Review of The Early Vicars Apostolic of England: 1685-1750

March 13, 2010

THE EARLY VICARS APOSTOLIC OF ENGLAND: 1685-1750. By Dom Basil Hemphill, OSB. London: Burns & Oates, 1954. Pp. xi + 190.

Two Catholics acceded to the throne of England after Henry VIII’s split with Rome in 1534. Both attempted to restore a Catholic hierarchy to the kingdom. Bloody Mary briefly succeeded in 1553, but her work was undone by her half-sister and successor, Elizabeth. Dom Basil Hemphill’s book begins with the 1685 attempt of James II. Ironically, the newly crowned king was thwarted by Rome. After more than a century of Protestantism in England, Rome evidently felt the country was properly considered mission territory. Instead of appointing bishops, Rome divided England among four “vicars apostolic.” These clerics held the rank of bishop, but they lacked a bishop’s normal jurisdiction over a diocese. Instead, they reported to the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome. Although James and the leading priests were upset by Rome’s decision, the vicars apostolic managed to rule the Church in England until the hierarchy was finally restored in 1850. Hemphill’s purpose is to tell the stories of the least-known vicars apostolic, those who ruled from 1685 till 1750. The Early Vicars Apostolic of England is a success, not only providing the reader with unparalleled detail but also with a captivating narrative of the darkest period in English Catholic history.

Hemphill sets the theme for this period with a quotation on the title page: “A period in which men were called on to endure, rather than to achieve.” Tertullian wrote in the second century that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. Persecution without martyrdom nearly brought the Church in England to its knees. Planting seeds of growth was impossible; the goal was rather keeping the vine alive. The bishops struggled to prevent “leakage,” the slow but persistent defection of Catholic nobility and gentry to the Anglican Church. These Catholics did not fear the executioner; they feared the taxman. The state did not threaten their lives; it threatened their livelihoods. Death, at least, is quick and dying for the faith can be romanticized. But Parliament’s “penal laws” made life for Catholics wearisome at best, miserable at worst. On his deathbed, the former Catholic Lord Montague explained that he was never convinced of the truth of the Protestant religion but had converted “out of pride, avarice, and ambition.” Thus the Catholic population declined in the penal times not from any sudden drama but from gradual exhaustion. At the turn of the eighteenth century, England had a population of over six million but only eighty thousand Catholics.

A second theme suggests itself in the narrative. It is sometimes said that persecution at least strengthens the internal cohesion of a minority. Catholics were certainly a persecuted minority in seventeenth and eighteenth century England, but unity among them nevertheless remained elusive. The greatest division existed among the clergy, especially between the seculars (diocesan priests) and the regulars (religious order priests). Such division is laughable today, if not scandalous. Why should Catholic priests dislike and distrust one another simply on account of canonical structures? Unfortunately, this division was not unique to England, so it is not the author’s purpose to explain the background. Nevertheless, it was an obstacle for the tiny Church in England throughout the period. Whenever an episcopal appointment was forthcoming, the seculars feared that Rome would choose a regular. In fact, Rome did choose three regulars for vicar apostolic. The first two both served in the Western District, which included Wales, and the third served in the distant Northern District. Only seculars served as the vicars of the more important London and Midland Districts. In any case, whatever the seculars feared never came to pass and the vicars apostolic, both secular and regular, always enjoyed good relations.

Unfortunately, there were other divisions among the clergy. In his introduction, Hemphill reminds us that the clergy then (as now) were human and possessed the “usual human weaknesses, including such things as personal ambitions, jealousies, uncharitableness, and the like” (p. viii). Although there were never enough priests in this period, the English clergy hated the presence of Irish priests in London. These Irish priests came to London because persecution in England was less severe than in Ireland, but they found a different persecution at the hands of their brother priests. Besides general disputes between secular and regular, English and Irish, Hemphill also shares particular stories of divisiveness with the detail of water cooler gossip. The most divisive figure was John Stonor, an ambitious priest who often created intrigue to further his career. In 1716, his work paid off and Rome appointed him vicar apostolic of the Midland District. Although he still eyed the London District with envy, he matured considerably as a vicar.

Although Hemphill’s focus is the vicars apostolic, he manages to fill in many other details about the English Church. First, the stories of two other ecclesiastics fill his pages. The president of the English seminary-in-exile in Douay, France ranked in importance after the vicars apostolic (and some became vicars). Second, the vicars’ agent in Rome was the vital link between the “English mission” and the Congregation for the Propagation and the pope. Through the agent’s letters, Hemphill gives the reader an insiders’ view of the Roman bureaucracy. Second, Hemphill reserves a chapter for the plight of the laity. The penal laws excluded Catholics from public service and subjected them to double taxation. Moreover, they felt the constant suspicion and animosity of their Protestant neighbors. Often times, only wealthy families could afford to remain Catholic. Since public worship was forbidden, the vicars depended on the Catholic nobility and gentry. Their estates became Catholic refuges, hosting Masses for Catholics in the area and even serving as residences for the vicars.

There is no truly dark age because God is at work in every historical period. Our modern perspective allows us to detect in these times of persecution and decline the beginnings of some positive developments. The most important development was the separation of Church and state, which guaranteed the independence of the Church and inspired closer ties between the Church in England and the pope.

If James II had succeeded in restoring the Catholic Church, it very likely would have been dominated by the state, like the Churches in France and Spain. After James fled England, the government wanted to suppress the Catholic Church, not control it. Since the government ultimately failed, the Church was able to carry on without government interference in its internal affairs. Therefore, the situation for Catholics in England was now dramatically different from that of Continental Catholics. The Church was completely separate from the state. The English monarch, unlike his French and Spanish counterparts, had no voice in episcopal appointments. The vicars apostolic did not sit in the House of Lords like Catholic bishops before 1534, but neither did Parliament judge ecclesiastical matters (as it did for the Anglican Church). The government’s absence in Church affairs permitted the vicars apostolic to report directly to Rome. The pope, meanwhile, did not need to share power over the English Church through concordats with the government as he did in Catholic countries. Separation of Church and state meant greater unity between national and universal Church.

The Church likewise did not interfere in the state. On the pope’s orders, the vicars apostolic were not permitted to intervene in politics. If the English Church suffered persecution, it would be persecution for the faith alone. Although every vicar apostolic except Bishop Stonor was a Jacobite (a supportor of the exiled James II), not one joined an effort to return him to the throne.

A great benefit of Hemphill’s book is the frequent quotations from the correspondence of the vicars apostolic. The letters often contain code language in the event of their interception by government agents. The pope, for example, was “Mr. Abraham” and a vicar’s “wife and family” were his district and its clergy. The reader also finds jewels in them, like these words from a letter by Bishop Giffard of the London District: “One poor garret is palace, cathedral, table of audience, dining-room, bedchamber and often kitchen too. I thank God; this is my glory, and my joy. I would not change my condition for that of the greatest cardinal” (p. 79).

Hemphill’s book is short, so naturally there are places where the reader would enjoy more detail. For instance, the Duke of Norfolk is cited several times as the most important layman in the country. Unfortunately, there is no explanation why England’s highest ranking nobleman remained Catholic. On the whole, however, Hemphill’s book is amazing because such a short volume captures the biographies of the early vicars apostolic, as the title promises, plus many other details about the English Catholic experience of persecution.

Reading the pages of The Early Vicars Apostolic of England, the reader feels the greatest admiration for them. They were true “heroes of faith” whose names would not be out of place in the eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews. These bishops did not reconvert England, but they did preserve a foundation upon which men like John Henry Newman and Frederick Faber could build in the nineteenth century. In fact, this is how we may make sense of their struggles. Their work was indeed fruitful, but not in their own time. It was rather later generations that would yield the harvest. Today’s English Catholics owe their faith to them – and all Catholics may take pride in their unwavering witness to the ancient faith handed down by the apostles.