Nostalgia: Wave of anti-Catholic hysteria

The tiny hamlet of Littlebeck near Whitby where Nicholas Postgate was betrayed and arrested in 1678.
The tiny hamlet of Littlebeck near Whitby where Nicholas Postgate was betrayed and arrested in 1678.

The restoration of Charles II in 1660, like the succession of his grandfather, James I, in 1603, was welcomed by English Catholics because it seemed to promise a more tolerant treatment of those subjects who still clung to “the old faith”. Though most of Yorkshire’s remaining Catholic families had remained neutral during the Civil Wars, Royalist Catholics greatly outnumbered the handful who had sided with Parliament.

A few leading Catholics who had fought for the Crown were indeed rewarded after the Restoration of 1660. Lord John Bellasis was made governor of Hull, a key appointment; his nephew, Viscount Fauconberg of Newburgh Priory, became lord-lieutenant of the North Riding. Several knights were upgraded to baronets. Sir Jordan Crosland of Helmsley was given command of the North Riding’s trained band or homeguard and governorship of Scarborough castle, another vital post. Several more North Riding Catholics were granted commissions in the royal navy and army.

However, these were the exceptions, not the rule of reward and restitution. The old penal laws against recusants, dating from the reign of Queen Elizabeth, were not repealed. Catholic exclusion from office was general. Of the 63 justices on the North Riding bench during the 25-year reign of Charles II, only three were Catholics and none of these sat for more than one session.

In fact, Protestant fear and distrust of Catholics was still as strong as ever. It was generally and wrongly believed that Catholics had plotted to burn down London in the Great Fire of 1666. When Londoners erected the Fire Monument they attributed the destruction of the city to “the treachery and malice of the popish faction”.

Common hatred of “popery” was closely allied to and reinforced by xenophobia. Catholicism was thought to be the oppressive religion of Rome, France and Spain. Anti-Catholicism might have closed the ranks of different Protestants, but it did not. Puritans distrusted the established state church of England because they thought it corrupted with Romanist “idolatry”. Anglican churchmen deplored nonconformity because it undermined and divided Protestant resistance to a Catholic resurgence.

Nevertheless, the official numbers of Catholics in the North and East Ridings after 1660 remained fairly stable. In the East Riding, the 550 recorded in 1640 had fallen to about 400 by 1660. In the North Riding, their numbers actually rose during these 20 years, from about 2,000 to 2,132.

The two Constable families of Burton Constable in Holderness and at Everingham Hall just managed to survive Parliament’s penalties and kept their faith. It was their patronage and protection that sustained local Catholicism. In contrast, recusancy in the remote, moorland villages of the North Riding remained intact and in some places flourished. Egton’s 228 in 1674 represented half the township’s adults; Lythe’s 40 in 1642 had grown in 30 years to 113. A stubborn gentry presence accounts for Brandsby’s 29; Stokeseley’s 88; and Dalton cum Dale’s 35, refuges provided by the Catholic Cholmley, Forster and Meynell families. But the survival of 65 at Eryholme on the south bank of the Tees and 60 at Aldborough near Masham is not so easy to explain.

Egton’s extraordinary number of Catholics is explained mostly by the career of one priest, Nicholas Postgate, who was born there in 1596, the son of a prosperous farmer at Deane Hall. After graduating from the English Catholic college at Douai, he was ordained priest in 1628. On his return to Yorkshire two years later, he toured the county, visiting Catholic households, such as those of the Meynells of North Kilvington, the Hungates of Saxton, near Tadcaster, and Mary, Viscountess Dunbar of Halsham in Holderness.

After the Restoration, he returned to his native North Riding moorlands, working in villages such as Egton, Lythe, Ugthorpe, Ugglebarnby and Eskdaleside. In 34 years he claimed to have made 2,400 converts and baptized, married, buried and confessed hundreds. But all this ended abruptly in 1678 when he was betrayed and arrested at Littlebeck and brought before Sir William Cayley at Brompton, who sent him to the York assizes for trial. Postgate’s only offence was to have practised as a Catholic priest, a capital crime since 1584. The Whitby exciseman who testified against him was paid three pounds.

Unfortunately for Nicholas, he was one of the many victims of yet another wave of anti-Catholic hysteria and “priest-hunting”. Yorkshire’s recusants were being rounded up and summoned to the York assizes in hundreds. Those who could, fled the country; those who refused to take the oaths of allegiance and supremacy of Charles II were imposed indefinitely.

Postgate was invincible to the end: minutes before he was hanged, drawn and quartered at York in August 1679, he declared: “I dye in the Catholick Religion, and out of which there is no salvation, Mr Sheriff, you know I dye...for my Religion.”

So whatever benefits the Restoration brought, they were not shared by nearly all Charles’s Catholics subjects, even though his grandmother, mother, wife, brother and sister-in-law were all Catholics and he confessed to a Catholic priest on his death-bed. Burning Guy Fawkes, the Catholic Yorkshireman, on 5th November became a nineteenth century innovation: previously, an image of the pope had been incinerated on English bonfires. The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was an event that left an indelible scar on the national consciousness.

The 5th November was celebrated as a day of deliverance long after nearly everyone had forgotten why they celebrated 17th November, the date of Queen Elizabeth’s succession, or 29th May, the day of the return to London of Charles on his thirtieth birthday. Even today, the cellars of the palace of Westminster are inspected to make sure they hide no store of gunpowder or a reincarnated Guy Fawkes.