2 June 2017

The enigma of Hugh Curwen (1)

This year we, here in Oxford, are offered a 450th anniversary celebration which might be characterised as a rather 'niche', or even 'boutique', commemoration. I shall return to that in the last of this three-part series.

We all have our myths and quite often they need tidying up. For example: the myth that upon the accession of Elizabeth 'my-father-said-I-was-a-bastard' Tudor, all the English bishops except for the occupant of one Welsh see refused to take the oath of Supremacy. This fails to take account of suffragan bishops, such as the bishops of Bedford, Berwick, Hull, Shrewsbury, and Thetford. It also fails to take account of the enigmatic figure of Hugh Curwen (pronounced Curen).

A few years ago, Enforcing the English Reformation in Ireland, by James Murray, gave Curwen some context. He was one of Cardinal Pole's choices of reliable and reforming bishops who would bring the Counter-Reformation to the British Isles and would staunchly maintain the rights of the Church and of the Roman Primacy - what you might call a very 'Duffy' figure. He was papally 'provided' as Archbishop of Dublin, and consecrated by Bonner in Old S Paul's Cathedral in 1555, the Pallium having been granted even before his Consecration. He was thorough and resolute in restoring the supremacy of the Catholic Faith in the Diocese of Dublin. But, upon Elizabeth's acquisition of power, he (as we say) 'conformed'.

Historians, not surprisingly, have found it easy to regard Curwen as an episcopal Vicar of Bray, especially since he had tolerated all the Tudor changes since 1541. Murray, through a careful examination of minutiae, argues for a strong likehood that Curwen was a 'Church Papist'; that he remained opposed to to the Reformation but stayed in post in order to have his hands on the mechanisms of episcopal jurisdiction, with a deliberate intention of thus frustrating and obstructing government religious policy. In this, he was successful; Dublin remained a Catholic city until the influx of Protestant immigrants in the next century. Of course, his enemies reported his doings to London; he was an 'unprofitable workman', a 'living enemy of the truth', a 'disguised dissembler' who was unwilling to further 'our business'. Inevitably, Curwen attempted in 1564 to exculpate himself by assuring the Tudor despot that the 'sinister information' which had made her 'conceive some misliking towards me and my doings' was untrue. As Murray puts it, "From this point on ... the Archbishop knew that it would be increasingly difficult to sustain his outwardly conformist attitude to the established religion, while at the same time continuing to defend the interests of the old religion and his conservative clergy".

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