During the Victorian and Edwardian ages, the historical essays produced by English Catholics had as their main subject the 16th century and its many martyrs. At the time, in fact, few were aware of the bloodshed caused by the infamous government of Elizabeth, and the stories of those who suffered and died because of their faith were not yet part of the national conscience. As Evelyn Waugh wrote, it is believed in England that Elizabeth’s anti-Catholic policy was singularly soft, and that in an age of savage intolerance she and Cecil stood out as unique examples of reasonableness and moderation.
In the mid-19th century, the anti-Catholic hysteria caused by the restoration of the “papist” hierarchy in the UK helped develop a thriving hate literature, the most famous example of which is Westward Ho! (1855) by Reverend Charles Kingsley. In the novel, a eulogy of Drake, the attack on the Jesuits is accompanied by a violent denunciation of the alleged crimes of the Inquisition; on the other hand, not the slightest mention is made of the cruelties committed in the name of the queen by her servants. Martyrs like Robert Southwell are ridiculed, just as the story of clandestine priests, forced to celebrate the sacraments in secret, is considered a legend for the credulous.
In 1886, the beatification of fifty-four English martyrs by Leo XIII – to which nine others were added in 1895 – greatly changed the general perception of what really happened during the Elizabethan era. In the following decades, various works on the subject were published: John Hungerford Pollen, in addition to new editions of old works, published the volume Lives of the English Martyrs Hitherto Unpublished in 1891, while the Benedictine Bede Camm, a former Anglican like Pollen, wrote Lives of the English Martyrs Declared Blessed by Pope Leo XIII (1904) and Forgotten Shrines (1910), a brilliant study dedicated to the most important recusant families and their homes.
In this climate, the first man of letters to make his voice heard was Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson who, over the span of ten years, published some important historical novels that sold many copies and, although marred by some errors and gaps, contributed to spreading a more correct – and less commendable – image of the Tudors.
Imitating Benson, Hilaire Belloc wrote pamphlets on Wolsey, Cromwell and Cranmer, as well as the interesting How the Reformation Happened (1928). The essay The Monstrous Regiment (1930) by Christopher Hollis, and the novel Tudor Sunset (1932) by Mrs Wilfrid Ward also contributed to shedding new light on the reign of Elizabeth. Above all, the book Edmund Campion (1935) by Evelyn Waugh was the most successful portrait of the Jesuit martyr of the same name.
One of the consequences of this counter-cultural impetus was the elevation of Queen Mary Stuart as the new idol of Catholics: even Frederick Rolfe – aka Baron Corvo – often critical of his co-religionists, admired the noble nature of the Scottish sovereign. Not a few poets dedicated their best verse, among other things, to the queen; one of these was Michael Field. Maurice Baring also wrote a novel about her, evocatively titled In My End is My Beginning (1931).
Today it is difficult to fully understand the extent of the revolution triggered in the twentieth century by English Catholic historical literature. One after another, cliches that had endured for centuries ceased to exist, and the glorious events of so many martyrs became known for the first time to the general public. What was done then left a permanent mark and helped to forge in England that religious identity which, despite everything, still remains strong today.