Popery and Anti-Popery

Although a predominantly Protestant city, metropolitan London also had a significant and visible Catholic minority. At first the persistence of Catholicism owed something to the presence of a large number of monasteries, friaries and religious confraterinities in the City and its suburbs before the Reformation, and rich liturgical traditions in several parishes. Although ecclesiastical foundations were dissolved under Henry VIII and Edward VI and parish worship also simplified, memories of Catholic religious life endured for some time, evoking nostalgia among some Londoners.

By the early seventeenth century London Catholicism was becoming especially concentrated in the western suburbs, near the royal court. The only places where the mass might be legally celebrated in seventeenth century England were the households of ambassadors from Catholic states and Catholic members of the royal family -- i.e. Catholic Queens and, after 1672 James Duke of York. Attendance at these masses was supposed to be restricted to members of those households, who were usually foreign nationals. But the reluctance of Stuart kings to offend foreign sovereigns and their own wives usually made the enforcement of this restriction fairly lax, so that English Catholics were often able to worship in the chapels of French, Spanish and Italian embassies or in those of queens like Henrietta Maria and Catherine of Braganza. Catholic nobles also maintained private chapels in their London houses that the Crown always tolerated.

The area near the Strand, in particular, became a conspicuous center of Catholic worship in the 1620s and thirties, even though most inhabitants remained Protestant. A few Catholics provocatively displayed their religious allegiances. During negotiations over the Spanish Match for Prince Charles around 1620, Spain's ambassador, Gondomar, liked to travel down Drury Lane, where several Catholic gentry lived, on his way to audiences with the King. Catholic gentlewomen allegedly came to their windows as he passed to demonstrate their sympathy. In the 1630s Henrietta Maria maintained both a chapel and a small monastery of French Capucin friars in her residence of Somerset House along the strand. This palace was also decorated with a large collection of Catholic devotional paintings, some of them presents from Pope Urban VIII. The residence of the Catholic Earl of Worcester stood nearby on the Strand, as did that of the Earl of Arundel, a Catholic sympathizer with an openly Catholic wife. Not far to the north, on Long Acre, an emissary of the Pope accredited to Henrietta Maria's court had his own residence, which of course housed a large clerical staff and a chapel open for worship to any English who cared to attend. The French, Spanish and Tuscan embassies were also located in the same district. In the late 1630s the Queen managed to convert a number of ladies of the court to Catholicism, who then conspicously attended mass in Somerset House. This pattern contributed significantly to the backlash against popery at court that erupted in 1640, which did so much to discredit Charles I. During the Civil War the Queen's ornate chapel at Somerset House was vandalised by parliamentary soldiers, who smashed its statues to dust and hacked apart a Rubens crucifixion above the main altar.

Court Catholicism returned with the Restoration, however, stronger and more fashionable than before thanks partly to the influence of French culture on Whitehall. Although Charles II remained outwardly Protestant until his alleged deathbed conversion to Rome in 1685, his wife and a number of his courtiers and mistresses were Catholic.  The most notorious mistress, the French Louise de Keroualle Duchess of Portsmouth, strengthened the influence of Louis XIV over Charles and the English court.  During the 1670s the King and prominent courtiers frequently met the French ambassador in her 40 room apartments at Whitehall, which she lavisly furnished in the latest French fashions.  These circumstances contributed to a revival of anxiety about popery and popish influence at court as early as the mid 1660s, which grew in virulence over the next fifteen years, coloring perceptions of other events.

In 1673 the King's brother and heir, James Duke of York, acknowledged his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church by refusing to attend Anglican services in the Chapel Royal. This event gave an additional large boost to already widespread fears of the dangers that popery and French influence posed to England. Catholicism had become associated in English culture with foreign tyranny, cruelty and insidious plots. Every English person knew the stories of the Armada, the Spanish Inquisition, the Protestant martyrs burned at the stake under England's last Catholic monarch, Mary Tudor, and the Powder Treason of 1605, when a group of conspirators had attempted to blow up Parliament during a royal address by filling the basement of its chamber with gunpowder. To many Englishmen Catholicism meant the suppression of the gospel and the encouragement of superstition by cynical priests intent on deluding the population. It also meant the suppression of liberty, by clerical inquisitors intent on suppressing freedom of conscience and secular kings who wanted to impose a similar tyranny over their subjects' property and bodies. Finally, Catholic aggression was also widely associated with ambitions to "universal monarchy" or world domination, which Louis XIV was thought to entertain. When Charles II allied with France against the Protestant Netherlands in the Third Dutch War of 1672-he appeared to many of his subjects to be furthering Louis's ambitions.   The King's pro-French policies contributed to the rise of an oppositionist "Country" party under the leadership of the Earl of Shaftesbury within Parliament. This group remained in the minority but it commanded the allegiance of a significant minority in both houses. A number of pamphlets, some of them printed in the Netherlands and smuggled into England, also opposed the King's policy. The most influential of them, written by Andrew Marvell although it appeared anonymously, detailed the alleged progress of a conspiracy within the court to erect a system of "popery and arbitrary government". In the streets of London pope burning processions demonstrated popular hostility to Catholics and their influence at court.  These conditions set the stage for the revelations of the bogus Popish Plot in the autumn of 1678, which touched off the Exclusion Crisis.  Although the exclusionists had lost by 1682, the efforts of James II to "establish" Catholicism as a tolerated religion in Britain during the late 1680s revived anti-Catholic feelings still deeply embedded in English and Scottish culture, helping to prepare the ground for the enthusiastic reception of the Protestant William of Orange in 1688.  Many English celebrated his arrival as another triumph over popery that had now been defeated, in the words of one ballad, by the sovereign remedy of an orange. 

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