catesby’s confession, he had learned of the plot. Father Garnet met with Catesby a third time on 24 July at White Webbs in Enfield Chase, the home of Catesby’s wealthy relative Anne Vaux, and a house long suspected by the government of harbouring Jesuit priests. Without acknowledging that he was aware of the precise nature of the plot, the priest tried in vain to dissuade Catesby from his course.

At the beginning of November, as Fawkes made a final check on the gunpowder, other conspirators took up their positions in the Midlands. Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury, already aware of certain stirrings before he received the letter, did not yet know the exact nature of the plot or who exactly was involved. He elected to wait, to see how events unfolded. On 3 November, Catesby met with Wintour and Percy in London. Although the nature of their discussion is unknown, Antonia Fraser theorises that some adjustment of their plan to abduct Princess Elizabeth may have occurred, as later accounts told how Percy had been seen at Charles, Duke of York’s lodgings, also enquiring as to the movements of the king’s daughter. A week earlier—on the same day that Monteagle received his letter—Catesby had been at White Webbs with Fawkes, to discuss kidnapping Prince Henry rather than Princess Elizabeth. As already conjectured, he may have received information from Percy that both the Prince and Princess would be at Coombe during the state opening, though Fawkes’ possible involvement may also suggest that he would kidnap the Prince from Whitehall, perhaps with the help of Percy. Certainly, it seems to have been part of the plan for Henry Percy to become Elizabeth’s Protector had the Plot in London succeeded. Both Thomas and Henry were probably well-known to both Prince Henry and Princess Elizabeth, from the time they spent together at Coombe Abbey. 

The events of the night of 4th-5th November are well-known. Catesby and Percy met up with other gentry under the guise of a hunting match on Dunsmore near Coombe Abbey. When the news from London reached the ears of those assembled at Dunchurch, most refused to join Catesby’s rebellion. Those who did rode off in the direction of Warwick, seemingly abandoning their plan to kidnap the Princess Elizabeth. On 6 November the rebels raided Warwick Castle for supplies, before continuing to Norbrook to collect stored weapons. From there they continued their journey to Huddington in Worcestershire. Catesby gave his servant Bates a letter to deliver to Father Garnet and the other priests gathered at Coughton Court, informing them of what had transpired, and asking for their help in raising an army in Wales, where Catholic support was believed to be strong. The priest begged Catesby and his followers to stop their “wicked actions”, and to listen to the Pope’s preachings. Father Garnet fled, and managed to evade capture for several weeks. Catesby and the others arrived at Huddington at about 2:00 pm, and were met by Thomas Wintour. Terrified of being associated with the fugitives, family members and former friends showed them no sympathy.

Meanwhile, it  was also on the morning of 6th November that Lord Harington received a letter from Mr Benock, the Horse Trainer at Warwick Castle, informing him that John Grant of Norbrook had stolen some of the war horses and, judging from the manner in which these circumstances occurred, he feared that insurrection was at hand in the country. Harington wrote immediately to Salisbury, enclosing Benock’s letter and asking for an immediate reply as to what was to be done if there was indeed a rebellion taking place. He then arranged for the Princess Elizabeth to be taken into the walled City of Coventry, where she was lodged in the Palace Yard, remaining there until the apparent danger had passed. The citizens of Coventry, loyal protestants all, rallied to her defence and armed themselves in readiness. Harington himself rode to Warwick Castle to lend Sir Fulke Greville, as County Sheriff, his assistance in the pursuit of the rebels, who by this time were already at Huddington.

Back in London, under pain of torture, Fawkes had started to reveal what he knew, and on 7 November the government named Catesby as a wanted man. Early that morning at Huddington, the remaining outlaws went to confession, before taking the sacrament — in Fraser’s opinion, a sign that none of them thought they had long to live. The party of fugitives, which included those at the centre of the plot, their supporters and Digby’s hunting party, by now had dwindled to only thirty-six in number. From there, they struck out for Staffordshire and Holbeche House, perhaps still with the intention of trying to raise a Welsh army. The House was home to Stephen Lyttleton, one of their party. The following day, 8th November, while the fugitives were recovering from injuries sustained in an accident while trying to dry the gunpowder, the sheriffs of Staffordshire and Worcestershire had joined Fulke Greville’s posse from Warwickshire.

Percy and Catesby slain in attempting their escape from Holbeach, unknown artist.

Again, the main events are relatively well-known. Richard Walsh, Sheriff of Worcester, and his company of 200 men besieged Holbeche House at about 11:00 a.m. While crossing the courtyard Thomas Wintour was hit in the shoulder. John Wright was shot, followed by his brother, and then Rookwood. Catesby and Percy were reportedly both dropped by a single lucky shot, while standing near the door, and not, as depicted above, in the sword-fight in which Catesby had vowed to die defending his faith. He managed to crawl inside the house, where his body was later found, clutching a picture of the Virgin Mary. The survivors were taken into custody and the dead buried near Holbeche. On the orders of the Earl of Northampton however, the bodies of Catesby and Percy were later exhumed and decapitated, their heads taken to London to be placed on spikes to look upon the parliament buildings they had failed to destroy.

With Thomas Percy dead, there was nobody who could either implicate or clear his cousin, Henry Percy of any involvement in the plot. Some have speculated that this was why Catesby and Thomas Percy were not captured alive at Holbeach, along with most of the other conspirators, and why they were mysteriously killed by the same musket ball. Was someone under orders to make sure they did not survive to tell the tale, or, as seems more likely, were they determined to die then and there rather than implicating others under torture? Certainly, it seems strange that they were the only principle plotters to meet their end under musket fire, when the group as a whole, about thirty in number at most, could easily have been wiped out by a force of two hundred trained musketeers. As it was, Henry’s failure to ensure that Thomas took the Oath of Supremacy upon his appointment as a Gentleman Pensioner, and their meeting on 4 November, constituted damning evidence. The Privy Council also suspected that had the plot succeeded, he would have been Princess Elizabeth’s Lord Protector. With insufficient evidence to convict him, however, he was charged with contempt, fined £30,000 and stripped of all public offices. He remained in the Tower until 1621.

A few months later, when Princess Elizabeth was safely back at Coombe Abbey, Lord Harington wrote a letter to his cousin, James Harington of Ridlington, describing the events of 5-8 November. In it, he suggests that the rebellion was not finally put down until 10th November, with the three sheriffs and himself remaining on active duty and alert until then (we know that at least four of the major protagonists had left Holbeach before the siege):

Our great care and honourable charge entrusted to us by the King’s majesty hath been a matter of so much concern that it almost effaced the attentions of kin or friend. With God’s assistance we hope to do our lady Elizabeth such service as is due to her princely endowments and natural abilities, both which appear the sweet dawning of future comfort to her Royal Father. The late devilish conspiracy did much to disturb this part. I went with Sir Fulke Greville to alarm the neighbourhood and surprise the villains who came to Holbeche and was out five days in peril of death, in fear for the great charge I had left at home. Her highness doth often say, “What a Queen I should have been by this means. I had rather have been with my Royal Father in the Parliament House, than wear his crown on such condition.” This poor Lady hath not yet recovered the surprise and is very ill and troubled.

The princess  remained at Coombe for another three years, until at Christmas 1608 she moved to her own establishment at Kew, though Lord Harington still controlled her movements and expenditure. This was the source of many of Harington’s troubles, since the two thousand pounds a year pension promised by the King was never paid, but, in any case, would have come nowhere near meeting the princess’ expenditure, which in 1612-13 alone was in the region of 3,500 pounds (she was unaware of these debts, unpaid by her father, until after her wedding). She was married to Frederick, Elector Palatine, on Valentine’s Day in 1613, despite her mother’s disapproval, and Lord Harington rode at the head of the wedding procession to Whitehall. He also bore the costs of the wedding, later disclosing that it had cost him in the region of thirty thousand pounds to take care of her. Lord and Lady Harington accompanied the Royal couple to Heidelberg after the wedding, as did Elizabeth’s friend, Ann Dudley. Frederick was so besotted by his new bride that he had a whole new wing of the castle built for her and her servants. Harington stayed at Heidelberg for a further four months, arbitrating in various disputes within her household in his role as Royal Ambassador.  Worn out by these cares and concerns, he decided to return to England, but died of a fever at Worms, only fifty miles from the castle. His body was returned to Exton for burial, after which Lady Harington was invited to rejoin Elizabeth’s household. Finally, James granted her a stipend of five thousand pounds.

John Harington, 2nd Baron.jpg

Young John Harington, who became the 2nd baron of Exton, a teenager at the time of the plot, later remembered making an opportune study of the heads of Robert Catesby and Thomas Percy while en route to London, and later reflected: “more terrible countenances were never looked upon”. The second baronet, described by one of his companions as the most complete young gentleman of his age that this kingdom could afford for religion, learning and courteous behaviour, tragically died of smallpox in February 1614, aged just 22, having sold his family home at Exton just a week before. The Coombe estates passed to his sister Lucy, by then the Countess of Bedford, though she was forced to sell it to cover her gambling debts, to Elizabeth Craven, the widow of William Craven, in 1622. By a strange twist of fate, their eldest son, also William Craven, entered the service of Maurice, Prince of Orange, in the fight to restore the Bohemian Crown to Frederick and Elizabeth, the couple now known as ‘the winter King and Queen’ of Bohemia, having been deposed by the Hapsburgs after just one winter in Prague. These were the events which marked the beginning the Thirty Years’ War in 1618, which laid waste to much of Europe.

Coat of Arms of the Harington baronets, ancestors of Kit Harington

In 1632, Frederick and Elizabeth were refugees at the court of the Prince of Orange in the Netherlands. Lord Craven was among the first to respond to the call to reinstate the exiles to the throne of Bohemia, and was appointed one of the commanders of the English army in Germany. He accompanied Frederick when he left the Hague to begin his campaign. He led his British volunteers on a seemingly hopeless attack on the Fortress at Creuznach, himself planting the Bohemian standard in victory on the Citadel walls. He was knighted by King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden as he lay wounded among the ruins. King Gustavus was killed during the victorious Battle of Lutzen. This demoralised Frederick so much that he gave up the fight, falling into a fit of melancholy which, together with illness, brought about his death in November 1632. The following year, Craven returned to England, where he received a hero’s welcome and Charles I granted him permission to enclose six hundred acres around Coombe Abbey to form a park. He became the principal benefactor for the widowed Elizabeth and in 1637 was back on the continent fighting for Prince Rupert, her eldest son, in his attempt to regain his father’s throne. They were both captured at the Battle of Limgea but, having secured his own release on ransom of twenty thousand pounds, Craven remained in Germany to secure Prince Rupert’s release on the condition that he ceased hostilities against the Emperor.

Shortly after Craven returned to England, but in 1640 he moved permanently to Elizabeth’s Court at the Hague. Although supporting Charles I on the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, he remained abroad and aided the Royalist cause with financial contributions. When Parliament eventually won the war, the majority of his estates were confiscated. However, his prospective heir had married into the Fairfax family, leading Parliamentarians, so the Cravens were allowed to keep Coombe Abbey. When, following his restoration in 1660, King Charles II turned his back on his aunt, making no palace or house available to her, Craven, who had continued to support her in the Hague, offered her his own house in Drury Lane. She continued to live there until 1662, when she leased her own dwelling at Leicester House. There she died a fortnight after moving in, on 26 February, aged 66. There were rumours of a romantic relationship between Craven and Elizabeth, and some suggested that a private marriage existed between them. However, she was twelve years his senior, he having been born in 1608. Perhaps he was simply the perfect, gallant and chivalrous knight who had sworn to serve Elizabeth and considered it a great honour to do so. Certainly, he continued to spend vast amounts on her. When she died, he was having a country house built for her, Ashdown House, near his own house at Hamstead Marshall in Berkshire, which, along with Coombe Abbey, was also being rebuilt. The latter was leased to his godson, Isaac Gibson, and in 1667-1669 a new wing was added to the original Harington building.

Ashdown House

Lord Craven regained control of Coombe in the 1670s, putting his son and heir in charged of the planned alterations to the House. He had planned for some time to create an appropriate setting for collection of Stuart portraits left to him by the Queen of Bohemia. He may also have decided to house the few possessions she held at her death to a place where, as a child, she had spent her happiest hours. The idea to transform Hamstead Marshall into a “miniature Heidelberg” had never materialised and the sentimental links with Coombe Abbey may have persuaded Lord Craven to make Coombe Abbey their permanent home, as well as the principal family seat of the Cravens, following the death of the Earl himself. He eventually died on 9 April 1697 at Drury Lane, aged 89.

We should not assume that people at that time were any more inured to the violence than we are to the use of torture and execution in the twentieth century (in recent memory). Neither was the state violence of the seventeenth century primarily anti-Catholic or religiously motivated. The executions, viewed in the context and the standards of the time, were punishments for treason, not heresy, as the Marian burnings had been. Nevertheless, the Jacobite policy was a radical return to methods not used since that time, an admission that Elizabeth I’s ‘via media’ had not worked in bringing about the Tudor dynasty’s hoped for security from foreign-sponsored plots and insurrections. This has also to be seen in the broader geographical context of a successful counter-reformation in Europe led, violently, by the Hapsburgs, as evident in the Spanish Inquisition. Anti-Catholic feeling in Britain was certainly at a high water mark in 1601-5, manipulated by a vulnerable establishment. In this context, the Jesuits were seen as the ‘Jihadi’ apologists of a terrorist network stretching through the Spanish Netherlands to Wales and Ireland. In fact, their role in the Gunpowder Plot indicates that they were extremely reluctant to justify acts of violence by lay Catholics. As for the rest of the century, although it was one of continual conflict throughout Europe, it was not one of continuous violence in Britain and Ireland. Even the attack on Drogheda of 1649, although often described as a ‘massacre’ by Cromwell’s troops was, at the time, viewed as an act of war. Although an atrocity worthy of the title ‘war crime’, it should not be compared with the massacre of Protestant settlers which took place decades earlier. Again, the intention of the war in Ireland was to provide security for the newly established British Republic, not to terrorise the native population. Besides this, a fuller exploration of the lives of those associated with the events of 1605 would also suggest that, in British terms, that we need also to consider their constructive contribution in art, architecture and chivalry, not to mention their advocacy and practice of religious toleration and the refusal of many to take up arms in any cause. Life for many may have continued nasty, brutish and short in Burke’s well-known phrase, but it was not just about the enactment of sickening violence. Neither should it be re-enacted as such from an unearned sense of post-millenial, secular superiority.

A Hundred Years Ago: The Great War – Spring into Summer, 1917.   1 comment

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The tale of the Allied Campaign of 1917 in the West was one of difficult beginnings, successes which led nowhere, and desperate battles which all but broke the hearts of their participants. As a diversion from the imminent French Nivelle Offensive, British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealander troops attacked Arras on 9th April. They captured the Vimy Ridge which was strategically important and proved to be an invaluable gain the following year. The first days were successful, but as so often on the Western Front, Haig’s offensive slowed and was only continued for political reasons, to support the ailing French. He was compelled to continue long after the attack was fruitless.

On 16 April, French commander Robert Nivelle struck on the Aisne, with a poor tactical scheme and no chance of surprise, since the enemy had captured his papers and knew his plans in detail. The Germans had been able to strengthen and position their forces accordingly. The French suffered a costly check and for a little it seemed as if their strength might melt away. Nivelle had promised a breakthrough at Chemin des Dames that would finish the war. It was not to be, with the French Army suffering 90,000 casualties on the first day’s fighting.

Disgruntled at yet another defeat and more lives lost needlessly, troops mutinied in over half the French divisions. The front line was left weakly defended but French commanders were able to keep the unrest secret from both their allies and the enemy. At one point, it was believed that there were only two loyal divisions between the Germans and Paris.

Meanwhile, Hill 145 was the highest part of the Vimy Ridge and the objective for the Canadian Corps, fighting as a complete unit for the first time, Their careful preparations, accurate artillery fire and tenacious fighting found success where other offensives had failed. In 1915, the French had lost 150,000 casualties there. On this occasion the Canadians suffered 10,000 casualties, half that of the Germans. Their success was a major boost for the Allies and it had a longer-lasting effect in helping engender a feeling of nationhood amongst Canadians.

Nivelle was replaced by Pétain, who restored confidence and order, the greatest achievement of a fine soldier. Forty-three mutineers were shot and the French soldiers were marched past the executed men as an incentive to keep their discipline. But it took Pétain all summer to nurse his armies back to health, and in the meantime the British troops had to bear the brunt of campaign alone. On average, they lost 4,175 men every day at Arras, the highest experienced in any single battle.

By the summer of 1917, on the home front, the British Women’s Land Army had over 260,000 women working as farm labourers, allowing male agricultural workers to be released for military service. This enabled the strength of the British Army on the Western Front to reach 1,700,000 that summer. At a Conference in May, a confident Lloyd George had promised the French that no respite would be given to the Germans.

At Messines in June, the British Army carried out a perfect model of a limited advance. The battle was a preliminary to a major offensive planned for Flanders. It began with a week-long heavy bombardment by the British artillery before large underground mines were detonated. Lloyd George, who was staying in Surrey, asked to be woken early on 7 June, in time for ‘zero hour’ detonation of the 19 mines, containing 420 tons of explosives. He heard the ‘tremendous shock’ at 3.10 a.m. Ten thousand German troops were estimated to have died in the explosion, which created craters of between 140 and 260 feet in diameter. British troops then advanced alongside tanks, supported by closely controlled artillery. It was a major success for the British Army with the strategically important Wytschaete-Messines Ridge easily taken and German counter-attacks repulsed. However, there was a cost of over 26,000 British and ANZAC troops. It was soon after described to John Buchan as the only true siege-warfare attack made throughout a siege war. But neither the politicians nor the generals would allow the Army to rest on its laurels for a while, so Haig turned the offensive towards the Belgian coast, which had always been his main plan.

In a united front, the 16th (Irish) and the 36th (Ulster) divisions, comprised respectively of Catholics and Protestants from the island, fought side by side to take the town of Wytschaete. In 2007 two memorial stones were placed on either side of the road, inscribed with the name of each division and the words Irish comrades-in-arms. In total around 140,000 Irishmen enlisted, with over 35,000 fatalities. The battle ended on 14 June.

In the meantime, following a raid on the English coastal town of Folkestone towards the end of May by Zeppelins, 162 people were killed in a raid on London on 13 June by 26 Gotha bombers. Over four hundred were injured in what was the worst raid of the war. The Gothas were heavy bombers able to fly in the daytime or at night and were a bigger threat to the civilian population than the much-feared Zeppelins, which were susceptible to bad weather and presented a larger and less well-defended target to British fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft artillery. During the war as a whole, the number of people killed in aircraft raids on Britain totalled 857 with a further 2,058 injured, whereas 557 were killed by Zeppelins, with 1,358 wounded. Losses and injuries would have been greater had it not been for ‘The Black Flight’, a highly successful unit of the Royal Naval Air Service, which shot down 87 German aircraft. Each Black Flight aircraft’s forward fuselage was painted black and given an individual name, such as:

Black Maria-Black Roger-Black Death-Black Sheep-Black Prince.


The specifications and details of ten German and Allied aircraft are given in the table below, followed by the statistics relating to the top ten ‘aces’ of the war:


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On 17 July a royal proclamation was issued:

We out of our Royal Will and Authority, do hereby declare and announce, Our House and Family shall be styled and known as the House and Family of Windsor.

The previous name, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha arose from the marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert in 1840, but it felt insensitive for the royal family to have German names amidst a world war in which Gotha aircraft bombing London. On hearing the news, the German Kaiser, Queen Victoria’s grandson, joked that he wanted to see the Shakespeare play, The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

Compared with the stories of the events of 7-14 June, the story of the battle of a hundred days which began on 31 July was a far more melancholy one. The battle is known as Third Ypres, or Passchendaele. There was some merit in its conception, but little in its execution, wrote Buchan. The aim of the offensive was to break through the German lines and drive northwards to the coastal ports from which the German U-boats were reported to be operating and to take railway hubs.

On the first day it started to rain heavily. The bad weather continued, turning the battlefield into a quagmire; artillery fire had destroyed the field drainage systems. This made early success, as at Messines, impossible, and it continued long after the mud-holes and ridges aimed at had lost all strategic relevance. The battle dragged on, with Field Marshal Haig determined to persevere despite little being achieved. This time the German defence showed great tactical ingenuity, but their strength was strained to its utmost and their fangs against France were, for the moment, drawn, since this cruellest action of the war cost them 300,000 men. Buchan commented, with perhaps not  an insignificant touch of irony:

Whatever the reason for the tragic prolongation – the uneasiness of the French, the inelasticity of our military machine – one alleged cause may be ruled out, the personal vanity of Haig. Such was not the nature of the most modest and single-hearted of men.

The mud at Passchendaele made for atrocious living conditions. If a soldier slipped off wooden duckboards into a shell hole it was difficult for him to be extricated and orders were given that men who got into such difficulties were to be left. One soldier fell and was abandoned. When the platoon returned a few days later they found him, still alive but having suffered a nervous collapse, with the mud now up to his neck.

It wasn’t until 6 November that the ruined village of Passchendaele was finally taken by the Canadians. It was claimed that the offensive succeeded in stopping German forces from taking advantage of French weaknesses, but at a cost many found too high. The British Army suffered 275,000 casualties for five miles of territory. One piece of land, ‘the Inverness Copse’ changed hands nineteen times over the course of the battle.

At 4.45 a.m. on 16 August, Allied forces attacked at Langemarck. Amongst the troops was Private Harry Patch of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. He survived the battle but was wounded a month later by shell shrapnel when three of his Lewis machine-gun team were killed. He returned to Britain, where he convalesced until the end of the war. He went on to become the last British survivor of the trenches. Private Patch refused to talk about his experiences of war until he reached the age of a hundred, and then his forthright views on the war and its futility made him a popular figure and the focus of much attention even after his death as the last Tommy, aged 111, in 2009. He once said, War isn’t worth one life.


John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester: Somersdale.

The Aftermath and Legacy of the Easter 1916 Rising   Leave a comment


The 1916 Rising took place over a bloody Easter week in Dublin, when the city centre became a battlefield. During that week, it had little support, but as John Dillon argued, the executions which followed in May infuriated the Irish population. Speaking in the House of Commons, the veteran Nationalist MP and last leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, pointed out that…

What is happening is that thousands of people in Dublin, who ten days ago were bitterly opposed to the whole of life of the Sinn Fein movement and to the rebellion are now becoming infuriated against the Government on account of these executions and, as I am informed by letters received this morning, that feeling is spreading throughout the country in a most dangerous degree…

 We who speak for the vast majority of the Irish people, we who have risked a great deal to win the people to your side in this great crisis of your Empire’s history, we who have endeavoured, and successfully endeavoured to secure that the Irish in America shall not go into alliance with the Germans in that country – we, I think, were entitled to be consulted before this bloody course of executions was entered upon in Ireland. 


These arguments led to Asquith accepting that some political solution was necessary. The Prime Minister himself, in the aftermath of the Rising, and under pressure from America over the executions in Kilmainham Jail, stopped General Maxwell, the military commander in Dublin, from shooting his prisoners, and announced in the House of Commons on 11 May:

The government has come to the conclusion that the system under which Ireland has been governed has completely broken down. The only satisfactory alternative, in their judgement, is the creation, at the earliest possible moment, of an Irish Government responsible to the Irish people.

He went to Ireland, returned, and told parliament that the government had asked Lloyd George to negotiate for agreement as to the way in which the Government of Ireland is for the future to be carried out, so that the Home Rule Bill, shelved when the war broke out, could be put into immediate effect, without waiting for the end of the war. Yet the position of the Protestants of Ulster – 27% of the total population – and their determination to resist any settlement in which they would be left as a small minority meant that any solution was likely to be accompanied by violence. On the eve of the Great War it was apparent that Ulster’s Protestant population would resist Home Rule if need be by force of arms and the Curragh Mutiny indicated that the army might not repress rebellion in the North. The question of partition from the Ulster Unionist point of view was reported in a letter from Hugh De F. Montgomery, of the Ulster Unionist Council, to his son, dated 22 June 1916. Sir Edward Carson, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and a member of Asquith’s Cabinet as Solicitor-General for Ireland, spoke to a private meeting of the Council for an hour and a half to explain the situation over Home Rule. The main point was…

The Cabinet having unanimously decided that under pressure of difficulties with America, the Colonies and Parliament (but chiefly with America), they must offer Redmond (the then leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party) Home Rule at once; and (not being prepared to coerce Ulster) having authorised Lloyd George to arrange a settlement, Carson, after what had happened at the Buckingham Palace Conference in 1914, could not well refuse to submit to his followers the exclusion of six counties as a basis of negotiation. Carson had satisfied himself, apparently, that he had lost all the ground gained in their anti-Home Rule campaign before the war, and that the majority of the Unionist members and voters took the same view as the majority of Unionist papers as to the necessity of a settlement… If we did not agree to a settlement we should have the Home Rule Act coming into operation without the exclusion of any part of Ulster, or subject only to some worthless Amending Act which Asquith might bring in in fulfilment of his pledge, and we should either have to submit to this or fight…

I was in Dublin for two or three days last week, and the Southerners I met are all convinced that there will be another rebellion whether the Lloyd George terms are accepted or not. The fact that these terms were accepted has enormously strengthened the Sinn Feiners in the country. The acceptance of these suggestions by the Ulster Unionists has not had much effect on this part of the question. The Unionists’ acceptance under protest has increased Redmond’s difficulties, and, as we are given to believe, placed us in the position in the eyes of British public opinion of being reasonable people. If Redmond actually forms a government and tries to rule this country, the rebellion will be directed against him; if he does not, it will be directed against the existing government; in any case, the country will have to be more or less conquered outside the six counties, and that may possibly be the best way out of all our troubles, which have all their root in a British Prime Minister having brought in a Home Rule Bill.

To try to find a solution of a moderate nature, a Convention was called for 1917. Its meetings were boycotted by both organised labour and Sinn Fein, and any attempt at a solution was blocked by in the conference chamber by the total refusal of the Ulster Unionists to consider the possibility of Home Rule for the whole of Ireland. This meant that partition was now the only possible solution, leading to all the problems which were still apparent in the the 1990s, before the Good Friday Agreement of 10 April 1998.

The legacy of the Easter Rebellion lived on. According to Liam de Paor and Conor Cruise O’Brien, 1966 was a watershed in the relationship between the two communities in Northern Ireland: the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising gave an impetus for the Nationalist population to resurrect their ideal of a united Ireland. The celebrations which accompanied the anniversary led to a backlash from the Ulster Protestants who remembered 1916 for the way in which the Ulster Divisions were cut to pieces on the Somme from 1 July to 18 November that year. From an Irish Nationalist perspective, Liam de Paor wrote in 1971, of the contemporary significance of the battle compared with that of the Rising:

Pearse and his IRB comrades, who broke with Redmond, did not feel that they owed any loyalty to England or that they should fight her wars. On the contrary they hoped that the great European war might provide an opportunity to strike against the colonial connection, and they planned accordingly. Connolly, with his tiny Citizen Army, was even more opposed to Irishmen fighting, not only England’s, but in any capitalist war, and he was bitterly disappointed to see Europe’s socialist parties forgetting their principles when the drums beat and the banners waved, and hastening to wear the uniforms of Europe’s various oppressors on both sides. He too was a nationalist of a kind, although he had made it clear that he was not interested in a mere change of flags but in attacking capitalism through colonialism… 

On the 1 July the battle of the Somme opened, and the 36th (Ulster) Division was ordered out of their section of the British lines at Thiepval Wood on the River Ancre to attack the German lines. They attacked with tremendous courage… and in two days of battle… ended more or less where they had begun, in terms of ground gained. But their dead were heaped in thousands on the German wire and littered the ground that had been bitterly gained and bitterly lost: half of Ulster was in mourning. 

These two bloody events drove Irishmen further apart than ever, for although the Catholic and nationalist Irish also, 200,000 of them, fought, and many died, at the Somme, at Gallipoli, at Passchendaele, and other places with names of terror in that appalling war,  their sacrifice seemed, by the turn Irish history now took, irrelevant – barely a footnote in the developing myth by which the political tradition is animated…

… In Ulster, on the other hand, the Somme is more central in the Protestant political tradition, for, futile as the battle was, the Orangemen who fought in it displayed in the most convincing way that, however eccentric their ‘loyalty’ might seem at times, it was to them quite real, and they showed that in this they were, as Pearse had perceived, not ridiculous at all…

World War One British Soldiers.

Above: Soldiers at the Western Front, waiting to ‘go over the top’.


Above: Soldiers at the front in Gallipoli, 1915.

The well-known folk song, The Foggy Dew, which commemorates the 1916 Uprising, does at least contain a verse recognising the suffering of Irish soldiers in the Great War, even if it places it firmly in the nationalist narrative:

It was England bade our wild geese go

That small nations might be free;

Their lonely graves are by Suvla’s wave

Or the fringe of the Great North Sea;

But had they died by Pearse’s side

Or fallen by Cathal Brugha

Their graves we’d keep where the Fenians sleep

With a shroud of the foggy dew.

Source: Richard Brown and Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

St Patrick’s Breastplate; Celtic Christianity   4 comments

Slemish, mountain in County Antrim where St Pa...

Slemish, mountain in County Antrim where St Patrick is reputed to have shepherded as a slave (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland.  He lived in ‘the dark ages’ of the fourth century, so there are conflicting accounts of his life and a great number of legends about him. It is claimed that he wrote two documents, The Confession and The Letter to Coroticus. The first gives an account of his life, and the other tells us something of his style, personality and methods in urging Christian subjects to stand up against pagan leaders. In today’s increasingly secular society, the latter takes on fresh meaning.

He was born about 389 A.D., the son of a small landowner from Banwen in post-Roman Glamorgan (Morgannwg in Welsh), who brought him up as a Christian. When he was sixteen he was captured by ‘pirates’, who took him to Ireland as a slave. He was a shepherd on the estate of a chieftain in County Antrim, in the north of Ireland. During the six years of his captivity he resolved to give his life to the service of the gospel. He escaped to Wicklow, to the south of Dublin, and boarded a ship engaged in the trade of wolf-dogs. He was put off on the coast of Gaul and became a monk in the monastery at Lerins. In those days, the western sea routes around Britain and France were the chief means of transport around the various Celtic territiories, since the overland routes were slow, difficult and treacherous, even where the Romans had left roads.

After returning to his home in Britain, he conceived the idea of a Christian mission to Ireland, describing how, in a dream he saw a man named ‘Victorious’ holding letters from Ireland, one of which he gave to Patrick to read. The words in the letter began with ‘The Voice of the Irish’ which called upon him ‘to come again and walk among us as before’. He first returned to Gaul, where he was ordained by Bishop Amator, and for fourteen years he prepared for his vocation as a missionary.


wicklow mountains
wicklow mountains (Photo credit: lalui)

He returned to Ireland in 432 and probably landed again in Wicklow and began his mission in the kingdom of Ulidea in East Ulster. He needed the protection of the tribal kings and clan chieftains and succeeded in converting one of them, Dichu, who gave him a site on which to establish a place of worship, a wooden barn, or ‘saball’ in Irish, which became known as ‘Saul’. The most powerful chief, the High King of Tara, had ruled that every fire in Ireland must be put out at Easter and relighted from a fire in his castle, those disobeying being put to death. When Patrick was brought before the King for deliberately lighting his own fire on a hill opposite the castle, he said that he had done so as a sign that Christ, who had risen from the dead, was the Light of the World. He was set free, which reveals not just the strength of his faith, but also the growing strength of the faithful Christians. He then travelled throughout the country, founding communities, including the church and monastery at Armagh. He died in A.D. 461, supposedly on March 17th,  and was probably buried at Saul.



Probably the most famous legend about him is his use of the shamrock to illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity, the mystery of the three-in-one. The shamrock thus became one of the national emblems of the Irish, the other being the harp (see the picture above). Perhaps the most significant legend, however, is that connecting Patrick with Joseph of Arimathea, which tells of Joseph visiting western Britain following the death of Jesus, bringing with him the Sangreal, or dish used at the Last Supper. This gave rise to the Arthurian legends of the Holy Grail. Joseph was said to have built a little chapel at Glastonbury, which was replaced by the Abbey, the ruins of which are a place of pilgrimage to this day. Patrick is said to have founded the monastic community there, at a time when the Tor would still have been part of the island of Afalon, easily reachable by ship from the western coasts of Britain and the eastern coasts of Ireland.

There is also a story from Glyn Rhosyn in Pembrokeshire that Patrick settled there, but was told by an angel, in a dream, to move on, since the place was being reserved for St David, who became the patron saint of ‘Y Cymru ‘, the Welsh. Another legend places him in the Celtic Kingdom of Strathclyde, at Dumbarton.


St Patrick Northern Ireland Flag
St Patrick Northern Ireland Flag (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The flag of St Patrick, a diagonal red cross on a white background, became part of the Union Flag when Ireland became part of the United Kingdom in 1801, joining the cross of St Andrew, for Scotland, and St George, for England. It remains on the flag to this day, although only Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom. St Patrick’s Day is celebrated North and South of the border, and is a public holiday in both the Republic and ‘the Province’, which is appropriate, since there was no border in Patrick’s day and much of his ministry was conducted in the north of the island. The flag of St David is not (yet) part of the UK flag, nor, of course, is the Red Dragon (Y Ddraig Goch), the national emblem of ‘the Principality’. Patrick also has a hymn named after him:

Saint Patrick’s Breastplate

I bind unto myself today

The Power of God to hold and lead,

His eye to watch, His might to stay,

His ear to hearken to my need,

The wisdom of my God to teach,

His hand to guide, His shield to ward,

The word of God to give me speech,

His heavenly host to be my guard.


Statue of St. Patrick in Aughagower, County Mayo
Statue of St. Patrick in Aughagower, County Mayo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The hymn is traditionally attributed to Patrick himself, and it certainly shows very clearly the blending of pagan mythology with Christian teaching in the early Celtic Church. It combines the functions of incantation, war-song and redal statement. The whole poem is given a tremendous force and unity by the notion of binding, so characteristic in Celtic art with its intricate knots and never-ending interlacing patterns, such as in the Book of Kells (see the picture above). The original Gaelic poem is known as ‘St Patrick’s Lorica’ . A ‘lorica’ was a spiritual coat or breastplate which not only charmed away disease or danger, but also secured a place in heaven for those who wore it day and night. The word became applied to spiritual poems which characteristically had three distinct parts: the invocation of the Trinity and the angels; the enumeration of various parts of the body to be protected; and a list of dangers from which immunity was being sought. The second of these elements is there in verse 8, where Christ’s presence in every part of the body is carefully invoked.

Legend has it that Patrick composed his lorica shortly after landing in Ireland on his mission, in 432, and to have used it in his defence before the pagan high king at Tara. Whether or not Patrick himself wrote the lorica, it is a supreme expression of the holiness and wholeness that marks Celtic Christianity, and which is summed up in another statement attributed to him:

Our God is the God of Heaven and Earth, of sea and river, sun and moon and stars, of the lofty mountain and lowly valley’

These words, and the words of the hymn itself, take on a new relevance for us, in our return to the ecological consciousness which Patrick himself epitomised in his ministry and teaching. The translation of Patrick’s lorica into the hymn was done by Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-95), the author of All Things Bright and Beautiful, Once in Royal David’s City and many other hymns, many especially written for children. It was written for St Patrick’s Day, 1889, set to the traditional Irish medley, St Patrick, by Stanford (1852-1924), with the eighth verse ‘Christ be with me’ sung to one of three other Irish melodies. It is also considered an appropriate hymn to be sung on Easter Eve, or Holy Saturday, associated in the early church with baptism, so it helps to direct our thoughts on this St Patrick’s Day towards the coming of Holy Week.

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