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Sunday, March 26, 2017
Date Posted:
4/12/2002

Oliver Cromwell


The Chapter and the Protectorate – The Hidden Years


Dr. Clive Gillis

Maurice Ashley in his book The Greatness of Oliver Cromwell says of the Protectorate: ’Although Roman Catholics and Anglicans were excluded from the new order, Cromwell’s own belief in liberty of conscience was illustrated at every level, and in office he grew more and not less tolerant. No new laws were passed against Roman Catholics and the old ones were not much pressed.’

According to a document in the Public records office, the ‘French Ambassador reported home in September 1656 that the Catholics find their position better than under former kings who did not allow them freedom of worship.’

Cromwell himself personally told Rome that this liberty of men’s consciences in private was something he was proud to promote. He wrote to Cardinal Mazarin, ‘Your eminency in behalf of Catholics has less reason to complain as to rigour upon men’s consciences than under the Parliament.’

Cromwell’s Tolerance

Mary Leys, former lecturer at St. Anne’s, Oxford, and Leverhulme Research Fellow, in her Social History of English Roman Catholics, writes:

‘When the Protectorate was established, the laws against Papists remained unchanged, except that compulsory attendance at the parish church was no longer demanded. The oath of fealty to the new government was purely political in character, with no religious implications: a Catholic who took it foreswore his king but not his God. Although Cromwell could be ruthless, as he showed in Ireland, (she wrote without the benefit of Tom Reilly’s Cromwell – An Honourable Enemy, which with impressive mastery of detail and marshalling of hitherto little researched local history, concludes that Cromwell’s appalling reputation appears to be undeserved) Cromwell was far more tolerant than the Presbyterians and only two priests Were executed between 1647 and 1660.’

John Bossy, talking of the period between the hasty departure of Bishop Smith from England in 1631 and the re-establishment of the Roman hierarchy in the person of Bishop Leyburn in 1685, says: ‘In English history as a whole, the period was dominated by the Civil War and the Interregnum (Protectorate); in English Catholic history it was dominated by the Chapter of the English Secular Clergy.’

This is not to say that the Jesuits faded out of the picture, for they were still numerous and tightly governed and were chaplains to many important Catholics, but they now had other missionary distractions particularly in the roman catholic colony of Maryland, in the USA, which had just recovered from Protestant suppression and was flourishing again.

The Chapter

This brings us back to the Chapter. The Chapter was the central organisation which linked and governed the secular priests, that is, those priests who were not members of religious orders such as the Jesuits and Benedictines.

Rome states: ‘The ecclesiastical status of the Chapter has always been a matter of dispute. A Chapter without a diocese is an anomaly, unknown in canon law, and Rome always refrained from any positive act of recognition. On the other hand, she equally refrained from any censure, although it was known that the chapter was claiming and exercising large functions….the chapter existed ‘’sciente et tacente sede apostolica’ (with the knowledge and silent consent of the Pope) and that this was sufficient to give it a canonical status.’

This tacit arrangement continued until 1850. By it Rome controlled her people while keeping open her options for their future government if times improved.

Bishop Richard Smith who died in exile in France on 18th March 1655 at the age of 88, never returned to England after his hasty flight. Hugh Tootell, writing under the pseudonym Charles Dodd, says Smith was ‘kindly received by Cardinal Richelieu who bestowed upon him the Abbey of Charroux for a subsistence. Meanwhile he exercised his jurisdiction in England by the Chapter… the Regulars (Jesuits and Benedictines) still pleading their exemptions and privileges; and with more hopes of success on account of his absence.

‘While Cardinal Richelieu was alive, Bishop Smith experienced his friendship on all occasions; but after his death Cardinal Mazarin being the chief minister of state and no friend to Bishop Smith (due to a political reversal)…found means to deprive him of his Abbey.’ This ‘proved not only a detriment to the Bishop’s private concerns but a general loss to many Englishmen in distress who followed their unfortunate prince in banishment, and were plentifully supplied by his lordship’s generosity, while he was in a capacity. This ….obliged Bishop Smith to retire to an apartment belonging to the English nuns of St. Augustine upon the Fosse St Victor in Paris, where he ended his days.’

The Oath of Allegiance

Regular readers will realise the importance to the Seculars (the ordinary priests) of taking an Oath of Allegiance to the Crown. This would relieve them of the punitive legislation, particularly recusancy fines, and, hopefully, move them back into the mainstream of English life. The Jesuits leading the regulars (mostly Jesuits and Benedictines) had hitherto bitterly opposed the taking of the Oath of Allegiance. They kept the papacy on their side through a succession of popes whose policies varied, while these same popes simultaneously kept the seculars hopes alive by never actively outlawing the Chapter and its Bishops.

However, the period of the Civil War and Protectorate threw these alliances into confusion. Under Cromwell, the Anglican hierarchy was disbanded. Moreover, after the King’s execution, an Act of February 1650 altered the previous Oath of allegiance to the King to an ‘Engagement of Allegiance’ to the Protectorate.

Gardiner’s Constitutional Documents of the Puritan Revolution 1625-1660, now available on the internet, records the severer anti-Roman Catholic legislation enacted in the 1640’s. This severe legislation was only reluctantly enforced by Cromwell towards the end of the Protectorate when Jesuit activity caused even the Quakers to be suspected of being Jesuits in disguise. The Anglican hierarchy was gone but the Army was resisting universal Presbyterianism. It was a day of Protestant dissent and the patriotic Romanist Squires and the Protestant dissenting Army officers shared similar social backgrounds. But as Rome sought to seize her chance, the divisions in her own ranks widened.

Henry More

The powerful head of the now wealthy English Province of the Society of Jesus, Henry More, great grandson of the executed Thomas More, had dealt personally in the intrigues of the papal agents Panzani, Conn and Rossetti in Henrietta Maria’s court before the Civil War. He probably knew more of Rome’s business than any man in England and speedily performed an amazing U-turn. With other Regulars (who happened to be much the same people that had hounded Bishop Smith out of the country), More approached the government with the suggestion that since Protestant dissent was not being allowed, it would be reasonable to grant Roman catholics sectarian status in exchange for signing a newly drawn up mutually agreeable Oath of Allegiance! The Jesuits realised that Oliver Cromwell could not be converted to their cause and that their survival was at stake. Changed circumstances called for new strategies.

Jesuits Clever Move

The Seculars were unprepared for this clever move by the Regulars. The Chapter was slow moving and somewhat naïve and reactionary. It was in many ways more English than Roman. Out of a desire to maintain tradition and a respectable gravitas, the Chapter had become too elaborate and ponderous for the number of seculars it represented. A hard core of members, dating back to Appellant days, wanted to retain their original goal of establishing a true papal hierarchy with open Vatican recognition, as befitted English Gentlemen, and not continue ‘sciente et tacente’, which to them was a disgraceful state of affairs. It looked as if the Jesuits would run rings round the seculars, but the Vatican intervened at this point by sending another secret papal agent to England.

Sir Kenelm Digby

The ‘wealthy and eccentric Roman Catholic virtuoso’, Sir Kenelm Digby, was a fascinating, intellectual version of Panzani. His father was executed for the Gun Powder treason of 1606. Digby, thwarted in love and wandering in Spain, was appointed courtier to Charles I when Charles was investigating the possibility of marriage to the Spanish Infanta.

Digby tried to enrich himself as a pirate, but on embarrassing the Government he retired to Gresham College, Holborn, to experiment in chemistry with a view to producing a ‘powder of sympathy’ which could heal by indirect application. As Henrietta Maria extended her Roman Catholic court circle, Digby was taken on as an agent, but was banished to France for his activities in 1641 (when he supported Charles I’s expedition against the Scottish Presbyterians in 163 9-40 and was summoned to parliament as a recusant). There he wrote on philosophy and produced a beauty manual for women. When the Civil War broke out, Henrietta Maria made representations to the English Catholic Committee in Parish, in 147 and 1649, to have him sent to St. Peter’s in Rome to raise funds for Charles I from Innocent X. Digby failed, despite his claim that he could procure the conversion of Charles I and his courtiers to Rome. He was then again banished by a suspicious Parliament.

Cromwell wisely kept on good terms with a number of key Roman Catholics, including Jesuits, as he realised that in the long term the Roman question would need a satisfactory solution. Just as in the 20th century the Jesuits courted East and West equally before the outcome of the Cold War became apparent, so the Jesuits began to court Cromwell as he came to power and eventually stopped rendering any service to the King once they realised that the king was doomed. A historian recorded in 1653, ‘The Jesuits are said to be very solicitous for Cromwell and look for great matters from him when he shall make himself King.’ It seems probable that Digby’s embassy was the result of Cromwell’s prior assurances to the pope of his good purposes towards the Catholics.

Mysterious Interviews

The first months of the Protectorate were filled with urgent business for Cromwell at home and abroad. Even so, throughout 1654 Cromwell had a number of mysterious interviews with Sir Kenelm Digby, who arterwards expressed his obligation to the Lord Protector for his courteous treatment. The friendship was mutual according to R J Peterson’s standard biography Sir Kenelm Digby: The Ornament of England 1605-1665, where one of the chapters headings is Cromwell’s Catholic Favourite. The usual line is that Cromwell regarded Digby as eccentric and not to be relied upon for any serious diplomacy, but at least honest and sincere with regard to his mission and hence a Romanist from whom he could gather helpful intelligence.

Maurice Ashley says, ‘It is believed what Digby sought was an undertaking that Roman Catholics should not be persecuted for the private celebration of the Mass.’ Was shrewd Ashley wrong in his assessment that ‘in Cromwell there mingled the quick intelligence of a practical ruler of men and the deep-rooted strains of a Protestant idealist who saw the spread of liberal Christianity the right aim of government throughout the world?’ Was Cromwell’s policy of toleration a trap into which he had been lured by Digby? Was Digby a Jesuit tool?

Ashley was not wrong, for Sir Kenelm Digby was behind the Chapter, not the Jesuits. Indeed, Rome has cleverly covered up an amazing anti-Jesuit plot hatched between Digby and a faction of the Chapter, the consequences of which were to reverberate throughout the 17th century history, with disastrous consequences for the Protestant establishment. Although in the long term, Digby’s policy was nearly the Chapter’s undoing, at the time it provided a valuable curb on Jesuit activity. The period of the Protectorate was as Bossy says, dominated by the Chapter of the English secular clergy. We shall see this in the next issue, DV.

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