Alexander Lock, Catholicism, identity and politics in the age of Enlightenment: The life and career of Sir Thomas Gascoigne, 1745-1810. Woodbridge, 2016, ISBN 978-1-78327-132-0, pp. vii + 270.
Reviewed by Dr Gregory Slysz, Oxford University (Graduate)
By the time Sir Thomas Gascoigne was entering English elite society during the mid-eighteenth century the harshest edges of Protestant opinion towards Catholics had been blunted. Nevertheless, life for English Catholics remained challenging, compounded by erstwhile penal legislation that discriminated against them in commerce and politics. Those Catholics who desired participation in this society were confronted with a stark choice between apostasy and foregoing their ambitions; Sir Thomas chose the former. Alexander Lock’s biography of Sir Thomas captures the times with great skill and discernment, offering insight into both the peculiarities of contemporary English society and the accomplishments of his main character in his attempts to evade the obstacles that it placed before ambitious Catholic gentlemen. One can imagine Gascoigne’s choices will jar with many readers, particularly cynics, as Lock puts it, who ‘might see nothing but calculation in Sir Thomas’s apostasy and subsequent political career (p. 220).’ Yet even traditional Catholics, cynics or not, instinctively more attune to acts of martyrdom than apostasy, perhaps may be persuaded by Lock’s eloquent narrative and to accept that an excessively doctrinaire approach towards Sir Thomas’s life risked overlooking ‘the complexity of his spiritual position as an enlightened English catholic and would ignore the subtle changes taking place within eighteenth-century elite society (ibid.)’; or perhaps not.
Organised into three parts, the work offers a structured analysis of the distinct periods in Sir Thomas’s life. His Formative years abroad(Part One) tells of his education at a number of ‘progressive’ institutions, at Douai, Paris and Turin and his enrolment into ‘Enlightened’ Cisalpine Catholicism, (chapter 1). This would foreshadow his own apostasy in 1780 for which the reader is prepared (chapter 2) with a fascinating insight into his Grand Tours, throughout which he ‘sought to participate in a life of rakish sociability, gambling and fornication’ (p.60). His behaviour and experiences while on tour revealed that he ‘clearly held no great attachment or loyalty to international Roman Catholicism he had observed on the Continent […] (p. 93)’, which made it easy for him to abjure his Faith. In Apostasy and Politics(Part Two), Sir Thomas’s life as a fully-fledged English gentleman unfolds. Enthused by ‘personal ambition and social advancement’ (p. 98), he becomes an MP in 1780 and subsequently a prominent, though largely independent, member of the Whig establishment (chapter 3). In the final section of the book, Estate Management, Sir Thomas’s talents as a farmer and agricultural innovator (chapter 3) as well as an industrialist (chapter 5) are demonstrated.
A recurrent theme of the book is Sir Thomas’s attempts to maintain at least a semblance of his Catholic identity while simultaneously serving the British state as a Protestant convert. His was an attempt to square the circle that would bring him many political and commercial dividends, not however without some opprobrium from his steadfast Catholic contemporaries. For the Catholic priest Joseph Berington, for instance, apostasy and the quest for commercial success threatened the spiritual integrity of the Catholic Faith more than Protestant persecution (pp.19-20). Sir Thomas, however, did not see it that way. Coming as he did from one of the most prominent Catholic families in England, he was determined not to experience the social exclusion and persecution that his ancestors had. Already at the beginning of the eighteenth century, as the worst excesses of the anti-Catholic wave began to pass, the Gascoigne family, in common with other established Catholic families, though remaining devout, began to search for ‘the middle way’ which could lead them to the finer aspects ‘of the fashionable and genteel world of English high society’ (p. 26). Sir Thomas was destined to follow suit. Upon the death of his father in 1750 when he was only five years of age, his guardians proceeded, in accordance with his father’s wishes, to ensure that both he and his elder brother, Sir Edward, became ‘Christian gentlemen and not religious enthusiasts’ (p.42). Sent to the Continent to be schooled, he was to acquire a ‘liberal Catholic’ outlook that would subsequently ‘allow him to justify an apostasy for social and political gain at the expense of his faith’ while at the same time ‘nurture a personal Catholicism that he syncretised later with his legal need to be an Anglican’ (p. 55). At eighteen he inherited the baronetcy following the death of his brother from smallpox in 1762.
The book is most biographical in its tracing of Sir Thomas’s maturation through his adventures on his two Grand Tours. From the young, promiscuous, scandal-hit rake of the first tour, who, among other things, managed to somehow avoid serious consequences of his involvement in the death of an Italian coachman (p.60), to the more refined, though no less promiscuous, twenty nine-year old of the second tour. It was during the latter that he was to calculate the future course of his life. When on Tour his Catholic Faith proved to be an asset, welcomed as he was, together with his companion, fellow Catholic and travel writer, Henry Swinburne, by the great and the good of Catholic Europe, from royal courts to aristocratic circles. Yet as he progressed through Europe he developed suspicions towards medieval religious practices and beliefs like miracles and relics which his countrymen held in such utter contempt. Although cultivating close friendships among Catholic and Anglican ‘tourists’ alike, he realised that to prosper back home his Catholic faith was a hindrance to social advancement, even in the more tolerant atmosphere in the wake of the First Catholic Relief Act of 1778, which still disqualified Catholics from holding either public or political office. Notwithstanding the fact that he harboured no great loyalty to continental Catholicism, as noted, he had tasted too much of the good-life to settle on the margins of polite English society like so many of his co-religionists had been compelled to do.
The background to Sir Thomas’s apostasy that Lock offers is a good example of how the author weaves broader context into the biography which here gives fascinating insight into the choices of contemporary English Catholic gentlemen. We are informed that according to Berington, there were merely 177 landed Catholic families by 1780, the year of Sir Thomas’s apostasy (p.97), though in another interesting caveat, apostasy for some, like that of the Earl of Surrey, a soon-to-be close associate of Gascoigne, may well have been ‘a type of Catholic “entryism” by which the apostate would defend his former coreligionists (pp. 104-5). We are never quite sure from Lock’s narrative, however, whether this was Sir Thomas’s aim. Never completely severing ties with Catholicism, which he demonstrated by sponsoring a number of Catholic causes on his estates, he was himself suspected by many of his contemporaries of opportunism and of forging, together with his apostate colleague, Surrey a crypto-Catholic fifth column. It is, however, difficult to accept, as Lock does, that Sir Thomas’s apostasy ‘was solely for social and political gain’ (p. 145), given his rejection of certain aspects of the Catholic Faith during his liberal education and Grand Tours. Nevertheless, despite suspicions about his motives in abjuring his Faith, apostasy served him well. His political rise was set against the tumultuous backdrop of late eighteenth-century politics of which we get a broad sweep and in which Gascoigne would play a prominent role as a conviction politician, not only regionally in Christopher Wyvill’s influential Yorkshire Association, of which he became Chairman in 1784, but also nationally as a Whig MP first for Malton and then for Arundel.
Sir Thomas’s ambitions were also reflected in his entrepreneurial spirit and shrewd custodianship of his Parlington estates, which ran parallel to his political career as well as his travels. Here Lock’s narrative about the challenges that confronted Catholics at the time is perhaps at its most informative. His effective juxta positioning of these with Sir Thomas’s endeavours offers fascinating insights into contemporary society. The financial and psychological burdens imposed by the penal laws and the double land tax were significant, requiring considerable resourcefulness among Catholics to overcome. Yet ironically, as Lock points out, ‘it was those very laws that sought the demise of Catholic gentry that actually fostered their economic resilience and longevity (p. 150).’ Though as an apostate, Sir Thomas no longer faced the discrimination of his forebears, he had been instilledinhis youth by his guardians of the need for good husbandry and management. Eager to impress his Anglican neighbours, he continued his family’s achievements and sought to run his estates with utmost efficiency both for his own interests and out of a sense of duty to the local Catholic community which depended heavily on the financial security of his estates (p.164). With the assistance of his former guardian Stephen Tempest and the estate’s long-time steward, James Catton, both Catholics, he managed to increase his income considerably both from land rents and the estates mining operations, as well as the Family spa, offsetting the substantial debts that he managed to accrue while on Tour. In these he was a pioneer, introducing novel agrarian techniques (pp. 177-81) and establishing himself at the forefront of ‘industrial enlightenment’ by introducing new technologies (p. 217).
Generally, Lock presents a positive image of Sir Thomas. That’s because for all his faults, on balance, such an image is deserved. Yet Gascoigne’s faults are in full display, his youthful exuberance, his philandering and his craving for the baubles of Anglican English society at the expense of his Faith. Though a benevolent employer, practising, for instance, some positive discrimination in favour of Catholics (p. 163) and providing ‘collier Christmas boxes’ and emergency funds, he was not averse to using controversial methods like rack renting (p.181) or cheap child labour in his coal mines (p. 208) to maximise profit. Sir Thomas experienced life to the full. Great success was tinged with personal tragedy, notably the death of his wife in 1786, following complications during the birth of his only son and heir, Thomas Charles, whose tragic death in a hunting accident in 1809, accelerated Sir Thomas’s own death a year later at the age of 65.
Lock seamlessly juxtaposes Sir Thomas’s experiences with the broader situation confronting Catholics in general in England as second class subjects. And, as Lock stresses, even after his apostasy, Sir Thomas, as most apostates, was not fully accepted into English elite society. So successful is his narrative that at times one is left with the impression that his is not a biography at all but a thorough history of eighteenth-century England, with all its prejudices, aspirations and realisations. And perhaps what is most interesting is the discussion of the impact of the Enlightenment on the development of Catholicism in England. Lock accomplishment is significant which surely seriously undermines those critics, which he himself cites, who claim biography to be a ‘lesser form of history’ (p.9).