John Donne and the Catholic Church

John Donne (1572 – 1631) was born and raised as a Catholic but died as an Anglican – quite a notable one in fact, as he was the Dean of Saint Paul’s cathedral for the last ten years of his life. This much is a given, but the nature of Donne’s actual convictions and his idea of where the true Church subsisted is harder to establish. In fact, it is important to note at the outset here that nothing can be conclusively proved with respect to Donne’s religious affiliation, and anything I write here must similarly be taken as speculation; this is not to say that no theory can be any more convincing than another, only that nothing can be said with absolute assurance.

John Donne was born into a well-off Catholic family in London, and was educated at home until the age of twelve, when he went to study at Oxford. At the age of fourteen he transferred to Trinity College, Cambridge, and shortly after this his thought began to diverge from Catholic teaching. It must be remembered that during this entire period adherence to the ancient Faith of England was attended by heavy penalties and would lead to social exclusion, so there is an antecedent possibility that Donne would have been attracted away from the Church in order to avoid persecution and enjoy the freedom of society. Moreover, the shadow of anti-Catholicism was cast heavily over his family history, as his great-grandmother was the sister of Saint Thomas More.

On top of this more distant legacy, Donne’s brother died in prison, having been sent there for hiding a Catholic priest, and two of his uncles (on his mother’s side) were among the first English members of the Society of Jesus; Jasper, one of these uncles, who was by all accounts quite an arrogant man and therefore may have led to Donne’s bad feeling towards the Jesuits later in life, was in fact Superior of the Jesuit Mission to England. It is difficult to say what sort of legacy all this left in the mind of the young John Donne – one could argue that it fostered a life-long admiration for his relatives’ adherence to the Catholic Faith, or that it simply put him off remaining as a Catholic.

The reality is probably a mixture of the two, but the latter aspect had a more immediate influence – Donne was keen on an academic career, and not being able to take a degree at either Oxford or Cambridge because of his Catholicism must have rankled him greatly and contributed to his later decision to convert away from the Church. At any rate, by the time he was twenty he was admitted to practise law, and whilst he still identified as a Catholic, was openly espousing heterodox ideas. It is also at this time that we see in his poetry the embracing of a libertine and cynical philosophy of life, as well as the emergence of some rather salacious imagery in his love poems. So whilst Donne was being converted away from Catholicism, he was certainly not being converted to any other form of Christianity.

The times that Donne lived in were, whilst relatively quiet politically (the Thirty Years War only took place right at the end of his life and the English Civil War was to come yet later), a period of great metaphysical and theological confusion, as well as an era of growing philosophical and scientific scepticism. The old, ordered universe of the Middle Ages was thrown up in the air, and thanks to the upheavals of the Protestant Reformation, many did not quite know what to believe any more – what the nature of the Church was, where it was to be found, how to reconcile the traditions of previous generations with the novelties of the day, were questions on the minds of many.

On top of this, Donne was a deeply emotional man, and therefore often driven one way and another in his doctrinal convictions by the change of mood or circumstance. This is not to say that he had no conviction, or was not a man of conscience, but only that in his earlier years his temperament often seems to have had the better of him, and in a world of great uncertainty this did not help him to become easily settled in his beliefs. On top of this, there was the practical issue that remaining as a Catholic would preclude any chance of the public career he so desired – this pragmatism seems to have funnelled any latent doctrinal confusion away from Rome, thus leaving his only remaining option as the Church of England.

Isaak Walton attributes the beginning of Donne’s conversion to Anglicanism at around nineteen/twenty, and this is certainly the time when he was beginning to be open about his divergence from Catholicism. However, it was not until 1614, when he was forty-two, that Donne formally rejected the Church and settled on the Anglican position. At the suggestion of King James I, he then became ordained to the Anglican ministry, and when he was forty-eight became Dean of Saint Paul’s cathedral. In 1618, his wife Anne died, and this caused him to also reject the cynicism of his youth and embrace devotional themes in his poetry to a greater extent. It is his poetry to which I now turn in order to get some sense of how much, whilst he had officially pledged allegiance elsewhere, he had retained affection for the Catholic Church.

The first poem which may shed some light on this matter is Satyre III, which has been dated to 1597 at the latest, so precedes Donne’s official rejection of Catholicism. However, it does give an insight into just how concerned Donne was about the question of where Truth resided, and the difficulties he found in coming down on any one side of the argument over the other. The relevant section is as follows:


On a huge hill,

Cragged, and steep, Truth stands, and he that will

Reach her, about must, and about must go;

And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so;

Yet strive so, that before age, death’s twilight,

Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.


Donne here describes the search for Truth as one that man must commit himself to, but (at least for Donne at that moment) admits of no firm conclusion – it is an ongoing process that we are bound to journey onward with, even if we cannot ever say with satisfaction that we have reached that point atop the ‘huge hill’ where ‘Truth stands’. In this poem Donne does not really examine the pros and cons of Canterbury, Geneva or Rome, but merely stresses the necessity of that truth-searching process. In a later poem, Holy Sonnet XVIII, though, which was written after he had been ordained to the Anglican ministry, we find the same themes and the same search still unresolved in the poet’s mind:


Show me dear Christ, Thy spouse, so bright and clear.

What! Is it She, which on the other shore

Goes richly painted? or which robb’d and tore

Laments and mourns in Germany and here?

Sleeps she a thousand, then peeps up one year?

Is she self-truth and errs? now, new, now outwore?

Doth she, and did she, and shall she evermore

On one, on seven, or on no hill appear?

Dwells she with us, or like adventuring knights

First travel we to seek and then make love?

Betray kind husband Thy spouse to our sights,

And let mine amorous soul court Thy mild dove,

Who is most true, and pleasing to Thee, then

When she is embrac’d and open to most men.


Apart from the startling imagery of the Church as prostitute (which has biblical precedent, at least if one considers the descriptions of Israel in the Old Testament as types of the Church), an image that Donne manages to present with a great measure of reverence – testament to his talent – here we have the poet still wrangling with the problems of where and what the Church is, even after taking up life in the Anglican ministry. Another interpretation has been suggested, namely that Donne is contrasting the Church promised in Scripture and the Church in the world, and it is possible that this theme is included as well. But the anguished nature of Donne’s questioning, and the specific raising of different options (the seven hills being Rome, the one as Jerusalem, probably representing the Eastern churches, and the none for Geneva) as candidate for the true locus of the Church’s life, seems to preclude this latter interpretation as being the dominant theme.

Moreover, Donne does not seem to allude to Anglicanism at all in this poem – there is no discernible reference to Canterbury as a possible candidate. This could be due to the growing sense within seventeenth century Anglicanism that it represented a middle way, inclusive of Catholicism and Calvinism, but given Donne’s personal history and his knowledge of the real differences that existed between Anglicanism and these other options, this does not seem likely. Might it more likely represent the continuation of a deep ambivalence about the authenticity of the Church of England as a church? Another poem, written in 1601, when Donne was twenty-nine and, at least publicly, professing Anglican beliefs, may shed some more light on this question.

The poem in question is entitled The Progress of the Soul (not to be confused with a later poem, also with the same name, but subtitled The Second Anniversary, and written in 1612) and presents the history of the soul of heresy, from the apple in Eden and through successive reincarnations in the great heretics. In this list of heretics Donne includes Muhammed, Luther, Calvin, and finally Elizabeth I, Queen of England and the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Apart from the fact that Donne was now professing Anglican beliefs, his official position was secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, a man who was opposed to Catholicism both in his official capacity and in his private beliefs, and who had prosecuted Saint Edmund Campion. He would not likely have taken Donne into his employ if his beliefs were still openly Catholic.

However, in The Progress of the Soul, Donne’s objections to Queen Elizabeth are theological in character – she is presented as a great heresiarch, following men like Luther and Calvin. If he had moved away from the Catholic Church, his feelings about Anglicanism were far from positive. What this makes clear is that Donne, before taking up his position as an Anglican minister (where, as we see above, he was still unsure of where the truth lay) he was able to live as an Anglican whilst rejecting much of its theology. In 1612 he wrote The Second Anniversary, the female figure in which is widely believed to refer to Elizabeth I (at least on one level – it is a complex poem with several layers of meaning), and again his feelings are deeply ambiguous:


She, who being to herself a State, enjoy’d

All royalties which any State employ’d;

For she made wars, and triumph’d; reason still

Did not o’erthrow, but rectify her will:

And she made peace, for no peace is like this,

That beauty, and chastity together kiss:

She did high justice, for she crucified

Every first motion of rebellious pride


There is a deeply ironic tone to Donne’s praises of Elizabeth’s achievements here, and the crucifixions of ‘rebellious pride’ mentioned are more than likely a reference to her severe treatment of Catholic recusants, something Donne well knew about due to his family history. Furthermore, the ‘high justice’ of the Queen could just as easily mean high-handed or overbearing rather than exalted and majestic. It is hard to say from the poem alone, but given what else we know of Donne’s attitudes, it is not completely without warrant to see this as a sly rebuke of the Queen’s actions. Another poem, written the year before and entitled The First Anniversary seems to compare the new Church of England to the old Catholic Church in England, and favours the latter:


For there’s a kind of world remaining still,

Though she which did inanimate and fill

The world, be gone, yet in this last long night,

Her ghost doth walk; that is, a glimmering light,

A faint weak love of virtue, and of good,

Reflects from her, on them which understood

Her worth; and though she have shut in all day,

The twilight of her memory doth stay;

Which, from the carcass of the old world, free,

Creates a new world, and new creatures be

Produc’d; the matter and the stuff of this,

Her virtue, and the form our practice is.


This passage has a deeply nostalgic tone, and Donne seems to be reconciling himself to the fact that the Catholic Church of his youth, which he still seems to love, is gone from England, but that her ‘ghost doth walk’ in the Church of England. I.e.; there has been, within the new church, some preservation of the old ways, and the poet finds some measure of solace in that, but ‘she which did inanimate and fill the world’ is gone – the fullness of the Faith has disappeared from England, and Donne, having long ago decided to abandon that Faith for the new ways (for whatever reason) is trying to make the best of it. It is not the most reassuring picture, tinged as it is with sadness for the old ways, but Donne at least gives himself the hope that there is some kind of continuity.

The ambiguous nature of all that is presented in Donne’s poetry with respect to his true religious beliefs is to be expected, as, if he held on to the Catholic beliefs of his youth, it would have been impossible for him to espouse them plainly and keep his position in society. Indeed, to do so may even have been to raise the possibility of martyrdom, and there are few of us who, if we are really honest, would welcome such a fate. Praise be to those who do walk that path, but it would, I think, be unfair to label John Donne a coward for concealing his true beliefs. Nevertheless, he could have concealed those beliefs by choosing a less illustrious path for himself and rejecting a career in public life – again, one cannot know, let alone judge, the motivations of another, but this does seem to have been, at least in part, a motivation for his leaving the Church.

As to what John Donne’s beliefs were during that last period of his life, as he continued in the Anglican ministry, noone can ever really know. But it is known that he exercised a very ‘high’ churchmanship, leaving behind only a few of the actual teachings of the Catholic Church (albeit highly significant ones, like the papal primacy) and it was no doubt the ambiguity of Anglicanism itself on a lot of matters that suited Donne and helped him to settle there. Whether his doubts about it as an authentic ‘branch’ of the Faith were ever resolved must also remain mysterious. But, strangely, it is when he tries to communicate his uncertainty on such matters in his poetry that he seems most sincere – ambiguity and doubt were, paradoxically, the themes he communicated most clearly, and so in that respect it is perhaps best to end on a note of uncertainty here as well.


12 thoughts on “John Donne and the Catholic Church

  1. A brilliant piece of writing Michael, and a generous-hearted defense of an intelligent and talented man who broke away from the Catholic Church to ‘feather his nest’ (for “the public career he so desired”!) and ‘save his skin’ (from the cruel torture and death all Catholic recusants were threatened with).
    Or at least this certainly appears to be the case with John Donne, IMHO, with the evidence at hand.

    While it is true that only God can judge his motives for his abandonment (betrayal?) of his Catholic Faith and the times were tough indeed for Catholics, it seems unlikely that IGNORANCE of Catholicism (which would have in that case exonerated him from much of the blame for his decision) could in truth be laid at his door. Even if he were also sucked up into the prevailing anti-Catholicism in England during those years, especially in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot, John Donne KNEW the True Faith and he CHOSE to reject it and embrace Anglicanism, however mixed up his motives might have been for doing so.

    Besides, I do not think there was much, if anything, left of Catholicism (“some preservation of the old ways” as you say) by that time for him to fall back on in the church of England. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass had been scorned and outlawed and called a ‘papist’ practice (and priests were derogatorily known as “massing priests”); many of the sacraments and Catholic doctrines had been discarded. Anglicanism, which certainly crept back to resemble Catholicism in many ways in later centuries, had, in the years of the life of John Donne, become well and truly Protestant. He knew this but still went along with it.

    If after his wife died Donne sounds “nostalgic” for the Faith of his youth, could that not also be a deep regret and perhaps very profound feelings of guilt?
    If so, the poor man will need lots of prayers and plenty of God’s abundant Forgiveness and Mercy in the next world.

    • Thank you Kathleen – I certainly had intended to be as generous as possible to Mr. Donne, and am glad it came across that way!

      It is indeed true that only God knows the true motives of anyone for doing what they do, but I am personally also of the mind that Donne’s decisions were motivated more by a desire to stay out of trouble than of being genuinely convinced by any Protestant teaching. This is in fact something that I hoped to convey in the post – that, whilst none can ever really know what went on in his head, it does seem that he was never really converted away from Church teaching on the vast majority of matters.

      Whilst I agree that Anglicanism was (and is) not substantially continuous with the Ancient Faith, but is rather essentially Protestant, it is its greatest (for want of a better word) achievement to have woven into its formularies an incredible amount of ambiguity, so that it is more possible to convince oneself that one can be both ‘Reformed’ and Catholic at the same time in Anglicanism than in any other form of Protestantism.

      The vast majority of the Book of Common Prayer, for example, consists of ancient prayers translated by Cranmer, so that Morning and Evening Prayer (as well as a good portion of the liturgy) remains perfectly orthodox. The parts where Protestant novelties were introduced are of course highly significant, but even then the wording is so subtle and ambiguous that it was possible for many people in Donne’s time (which, as I mentioned in the post, was a time of great confusion as to what was to be believed, with remnants of the old Catholic Faith still remaining, but mixed with the new teachings being promulgated) to convince themselves that what they were receiving was the authentic Catholic and Apostolic teaching.

      Of course, the case of John Donne is different in that he had the benefit of a Catholic upbringing, and would have known very well the key differences that existed. But it seems that his temperament led him to constantly doubt and question things, and coupled with the (possible) fear of following in his relatives’ footsteps and becoming a martyr for the Faith, he embraced the only other live option, and this was a place where ambiguity was given a warm welcome! If that was the case then, how much more now though – I am reminded here of something that William F. Buckley wrote about Anglicanism, that it is so eclectic that nobody from the Pope to Mao Tse-Tung could be sure that they are NOT an Anglican!

      Anyway, as for Donne, who knows – it seems to me that having never really rejected the substance of Catholic teaching, but having rejected formal association with the Church, he then found himself later in life after his wife’s death suddenly taking religion a lot more seriously than he had done before. At this point, it was too late (according to the particular psychology that comes about when one has put that much distance between oneself and the Truth – so yes, plenty of guilt I think!) for him to go back to the faith of his upbringing, and he gradually reconciled himself to Anglicanism having continuity with the Catholic Faith (there being, as I said, enough ambiguity in its formularies to allow someone either ignorant enough of the actual history of English religion or desirous enough of finding a home for their beliefs there, to make such a leap of faith).

      On a completely different topic, I just found this excellent piece by Fr. Thomas Crean, on Modernism – it is one of the best explanations that I have read of what it is and how it continues to exercise influence within the Church. Next time Toad asks what Modernism is, I recommend this as a primer!

    • I have just re-read the comment I made earlier and I am horrified how cynical and judgmental it sounds!! That wasn’t my intention at all.

      By my saying how well written your article was (and I honestly think it was – in fact it was brilliant) and then pointing out John Donne’s reasons for leaving the Catholic Faith being selfish and ambitious ones all in the same sentence, I have made it sound as though I don’t believe you were truly being “generous-hearted”. But I do, honestly think you were, and that you analysed his life very well.

      You may even be right – and me wrong! I was trying to look at it from another angle. I think my rather rigorous view might also have been coloured somewhat from the horror and distress we feel at the thousands of persecuted Christians in Iraq who are being made to make the same choice by the Islamic murderers of ISIS, and showing such faith and heroic courage in choosing death or exile together with terrible loss and suffering, rather than denounce their Christian Faith. In comparison, John Donne’s renouncement appears so cowardly – but who knows!

      I would hate to have been in his shoes – and how do any of us know how we would have reacted in such horrendous circumstances! Easy for me to say the above about Donne without ever having been put to the test.

      He was clearly an imaginative and talented poet.

      • Thank you for your really great explanatory reply Michael that I hadn’t actually seen before writing my second comment. You clarify lots of things about Anglicanism and its ambivalence, but I must tell you that this sentence of yours, really made me giggle:

        “I am reminded here of something that William F. Buckley wrote about Anglicanism, that it is so eclectic that nobody from the Pope to Mao Tse-Tung could be sure that they are NOT an Anglican!”

        I have just been thinking how cleverly formulated propaganda to certain ideologies, that in retrospect are so obviously wrong, can win over whole masses and even whole countries of people – even cultured intelligent people who one would think could see through the lies. We saw it with communism and with nazism, and with radical Islam, and it is happening as we know here too in the West with a type of subtle brainwashing towards a secular, inclusive mindset where everything is ‘relative’ and no Truth can be known for sure.
        Maybe it was something like this that John Donne was confronted with in his time? Catholicism had been a much-loved and practiced path to God; in a matter of a few years after the reign of Henry VIII, it was so radically vilified it almost disappeared from Britain altogether – amazing!

        I shall now look into your link. 🙂

        • Not to worry at all – I didn’t read your comment in that way. Also, I think we’re in basic agreement about Donne’s motivations, insofar as I also think he was more than likely motivated (at least in part) by a desire to escape the consequences of being a Catholic in England at that time, and to exercise his talents. This clearly implies a lack of integrity on his part, and a disregarding of the heritage imparted to him by his family (particularly his mother I think; his father was not that devout).

          It also seems pretty probable that during these earlier parts of his life he was well aware of what he was rejecting and why (although obviously one cannot know all the intricacies of his psychology at the time – particularly complex given his temperament I imagine!) What I am less sure about is his state of mind once he had convinced himself of the validity of Anglicanism (or even if he ever did so convince himself). It is possible that, because of his prior desire to leave his Catholicism behind, for base reasons, his judgement had become clouded and he was no longer able to see the Truth as it stands. In this case he would definitely be culpable for the prior rejection, but how culpable one is for continuing ignorance caused by prior sins is something that involves so much of the complexities of the human heart that I couldn’t possibly comment on – only God knows.

          If however he continued as an Anglican whilst still retaining Catholic beliefs and only stayed where he was for convenience’s sake, then he would have been very culpable indeed, and will be in need of a great deal of intercessory prayers on his behalf! Personally though, I imagine the truth will have been a bit closer to what I wrote in the preceding paragraph. Anyway, I can completely understand what you say about seeing Donne’s case in the light of those heroic martyrs in Iraq and Syria – their faith and love for God is incredible, and puts most of the rest of us to shame. I guess the position I took when writing the post on John Donne though is that a.) this aspect of his life remains something of a mystery, as we don’t know all the facts, and b.) there is an enormous amount we don’t know about everyone we meet – the world is a strange and complex place, and the human heart is stranger and more complex still; only from the vantage point of Eternity could we hope to know such things. Incidentally, this links into my post for tomorrow 🙂

          Your final point (which ties all this together I think) is an excellent one, and a very important thing to grasp with respect to those early years in England after the great changes that had been imposed. The reason that the vast majority of the material included in the Book of Common Prayer was translations from ancient texts, etc was not because Cranmer was particularly zealous to preserve tradition during the changes. In fact, he was privately one of the more extreme ‘reformers’ and his moderation only came about because he basically did what he was told, playing lap-dog to whoever happened to be in power.

          The real reason for the inclusion of traditional rites and prayers, and the careful wording to allow for various positions to be maintained, was that he was well aware of the principle of ‘lex orandi, lex credendi’ and knew that if the changes were made subtly enough, the essential Protestantism of the new church (particularly exhibited in the rite for Holy Communion) could be slipped under the door. People (not all obviously, but a good deal) could be lulled into thinking that this was basically the same church but with a few ‘updates’ here and there, and whilst regularly praying the words he had crafted, would be made Protestant by stealth, whilst still believing themselves members of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. This, I think, is Cranmer’s real legacy and real genius – not a happy legacy by any means, but he did what he set out to do, and did it well, as the delusion still persists!

          What did you think of the Modernism link by the way?

          • Thank you very much Michael for taking the time and trouble to give me such an interesting detailed response… and sorry for taking so long in getting back to you about it.

            Everything you say makes a lot of sense, including the difficulty of understanding “the intricacies of his [Donne’s] psychology at the time” so far removed from our time (and a time that was extremely dangerous for Catholics), or the impossibility of ever knowing “the complexities of the human heart”, leaving us umpteen possibilities. Either his faith was weak, or his temperamental character you mention made him waver and swing without being able to come down firmly on any firm belief**, or that fear of reprisals truly affected his mind to go against his inner instincts, or else that he really did put his worldly gain above God’s! There are just so many possibilities for his behaviour, although I still do tend to think that his evident nostalgia in his writings in later years seems to give clues pointing to regrets for his earlier decision to turn away from his Catholic roots… but that he probably felt he had gone too far to then return. Just my feeling – nothing more. Yes, we shall never know for certain in this life.

            ** Does that remind you of someone? 😉

            There are many other mysteries like this among famous talented men whose history, first written and ‘coloured’ by their contemporaries (victims of the current ideas of their times), may also not quite be what we are led to believe. Of course the Faith of William Shakespeare is a prime example, and something that has been much disputed for centuries.

            That link on Modernism by Fr. Thomas Crean was really good, easy to read and spot on. I shall hang on to it for future reference – thank you.

            • That was meant to read “… or else that he really did put his worldly gain above God’s DIVINE LAW”.
              Or simply “above God”.

            • Sorry in return – I have taken quite a while to reply as well!

              I agree with what you write above here – my ‘hunch’ is that Donne never quite managed to rid himself of that feeling of guilt for abandoning the Catholic Faith, and it is certainly evident that he was wrestling with that problem a good few years into the Anglican ministry. Whether later on it was a case of feeling he had gone to far to return or that he actually managed to convince himself of the Anglican claims we can never know – it could even have been a strange mixture of the two!

              And yes there are indeed many mysterious cases like this, and Shakespeare is an excellent example. In his case I think that he continued as a Catholic, but again this is something that can never be conclusively proved, especially as part of his genius was the ability to give voice to so many different voices in his work, and to make them all thoroughly real. Because of this it is possible to claim support for all manner of things through analysis of his work. But I think when one combines a sober assessment of his output with what we know of his life, the evidence leans quite heavily in the Catholic direction. Of course, to quote another elusive character, I might be wrong 🙂

              Glad you liked the Crean link – it is a really clear assessment and draws out the central threads in modernist thinking. I like Fr. Crean in general actually – I have an excellent book by him that was written to refute some of the arguments (although I am loathe to give them the honour of that word, given how facile most of them are) Richard Dawkins puts forward in the God Delusion. In the process he presents a remarkably clear and thorough picture of classical Catholic theology and philosophy.

              • Yes, there does indeed seem to be plenty of evidence to point to Shakespeare being a ‘closed Catholic’… but then again we could ask “should he have hidden his true beliefs if he were?” And if after his fame had been established and he had announced he was in truth a Catholic, “would that not have been a powerful witness and brought many back to the Faith?” “Or would the protestant authorities have dared to put such a great and talented man to death too?” (Surely not!) All hypothetical assumptions of course, but it does make one wonder. Officially he had embraced the new church and after his death he was given a Protestant burial!

                Re Fr. Crean – Ah! Now I know where I’d heard that name before… he was the author of that acclaimed book you mention that combats ‘The God Delusion’. I haven’t read it, but I’m sure it would be a good one to help one in the battle with atheists. 🙂

                • Should he have hidden his beliefs if he were? A very good question indeed. Whilst the case of Donne, who took up a position as an Anglican cleric, is definitely hard to excuse, I find it a bit more difficult to judge those many who hid their Catholic beliefs and went along with the status quo to a certain extent in order to do so. Whilst we would all like to think that we would stand up and speak out if it were us, for most people then I don’t think it was much of an option, as they would not only be endangering themselves but whole networks of family and friends that were trying to continue in the Faith without being spied out by the government.

                  William Byrd as well, who we know was definitely a Catholic, continued to write music for Anglican liturgies (as well as Latin liturgical music for the underground Catholic community) as to do otherwise would have left him without any income and also drawn too much attention to his true identity as a Catholic. Also, whilst he later appeared in lists of recusants, I presume that for a lot of the time he ‘went along’ with attending the Anglican services to keep suspicion at bay. It must have been such a complicated balancing act! If Shakespeare were doing the same sort of thing, it would be understandable, IMO. Also, though he was well-known by the end of his life, his fame wasn’t anywhere near what it is now, and I’m not sure he would have been spared punishment – they certainly didn’t seem to worry about crushing rebellion or making examples of people too much in those days!

                  It is fascinating to think about those times though isn’t it, as sad as they were and as hard as it is to appreciate what it must have been like (in so many respects)? I can barely imagine what it must have been like for those who actually lived through the changes and had one foot in the old Catholic England and another in the new Protestantised one. On top of that there is the factor wherein, as I said before, change was so much more subtle and ambiguous than in other parts of Europe, yet change it certainly was, and the new church (whatever it might actually stand for) was certainly zealous to enforce its authority and suppress any outward attachments to the old Catholic Faith. Tragic and baffling in equal measure!

                  • Re your first paragraph: yes, what a hard decision it must have been for those closet Catholics at that fearful time! Many who loved their Catholic Faith dearly and would probably have risked all to remain openly Catholic, could understandably not bear to think of the suffering, torture and death that would then befall their loved ones if they were to do so. Even though life was terribly harsh and cruel for recusant Catholic laymen and yet impossible only for priests under the reign of Elizabeth I, after the Gunpowder Plot in the early reign of James I, it was simply impossible for everyone afterwards. You were forbidden to be Catholic – full stop!

                    St. Edmund Campion’s tragic and startlingly truthful words come to mind: “In condemning us, you condemn all your own ancestors, all our ancient bishops and kings, all that was once the glory of England – the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter.”

                    William Byrd’s example is pertinent; he could only survive being a Catholic by keeping it hidden and doing lip service to the “new church”.
                    Yes, all this period of our history is fascinating, isn’t it?! It makes us wonder how our own ancestors survived this period. 😉

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