The White Lily Blog

Way to Woman-Up: The Girls Who Save(d) England

Sometimes one learns well from one’s detractors, and this is the case with John Bossy’s work on the Reformation.  He tells the story of Catholic women of the gentry during that bloody time.  (Apparently they are still causing mischief to the bad guys.) 

John Bossy is a British historian and thus is not pained to hide his anti-Catholic bias.  In his English Catholic Community: 1570-1850, for example, we find comments like this: “Taking as generally correct  the assumption that Catholic differed from Protestant nonconformity in being conservative, not progressive, in character, is it possible to measure the backwardness of Catholics?”  He was speaking of Britain’s adoption during that time of the new protestant calendar, one more favorable to the growing exploitation of the new working class, one based upon the work week, not the year’s flow, and forbidding further use of the seasonal calendar of Catholicism and all the free days for workers contained therein, fully 1/3 of the days in the year.  Bossy’s tone, in the easy use of the word “backwardness” is common throughout the work. But even Bossy’s been bound to admire at least one thing about those backward Catholics–the women folk!

Protestant propaganda – -Bossy lays it out – -cites all the ways Catholicism was ‘known to be patriarchal’.  But he says that the facts are such  “that it has been possible to present the community, in its early days, as in effect a matriarchy.” (153)  English Catholicism [after the Reformation], Bossy says, was founded  “not in legitimate decisions made by responsible man but in a series of conjugal coup d’état mounted by aggressive wives,” who, unlike their husbands, refused to conform.  Not only did they refuse to conform, they refused to stop practicing their Faith, they refused to stop evangelizing others, and they refused to give up women’s  religious orders, even though the convents and abbies had been gutted, their schools and hospitals had been privatized or closed,  and the women turned out to starve; instead they founded a new, underground order.  They caused utter mayhem, apparently, and yet could hardly be punished, for to punish them was in actuality, by the withdrawal of their services to the family should they be imprisoned, to punish their husbands instead, who had legitimately and sincerely converted to the church of England – -Bossy makes a point to note, in refutation to the common thesis among British historians that the men conformed only to avoid punishment, that there were periods during which, had the conversion of husbands not been sincere, they could have returned to Catholicism without penalty and even with some benefit.  They did not.

Most British historians explain the apparent inconsistency of the data as just another case of –allow me to paraphrase – –crazy Catholic b’s who just did not understand patriarchy or how the new religion was going to save them from it.  Bossy, however, differs.  He puts it this way: “The average woman of the upper classes might reasonably feel that the Reformation had not been designed with her in mind.” And why is that?

Bossy explains. Analysis reveals something astounding:  Catholicism was actually better for them!  And they had the mother wit to know it!

First of all, says Bossy, the new protestant calendar removed from a woman’s jurisdiction a ‘substantial sequence of ritual functions’ – the planning of the menus for feastdays, with their seasonally complicated caveats of abstinence and fasting, and the conduction of the very many holy days.  Then, the new church required her to be literate as a condition of salvation, which would put her at a disadvantage [as it would put some and even many people at a disadvantage today], and, in the opinion of some women,can  make for genuine differences of feeling between man and wife.  Third, Bossy says, the Catholic wife could look for justice, in case of domestic conflict, from her parish priest, while the new protestantism made each man the final, absolute authority both in his personal selection and definition of religion and over his family (an unhealthy balance, or rather loss of it, that persists in so-called ‘Christian’ families to this day and contributes substantially to the authoritarian reputation religious marriage has now).

Can you see what they saw? Protestantism took away their Protector!  Bossy writes, ” I think the evidence entitles us to conclude that, to a considerable degree, the Catholic community owed its existence to gentle women’s dissatisfaction at the Reformation settlement of religion, and that they played an abnormally important part in its early history.” (158)

Bossy makes a point also of explaining that the new faith offered women a fully-blown feminism almost identical with the one touted today, in easier access to divorce, easier access to work outside the home, less emphasis on woman’s role as wife and mother.  And the new vernacular mass was certainly attractive, too. But these women would have none of it. They acted as if they did not even suffer under a patriarchy!

And what kind of disobedient  things did they do?  The many records available from the period cited by Bossy paint pictures of remarkable women completely obsessed with priests (not with being priests, mind you).  They arranged for their transport from European seminaries, and then received, concealed, and housed these missionary priests, to give themselves and their households and neighbors the sacraments, even when the penalty was death.  They maintained Catholic households in dietary observance and all the Catholic seasonal customs.  They supported seminaries abroad, although economically times were hard for them; they brought family members back to the Faith, even when they were punished for it, even when they were pregnant, like the wife of John Gerard, who almost died giving birth at a time when he was furious with her for refusing to conform, and used it to effect his return to the faith.  She knew just how to use those wild promises he’d whispered at the bedside as she lay suffering.

These women were apparently tireless in their service to their communities, from the records .  Theirs was the complex secret organization that delivered the missionary Jesuits to their lost sheep and then, eventually, on to their deaths.  That priestly blood watered the Faith, and no false sentimentalism to shield them deterred their mothers and sisters and aunts.  They understood that the role of the priest is sacrificial and their own role was to be sacrificed for–and what a job to keep that happening, when everything about the Faith and especially Holy Mass was declared abominable, untouchable,  and ultimately deadly.  Consider how they killed little Margaret Clitherow. They put a door atop her and then piled weights on it until her skull exploded. It took four hours.  She was conscious most of the time. She whimpered, and then she screamed, but she did not apostatize.

Even John Bossy admires them.

The Faith they kept for us enables us, unlike the teaching of the heretics, to know that they live still, on another side, another dimension known as heaven, where they can hear us thank them in prayer, and can help us in return.  How lucky we are to be Catholic! Perhaps this would be a good time to ask them to save the Church again? To nerve women of this day to imitate them?

We women would do no less today, if the sibilant voice of Satan in Vatican II had not pushed us instead to seek ordination to the priesthood itself. In fact, many women in tradition really already do bear the brunt of religious fidelity. They do not contracept and may bear children in stairsteps. Do they live where their husbands would be stoned for divorce? On the contrary. Everything around us encourages divorce–the movies, the other guys at work, billboards, commercials, and even our ‘Catholic’ therapists. And traditional men fall. They do it all the time. It is a risk for any woman of child-bearing age to embrace tradition. She could, like the rest of American women, be left for the young new trophy wife, but left with six or eight kids instead of one or two. It happens. But she risks it! She consciously builds the next generation of priests and religious.

And she works, tirelessly. She has to. Tradition has no funds for paid support staff! She cleans. She organizes the potlucks that fund the Restoration now, and cooks for them, and serves them, and washes the pots and dishes and jello cups until midnight in a make-shift kitchen, and shows up at 7:15 the next morning for mass, if she is lucky enough to have daily traditional mass in our new reformation, where all the priests are missionaries, always traveling. She picks up the visiting missionary at the airport, whatever time of day or night. The Catholic women of Britain did the same, traveling on horseback or cold little wagons the many miles overland to the coast to meet the silent and lightless boat illegally putting off suspicious male passengers in some remote natural harbor of England.  Today’s traditionalist woman drives an old Honda and her ‘guests’ aren’t illegal, yet, but it’s the same drill: hard work. Of course she home schools.  And she sings in the choir. And all her half-dozen children know how to use a missal, and genuflect and cross themselves and say their prayers, and dress nicely for mass, even if their things are all hand-me-downs. And she suffers the inevitable pinpricks to vanity, living her unhonored, even derided, life in tradition’s small communities across the land, the little isolated pressure-cookers they sometimes are, and must be, from the enormous energy demands required to keep the Faith alive one more day over the whole world just by cassock skirts for boot straps.

If our prayers and sacrifices and labor were successful, and some how, some way,  there would be a true Restoration, even partial, even just restoration of a clear doctrine that would guide us in what lies ahead,  which may be martyrdom again, we can be pretty sure that the army of Catholic women who achieved the impossible because they just swept up will be forgotten, rather as are those brave, brave girls of England. (Funny that such a man as Bossy would have revealed so much.)

Another taste of Bossy’s tone, let me share in conclusion to this commentary on his history of the reformation even though it is off the topic, is his passing remark about the conduction of Catholic funerals at the time.  They had to be done in the dark, in the dead of night, for it was newly forbidden to bury non-conforming Catholics in the graveyards their families had maintained for hundreds of years.  Armed family members of the deceased would surround the body and in procession, or posse – -it is hard to distinguish – -they would carry the body to the graveyard and bury it.  Bossy remarks how convenient Catholic beliefs were under those circumstances, for once there being a good use to their “superstitious candles.” (141) It’s maddening, but it does serve to highlight the sincerity of his admiration for Catholic ladies.

Fairness does also prompt me to add that John Bossy should not be seen as a complete barbarian, for all his jibes. He does have pity, at least, on the children of Catholics removed from their homes and placed in wardship because of their parents’ non-conformity. He calls one lad a ‘poor child’  (164) who for years valiantly resisted brutal and cruel physical and psychological attempts to convert him away from the Faith.

But of course he’s wrong even there–that was not a ‘poor child’ at all, but a flaming, fantastic, fabulous hero, and a joy to heaven. That is how the Catholics girls resisting Britain’s Reformation saw their suffering, and how we must, as well. Instead of the exaggerated feelings and threadbare pitys of Vatican II.

Bossy’s work is out of print and expensive to get used on Amazon, but can be obtained to read at one’s local library, if necessary through inter-library loan (how I obtained mine).

4 Comments so far
Leave a comment


Comment by Patti Lamesch

This article reminds me very much of all those mothers that I admire like my sister-in-law with her 13 children and 4 little angels in heaven. She is so brave in accepting God’s will for her and her family. Always praising Our Lord.

Comment by Elizabeth Romo

“John Bossy is a British historian and thus is not pained to hide his anti-Catholic bias.”
John Bossy makes his comments from the inside of Catholicism not the outside – he went to St Ignatius School Stamford Hill and his brother became a Jesuit. His book on the English Catholic community was an act of filial piety in my view, and one that cost him quite dear since this was not his own period or area of intellectual passion but he recognised that an interpretative overview that could jolt English Catholic history out of the margins and into the mainstream was sorely needed. He has succeeded in inspiring others to follow and to challenge, refine and expand the history he gave us. And the perspective on Catholic women that you admire and imply is an abherration is characteristic of Bossy’s originality and integrity.
I wasn’t able to find any reference to ‘supersititious candles on p141, although there are two references to candles on this page, neither of which is scornful in tone. Could you give the whole sentence? It isn’t the kind of vocabulary I would link with his outlook and would only be used by him if he was referring to the views of others.

Comment by Susan O'Brien

I’d be happy to be wrong, but on the other hand, the quotes given in the piece are actual, and hence perhaps his Catholicism reflects some degree of accommodation to the culture. I do not own this book, and cannot check the quote you mention, but he did not use the word superstitious–I did supply it as an interpretation of what he wrote literally. What he did write is that ‘for once’ there was ‘a use’ for them–do you not have that in your copy? As if their other uses were less than utile. He also characterized Catholics of the day as backward–he asked, as I quoted, if there were any way to measure it. However, I am very willing to be persuaded that he was sympathetic to these women he portrayed so well, and am grateful that his work ‘jolted’ Catholic history out of the margins. But Susan, dear heart, I hope you can understand me that my judgement of Bossy’s degree of anti-Catholicism is seen from my understanding that any historian or ordinary person who does not call for the Restoration in every sense from Christ as King to His Church restored is anti-Catholic. Any other theological or political position is an accommodation and a betrayal of those English saints, as well; this is my understanding of the situation. I believe we have been so very confused on this, and that Vatican II tried to use our confusion and it worked for a long time. I may get a bit shrill in my frustration. Thank you for your great comment!!

Comment by thewhitelilyblog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s