The Roman Yoke

July 27, 2006

by Martin ‘HStorm’ Odoni

First published in July 2004

We live in a country that prides itself on its fairness, its enlightenment, its rejection of prejudice, its love of humanity and the equality of its people before the law. A land of hope, freedom and courage, the very cradle of liberty, no less.

Well, that’s what we’re always told. The question has to be asked though, “Where do we get such a notion from?” For if our country is so open and fair-minded, how come, for just one instance, it’s illegal for a Catholic to sit on the British throne? Sounds terribly intolerant for a ‘cradle of democracy.’

But there is a reason, and while it’s undoubtedly anachronistic and bigoted, it’s rather more relevant to issues that exist today than you may imagine. To explain it, you have to ask yourself another question; is thinking for yourself a right? Or is it a privilege? Either way, it’s the commodity I prize above all others, the one I’d most hate for people to try and take away from me, and the one that most angers me when it’s squandered by others. After all, if we’re not allowed the power of thought, what are we allowed?

This power is largely taken for granted these days, and only dystopian novels like Brave New World, We, and Nineteen Eighty-Four serve to remind us of how easily it can be taken from us, and how impossible it would be for most people to regain it once it’s taken from them. It’s also a power that it took a very long time for people to earn.

There was a spell of around eight hundred years when that power eroded almost entirely from the people of Europe, and eventually beyond. It had happened more or less by accident, and so slowly and so insidiously that nobody even noticed it happening. But once it had done, those in power took shocking advantage of it. Here’s how it happened…

It’s not clear when one could say the Dark Ages of Britain started (whatever you might have been told, it certainly wasn’t when the Romans left), or indeed when they came to an end, but we do know with some certainty that when the medieval era had begun, Britain, if you could still call it that, was a hugely transformed place. At the start it was a half-Pagan, half-Christian colony of the Roman Empire, gradually wearing down in the face of barbarian attacks from Pictland, Germany and Ireland. By the end it was a mainly Christian mish-mash of small kingdoms, some Germanic, some Celtic.

But this Christianity that was slowly taking a strong grip on the hearts and minds of so many people meant that things had perhaps not changed so much as come full circle. For the heart of the largest Christian Church in the world was in, of course, Rome. Rome had been the headpiece of a now crumbled military Empire, and it was still the headpiece of an even larger religious Empire. Such was the irony; even as the Pagan Anglo-Saxons brought down the Imperial control of Britain in the fifth century, their descendants only a couple of centuries later had converted to the Christian faith and, at the eventual behest of King Alfred the Great, perhaps the finest monarch in British history, submitted to spiritual rule (though not quite political rule) from Rome in the ninth century. The Romano-Britons had mainly been Christians at the time of the Empire’s collapse, so with the conversion of the English to the Christian faith, maybe the Welsh had won after all?

Whatever the case, Roman Catholicism was a binding force all across Europe for centuries to come. Even great enemy countries on the battlefield could be united by their holy faith. The richest and the poorest people could find solace in their darkest hours through their religious endeavours. Even as late as the early sixteenth century, England was a most loyal and devoted follower of the Roman Catholic faith. The young King Henry VIII himself took great pleasure in persecuting those people whose practises didn’t conform to the Roman way of thinking, for which he was rewarded by the Pope with the honorary title of England’s “Defender of the Faith”.

Now as you probably know, Henry himself was the man who would eventually change things, and yet here he is offering formal homage to the Pope and accepting the title of the faith’s greatest defender! Therefore the question we have to ask is, “How did it all change?”

Well, we all know the story about Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, so I shan’t bother going into a long rehash of it here, but we do know that within a few years Henry, in his desire for a divorce that the Pope refused to grant him, changed from the man who most vehemently guarded England’s religious ties to Rome into the man who would sever them. It’s clear enough why he did it, but what’s not very clear at first glance is what alternative to Rome he thought he had. The alternative, as it turned out, was an independent Church of England.

In fact, this Church was not as English in its conception as we sometimes imagine, or as its name would suggest. The principles of what was becoming known as ‘Protestantism’ were based on a German protest (hence the name) against what was seen as growing corruption in the Catholic Church. The German who began the theory of reformation of the Church and its practises was called Martin Luther, and he was not just some hot-headed rabble-rouser or authority-bucker as most radical types are expected to be. He was in fact a very devoted, pious, and above all loyal priest of the Catholic faith. During his early years as he was learning his vocation, he travelled on a pilgrimage from his home in Germany to Rome to study under the tutelage of the Pope’s closest Cardinals and ministers. He went there eagerly expecting to find a world of holiiness, honour, worship and reverence for the word of God. Instead, after just a few weeks he was so sickened by what he found that he returned home, full of outrage.

What stunned him was the laziness, cynicism and greed of almost the entire upper hierarchy of the Roman Church. He found that ministers and preachers would regularly exploit the ignorance and loyalty of their congregation in order to extort money, gain undue privileges, or just skip work.

Luther became fully aware of the problems when he and a minister were delivering a Latin mass one Sunday to a church full of peasants outside Rome. Luther was about halfway through his part of the reading when the minister gave him a casual nudge and whispered, “Skip over a few lines will you, I’m getting bored.”

Luther was bewildered by the suggestion. “This is holy text!” he protested quietly. “I can’t read it in vain! And all these good people have come here to hear it…”

“It’s all right,” the minister assured him, “they don’t speak a word of Latin, they won’t know.”

And Luther realised that this was true. Throughout the rest of his pilgrimage he found more and more examples of grasping cynicism and exploitative behaviour by the Church authorities, all taking advantage of the key problem that the congregations of the Church had no way of knowing that any corruption was happening. Ministers would take money from the people on the pretext of collecting for charitable causes, and then pocket the monies for themselves. They would deliberately misinterpret or even misquote the text of the Bible to trick people into doing whatever was wanted of them. And the more Luther analysed the practises of the Church, the more he understood the reasons why it was able to get away with them.

Quite simply, the ordinary lay people attending Church were practising forms of worship that were so arcane and incomprehensible that they slowly and actively discouraged them from thinking. They were listening to holy texts that were written in an archaic language that they didn’t understand. The priests of the Church did understand it of course, and so if any layman wanted an explanation he could only get the interpretation that the priests wanted them to have. The laymen were also worshipping images, like the symbol of the redeemer on the cross, saints kneeling to ancient kings on stained glass windows, and bizarre sacramental ceremonies whose hidden meanings had no explanation. There was so much beautiful, hypnotic imagery that it was very appealing, and yet there was so little coherent meaning to any of it that it was all feelings and no thought. (Mumbo-jumbo it would one day be called.) Therefore it never occurred to the lay people to question what they were being told by ministers of the Church, or to analyse the more obscure things they were doing or, more importantly, why they might be doing them. And as the Church over the centuries became more accustomed to doing basically whatever it damn well pleased and getting away with it, it had started taking more and more outrageous liberties, until, by the early sixteenth century, it had become as corrupt as the previous Roman Empire had been, forever taking the word of God in vain and twisting and perverting it for its own narrow ends.

The worst of such practises were of course the preserve of the Pope himself, who, bearing the most power, was in the best position to get away with it. Luther, already uneasy at the idea of such a figure as a Pope (for he could never find any reference in the Bible justifying the existence of a man claiming to be God’s sole mouthpiece on Earth), was now militantly opposed to him.

Luther returned home. Feeling that these corruptions could not be allowed to carry on any further, he started theorising on how to reform the Christian Church to free its followers of the yoke of their own ignorance. His ideas were so radical that when he had them published they sent shockwaves all across Europe, terrifying many a King and sending the Pope into a fit of fury.

He proposed that; –

1. all symbols of what he called ‘idolatory’, such as stained glass windows, crucifixes, statues etc should be removed from places of Christian worship and destroyed, so making the act of going to church a more cerebral and less hypnotic business,

2. altair-rails should be torn out of church floors so that the priests would no longer be separated from their congregations, and thus no longer be seen as somehow apart from or ‘above’ the ordinary people. This would make ordinary folk feel freer to consider and even question his words,

3. all sermons should be read in the first language of the country they were being delivered in,

4. the Bible should be translated into all the different languages of Europe and then made freely available to all people, so that they could read the word of God, assess it, and draw conclusions for themselves, instead of depending on a self-interested priest to decide these things for them,

5. the Church of each individual nation should cease being answerable to the Pope, but instead should be answerable solely to its anointed monarch.

The Church that would result from such a radical reformation would clearly be a much grimmer, less aesthetically-pleasant form of worship, but would in theory offer far more freedom of thought to its patrons.

The great majority of people across the continent objected to these anti-Roman ideas at first however, partly out of fear of change, but also because, as many of them couldn’t really think for themselves, they simply did as the Church told them to (which was of course to reject them as ‘heretical’).

However, the German principality was soon swung after a political dispute with Rome. All ties were severed and the German Church was reformed. Not many years later, Henry VIII, still desperately seeking a divorce that the Pope wouldn’t dare to grant (as Rome at the time was occupied by a Spanish army headed by the favourite nephew of Henry’s wife, Katherine of Aragon), read the Lutheran theories as expanded upon by John Calvin, and, most taken with the idea of the Church in England being answerable to the King rather than the Pope, decided to cut ties to Rome as well.

The Reformation was a slow, hesitant business in England, leading to much turmoil and bloodshed, and it wouldn’t be until midway through the reign of Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, that Protestantism would become the dominant faith. In the same period, an even more extreme Reformation set in in Scotland, bringing about a Presbyterian form of worship (one that didn’t just get rid of all Catholic practises, but also removed all Cardinals and Bishops that administered them and replaced them with local councils, or ‘Kirks’, to oversee the organisation of the Church). This Reformation was a far smoother process than its counterpart south of the border, and such was the enthusiasm for it that the people eventually deposed and exiled their own ruler, Mary Queen of Scots, partly for her stubbornly-held Catholic beliefs.

By the end of Elizabeth I’s reign over England, most of the population of mainland Britain had converted to the Protestant faith. There were still a few determined Catholics who refused to conform (‘Recusants’ as they were called), but they were very much the minority. The only Kingdom left that had not converted was Ireland. In fact, the Nine Years’ War against England at the end of the sixteenth century had driven the Irish in the other direction, making them more pro-Roman than ever before. Thus the Irish Church has never been reformed and probably never will be. But Ireland’s Catholic allegiance made it an ideal springboard from which foreign powers of the ‘olde religion’ might attempt a conquest of England, and so Elizabeth felt she couldn’t afford to lose control of the island.

Philip II – King of Spain and widow of Elizabeth’s half-sister, Mary – in particular seemed determined to claim England back for the Catholic faith, but all that his attempts to invade England seemed to do was confirm to the English that Catholicism really was just another word for tyranny. Spanish failure followed Spanish failure, (including a shambolic attempt to intervene in the Nine Years’ War that actually hastened the Irish defeat), and so by the time Elizabeth died it seemed that England and Scotland were both fairly safe from attempts to coerce them from abroad. But the paranoia and hysterical suspicion felt towards all forms of Catholic worship wouldn’t go away. The ‘olde religion’ was now looked upon as an agency of foreign powers, a threat to good order and political independence.

This perception was heightened early in the reign of Elizabeth’s successor, James VI of Scotland and I of England. In 1605, after James had failed to keep implied promises of Catholic toleration, the infamous Gunpowder Treason saw a Recusant conspiracy nearly destroy the Royal Family, Parliament, and the entire political establishment of England.

The anti-Catholic hysteria continued for many years afterwards, and was a key issue in the outbreak of Civil War in the late 1630’s and early 1640’s. Many hardline Protestants in England (‘Puritans’) were highly suspicious of the new King Charles I’s manner of religious worship, which appeared to be re-introducing some of the more idolatrous aspects of the Catholic faith into the English Church, and furthermore, he was attempting to impose his partcular style of worship on everyone else. In their desperation to worship freely and in their own way (‘liberty of conscience’ they called it) the Puritans set out to renew the Reformation, and this inevitably set them on a collision course with the King. War was the result.

The horrors of the Civil Wars were so huge a trauma on the entirety of the British Isles, and, fairly or otherwise, Catholicism was held so much to blame for most of it, that the ‘olde religion’ became the greatest anathema in British history. So when King James II succeeded to the throne in 1685 and tried to reconvert Great Britain to the Catholic faith, people were horrified, believing that he was about to vassalise the country to a foreign power, namely France. James was overthrown by his Protestant nephew, William of Orange, who became the new King. And of course everyone was so relieved to be free of Catholicism that they never noticed that William had vassalised Great Britain to a foreign power, namely Holland, in the process.

The Protestant wing of the Stuart Royal family had died out by 1714, however, and the only surviving claimant within the House of Stuart was the son of James II, James Edward Stuart, who was as staunch a Catholic as his father before him. Desperate to avoid the risk of yet another return to the old religion, Parliament enacted a new law that forbade any Catholic, or anyone married to a Catholic, succeeding to the throne. The succession therefore passed to a branch of the German Aristocracy, the House of Hanover, whose family was descended by maternal heredity from a daughter of James I. (It was estimated in 1910 that on her succession, Queen Victoria was superseded by over one thousand contemporaries over her claim to the throne on purely hereditary grounds!)

This law no longer appears to have much relevance today (and is only even highlighted because of the present heir to the throne’s desire to marry a Catholic). For one thing, religion and politics in the West have ceased to be irrevocably intertwined. Although Britain remains to this day foolishly paranoid about foreign domination, this neurosis no longer finds expression in religious terms, while its population has decreased in its active passions of faith, even though research suggests that over seventy per cent still consider themselves to be Christians.

But the original quandary that caused the Church to be reformed in the first place is still a valid one, for it demonstrates that political gain can be greatly enhanced for those in power when they can control the thoughts of the many, which was what the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages had achieved. This is no justification for retaining such an obsolete and offensive law barring Catholics from sitting on the throne of course, but the Roman Church itself perhaps leaves a warning from history that should always be remembered in the future. That is that the right to think is easily, and all too willingly in some cases, surrendered, and that when that happens too much power becomes concentrated in the hands of too few.

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