Kelly on Lock, 'Catholicism, Identity and Politics in the Age of Enlightenment: The Life and Career of Sir Thomas Gascoigne, 1745-1810'

Alexander Lock
James E. Kelly

Alexander Lock. Catholicism, Identity and Politics in the Age of Enlightenment: The Life and Career of Sir Thomas Gascoigne, 1745-1810. Studies in Modern British Religious History Series. Rochester: Boydell Press, 2016. 256 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-78327-132-0.

Reviewed by James E. Kelly (Durham University) Published on H-Albion (July, 2017) Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth

Following the collapse of Jacobitism as an alternative—real or imagined—to England’s Protestant monarchy, the nation’s landed Catholics found themselves set adrift. Unlikely ever to achieve the political power to which they felt their social status qualified them, they were faced with wiling away the hours on their country estates, excluded from building an emergent empire. It is this state of flux that Alexander Lock seeks to analyze in Catholicism, Identity and Politics in the Age of Enlightenment, as he explores the tension between these individuals’ desire to maintain separatist Catholicism while simultaneously integrating into the mainstream of political and cultural life.

Presenting the “life history” of Sir Thomas Gascoigne, eighth baronet of Parlington Hall, near Aberford in the West Riding of Yorkshire, Lock untangles his subject’s attempt to balance these two concerns. Born in Cambrai in 1745, Gascoigne was educated by English Benedictine monks at the monastery of St. Gregory’s in Douai. Thus, developed in the milieu of the continental Enlightenment, Gascoigne’s Catholicism was liberal: a more rational faith that shied away from religious enthusiasm or “superstition.”

Perhaps the most notable event in Gascoigne’s life was his apostasy from the faith that his ancestors had risked persecution to maintain. As outlined in the opening chapter, Lock traces this event directly from Gascoigne’s Catholic Enlightenment education, which aimed to create an English Catholic as opposed to a Roman one. Schooled in a liberal Benedictine education system that sought a middle way between faith and modern sociability, Gascoigne learned the necessary social graces for him to take his place in English society rather than the spiritual resolve of a would-be Catholic martyr. Though Lock does not mention Gallicanism by name, there is certainly a strong hint of it in Gascoigne’s circle, which, coupled with growing practical toleration in England, set the scene for his reverse swim of the Tiber.

A wealthy young man looking for culture, Gascoigne ventured on the Grand Tour, the subject of Lock’s second chapter. The author argues that during these travels Gascogine began to see himself as more enlightened than his continental coreligionists, especially emotive Mediterranean Catholics. Gascoigne’s Benedictine tutors fretted about his behavior on this venture and their fears proved well-grounded. Allegedly sexually dissolute—which was blamed on a combination of boredom, his liberal education, and lack of proper religious instruction—Gascoigne had to flee from Rome in 1765 after being involved on the peripheries of a drunken murder. It was Gascoigne’s breeding that helped him out of this scrape, a factor that also saw him join the upper echelons of English society abroad, his Catholicism opening doors closed to his Protestant fellow Englishmen. In other words, Lock suggests, Gascoigne got a taste of the elite English society to which he belonged but from which his religion barred him.

The third chapter deals with Gascoigne’s return to England in 1789 and his apostasy the following year. Lock argues that this was caused by Gascoigne’s desire to maintain the prestige he had enjoyed on the continent and exploit the opportunities available to someone of his social position. His shrugging off the Catholic shackles allowed Gascoigne to become a member of Parliament like his fellow former Catholic, Charles Howard, eleventh Duke of Norfolk. It is here that Lock makes his central argument. Having outlined Gascoigne’s contemporaries’ persistent doubts about the religious sincerity of his renunciation of Catholicism and suspicions of Catholic entryism, Lock argues that, fundamentally, these rumors were not far from the truth.

Lock uses the book’s final two chapters to attest to Gascoigne’s continued Catholic sympathies, evident in his estate management and entrepreneurial activities. With his Catholic Enlightenment background, Gascoigne felt a nobilesse oblige to his tenants, which included a growing number of Catholics even after his public apostasy. Disagreeing with historiographical consensus, Lock argues that Catholic landowners were at the forefront of agricultural innovation not simply to alleviate boredom but also as a means to navigate the financial penalties of following their faith. Interestingly, he maintains that Gascoigne was part of this Catholic landowning class even after his change of faith as it was from this background that he came, even if his interest in such matters was marked for his social class. Similarly, Gascoigne’s embrace of new technologies, Lock suggests, was because of the penal laws and an effort to offset their financially debilitating effects, Lock describing him as at the forefront of the “industrial enlightenment” (p. 217).

These are provocative arguments, though Lock maintains that Gascoigne’s conversion was not cynical but the result of changes in elite society. It was an attempt by a liberal Catholic to meet the state church midway and create a via media. A supporter of radical Whig policies, though also his own man politically, Gascoigne maintained his material support for his estate’s Benedictine mission and the Catholics living in the surrounding area. Lock takes this as evidence of Gascoigne’s continued Catholic leanings, portraying him as a reluctant apostate. That he may well have been, but it is difficult to escape the facts that Gascoigne’s son was raised a Protestant and that, fundamentally, Gascoigne did renounce his Catholicism unlike, for example, other Enlightenment Catholics, like Robert Petre, ninth Baron Petre. Simply, it is inescapable that Gascoigne did what other Catholic landed families resisted, and, despite Lock’s sympathetic portrayal, that does raise questions about the sincerity of Gascoigne’s apostasy and alleged Catholic leanings.

There is a hint, maintained throughout the book, that Lock is arguing for Gascoigne as a sort of crypto-Catholic, rather like the sixteenth-century church papist offering public conformity against private belief, a line that would have been interesting to explore. In such a light, the accusations of Catholic entryism may have deeper meanings. Unquestionably, Lock knows his subject and has consulted a wide range of primary sources to offer an engaging study, the sort that is vital for historians seeking to understand what was happening among laypeople—and particularly Catholics—in this period. At times, in the pursuit of his argument, he does neglect factions within Catholicism: Gascoigne and his enlightened Catholic friends were only one type of Catholicism—other groups were as keen on the “superstition” of their continental coreligionists as Gascoigne and his group were scornful of it.

That Lock’s book raises such questions is testament to its voice in the growing literature on the Catholic Enlightenment. Pleasingly recognizing the links between England’s Catholics and mainland Europe, this book should not be dismissed by those who frown upon “case studies” but be recognized as part of wider arguments surrounding the Catholic Enlightenment and its impact on the peripheries of a fast disintegrating Catholic Europe.

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Citation: James E. Kelly. Review of Lock, Alexander, Catholicism, Identity and Politics in the Age of Enlightenment: The Life and Career of Sir Thomas Gascoigne, 1745-1810. H-Albion, H-Net Reviews. July, 2017. URL:

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