True England: Two Thousand Years in One Thousand Words

True England: Two Thousand Years in One Thousand Words

Dear Friends,

I am currently writing a series for Crisis Magazine in which I put the great works of literature in the proverbial nutshell. The idea of the series is to distil and encapsulate the masterpieces of literature in a thousand words or thereabouts. This gave me the idea of trying to put the history of “true” England into a similar nutshell. Relishing a challenge, the following is a snapshot in a thousand words of the full panorama of two thousand years of English history.

The first Christian missionaries are said to have arrived in 63 AD, twenty years after the Roman conquest of Britain and only thirty years after the Crucifixion. According to pious legend, this mission was led by St. Joseph of Arimathea, who was said to have brought with him as a holy relic the chalice which Christ had used at the Last Supper. Known as the Holy Grail, its subsequent loss and the quest to find it would inspire the Arthurian legends. Irrespective of the historical truth of this legend, which might be little more than wishful thinking, it has meant that England has always been a Christ-haunted country.

By the time the Romans withdrew from England in 410 AD, the country was mostly Christian. This Christian presence remained, especially in the north and west of the country, even after the arrival of the pagan Germanic tribes. The arrival of St. Augustine of Canterbury in 597 AD, heralded the beginning of the conversion or reconversion of England.

Anglo-Saxon England would be something of a golden age of Christianity. A land of countless saints, it was also a place of great learning. St. Bede wrote his monumental ecclesiastical history of the English people and, at around the same time, an unknown monk wrote the great epic poem, Beowulf. King Alfred the Great, as well as defending England successfully from the pagan Danes, translated Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, as well as works by St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great. Anglo-Saxon England ended in a blaze of glory with a saint on the throne, St. Edward the Confessor, and the miraculous blessing of the Marian apparition at Walsingham in 1061.

The Norman Conquest in 1066 led to major changes to the governance of England but made no real difference to the nation’s devout Christian faith. The country became known as Merrie England because of the manner in which its people celebrated the liturgical year with a festive joie de vivre. There were Christian festivals and fairs across the country on the feast days of the saints. Pilgrimages to the numerous shrines to the Blessed Virgin and other saints were a part of the cultural life of the people. The shrine to Our Lady of Walsingham, the site of the apparition in 1061, became one of the major centres of pilgrimage in the whole of Christendom, with pilgrims arriving from all parts of Europe. There were so many people on the Walsingham Way that it became known as the Milky Way, signifying that the number of pilgrims matched the number of stars in the sky.

Following the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket in 1170, the city of Canterbury became another major site of pilgrimage. Throughout the country, on major feast days, the guilds would organize processions, pageants and plays. Passion plays were performed to commemorate the Passion of Christ and other Mystery Plays were performed at other times of the year, with the Corpus Christi cycle of plays being especially popular.

Then, in the 1530s, the arrogant and narcissistic Henry VIII declared war on the faith of England and, in doing so, he declared war on the people themselves. He shut down the numerous monasteries and convents across the land, which had provided help for the poor and sick. He then gave the monastic land to those nobles who were prepared to join him in the pillaging of the nation’s sacred culture. Henry declared himself the supreme head of the Church, effectively establishing a state religion. There were many uprisings by the people throughout the sixteenth century. The Pilgrimage of Grace was a popular rising by the people in the north of England in protest against the dissolution of the monasteries. There were risings across the country after the Mass was banned during the reign of Henry’s successor, Edward VI. There was a further major rising, known as the Northern Rebellion, during the reign of Elizabeth I, which was put down with sickening and tyrannical brutality. It was punishable by death in England to be a Catholic priest and it was also punishable by death to hide a priest from the priest-hunters who roamed the land. Between the 1530s and 1680s, for a period of 150 years, Catholics were put to death for the practice of their faith. There then followed a further 150 years of persecution, even after the executions had stopped, as England’s Catholics were denied the legal rights enjoyed by the rest of the population. They were treated as second-class citizens in their own country for the “crime” of practicing the Faith which Englishmen had practiced for almost 1,500 years prior to Henry’s imposition of his own tyrannical will. It wasn’t until Catholic Emancipation in 1829 that the three centuries of persecution came to an end.

The nineteenth century saw a huge increase in the number of Catholics in England. There were many high-profile conversions, most notably that of John Henry Newman in 1845, and an increase in Irish immigration in the wake of the potato famine led to a significant rise in the number of working- class Catholics. New churches were built across the land and new school were opened. Between the conversion of Newman in 1845 and the end of the Second World War a century later, there was a Catholic cultural revival which enriched the world with its goodness, truth and beauty. Converts to the Faith, such as Hopkins, Chesterton, Waugh and Greene, produced great works of literature, whereas others, such as T. S. Eliot and C. S. Lewis, while never becoming Catholics themselves, could be considered fellow travelers. J. R. R. Tolkien, whose mother was a convert to the Faith, would write one of the best-selling and most influential works of all time, describing it as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work”.

In closing, I am aware that much has been left out of this “snapshot” and I’m equally aware that some might baulk at the emphasis on what might be considered a Catholic “bias”. I would concede the point, except that I would point out that England was Catholic for over a thousand years and that I consider this the “true England”, which is to say that it is the England which remains true to the Truth Himself. Those who remained true to this England during three centuries of relentless persecution are worth remembering with all due deference and reverence. This I have done and for this no apology is necessary.

Joseph Pearce’s book, Faith of Our Fathers: A History of True England, is published by Ignatius Press in March.

Join Joseph Pearce on a pilgrimage to England this September. Find our more: Saints, Martyrs & Literary Giants: A Pilgrimage to Catholic England with Fr. Greg Bierbaum and Joseph Pearce - Corporate Travel Service (


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