Catholic Gentry in English Society: The Throckmortons of Coughton from Reformation to Emancipation, eds. Peter Marshall and Geoffrey Scott (Farnham: Ashgate. 2009; pp.300, £55).
This volume forms part of the Ashgate series on Catholic Christendom 1300-1700, a period, as its Series Editor Thomas F. Mayer points out, which ‘embraces the moment which saw an almost complete transformation of the place of religion in the life of Europeans, whether considered as a system of beliefs, as an institution, or as a set of social and cultural practices’. The Thorockmortons of Coughton Court in Warwickshire, provide a classic case study of this transformation, beginning with George Throckmorton’s ‘Crisis of Allegiance’ in the sixteenth century and ending with the Throckmortons ‘Coming of Age’ between 1826-1862.
In their introduction, the joint editors Peter Marshall and Geoffrey Scott, outline some of the key themes under discussion to emphasise how their historiographical approach moves away from previous histories of Catholicism which either present them as a marginalised persecuted community of ‘recusants’ or, as in John Bossy’s major study, were concerned with a ‘society of Catholics, rather that Catholics in society’. The Throckmorton’s, as they point out, were, throughout the period under discussion, politically, culturally and socially influential, were loyal to the crown yet stood firm in their Catholic beliefs.
Indeed Peter Marshall’s case study on Sir George Throckmorton demonstrates how, throughout his career, he was simultaneously, a conformist and dissenter, ‘a plotter but no traitor’, forged family links with overseas enemies but was a loyal citizen. He ‘modulated’ between holding representative positions in the Tudor state yet opposed Henry VIII’s religious and marital policies. As Marshall points out, ‘Sir George accommodated himself to a changing world while retaining core Catholic beliefs’; a position which perhaps exemplifies, the ‘ambivalent currents’ within the Throckmorton family throughout the whole period under discussion.
Susan Cogan examines the ‘kinship network’ of the Throckmorton family to argue that in spite of their strict adherence to the Catholic faith their attitudes and practices were similar to what she terms other ‘religiously conforming families’ of equal social and economic status. By utilising Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of non-economic forms of capital, Cogan suggests that the Throckmorton’s were able, through the construction and maintenance of patronage relationships, to remain protected and adopt strategies to remain active members of early modern English society. Whether Cogan’s imposition of Bourdieu’s sociological theory really works when applied to early modern society is open to debate, and, whilst this chapter is somewhat repetitive in its arguments it does, however, illuminate how one family remained firmly integrated and influential in their local community in times of change and challenge.
Agnes Throckmorton is the focus of Jan Broadway’s chapter which is a welcome contribution on the role of a Catholic woman surviving in a predominantly hostile Protestant community. Agnes spent most of her ‘recusant widowed’ life maintaining ‘recusant culture’ and family cohesion in the face of competing loyalties and interests within the Throckmorton family.
This is followed by a contribution from Malcolm Wanklyn on the period from 1640-1660. In it he follows the fortunes of Sir Robert and Sir Francis Throckmorton who through these turbulent years were put under increasing pressures for survival both as Catholics and as members of a leading gentry family.
The chapter on Coughton and the Gunpowder Plot by Michael Hodgetts is perhaps the most complex and challenging in the whole volume. It contains an overwhelming amount of references to an equally overwhelming number of different individuals. What Hodgetts attempts to establish are links between the Throckmortons and the plot to blow up parliament in November 1605 and, whilst his intricate referencing of a vast amount of sources may be valuable to the experts, this is not an easy read for someone unfamiliar with the complex and detailed web of intrigues and personalities involved.
Geoffrey Scott continues the story with a reminder that ‘there is no such thing as a typical recusant family’. Taking 1680 as his starting point Scott explores the fortunes and continuing patronage of the family, and suggests that by 1800 they had broke free from their ‘recusant constraints’ to lay the ground for the development of English Catholicism in the future. The main focus of Scott’s contribution is, however, the Throckmorton’s contribution to the survival of recusant culture arising from their close links with the European centres of English Catholicism. This European theme is also explored in Michael Mullet’s chapter on the English Catholic Traveller, Sir John Courtenay Throckmorton. Mullet suggests that this individual was one of the most noteworthy of the family and was its only published author of any significance. This period was also, politically, a significant time for English Catholics with the passing of the Catholic Relief Act in 1778 which established their rights to inherit property in a fully legal way.
The continuing story of ‘Catholic Emancipation’ into the nineteenth century is the subject of the final chapter by Alban Hood. The Throckmortons’ continued and strengthened their connections with the wider European Catholic world especially with the marriage in 1829 of Robert George Throckmorton to Elizabeth Acton, a member of one of the leading Catholic dynasties. Robert also realised what might be termed as the most significant achievement of the Throckmorton family when he was elected as the first Catholic Member of Parliament in 1831.
With the long term historical approach and the extensive use of the Throckmorton family archive in the Warwickshire Record Office and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust the contributors have successfully challenged previous accounts of English Catholicism and opened up new channels of research for future study.