Upper Class and Underground

Art as Secret Rebellion in Protestant England

by Suzanne Duque-Salvo

“The sun had sunk now to the line of woodland beyond the valley; all the opposing slope was already in twilight, but lakes below us were aflame; the light grew in strength and splendour as it neared death, drawing long shadows across the pasture, falling full on the rich stone spaces of the house, firing the panes in the windows, glowing on cornices and colonnade and dome, spreading out all the stacked merchandise of colour and scent from earth and stone and leaf, glorifying the head and golden shoulders of the woman beside me.”

“Brideshead Revisited” by the redoubtable Evelyn Waugh, is a 20th century tale about an English family descended from the recusants of Elizabethan times.

To be sure, to be Catholic, powerful, landed, wealthy and talented during this period of English history was dangerous. Nevertheless, the Catholic Recusant families in Elizabethan England refused to publicly renounce their allegiance to Rome and to attend Anglican services. For centuries, these families had been the minority, a wealthy few at the apex of English society. Their households consisted of immediate family, servants and tenants, all Catholic — a propertied and titled class who could afford to pay protection money to the Crown so they could practice the Catholicism woven into the rhythm of their lives.

From the recusants’ perspective, the Crown’s determination to deprive them of access to the Sacred was a stronger threat than any potential depletion of family finances. So, while the Reformation raged around them, many felt that the only way to practice Catholicism was to have their own in-house family chaplain. Hence, the Elizabethan priest, hidden in a ‘priest’s hole,’ cleverly concealed in the woodwork of an ancient stately home.

Recusants were vulnerable to informers, who sought Crown bribes in return for accusing them of collaborating with priests — those most likely to be executed in gruesome ways. In this era of fear, intrigue and suspicion, recusants found their own ways to deal with the mortal threat to their lives and property. This article highlights two Recusant heads of family who used the fine arts as a non-violent form of rebellion – a counter-reformation in a context where being Catholic was outlawed.

To be Catholic, powerful, landed, wealthy and talented during this period of English history was dangerous.
An Architecture of Defiance

Sir Thomas Tresham was a Catholic recusant who was imprisoned fifteen times, and whose son was a convicted conspirator in the Gun Powder Plot. In the late 16th century, Tresham built one of the most astonishing structures in England — the Rushton Triangular Lodge in Northamptonshire, England. A tribute to Catholicism’s Tridentine Creed and a monument to the Tresham family’s valor, the Lodge is also a testament to the times, full of religious symbolism.

11Tresham built the Lodge on the grounds of his own estate, uniting the idea of the Trinity with ‘tres’ or the number ‘three’ in his family name.  The Rushton Triangular Lodge is a three floor building with three walls, each thirty-three feet long, and each with three triangular windows with three gargoyles.  Three Latin texts, each thirty-three letters long, wrap around the building. (One text reads: ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?’) The Lodge is replete with religious symbolism in the figures of pelicans, hens and chickens, doves and serpents.

Byrd worked for Elizabeth and made her happy, but he was not what “Gloriana” thought he was.
The Double Life of William Byrd

The man who was hand-picked by Elizabeth I to ‘set the tone’ for Anglican worship services was considered to be a national treasure.  William Byrd was a composer of sacred music and a recusant who was selected to be Director of the Queen’s Chapel Royal and to compose “The Great Service” for Anglican Worship.  Elizabeth was willing to overlook the fact that Byrd was once the composer for Catholic Queen Mary; he was someone who could project a cultured, irenic and positive image of her reign.

But while Byrd worked for Elizabeth and made her happy, he was not what “Gloriana” thought he was; he secretly composed forbidden Latin liturgical music. Because he was brilliant and had a high degree of diplomatic intelligence, Byrd was able to navigate composing for both the secular world and for the Anglican Church — but at the same time retaining the Catholic identity in his Catholic works. Scholars today agree that Byrd’s Catholic music embodied his deepest and truest beliefs. He made it a conscious effort to compose far more excellent works for his Catholic audience – the ‘highest art’ he said.

But Byrd did not sacrifice quality when he worked with other genres; he knew each one had to be distinct. Byrd popularized the English madrigal, which was distinctly Elizabethan court and banquet music. Some of this music was written to honor the Virgin Queen; some were even her own texts set to music.  She must have been so thrilled not only to have songs in her honor but for her Church to impress upon on-lookers that it was a ‘high church’ in their own Anglican way.

In this way, Byrd made himself a treasure for the Anglican Church, so  that any act of possible treason implicating him could well be overlooked. It is said that Elizabeth intervened many times to keep him out of jail.

Byrd made himself a treasure for the Anglican Church, so  that any act of possible treason implicating him could well be overlooked. It is said that Elizabeth intervened many times to keep her favorite out of jail.

For Byrd lived a double life, as most recusants did. His spiritual life was nurtured by the Jesuits’ service; Byrd’s choice of themes for his music was influenced by Jesuit engagements.  Some corresponded with specific Jesuit published works, often using language that would resonate only with the Catholic community. Another source of inspiration for Byrd were ‘gallows texts’- which happen to be verses from Psalms uttered as last words by certain English Jesuits just before martyrdom.

Byrd’s Catholic music did not only provide highly contextualized liturgical music, but mobilized a creativity on the margins — depicting and perpetuating Catholic courage, something to be rallied upon the remaining faithful Catholics.

Recusancy produced tangible testaments of faith, evidence to the standing, unceasing prayers of praise, gratitude and supplication and of God’s immanence, particularly on the margins of Catholic England. Marginalization allowed the recusants to ally with the greater Catholic community in the Continent and Rome. Never mind that many of them had to deal with a series of law suits that depleted their wealth. It was a daring enterprise for the recusants to uphold a fidelity emboldened by deprivations besides threats to life and property, and to embody a passion to reach and touch the holy with facts-on-the-ground and in the open, that symbolize Catholic steadfastness, and perhaps even Christian unity.

Suzanne Duque-Salvo is a Filipina-American Roman Catholic with a MA (Harvard Divinity School), a BA in Religion and a BA in Psychology (Wellesley College).  She is
Director/Founder of a non-profit organization now establishing a homestead for recovery and healing. In 2012, her book (and eBook) “A Battered Woman Went to Harvard” was published.  Duque-Salvo has five adult children and four grandchildren. She is a member of the American Academy of Religion.


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