When Popes invade

Monument at Dún an Óir to those massacred in the Siege of Smerwick, October 1580 (Wikipedia) On October 10, back in 1580, a force of Papal soldiers landed at Smerwick in Ireland to foment rebellion against the English. Which is, again, just about exactly the sort of thing I think the Papacy should not do.

For one thing, it didn’t work. It was part of a tangled set of uprisings against English rule in Ireland called the Desmond Rebellions. The papal force was quickly trapped, forced to surrender, and massacred by English soldiers including Sir Walter Raleigh.

The massacre brings to mind the important qualification that English rule in Ireland was remarkably malevolent given their general record elsewhere. I cannot say that I blame the Irish for rising up since they were being denied the rights guaranteed by Magna Carta. (Or for thinking Ard na Caithne was a nicer name for the place than Smerwick, if it comes to that.) And I do not condemn the rebels, or their helpers, for not weighing the odds too carefully before doing what they thought was right.

I also concede that the Tudor break with Rome was an ugly business motivated by lust and dynastic greed rather than genuine religious fervor. I also grant that genuine religious fervor if misplaced can be very nasty indeed. But I can see why some Catholics would very much regret what had happened and want to fix it.

None of these considerations excuse the Papacy sending an army to mix together English colonial policy and religious quarrels. Indeed, it’s remarkable how much good came out of the bad beginning of the Anglican Church, including the longstanding Anglosphere identification of free-will Protestantism with liberty against tyrannical Catholicism.

I know and respect Catholics who insist the association is accidental and incomplete (including that the England that produced Magna Carta was Catholic, as was the Wessex of Alfred the Great). But it is a fact that from the Spanish Armada down to the French Revolution, the great threat to liberty was absolute monarchs professing Catholicism and in unwholesomely close league with a Church that was far too entwined in secular matters to attend to its spiritual duties properly. Need I mention Armand Jean du Plessis, the infamous Cardinal Richelieu, Chief Minister to Louis XIII, geopolitical schemer and man of dubious fidelity to Catholic theology?

Furthermore, and worse, if the Papacy wanted Catholicism to receive a respectful hearing in England, including at least tolerance of its practices, it would be hard to think of a worse policy than continually fomenting sedition and even sometimes lending troops to it.

As a footnote, Raleigh was later tried on largely political grounds, mostly unfairly, and imprisoned for many years before being executed. But one of the charges brought against him was his involvement in the 1580 massacre and his defence, that he was just following orders, was rejected.