Wednesday, July 4, 2012
Being married to a woman of 100 percent Irish blood, I would have thought I had earned a certain street cred with my Irish friends by now, and having turned Catholic four years ago, I figured the damage, if any, was all undone. But now thanks to a collection of essays by Sigrid Undset and Evelyn Waugh’s biography of martyr St. Edmund Campion (pictured here), I’m up to my eyeballs in the atrocities of the so-called Protestant Reformation in England.
What appalls me most is that, sure, the English did it to the Irish, but they did it to their own. And that in school we were sold a bill of goods about all that—you know, the glories of the Renaissance, the defeat of the Armada, and the Elizabethan era as some sort of peak in Western culture. I mean, Shakespeare, after all.
I told Katie, all of whose grandparents were born in Ireland, that I was suddenly uncomfortable about this family history of mine, which it undeniably is, even if we’re talking distant ancestors. And let’s not forget that I was raised in the Anglican (Episcopal) Church and brought up on the cadences of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, or that I’ve said that giving up those cadences (“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures”) was the hardest thing about becoming Catholic.
Katie said, But you can’t feel guilty about what some English people did four hundred years ago! And I agreed: No, I don’t feel guilty exactly, but if you found out your great-grandfather was a slave owner, wouldn’t you want to know more about all that?
I should have known better, what with “A Man for All Seasons” being my all-time favorite movie. But somehow I thought Thomas More’s was a special case and Henry VIII was a particularly special monster. Now it turns out that his illegitimate daughter Elizabeth was a worse monster, for all that Kate Blanchett and others have tried to make her look interesting.
This post isn’t leading anywhere much, except, I hope, to more serious study of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England. I’ll begin by finishing Waugh’s bio of Campion, then happily accept any reader suggestions of where to turn next.