30 May 2015

Terror and Catholic faith in Elizabethan England

This is a world where Sunnis and Shias have slaughtered each other (eg the Iraq War), Christians murdered Jews (eg the Holocaust), Catholics and Protestants slaughtered or starved each other's civilians (eg The Thirty Years' War) and Christians murdered Muslims (eg the Crusades). But I would not have expected a solidly Prot­es­t­ant nation to expel or murder its own Catholic citizens. So it was time to read God's Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England, by Jessie Childs, Oxford UP, 2014

Post-Reformation England seemed totally consumed by fears of a Catholic re­surgence. And no-one was considered more dangerous than the Jesuits, an order established back in 1540 to beef up the Catholic faith. Not wanting to live their lives in a remote monastery, Jesuits took their Gospel message out across the world, evangelising Protestants and encouraging them to return to the Catholic fold.

Then the fear get suddenly worse. We moderns can understand how the English must have felt when Catholics killed French Protestants in Paris’ St Barthol­omew’s Day Massacre in 1572. Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, who had witnessed the killings from the English emb­assy in the city, said the massacre only reconfirmed his hatred of Catholicism.

Yet we shocked that by the 1580s it had become a hanging offence for any Jesuit to live in Eng­land or to visit. Edmund Campion was only the first of the Elizabeth­an Jesuit martyrs to be imprisoned, tried and executed for treason.

I knew all of this before. But Childs presented a new perspective. This was not just a religious battle; this was predominantly a political battle. Rightly or wrongly, Cath­ol­ic efforts were seen as danger­ous­ly unpatriotic in England. The pope wanted to reimpose not just religio-spiritual authority over England but also secular power in alliance with the devilish Catholic nations of France or Spain. King Philip II of Spain considered himself the chief defender of Catholic Europe against the forces of the Protestant Reformation, and wanted the English throne for himself.

England was right to be fearful - Pope Pius V really DID act!! In 1570 the Pope declared "Elizabeth, the pretended Queen of England and the servant of crime" to be a heretic, released all of her subjects from any allegiance to her, and excommunicated any who obeyed her orders.

The arrest of Guy Fawkes in 1605 … the gunpowder plot tainted all English Catholics
photo credit: The Guardian

And Jesuits were seen as the sect that most supported a papal plan to give Queen Elizabeth's throne to a Cath­ol­ic ruler. Spymaster Sir FrancisWal­sing­ham proved this true when he discovered a Catholic consp­ir­acy to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne and to depose her cousin Elizabeth I; Walsingham had much joy in authorising Queen Mary’s beheading in 1586.

Then the Spanish Armada’s attack on England in 1588 only intensified Walsingham’s determination to cleanse England of traitors. In the post-Armada years, Jesuits and other Catholics paid a very great price for Protestant fear. Catholic priests had to hide in dark dank priest-holes, they could be disembowelled and hacked into small pieces, and they were demonised across the country. In a political stance that was to resonate for centuries, English Anglicans came to believe that English Catholics could never be true patriots.

Although I normally do not like personalising history, and thereby reducing its sweep, I understand why the Catholic crisis in Elizabethan England had to be examined by Childs through the eyes of one Catholic family: the Vauxes of Harrowden Hall in Northamptonshire. Like other landed Catholic families, the Vaux family developed an underground network to protect the missionary priests, and held illegal Catholic services.

Margaret Clitherow was pressed to death for her role in a Catholic plot to overthrow the Elizabethan regime in 1586. A year later, the execution of Mary Queen of Scots took place.
photo credit: History Today

These recusants, i.e those who refused to attend Anglican services, were involved with Catholicism all the way until the later Gunpowder Plot by Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators. The Vaux family's rural estate was frequented by the plotters, including the Jesuit leader Henry Garnet. Garnet did not participate in the 1605 plot himself but he was brutally hanged, drawn and quartered in St Paul’s Churchyard in 1606 for knowing about it in advance.

Catholics today understand why the newly powerful Society of Jesus was training up English ordinands to infiltrate Elizabethan England, ministering to the flocks, enlisting new recruits and keeping the channels of communication with Rome open. But does the modern reader believe that Walsingham’s spy ring systematically planted his men in Catholic seminaries abroad? Armed with information from his spies based at home and abroad, Walsingham certainly could trace lines of communication between Catholics everywhere. And the Elizabethan diplomatic corps and spy system was certainly sophisticated enough to spread fear, intimidate potential traitors and control by distrust. Today the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) would have envied the coding skills, hidden mail systems, double agents and torture techniques of Walsingham's huge security team.

Childs was clear. She showed that Catholic citizens of Elizabethan England found that their Mass was banned, their chapels clandestine, and their priests faced dawn raids, impossible fines, torture and death. Under constant surveillance, haunted by the threat of imprisonment or death, the lives of recusants became marked by evasion, subterfuge and constant fear. Persecutions of Catholics were clearly based on brutal state politics.

Some readers will conclude that those Catholics who clung to their faith in wretched times were incred­ibly brave and godly, and that the Protestants were insanely paranoid and murderous. Other readers will see English Catholics as supporters of the Spanish Armada, the plot of Mary Queen of Scots to take the throne and the plot to blow up Parliament. Cath­olics, according to this second view, were therefore nothing less than traitors, the enemy within. 

A Priest Hole in a library. This hiding space, behind a swinging beam, would have had book shelves and cupboard doors in front of it. The Catholic priest would hide in the silent darkness, until the Protestant search teams left.

In either case, the result was the same. It was believed that Catholics could not possibly maintain a dual allegiance to their Catholic God and their Protestant Queen. Even today Catholics are still stunned by the savagery that led to the growth of the modern British state. It is worth repeating that Catholics could not enter British Parliament until the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829. Worse still, Catholics could not graduate from Oxford, Cambridge and Durham universities until the passage of the University Tests Act in 1871.


Elizabeth I: War On Terror is a BBC television programme that analysed Elizabethan England's morbid fear of Catholic plotting. The focus was on the summer of 1586 when the Babington Plot intended to assassinate Protestant Queen Elizabeth I and replace her by her cousin, Catholic Mary Queen of Scots.

26 May 2015

Women doctors were vital in WW1 Europe

In 1887, while women were still denied the right to vote in the Australian colonies, 7 women began medical degrees at the Melbourne Medical School and two of them graduated in 1891. And the University of Sydney Medical School first produced two women grad­uates in 1893. Yet by 1914, only two decades later, there were 130 women registered as medical practitioners across Australia. Of course their access to hospital residencies and clinical appointments was still highly restricted, but they were there!

As soon as WW1 erupted in 1914, women doctors quickly under­stood the demands it would make on doctors, nurses and other health professionals. The women doctors responded with the same mix of motives that male doctors felt – to serve God, King and country; to get away from the confines of home and see the world; and to practise their profession in a useful way.

But for women there were additional considerations. The war might enable career opportun­ities to open up for women doctors who in 1914 were still margin­alised within the profession. The thinking went that if the war continued, the need for doctors would be so great that women would be fully accepted within their profession.

Dr Louisa Anderson, British surgeon
operating on patients in Paris

Voice Newspaper also tells another story. War was an extraordinary test of the limits of the profession, and would elicit vast advances in medicine: plastic surgery, psychiatry, and innovations in the treatment of wounds and disease. Ambitious women wanted to be part of those advances.

It will surprise no-one that the Australian and the British Armed Forces refused to employ women doctors. The British Army did eventually relax the case against women doctors later in WW1, but the Australian Army did not appoint a female doctor until 1943! So women took other routes eg working for the Red Cross. Occasionally they travelled in independent medical units. Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson was the first woman in Britain to cross the Channel and set up an operating theatre in an empty hotel in Paris. Within days, she was operating on wounded French and Belgian soldiers .

Were the Australian policy makers worried that women would be killed or wounded in the war zones and were being very protective of the gentle sex? Was the army fearful that poor hygiene and limited supplies would endanger the standards of Australian health care delivered in Europe? Apparently not. At least 2,500 qualified and experienced Australian nurses successfully served overseas during WWI. This suggests that it wasn’t being female that bothered the army. Rather it was that war was Men’s Business; female doctors would be officers and authority figures, a role in war that would be offensive to men.

Australian Dr Agnes Bennett 1916-1917 
She was the commanding officer of the 7th Medical Unit of the Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Service in Macedonia and Serbia.

And another piece of evidence. Due to a lack of medical officers in 1917 and 1918, a number of Australian theatre sisters worked as nurse anaesthetists in Casualty Clearing Stations in France. The army was desperate and I am delighted that 9 Australian nurses were given permission by the Australian authorit­ies to participate - the British Army provided three months’ training for Australian, British and New Zealand nurses in the use of chloro­form and ether. Yet the same authorities could have easily permitted women doctors to work in the Casualty Clearing Stations in France, partially solving the core problem: lack of medical officers.

In the event, it seems that twenty five Australian women doctors served in WW1. But because they were not allowed to serve in an Aust­ralian unit because of our governmental policy, their contribution has never been formally recog­nised here in Australia. They HAD to serve in other units overseas.

Looking For the Evidence is full of excellent examples. In 1914 Dr Katie Ardill applied to serve with the Austral­ian Expeditionary Forces and was of course refused. So she made her own way to Egypt in 1915 and then onto Britain where she joined the British Expeditionary Forces as one of the first women doctors in field services. Dr Ardill was appointed to the medical staff at the County Middlesex War Hospital in St Albans in 1915. Her next appointment was at the Anglo-Belgian Military Hospital in Calais and was appointed to the rank of Captain. Under the British Red Cross Society, she worked in a Belgian hospital and then the Citadel Hospital in Cairo. Altogether Dr Ardill served for four years in Britain, France, Belgium and Egypt. Dr Agnes Bennett was also from Sydney. Serving with the French Red Cross, Dr Bennett became the first female commissioned officer in the British Army in 1915, when as a captain she worked in war hospitals in Cairo. In 1916-17 she was in charge of a unit of the Scottish Women's Hospitals on the Serbian front.

23 May 2015

El Greco In New York

I would love to have seen the El Greco (1541–1614) paintings in New York. Not because I thought he was the finest artist in the history of humanity. But because views about his art have changed SO radically, both during his own life-time and since his death.

In the meantime, I have had to rely on The Guardian. Since El Greco was the toughest and trendiest artist of the late C16th-early C17th, we can probably understand the wild gyrations in his reputation. At his death in 1614 he was a well known painter of religious scenes and portraits. Then he fell into obscurity – too dark for his Baroque successors, too unnatural for the Enlightenment. It was only with the catastrophic Napoleonic occupation of Spain that El Greco’s works were carried off to Paris and his reputation el­ev­ated once again. Now he is being feted like a Spanish soccer star once again.

To commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of El Greco, a special collaboration brought together all ten of the artist’s paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection in New York, the finest outside the Museo del Prado in Madrid. Also displayed were six loans from the Hispanic Society of America. During the same period, New York’s Frick Collection exhibited its three El Greco pictures together for the first time.

Cardinal Nino de Guevara, Archbishop of Seville and and Inquisitor General
by El Greco, 1600
171 x 108 cms,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, HO Havemeyer Collection.

So El Greco in New York, which finished in Feb 2015, was a mini-retrospective of the artist spanning almost all of his car­eer, from his arrival in Venice in 1567, his move to Rome in 1570 and his long residence in Toledo until his death in 1614. The list of paintings on display was as follows:

Christ Healing the Blind (Metrop)
Christ Carrying the Cross (Metrop)
Portrait of an Old Man (?self-portrait, Metrop)
A View of Toledo (Metrop)
Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara (Metrop)
Saint Jerome as a Scholar (Metrop)
The Vision of Saint John (Metrop)
Saint Andrew (Workshop of El Greco, (Metrop))
Adoration of the Shepherds (Metrop)
Adoration of the Shepherds (El Greco and Workshop, Metrop)
Pietà (Hispanic Society of America)
The Holy Family (Hispanic Society of America)
Portrait of a Man (miniature: Hispanic Society of America)
Saint Jerome as a Penitent (Hispanic Society of America)
Saint Luke (Hispanic Society of America)
Saint Francis (Hispanic Society of America)
Purification of the Temple (at The Frick Collection
Portraits of Vincenzo Anastagi (at The Frick Collection)
Portrait of St Jerome (at The Frick Collection).

I had a feeling that although El Greco was an artist whose emotional style openly expressed the passion of Counter-Reformation Spain, he was not a very socially skilled human being. He never bothered marrying his lady friend, the mother of his only child (b1578). And he seemed to spend his waking hours in the silence and sterile atmosphere of monasteries. But the Metropolitan exhibition suggests that he definitely not a social hermit. On the contrary, he ran a well-staffed studio – some of his assistants’ works were on view in the Met. In fact if he was in debt from time to time, it was thanks to his lavish lifestyle and constant social life.

So why didn’t he flourish in Italy, party-central for the late C16th? It seems ironical, or downright silly, that El Greco succeeded in conservative Toledo, rather than multicultural Venice or art-obsessed Rome.  Toledo gave him the freedom to abandon conventional represent­ation and to deform his figures in the way we find so modern. As the excellent museum-catalogue shows.

Saint Jerome as a Scholar (in the red robes of a cardinal)
by El Greco c1610
108 x 89 cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Two lectures series were held alongside the Met’s dis­play of El Greco’s works, to honour the 400th anniversary of the artist’s death. The first was El Greco at the Met, given by Keith Christiansen, Chair­man of European Paintings and Walter Liedtke, Curator of European Paintings. It dealt with the Metropolitan’s holdings of El Greco, from the artist’s early years in Venice to his last projects in Toledo.

The second, El Greco: Spirit and Paradox, was given Keith Christiansen who explored the notion of El Greco as a precursor to Modernism, the artist’s failures in Italy, and the anachronistically sublime painter he became in Spain.

There was also a Spanish musical ensemble presenting El Greco’s Toledo: Capella de Ministrers. The intimate programme included the most iconic music from his birth place of Crete as well as from his time in Venice and Rome, and concluded with music from the Spanish city of Toledo.


One question still remained for me. If, at the turn of the century, El Greco's work was almost unknown in the USA, how did some of his finest paintings get there? The director of the Metropolitan back in 1981 wrote that Louisine Havemeyer  did more than any other individual to create the interest in El Greco. Sugar magnates Mrs. Havemeyer and her husband Henry discovered his work about 1901, while on a trip to Spain, and were immediately attracted to "its intensity, its individuality, its freedom and its colour." Aided by the American Impressionist Mary Cassatt, Mrs. Havemeyer set out in pursuit of El Greco's paintings; her Memoirs provide a fascinating account of the successes and disappointments of the chase, as well as of the opportunities offered to collectors of her day. Louisine Havemeyer's 1929 bequest to the Metropolitan was vitally important in the American public's understanding of El Greco.