In 1535, King Henry VIII (reigned 1509-1547) pressured Parliament to pass the Act of Supremacy, recognizing the British monarch as head of the Church in England. Most Catholics are familiar with Henry’s schismatic action. The same Catholics are equally unaware that every bishop in the kingdom acquiesced to the king’s pleasure — save one.
By a legal fiction, the Bishop of Rochester’s loyalty to the pope was condemned as treason by a judge and jury who, a bare two years earlier, had lived under similar allegiance to the Vicar of Christ. St John Fisher lost his head for refusing to betray the faith.
Mind you, Henry VIII died thinking himself a Catholic. No Lutheran nor any other kind of newly-minted “reformer” was allowed entry into his realm. Henry maintained a valid priesthood, attended the real Mass, and received actual sacraments, for whatever good they did him.
Following the six-year reign of the boy king Edward VI (1547-1553) and the five-year reign of her Catholic half-sister, Mary, Elizabeth I (1558–1603) threw in her lot with the “reformers.” The Anglican Church was protestantized; the Mass abolished; transubstantiation repudiated, the spiritual efficacy of sacraments denied; and the priesthood ended.
After 1585, under Bloody Bess, Parliament outlawed any priest ordained abroad after 1559. If found in her domain, such priests were tortured, escorted to the coast, put on a ship and warned, if picked up again they’d be hanged, drawn and quartered. The gallows at Tyburn and the butcher’s cleaver were kept busy.
High sheriffs and lords mayor across the land encouraged the queen’s subjects to keep watch for such men. Snitching on neighbors was encouraged. On the slightest suspicion they were arrested. Informants earned royal bounties.
There were Catholics who resisted. Writes Jessie Childs, author of “Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England” (The Bodley Head, 2014):
“At the disobedient end of the spectrum were those individuals (8,590 recorded in 1603) who staunchly adhered to the Roman church’s insistence that compliance was an insult to the faith. They were known as recusants (from the Latin “recusare”: to refuse) and they paid a high price for their ‘obstinacy’. In 1559, the fine for missing church was 12 pence. In 1581, it was raised to a crippling 20 pounds.
What had been Merry England was now a police state.
On top of the furtive spying and nosing about, bands of thugs, handsomely paid by the Royal Exchequer, gathered the indolent and disreputable, the bullies, creeps and slugs. Ha-rangued by members of the Elizabethan secret police, then given their fill of wine, ale or beer, besotted with loathing for “popery,” the drunken hatemongers were loosed on unsuspecting cities and towns to foment anti-Catholic pogroms.
Inhabitants were terrorized; monuments pulled down; statues smashed; the great market crosses hacked apart; wayside shrines wrecked; while the night sky blazed with burning guildhalls, shops, stables and hostelries.
Monasteries and convents were emptied, their interiors burned. Monks and nuns were assaulted and brutalized. Anything found within smacking of “papist idolatry” was demolished: paintings and missals ripped apart; statues beheaded; stained glass windows shattered; and rood screens overthrown.
The worst demoniacal fury was saved for tabernacles, pyxes and sacrament houses. Swarm-ing through and plundering chapels and churches the rabble searched for the Most Blessed Sacrament. Now assured by a malevolent, crown-sponsored clergy that the object of their search, the “Christ-in-the-box,” was a deceit perpetrated by Rome, it was soon mockingly redubbed “Jack-in-the-box,” a jack being “a saucy or impertinent fellow; an upstart, a boor, a clown.” The earliest use of this disparaging nickname is cited in a 1546 work by Miles Coverdale:
“Certayne fonde talkers . . . applye to this mooste holye sacramente, names of despitte and \ reproche, as to call it Jack in the boxe, and Round Roben, the sacrament of the halter, and suche other not onely fond but also blasphemouse names (fond or fonde at the time meant “foolish,” “confounded” or “annoying”).”
Toppling these containers from off ornate pillars or yanking them from high altars the mob smashed then open, the sacred hosts spilled from ciboria or contemptuously thrown into the street, ground underfoot, fed to dogs and horses, urinated on, and employed in other disgusting scatological or sexual indignities and abominations to ridicule Catholic belief.
What follows is a poem from 1570, recast in modern spelling. It is of interest for demon-strating the desperate efforts of the British Crown to demonize belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and Catholics’ submission to the pope. Collected in “Satirical Poems of the Time of the Reformation,” this doggerel appeared when William Shakespeare was all of six years old:
“Jack in the box,
For all thy mocks
A vengeance on thee fall!
Our freedom brings in thrall.”
Translating the colloquialisms and making sense of the era’s political twaddle, the verse might today be recast as something on this order:
“The tabernacled Host is a pious fake!
A pretentious hoax that soon will make
Catholics from abroad our liberty take.
But we’ve begun to fight this fraud,
On papist knavery have we trod.
Lose all your liberty as you want if You want to be enslaved by the Roman Pontiff.”
As implied, scoffing at doctrine and marginalizing Catholics, especially “Romish priests” in public life was also political strategy, engendering national pride by underscoring England’s new independence from papal despotism, to which “backward” France and Spain remained ensnared.
For some 350 years, British historians and textbook propaganda described how, even before the Reformation, Catholicism was moribund and had lost its vitality; was generally ignored, and happily discarded by nobility and commoners alike. This perception was cheerily trumpeted for over a century and a half by many sympathetic historians in the United States and Canada.
In 1992, Dr. Eamon Duffy’s well-researched book “The Stripping of the Altars” (Yale University Press) turned this idea on its head. Dr. Duffy, an Irish historian, professor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge, and former President of Magdalene College, revealed how vibrant and tightly woven Catholic belief was within the kingdom. He argues that “every aspect of religious life prior to the Reformation was undertaken with well-meaning piety. Feast days were celebrated, fasts solemnly observed, churches decorated, images venerated, candles lit and prayers for the dead recited with regularity.”
If certain details of violence, hatred and stupidity noted above sound uncomfortably familiar to Americans living in the Year of Our Lord 2020, this writer prays they make the most of it.
Sean M. Wright, an Emmy-nominated television writer, is a Master Catechist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He is also part of the RCIA team at Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Santa Clarita, CA. He responds to comments sent him at Locksley69@aol.com.