Catholicism and Constitutionalism in William Cobbett’s English and Irish Medievalism

ROBERTS, Matthew (2021). Catholicism and Constitutionalism in William Cobbett’s English and Irish Medievalism. In: Subaltern Medievalisms. Medievalism "from below" in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Boydell & Brewer, 19-38.

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THE RADICAL JOURNALIST William Cobbett's A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland (hereafter History) was one of the most famous and widely read pro-Catholic interventions in the campaign for Catholic Emancipation, finally conceded in 1829. This campaign was fought on both sides of the Irish Sea to repeal the remnants of the Penal Laws which branded British Catholics as the enemy within, stripping them of many of the civil and political rights that Protestants took for granted. Penned initially as a series of letters to the readers of his immensely popular periodical The Political Register, and then subsequently published in two volumes in 1824 and 1826, Cobbett in a characteristic display of arrogance had no doubt about the seismic impact of his History: ‘I have published a book that has exceeded all others in circulation, the Bible only excepted; and, my real belief is, that, in point of numbers of attentive readers, it exceeds even that.’ Cobbett's hyperbole aside, there is no doubt that his History sold extremely well, not just in Britain but throughout Europe and the Americas. By 1828, Cobbett had sold 700,000 copies of the History. At first glance, its success in England seems improbable: a book that turned the standard, popular Protestant histories of the Reformation on their head – the Protestant monarchs and reformers, not the Catholics were the real villains – until, that is, we recall what a master popular writer Cobbett was. The sensationalism, invective, outrage, sarcasm and the way in which Cobbett lays before the reader the evidence, all conspired to make his History a gripping read and to combat the centuries-old anti-Catholic prejudices of the English masses. Here was John Foxe's Actes and Monuments – ‘lying Fox's lying book of Protestant martyrs’ in Cobbett's word – only inverted. Cobbett, no less than Foxe, was inviting the people ‘to participate vicariously in the historical epic of the English Reformation’. We learn that Anne Boleyn was none other than Henry VIII's daughter, that Luther was a most profligate man, and that Elizabeth only partook of anal sex so as to preserve her virginity; though in fairness to Cobbett, these asides were peripheral to his argument. The Reformation, Cobbett revealed to his readers in the opening letter, ‘was engendered in beastly lust, brought forth in hypocrisy and perfidy, and cherished and fed by plunder, devastation, and by rivers of innocent English and Irish blood’.

Item Type: Book Section
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Page Range: 19-38
SWORD Depositor: Symplectic Elements
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Date Deposited: 26 Nov 2020 17:02
Last Modified: 17 Mar 2021 14:15

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