Churchill imbibed, and served up, the classic Victorian Anglican version of our island story


Sir Winston Churchill, the 50th anniversary of whose death was marked last week, was not only a political giant; he was also a prolific historian who won the Nobel Prize for literature. One of his most influential books was the bestselling A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, published in the 1950s, and never since out of print.

The volumes illustrate Churchill’s great strengths as a historian and have a strong narrative drive, as well as clearly delineated heroes and villains: the former are usually Protestant, the latter invariably Catholic. This reflected not only the reality that England’s hereditary enemies were the Catholic countries of Spain and France, but also the bias inculcated by three centuries of Anglican state-sponsored propaganda.

Churchill imbibed, and later served up, the classic Victorian Anglican version of our island story. The medieval popes were foreign tyrants who always backed absolutism and opposed liberty. The Reformation was portrayed as Henry VIII’s declaration of independence from Rome, with the additional virtue of putting Bibles into the hands of the ordinary Englishman. This was contrasted with the obscurantism of papists like the bigoted Duke of Norfolk, who said he “never read the Scripture nor never will read it. It was merry in England afore the new learning came up.”

Queen Mary was, of course, far from merry, and the epithet of “Bloody” well deserved, with her love of persecution being put down to her religion and “strong Spanish blood”. She was incapable of realising “that the common people … coupled Catholicism with foreign influence”, and had noble champions of liberty such as Cranmer and Latimer burned. “Good Queen Bess”, on the other hand, was a great Protestant champion, and her defeat of the perfidious (Catholic) tyrant’s Spanish Armada, one of the great triumphs of English history.

Churchill was, naturally, equally celebratory about the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. He described how a “great Protestant wind” rose in the “hearts of men, rising in fierce gusts to gale fury” to blow away the Catholic tyrant, James II, a low fellow prepared to sacrifice English freedom to the dictates of his faith. The English people were, Churchill declared, convinced “from the whole character of the Catholic Church at this time, that once he wielded the sword their choice would be the Mass or the stake”. The “Protestant wind” that brought King Billy to England, blew away the dark shadows of priestcraft and opened the way to the sun-kissed uplands of liberty, which would be defend-ed by gallant Whigs such as his own ancestor, the first Duke of Marlborough.

Churchill was, in fact, that archetype described by Newman in his Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England, who justified his anti-Catholicism by declaring: “It is too notorious for proof; every one knows it; every book says it; it has been so ruled long ago.” The book was full of “that ungenerous spirit which energises and operates so widely and so unweariedly in the Protestant community”.

Far from Newman’s work being, in Owen Chadwick’s words, a sad example of “a refined mind bothering itself with trash”, it was a noble attempt to combat the “black legend” about Catholicism which formed part of the Victorian version of our history. Only a few years before, in 1851, the restoration by Rome of the Catholic hierarchy in England had led to an outbreak of anti-Catholic hysteria led by the Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, whose hereditary prejudices led him to dub it “papal aggression”. In 1874 Gladstone would declare that no Catholic Englishman could be fully trusted because he owed his ultimate allegiance to a “foreign potentate”. So deep-rooted was this prejudice that Newman himself predicted that the response to his sallies would be: “It is rather too much in the 19th century to be told to begin history again, and to have to reverse our elementary facts.” Churchill’s History bore witness to the accuracy of that prophecy.

How far have things changed? The decline of the influence of Christianity in modern Britain has meant that the old Protestant narrative Churchill championed has had no successors. Indeed, there has even been some sign that the tide is turning. Eamon Duffy’s tour de force, The Stripping of the Altars, published in 1992, tackled head-on the great Reformation myth that the Catholic Church was corrupt and unpopular. With an impressive range of sources, Duffy scraped off the Protestant veneer to reveal a popular Church in such good health that it took all the violence and propaganda efforts of the state to suppress it. More recently, his equally impressive The Fires of Faith even dared to provide a balanced account of Queen Mary’s reign. Who knows where this might lead?

But 50 years on from his death, it is surely time to bury Churchill’s Protestant history.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (30/1/15)