The Anti-Papal Movement by Thomas De Quincey

Story type: Essay

The sincerity of an author sometimes borrows an advantageous illustration from the repulsiveness of his theme. That a subject is dull, however unfortunately it may operate for the impression which he seeks to produce, must at least acquit him of seeking any aid to that impression from alien and meretricious attractions. Is a subject hatefully associated with recollections of bigotry, of ignorance, of ferocious stupidity, of rancour, and of all uncharitableness? In that case, the reader ought to be persuaded that nothing less than absolute consciousness–in that case he ought to know that nothing short of TRUTH (not necessarily as it is, but at least as it appears to the writer) can have availed to draw within an arena of violence and tiger-like acharnement one who, by temperament and by pressure of bodily disease, seeks only for repose. Most unwillingly I enter the ring. Mere disgust at the wicked injustice, which I have witnessed silently through the last three months, forces me into the ranks of the combatants. Mere sympathy with the ill-used gives me any motive for stirring. People have turned Christian from witnessing the torments suffered with divine heroism by Christian martyrs. And I think it not impossible that many hearts may be turned favourably towards Popery by the mere recoil of disgust from the savage insolence with which for three weeks back it has in this country been tied to a stake, and baited. The actors, or at least the leaders, in such scenes seem to forget that Popery has peculiar fascinations of her own; her errors, supposing even all to be errors which Protestantism denounces for such, lie in doctrinal points; but her merit, and her prodigious advantage over Protestantism, lies in the devotional spirit which she is able to kindle and to sustain amongst simple, docile, and confiding hearts. In mere prudence it ought to be remembered, that to love, to trust, to adore, is a far more contagious tendency amongst the poor, the wretched, and the despised, than to question, investigate, and reflect.

How, then, did this movement begin? By that, perhaps, we may learn something of its quality. Who was it that first roused this movement? The greater half of the nation, viz., all the lower classes, cannot be said to have shared in the passions of the occasion; but the educated classes, either upon a sincere impulse, or in a spirit of excessive imitation, have come forward with a perseverance, which (in a case of perils confessedly so vague) is more like a moonstruck infatuation than any other recorded in history. Until Parliament met on the 4th of February, when a Roman Catholic member of the House of Commons first attempted to give some specific account of the legal effects incident to a substitution of bishops for vicars apostolic, no man has made the very cloudiest sketch of the evils that were apprehended, or that could be apprehended, or that were in the remotest way possible. Sir Edward Sugden, indeed, came forward with a most unsatisfactory effort to show how Cardinal Wiseman might be punished, or might be restrained, supposing that he had done wrong; but not at all to show that the Cardinal had done wrong, and far less to show that, if wrong could be alleged, any evils would follow from it. Sir Edward most undoubtedly did not satisfy himself, and so little did he satisfy anybody else, that already his letter is forgotten; nor was it urged or relied upon by any one of the great meetings which succeeded it. Too painful it would be to think that Sir Edward had in this instance stepped forward sycophantically, as so many prominent people undoubtedly did, to meet and to aid a hue and cry of fanaticism simply because it had emanated from a high quarter. But what quarter? Again I ask, who was it that originated this fierce outbreak of bigotry? Much depends upon that. It was Lord John Russell, it was the First Minister of the Crown, that abused the power of his place for a purpose of desperate fanaticism; yes, and for a purpose which his whole life had been dedicated to opposing, to stigmatizing, to overthrowing. Right or wrong, he has to begin life anew. Bigotry may not be bigotry, change of position may show it under a new aspect. But still upon that, which once was called bigotry, Lord John must now take his stand. Neither will ratting a second time avail to set him right. These things do not stand under algebraical laws, as though ratting to the right hand could balance a ratting to the left, and leave the guilt = 0. On the contrary, five rattings, of which each is valued at ten, amount to fifty degrees of crime; or, perhaps, if moral computations were better understood, amount to a crime that swells by some secret geometrical progression unintelligible to man.

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But now, reader, pause. Suppose that Lord John Russell, aware of some evil, some calamity or disease, impending over the established Church of England–sure of this evil, but absolutely unable to describe it by rational remarks or premonitory symptom, had cast about for a channel by which he might draw attention to the evil, and, by exposing, make an end of it. But who could have dreamed that he would have chosen the means he has chosen? What propriety was there in Lord John’s addressing himself upon such a subject to the Bishop of Durham? Who is that Bishop? And what are his pretensions to public authority? He is a respectable Greek scholar; and has re-edited the Prosodiacal Lexicon of Morell–a service to Greek literature not easily overestimated, and beyond a doubt not easily executed. But in relation to the Church he is not any official organ; nor was there either decorum or good sense in addressing a letter essentially official from the moment that it was published with consent of the writer, to a person clothed with no sort of official powers or official relation to the Church of England. If Lord John should have occasion to communicate with the Bank of England, what levity, and in the proper sense of the word what impertinence, it would be to invoke the attention–not of the Governor–but of some clerk in a special department of that establishment whom Lord John might happen to know. Which of us, that wishes to bring a grievance before the authorities of the Post-Office, would address himself to his private friend that might happen to hold a respectable situation in the Money Order or in the Dead Letter Office? Of mere necessity, that he might gain for his own application an official privilege, he would address it to the Postmaster-General through the Secretary. Not being so addressed, his communication would take rank as gossip; neither meriting nor obtaining any serviceable notice. Two points are still in suspense: whether the people of England as a nation have taken any interest in the uproar caused by Lord John’s letter; and secondly, whether the writer of that letter took much interest in it himself. Spite of all the noise and tumult kept up for three months by the Low-Church party, clerks and laymen, it is still a question with many vigilant lookers-on–whether the great neutral majority in the lower strata of society (five-sixths in short of what we mean by the nation) have taken any real interest in the agitation. Any real share in it, beyond all doubt, they have not taken: the movers in these meetings from first to last would not make fifteen thousand; and the inert subscribers of Petitions would not make seventy thousand. Secondly, in spite of the hysterical violence manifested by the letter of the Premier, and partly in consequence of that violence (so theatrical and foreign to Lord John’s temperament), many doubt whether he himself carried any sincerity with the movement. And this doubt is strengthened by the singular indecorum of his having addressed himself to Dr. Maltby.

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Counterfeit zeal is likely enough to have recoiled from its own act in the very moment of its execution. The purpose of Lord John was sufficiently answered, if he succeeded in diverting public attention from quarters in which it might prove troublesome: and to that extent was sure of succeeding by an extra-official note addressed to any bishop whatever–whether zoological like the late Bishop of Norwich, or Prosodiacal like Dr. Maltby. A storm in a slop-basin was desirable for the moment. But had the desire been profoundly sincere, and had it soared to that height which real fears for religious interests are apt to attain, then beyond all doubt the Minister would not have addressed himself to a Provincial bishop, but to the two Metropolitan bishops of Canterbury and York. They, but not an inferior prelate, represent the Church of England.

The letter therefore, had it been solemn and austere in the degree suitable to an unsimulated panic, would have taken a different direction. Gossip may be addressed to anybody. He that will listen is sought for; and not he that can co-operate. But earnest business, soaring into national buoyancy on the wings of panic, turns by instinct to the proper organs for giving it effect and instant mobility. Yet, on the other hand, if the letter really had been addressed to the Primate (as in all reason it would have been, if thoroughly in earnest), that change must have consummated the false step, diplomatically valued, which Lord John Russell has taken. Mark, reader! We are told, and so often that the very echoes of Killarney and Windermere will be permanently diseased by this endless iteration of lies, that His Holiness has been insulting us. Ancient Father of Christendom, under whose sheltering shadow once slept in peace for near a thousand years the now storm-tossed nations of Western and Central Christendom, couldst thou indeed, when turned out a houseless[1] fugitive like Lear upon a night of tempest, still retain aught of thy ancient prestige, and through the might of belief rule over those who have exiled thee?

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The famous Durham Letter which excited so much controversy, and re-opened what can only be called so many old sores, was addressed by Lord John Russell, the Prime Minister, to Dr. Maltby, in November, 1850. At first it was received with great approbation, as presenting a decisive front against Papal assumption; the Pope having recently issued a Bull, dividing England into twelve Sees, and appointing Dr. Wiseman, who was made a Cardinal, Archbishop of Westminster. But some expressions in Lord John’s letter, especially the expression ‘unworthy sons,’ applied to High Churchmen, aroused the active opposition of a class, with whom, he never had much sympathy, looking on the attitude and spirit of Drs. Pusey and Newman with unaffected dislike. Catholics, of course, and with them many moderate Roman Catholics, set up an agitation, and soon the Durham Letter was in everybody’s mouth. De Quincey, of course, writes from his own peculiar philosophic point of view; and when he somewhat sarcastically alludes to the informality of addressing such a letter to the Bishop of Durham, and not to one or other of the Archbishops, he was either ignorant of, or of set purpose ignored, the exceptionally intimate relations in which Lord John had for many years stood to Dr. Maltby, such relations as might well have been accepted as explaining, if not justifying, such a departure from strict formal propriety. Lord Russell’s biographer writes:

‘Dr. Maltby, who in 1850 held the See of Durham, to which he had been promoted on Lord John’s own recommendation in 1836, was one of Lord John’s oldest and closest friends. He had been his constant correspondent for more than twenty years; he had supplied him with much information for the religious chapters of the “Affairs of Europe,” and he had been his frequent counsellor on questions affecting the Church, and on the qualifications and characters of the men who were candidates for promotion in it. It was natural, therefore, to Lord John, to open his mind freely to the Bishop’ (ii. 119, 120).

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Lord John had added in a postscript: ‘If you think it will be of any use, you have my full permission to publish this letter.’


[1] ‘A houseless fugitive.’ No one expression of petty malice has struck the generous as more unworthy, amongst the many insolences levelled at the Pope, than the ridicule so falsely fastened upon the mode of his escape from Rome, and upon the apparently tottering tenure of his temporal throne. His throne rocked with subterraneous heavings. True, and was his the only throne that rocked? Or which was it amongst continental thrones that did not rock? But he escaped in the disguise of a livery servant. What odious folly! In such emergencies, no disguise can be a degradation. Do we remember our own Charles II. assuming as many varieties of servile disguise as might have glorified a pantomime? Do we remember Napoleon reduced to the abject resource of entreating one of the Commissioners to whistle, by way of misleading the infuriated mob into the belief that l’empereur could not be supposed present in that carriage when such an indecency was attempted? As to the insecurity of his throne, we must consider that other thrones, and amongst them some of the first rank (as those of Turkey and Persia) redress their own weakness by means of alien strength. In the jealousies of England and France is found a bulwark against the overshadowing ambition of Russia.

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