Few pause to consider the recusants, that small number of Catholics who, amid the post-Reformation religious havoc wreaked by Tudor and Stuart monarchs, refused to be coerced into abandoning their allegiance to the pope, writes Peter Stanford at The Guardian.
Roy Hattersley, politician turned historian, sets out to correct that sin of omission in his elegantly written, sweeping account of Catholics in these islands from the Reformation to the present day. It's a tale of high drama and high stakes, by turns horrifying, romantic and ultimately hopeful.
In just a handful of places – Hattersley mentions in particular the ancient healing shrine of St Winefride's in north Wales – the Catholic mass has been said continuously despite Henry VIII's break with Rome. Successive Protestant kings, queens and ministers may have deployed every weapon at their disposal – spies, penal taxation, exclusion from public life and gory, staged executions – to force Catholics on pain of destitution and death to conform to the new national religion, but they failed to impose their will.
Survival and continuity, however, came at a cost. Hattersley chronicles the long list of those hung, drawn and quartered for their faith, now regarded by the Church as martyrs, and highlights one case "as an example of barbarism, corruption and sheer evil". Fr Nicholas Postgate had been trained like many others as a Catholic priest on the continent and then smuggled back into England to lead a secret life, perpetually on the run between priest-holes and hidden chapels in the recusant homes of the Catholic gentry.
Unlike most, he survived into his 80s but was caught in 1678, in the latest of many waves of anti-Catholic hysteria, this one caused by the "Popish Plot" to depose Charles II and replace him with a papist. No matter that the plot existed only in the imagination of its unreliable narrator, Titus Oates, Postgate was arrested, found guilty of treason, and executed. "I do not die for the plot, but for my Catholic religion," the old man told the crowds at the gallows in York before he met his maker.
The Catholics: The Church and Its People in Britain and Ireland, from the Reformation to the Present Day by Roy Hattersley will be published in Australia on March 15 by Chatto & Windus (Hardback, $62.99).