Peter Marshall and Geoffrey Scott (eds.), Catholic Gentry in English Society: The Throckmortons of Coughton from Reformation to Emancipation, Ashgate, Farnham, 2009.

Peter Marshall and Geoffrey Scott (eds.), Catholic Gentry in English Society: The Throckmortons of Coughton from Reformation to Emancipation, Ashgate, Farnham, 2009. £60.00, ISBN 978-0-7546-6432-1 (Hardback), pp. xviii + 282


Reviewed by: Christina Brindley, Manchester Metropolitan University, July 2010

This engaging series of essays, which focuses on the Throckmorton family between 1530 and 1860, is a recent publication from Ashgate’s ‘Catholic Christendom, 1300-1700’ series.  As Marshall and Scott point out in their introductory chapter, this volume was not intended to be another microcosmic study of a recusant family and its position within, what John Bossy might term, the Catholic community.[1]  Instead, this work attempts to build upon a more recent development within the historiography of post-Reformation English Catholicism; to consider how Catholics interacted with wider society.

In his 2006 work Catholicism and Community in Early Modern England, Michael Questier examined the familial and patronage networks of the Browne family.[2]  Adopting a similar approach, but considering a far greater time period than Questier, this collective work analyses the strategies adopted by various members of the Throckmorton family in order to remain politically active and engaged within English society.  The volume returns frequently to several key themes.  Firstly, to a topic which has been unduly neglected in the past: the influence of continental Catholicism and the interaction between the Throckmortons and the exiled English Catholic communities.  Secondly, the issue of Catholic loyalism: how family members approached the constant struggle to remain both a devout Catholic and a loyal English subject.  Thirdly, the family’s continuous involvement in political calls for Catholic toleration and, ultimately, the Relief Acts and Emancipation.

The first member of the Throckmorton family to face accusations of religious dissent and political disloyalty was Sir George Throckmorton.  In his chapter, Peter Marshall considers the ways in which Sir George expressed his persistent opposition to the break with Rome, whilst retaining his social standing and proclaiming himself a loyal servant of the crown.   Marshall nimbly demonstrates how Sir George was ‘simultaneously a conformist but a dissenter, a plotter but not a traitor, [and] a patriot with close family links to overseas enemies of the state’.[3]  Sir George also appears to have acted as quasi-patron to his aunt, Elizabeth Throckmorton, who formed a domestic religious community at Coughton, Warwickshire, after the Dissolution and the loss of her position as abbess of the Poor Clares at Denny.

The theme of patronage is further developed by Susan Cogan who suggests that, despite their regular status as recusants, the Throckmortons occupied a position within society which was not that dissimilar from Protestant gentry of similar social standing.  Abstract concepts such as family honour and reputation were just as important to Catholic gentry families as they were to Protestant ones – perhaps more so, as recusancy fines already placed Catholics at a socio-economic disadvantage.  Cogan makes the important point that patronage networks were critical for Catholic women, who often needed to utilise their social contacts to obtain practical support: for instance, to aid their imprisoned husbands, or to seek protection from prosecution for recusancy during widowhood.

The concept of Catholic loyalism is touched upon by Michael Hodgetts in his chapter on the Throckmortons and the Gunpowder Plot.  Hodgetts’ chosen topic is perhaps the most difficult, in some respects, as the evidence for Throckmorton involvement in the plot is scant.  Two of the plotters, Robert Catesby and Francis Tresham, were nephews of Thomas Throckmorton, but the reasons for Henry Garnet’s sojourn at Coughton and whether or not the house was intended to be used as a base for a potential rising in the Midlands remain unclear.  Hodgetts provides a firm analysis of the surviving evidence to outline and analyse the peripheral Throckmorton connections to the plot.

Jan Broadway considers the later life of the Jacobean recusant Agnes Throckmorton in order to draw out the unique difficulties faced by Catholic widows, some of which had the potential to disturb the stability and cohesion of the family unit.  After her husband’s death, guardianship of Agnes’s son, Robert, was granted to the child’s paternal grandfather, Thomas Throckmorton.  Broadway makes excellent use of family papers in order to demonstrate the difficult struggle which Agnes faced to retain influence over her son’s life, whilst also maintaining the familial cohesion which was so important for economically-vulnerable Catholic families.

The difficulties of minorities and fear of interference by the Court of Wards is further addressed by Malcolm Wanklyn, who considers the minority of Francis Throckmorton during the Commonwealth.  Using the surviving evidence, in the form of an account book which belonged to Francis, Wanklyn considers the influence that the guardianship of the Protestant Thomas Salwey had upon the boy.  This chapter conveys the impression that, where the Throckmortons’ religious allegiances remained shaded and ambiguous during this period, so did their political alliances.  The family seem to have cushioned themselves against the worst destructions of the Civil Wars by adopting an approach of relative religious and political neutrality.

In his chapter, Geoffrey Scott considers the Throckmorton networks, at home and abroad, during the eighteenth century.  The family’s connection with continental Catholicism remained consistent, especially links to the exiled religious orders.  Scott demonstrates that the Throckmortons regularly employed English Benedictines as chaplains and tutors.  Strong links also existed with the Augustinian Canonesses at Paris, where many of the Throckmorton daughters were educated and two of those who went on to take holy orders – Elizabeth and Frances Anne – were appointed to the office of abbess.  Networks were also established in England, through intermarriage with other Catholic gentry families and the development of congregations at the family chapels.

The final two chapters of this volume consider the Throckmorton attachment to liberalism and reform.  Michael Mullett considers how the experiences of Sir John Courtenay Throckmorton during his continental tour of 1792-3 may have developed his religious and political thought – for instance, his observations on the fall of the Ancien Régime and of the confessional divisions within the Swiss Confederation.  Sir John Courtenay was renowned as a fervent proponent of Cisalpine thought and Mullett’s analysis of the continental influences upon his politico-religious outlook is perceptive.  The political theme is developed further by Alban Hood, who demonstrates that the Throckmortons were as keenly involved in political activism by the nineteenth century, as they had been in the sixteenth.  Sir John Courtenay was instrumental in advocating for the Relief Acts and in 1831 Sir Robert George Throckmorton became the first English Catholic MP since the Reformation.  Hood demonstrates that by the nineteenth century the Throckmortons were a securely established Catholic gentry family, whose members were participating fully in English society.

In conclusion, this volume would be a valuable resource to anyone with an interest in the developing historiography of early modern English Catholicism.  Each chapter provides an interesting and distinct analysis of a particular aspect of the family’s interaction with wider society, whether it be at home or abroad.  It is also refreshing to see greater attention paid to women (including women religious) than is often the case in volumes which focus on a particular family.

[1] J. Bossy, The English Catholic Community: 1570-1850, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976)

[2] M.C. Questier, Catholicism and Community in Early Modern England: Politics, Aristocratic Patronage and Religion, c.1550-1640, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

[3] p.66