Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Downton Abbey and Anti-Catholicism

I watched the episode of Downton Abbey in which Lady Sybil's husband's Irish Catholicism and Irish nationalist acvities come to the fore. Lord Grantham proclaimed his anti-Catholicism, although he does not want torture or execution for Catholics in twentieth century England--how modern of him! He expresses the belief that Catholics are foreign--"something Johnny Foreigner" about them--so he has never met any English Catholics from the old Recusant families? That seems unlikely. (Lord Grantham was not his best in this episode at all: ignoring issues of his management of the estates, being proud of being a bigot, mocking his daughter's efforts to write a letter to the editor about women's suffrage, etc.)

Spoiler Alert:

The issue of Catholicism will continue in later episodes because Lady Sybil is pregnant--will the baby be baptized in the Anglican Church or the Catholic Church?  The Catholic Herald addressed the issue last year during the original BBC run of Season Three in England:

Downton Abbey, which I confess to not watching very attentively, is now broaching the question of anti-Catholicism.

Up to now I have been puzzled by the way Tom Branson, the Fenian ex-chauffeur and son-in-law, seemingly has no religion. I assumed he was a Protestant (some Irish nationalists were), but it turns out that, no, he is a Catholic after all. Funny it has only surfaced now, as I am pretty certain that someone like the Earl of Grantham, a self-proclaimed anti-Catholic, would not have employed Catholic staff, and would have died of apoplexy att he thought of his daughter marrying one.
How rife was anti-Catholicism in the 1920’s?

Drawing on my admittedly partial knowledge, among the upper classes it was common. It is possible that the aristocracy were less anti-Catholic than the people in the rungs directly below them: after all the Earl of Grantham would have known several Catholic peers, whom he would have seen regularly at the House of Lords. (The Earl in Downton never seems to go there, which is one of the many historical oddities of the series, but let that pass.) Edward VII, the recently deceased King, had several Catholic friends. So, one would imagine that Catholics were socially acceptable in the highest ranks of society, though this would not have extended to intermarriage, partly because of the Church’s laws on that. But further down the social ladder it was a different matter altogether.

The creator of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes IS Catholic, and he commented on the theme in this article from The Telegraph:

The unseemly debate in last night’s Downton Abbey over whether the late Lady Sybil Branson’s daughter should be baptised as a Catholic touches on prejudices that its writer Julian Fellowes knows about only too well.

“It is really to illustrate that casual, almost unconscious anti-Catholicism that was found among the upper classes, which lasted well into my growing up years,” says Fellowes, 63, who is a Catholic and an old boy of Ampleforth.

Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, has, in a previous episode of the series, opined that Catholics have “something Johnny Foreigner” about them. “It wasn’t that they were nasty – Robert certainly isn’t – but they thought that somehow Catholics were un-English and so 'not quite right’,” says Fellowes. “I am not aware that anyone else has ever touched on it, so I thought it might be interesting.

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