The Corner

Warts and All

Rich:  “Catholic priests were chased from the country” under Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate?  Pish!  I cannot let this slur on one of my own personal heroes go unremarked.  Religious tolerance under the Protector was at a high point, and this tolerance extended to Catholics, in spite of widespread public hostility towards them as agents of the nation’s enemies, which some of them were.

From Austin Woolrych’s Britain in Revolution, pp. 587-8:

“Cromwell was more reluctant than most puritan politicians to deal harshly with catholics, partly because of his desire to heal the divisions of the nation and partly because he sincerely disliked forcing consciences.  He evidently wanted to free them from liability to the forfeiture of two-thirds of their estates if they defaulted on their fines for [failing to attend Anglican worship], which is what a harsh act of 1587 subjected them to.  …[E]xcept when serious royalist conspiracies were under investigation his government turned a surprisingly blind eye to peacable catholic activity.  Late in 1656, when he was negotiating an alliance with France, Cardinal Mazarin wrote to him to urge a formal toleration of catholics.  He replied that a public declaration granting them full religious freedom was politically impossible, but claimed that they had less cause for complaint under his government than under that of the Long Parliament.  He himself, he said, had shown compassion to ‘very many’; he had ‘plucked many out of the fire–the raging fire of persecution, which did tyrannize over their consciences…’  He hoped to do more for them as soon as he could remove certain impediments…   Bordeaux assured Mazarin that catholic priests were moving freely about London, and he and other foreign diplomats testified that the catholic laity thronged to worship in the chapels of foreign embassies, where they heard English priests preach in their own language.  There were occasional crackdowns when complaints were raised in parliament or a royalist plot was uncovered, but it seems to have been rare for anyone to be punished.”

The great age of religious persecution in 17th-century England was under James I and Charles I, i.e. 1603-49.  (The term “Pilgrim Fathers” mean anything?)  Cromwell’s rule was one of comparative religious tolerance, even towards witchcraft, prosecutions for which fell off sharply in number from 1650 on.  Even, in fact–and more astoundingly by the standards of the time–towards Jews, who were re-admitted to England during Cromwell’s rule, and flourished in the nation thereafter.  Cromwell’s govt. was so Good For The Jews that Sigmund Freud named his seond son Oliver in Cromwell’s honor. 


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