In Search of the True — Catholic — England
A conversation with Joseph Pearce on his latest book
Be careful what you read — it may change you, for better or worse.
In the case of Joseph Pearce, his early reading made him a violent white supremacist. It also landed him in prison. While there, he continued to read; only this time, he read the works of G.K. Chesterton. It was not so much that Chesterton’s words suddenly transformed his politics or his propensity to violence, but they did initiate a change, one much more profound than his earlier transformation into a neo-Nazi. That remarkable conversion has been well documented — not least in his autobiographical Race With the Devil: My Journey From Racial Hatred to Rational Love (St. Benedict Press, 2013).
Today, that former atheist is a devout Catholic. His anger has turned into apostolic zeal. Since 1996, he has set about reexamining England — its history and culture — through a different lens from that previously employed.
Speaking to the Register April 7, he explained how his latest book, Faith of Our Fathers: A History of True England (Ignatius Press), tells the story of “true England, [which] has stayed loyal to the Catholic Church, through thick and thin, from the first to the 21st century.” He hopes that its publication will enable people “to see the rich Catholic heritage that Englishmen can claim as their own, in stark contrast to the ‘official history’ of England rooted in pride and anti-Catholic prejudice.” This “official,” or “Whig version” of history, is one that views England as Protestant and the march of Protestantism and the establishment of Anglicanism as the state religion as not only a good but a popular thing among the English.
Pearce’s True England is part of a revisionist movement that has been pointing out for decades that this “official history” is not only historically inaccurate — the ordinary Catholic English were never in step with the “top down” religious revolution imposed on them by Henry VIII — and that this version of history was always politically motivated. In short, it was not so much history as propaganda.
True England is part of “a noble tradition of ‘revisionist’ history,” observed Pearce, which seeks to correct “the erroneous and prejudiced distortions of the ‘official’ or ‘Whig’ version of history.”
Yet, one wonders: How difficult is it to counter the deeply anti-Catholic bias of the official version of British history? “It’s easier than it used to be,” replied Pearce. “Up to around the time of the Second World War, the ‘Whig’ history was accepted as the official narrative of England’s past. That consensus has evaporated. Since that official history is no longer either believed or trusted, there is a greater openness to seeing the facts of the past in a fresh unprejudiced light.”
It is in this new atmosphere of enquiry and desire for objectivity that he hopes his book will find receptive readers. How many of those readers, one wonders, will be in England? “It is my hope that the book will be read by English Catholics,” Pearce said, “and that they may better understand their roots, in consequence. I hope that this will then inspire them to talk about this ‘true England’ to non-Catholic Englishmen, enabling them to evangelize through the power of history.”
The history of England revealed in the pages of this book is more complex — and more Catholic — than the previous official version allowed. England gets its name from the Angles, one of the Germanic tribes that settled in what became England following the collapse of the Roman Empire. Yet, as Pearce observes, “There was a Catholic-Christian presence in England, mainly but not exclusively Celtic, prior to the arrival of these Germanic tribes.” He goes on to point out that there had been a Christian presence in England for almost 400 years before the pagan Germanic tribes, usually known collectively as the Anglo-Saxons, arrived on these shores. “This largely Catholic country which precedes the Anglo-Saxons is what I call the England before England,” he added.
Running through the book is the rather surprising theme of England as “Christ-haunted,” a phrase more reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor and the American South than one associated with England. So, what does he mean by this phrase? “It refers to the pious legends,” Pearce explained, “to which William Blake alludes in his poem Jerusalem, that the Christ Child might have visited England with St. Joseph of Arimathea, or that St. Joseph of Arimathea might have led the first mission to England in A.D. 63, bringing the Holy Grail with him.” Irrespective of whether such tales are merely pious legends, Pearce believes that “they have given birth to all the Arthurian legends about the Holy Grail, which are so much part of the very fabric of what it means to be English. This is why I say that England is Christ-haunted, much as Flannery O’Connor believed that the American South was similarly Christ-haunted.”
If all writing is, to some extent, autobiographical, one wonders how much of the author’s own spiritual journey is the prism through which these strands of English history are being viewed. “I was raised on the anti-Catholic ‘Whig’ understanding of history,” he explained. “In consequence, I was very anti-Catholic as a young man. It was, in part, my reading of the ‘revisionist’ understanding of history of both Belloc and Chesterton which opened my eyes to the lies I’d been hoodwinked into believing. I hope that my own book, in its own small way, might open people’s eyes to the truth about England’s past, as my own eyes were opened.”
‘True and Timeless England’
The history he recounts spans 2,000 years, beginning with the arrival of the first Christian missionaries to England, which was possibly as early as the year 63, and concluding, aptly, with the reconsecration of England to the Blessed Virgin during the COVID lockdown in March 2020. Living in 21st-century England, which is as decidedly secular as it is agnostic, there seems little room for optimism about this land’s imminent return to the faith. This is not a view shared by Pearce. “A Christian should always be hopeful,” he said. “In the prologue and epilogue to my book, I speak of the ‘true and timeless England’ that exists in God’s presence. There is no past and future to God. His omnipresence means that all time is present to him. Understood in this sense, true England is that part of England which remains in his presence, whereas those in English history who have fought against Christ and his Church have excommunicated themselves from his presence.”
Many years ago, Joseph Pearce was given the grace to find his way into that Presence. He remains there still. His gift has been words, and his mission has been to find, under the rubble of lies and half-truths, the truth of a nation’s literary and historical past. In Faith of Our Fathers: A History of True England, in the spiritual wilderness of today’s Albion, he continues to be a voice for truth.
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