Faith of Our Fathers: A History of True England
By Joseph Pearce.
Ignatius Press, 2022.
Paperback, 384 pages, $19.95.
Reviewed by Auguste Meyrat.
England is a Catholic country. Its culture, its politics, and its very heart is Catholic.
At least, this is the case made in Joseph Pearce’s new book Faith of Our Fathers: A History of True England, which charts the development of Catholicism in England during the last two millennia. He tells the story of heroic saints, evil monarchs, and timeless artists and scholars as well as the large cloud of Catholic witnesses that connect all of them.
Rather than framing his work as merely revisionist history (the good kind of revisionism, in this case) intended to refute the popular Protestant-leaning history of England, Pearce rather wants to tell a true history, one that rightly keeps the Catholic Church at the center. Even so, the reader will likely find many surprises in Pearce’s book that cast English civilization in a completely different light.
This starts with the country’s Christian founding. Not long after Jesus of Nazareth sent his disciples to preach his gospel to all nations, England was developing a Christian culture with a number of shrines and parishes already established by the middle of the second century.
It is in the early fifth century, following the end of Roman occupation, that Pearce places the existence of King Arthur, in a chapter suitably titled, “The England Before England.” Although there is not much documentation to offer a clear picture of this period, Pearce notes that the legends certainly indicate a preexisting Christian ethos: “It is difficult to give credence to these pious legends … it does illustrate, however, the deeply religious faith of those who told the stories and of those of whom the stories were told.”
Following the history of St. Bede the Venerable (672-735), Pearce then discusses the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that emerged from the remnants of Romans, Saxons, Angles, and Jutes that populated England. After the arrival of St. Augustine of Canterbury in 596, the dormant Christian faith returned as many English kings converted, and many saints established monasteries and parishes that would in turn bring more saints into the world to continue the work.
It was during these centuries that England became a united Christian kingdom. And like other Christian kingdoms of this time, it was constantly threatened by non-Christian invaders, most notably by the Danish vikings. Although the Danes would succeed in pillaging the eastern coast of England, they were eventually pushed back by kings like Alfred the Great, who ensured Christian England’s survival in the Battle of Eddington in 878.
The next major phase in British history came after the Norman Invasion in 1066, which established William the Conqueror’s royal line during the High Middle Ages in England. At this point one sees a simmering conflict between temporal and spiritual leaders, as William and his successors continually seek to rule the Catholic Church in England. This results in the murder of St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162-1170, who became a kind of archetype for Catholic leadership in England by bravely resisting the encroachments of the state and being martyred for it.
The death of St. Thomas ironically results in three centuries of a happily Catholic England, what Pearce dubs “Merrie England.” It is during this period that “the life and work of the Church [is] interwoven with the very fabric of daily life.” Religious orders were thriving; pilgrimages were bustling; universities and schools were being built; and even the economy took on Catholic framework, stressing community and the common good. No doubt, distributists like G. K. Chesterton would later look back at this time with admiration.
Unfortunately, Merrie England came to an end with the reign of King Henry VIII, the brutal and vicious king who formed the Church of England for the ostensible purpose of marrying yet another wife and finally producing a male heir. With the help of a rapacious aristocracy, Henry would oversee the nationwide pillaging of Church properties and massacre thousands of English Catholics who resisted his new state church.
Setting aside the religious implications of a monarch creating a church for the sake of political expediency, the level of violence and outright tyranny that resulted from Henry’s rule should not be understated. Pearce relates some of the horrors that so many Englishmen suffered at this time. St. John Fisher’s execution is representative: “the decapitated corpse was stripped naked and left on the scaffold for the rest of the day … Fisher’s head was stuck upon a pole on London Bridge where it remained for two weeks.”
With the guidance and urging of a militant Protestant parliament, Henry’s immediate successors, Edward VI and Elizabeth I, continued this campaign of Catholic persecution—with a brief five-year respite from Mary Tudor. Hundreds more Catholics who refused give up their faith were thrown into prison or gruesomely executed, which causes Pearce to confer the title “Bloody” to Elizabeth (“Bloody Bess”) rather than her much maligned Catholic sister who preceded her.
Though the worst of the Catholic persecution ended with Elizabeth’s death, the succeeding King James I, the son of Mary Queen of Scots (whom Elizabeth imprisoned and executed), continued oppressing Catholics and executing priests saying Mass into the early seventeenth century.
Despite this anti-Catholic campaign of over a century, many Englishmen remained Catholic, if not in practice then in their culture. All it took to trigger a civil war was a monarch who finally refused to acquiesce to the oppressive intolerance of the Puritan parliament, as Charles I and his supporters did against the Puritan “roundheads.” But the Royalists lost this war, and the roundheads established a Puritan theocracy with Oliver Cromwell at the helm.
Conditions for English Catholics improved with the Great Restoration seven years later in 1660 with accession of King James II, but soon lapsed when William of Orange usurped the throne in 1688. (This became something of a pattern, as leadership vacillated between religious tolerance and anti-Catholic oppression). Although there were a few attempts to restore the Jacobite monarchs, none of them succeeded and the English government continued to abuse English Catholics.
Fortunately, there was a “new dawn” for English Catholicism with the Catholic Relief Act of 1778—nearly 250 years after Henry VIII established the Church of England – which “ended the ban on Catholics buying and inheriting land, as well as abolishing the statutory life sentence for priests and the life sentence that had previously been applied to anyone convicted of running a Catholic school.” While these laws were rarely enforced by this time, the Act essentially paved the way for an official Catholic resurgence in England in the nineteenth century.
It is at this point that Pearce shifts his focus away from politics to Catholic arts and letters, which start to take off at this time. The two men at the heart of this in the nineteenth century were Cardinals Henry Newman and Henry Manning. Both men were intellectual giants who brought about numerous conversions, reestablished a Catholic literary culture, and built up numerous Catholic schools, churches, and universities.
This led to an impressive Catholic literary scene in the following century that included writers like G.K. Chesterton, R. H. Benson, Ronald Knox and later J. R. R. Tolkien, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene. Besides writing some of the best prose of the English language, these writers continue to lead many more souls to the Catholic Church.
Pearce ends his history with the restoration of Marian shrines across England, notably Our Lady of Walsingham, which is once again a popular pilgrimage site. While not forming a complete circle—like the rest of Europe, contemporary England is mostly a secular country—this final chapter brings closure to Pearce’s narrative.
Through it all, Pearce is attentive to his reader and keeps his chapters concise and readable. He is a disciplined writer who sticks to his subject and avoids tangents. His book puts the lie to the many sterling portrayals of Henry Tudor and his daughter Elizabeth as well as the peaceful conversion of the country to Anglicanism and the “Glorious Revolution” of William of Orange. Pearce proves that these were dark, bloody affairs that were not only anti-Catholic, but anti-democratic and anti-liberal.
However, despite these virtues, Pearce’s book is not without its faults, the main one being his tendency to over-quote, specifically from the British Catholic historians Hilaire Belloc and William Cobbett. Indeed, in many sections, the book feels more like a gloss on those men’s histories than an original history from Pearce.
Moreover, Pearce’s focus on English Catholicism to the exclusion of all else occasionally leaves out important factors that explain how England developed. For example, there is almost nothing about England’s Industrial Revolutions or English imperialism. While these trends are not specifically Catholic, they still seem far more relevant and worth mentioning than Jane Austen and Lord Byron’s Catholic sympathies.
With that said, Faith of Our Fathers is still an elegant and enjoyable history of England that should not only inspire Catholics but all readers. It attests to the power of a faith that endured so much persecution and systematic cruelty, yet survived, and, by some measures, thrived. More importantly, it demonstrates how the faith of the people—as opposed to the elites—is what really constitutes a civilization’s character. Pearce makes it clear that Catholic England is the True England.
Auguste Meyrat is an English teacher and senior editor of The Everyman.
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