The Magazine

No Popery There

How patriotism and Protestantism became inseparable in England.

Oct 31, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 07 • By CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
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The year 1685 was critical: The restored Stuart king, Charles II, died and was abruptly succeeded by his Catholic brother, James, while the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV provoked a pogrom against the Protestants of France, known as Huguenots, many thousands of whom fled to London with their skills and their stories of mayhem and bigotry. There resulted what Sharpe accurately characterizes as a ruling-class panic in England. Casting about for a new monarch who could insure them against another civil and confessional war, the court hit upon William of Orange, a Protestant Dutchman who was married to the new King James's daughter, Mary. The deal was a simple one: The deposition of the heretic James and support for the Netherlands against France. In return, a guarantee that the Protestant religion would be enshrined in England by a legitimate--if only by marriage--and legitimizing monarch. William of Orange set sail with a supporting army and landed in Devonshire in 1688, selecting the suggestive date of November 5 to do so. Today's rather enfeebled British crown derives its sovereignty from that event.

The only serious gap in Sharpe's story is his discussion of this hinge moment, known to history as the Glorious Revolution. It was Conor Cruise O'Brien who pointed out, almost 40 years ago, that the most famous and foundational political debate of modern times--the confrontation between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine--was based not just upon conflicting interpretations of 1688, but on differing religious attitudes to it. Burke was a covert Catholic (very probably having this in common with William Shakespeare) and an Irishman, while Paine was a part-Quaker English Deist. The radical and constitutionalist groups in London that hailed the 1789 revolution in France, and had hailed the 1776 revolution in America, were largely and openly pro-1688 and against "Popery," and it was this that had excited Burke's original alarm. Paine was anticlerical rather than anti-Catholic, but he ridiculed Burke's belief that the Glorious Revolution was a one-time-only settlement that established a permanent monarchy. (Burke's position was the more vulnerable one, in that he thought even a Protestant monarchy, and Protestant established church, were better than none at all.)

Both men had good reason to remember the Gordon Riots of 1780, in which a murderous and arsonist anti-Catholic mob was mobilized by a demented reactionary aristocrat named Lord George Gordon, an ancestor of Lord Byron, who later resolved his religious troubles by converting to Judaism in Newgate prison. That horrible episode of crime in 1780 is best revisited in the pages of Dickens's Barnaby Rudge. Both Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France and Paine's Rights of Man contain stern condemnations of mobocracy at that level.

But, just as Paine brought his version of secularism to America, so did other English immigrants import their folkloric customs. Indeed, the fiery celebrations of November 5 abandoned all disguise and began to call themselves "Pope Day," especially in Boston (which shows you how things have altered in that city since the revolution). Energy of this dubious kind was actually conscripted into protests against the Stamp Act, so it is nice to learn that, in 1775, George Washington prohibited all officers and soldiers under his command from taking any part in "that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the effigy of the Pope."

However, I was also interested to discover that in the town of Lewes in Sussex, where, though Sharpe fails to mention it, Thomas Paine was once a radical customs officer, the November 5 parade includes a "No Popery" banner to this very day. There is a deep association between fundamentalist, millennial Protestantism and both the English and American revolutions. Yet we must still attend to the words of Ernest Renan, who observed that in order to become a nation, people must indeed collectively agree to "remember" a number of things, but also to forget a number of things.

Christopher Hitchens, columnist for Vanity Fair, is most recently the author of Thomas Jefferson: Author of America.