I have a French friend who says that she only really understands history through the medium of the novel – when a work of fiction is based around a historical period or episode. I don’t always agree with this, because fiction sometimes adds misleading elements to history which aren’t exact. But over the Easter period I read a gripping novel which paints a vivid picture of life among Recusants in the English Midlands, in the Cromwellian and post-Cromwellian period.
It’s called In Plain Sight and is written by Kate Myers – an American-born author who has lived in Leicester since the 1970s. It’s the story of a Jesuit priest, Fr William Bentney, who served as a chaplain to a wealthy Catholic wool merchant in Leicester for more than 40 years. Fr William was disguised as – or, perhaps, doubled as – a gardener to the Byerley family, which seems to have been a quite common practice for Catholic priests when they had to conceal their identities. And of course Catholic families had to pay a fine to the authorities for not conforming to the Church of England.
I was familiar with the Cromwellite period when “Papist” practices were forbidden. What I hadn’t realised was that after the restoration of Charles II in 1660, things sometimes got worse for recusants. King Charles issued a Declaration of Indulgence intended to allow Catholics the right to worship in private houses. But, as the author writes, “although it was meant as a measure to strengthen the security of the state, it did nothing to allay suspicions. It was seen as a sell-out to the Catholic threat from France.” There was a revival of anti-Catholic feeling, and soon afterwards the fake “Popish Plot” engendered by Titus Oates broke out. Newspapers, broadsides, cartoons, bawdy songs, ballads (a bit like the internet today) all featured some grotesque Catholic menace, and Oates’s allegations resulted in the arrests – and executions – of priests as well as lay men and women.
Just how this quiet Jesuit, who had served his community discreetly and loyally, was betrayed, thrown into prison and finally died is interwoven in a spell-binding story depicting everyday life in Leicestershire in the late 1600s. There was a strong community life in Leicester and some local protection for priests and recusants. But of course there were always financial (and other) inducements to betrayal, and there were always political beneficiaries of such betrayals.
The threat of plague, the role of the tavern, the prison cell and the highwayman, and the beginnings of women’s education are interwoven into the story. It is based on meticulous research, but told in the form of a novel, and it brought home to me so much about this period.
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