The representation of Catholics and Catholicism in British Gothic literature suffers as a result of the long history of religious enmity between Catholics and Protestants in England. Despite their persecution, as of the beginning of the 18th century there were still around 60,000 Catholics living in England. Perhaps one key to understanding the Gothic suspicion of Catholics is to examine the ways the government was trying to change the laws which had supported the religious persecution of Catholics. In 1778, Parliament passed the First Catholic Relief Act, which mitigated William III's Act against Popery in an effort to provide Catholics with a minimal degree of religious liberty. This newfound freedom was not defined in very broad strokes. The 1778 Act still didn't allow Catholics to attend college, worship freely, vote, or work for the government. Parliament still mistrusted Catholics, particularly in terms of their history of attempting to subvert Protestant governance of England.
The public, especially the lower class citizenry, did not support the government's softer stance toward Catholics, and openly protested the 1778 Act. Lord George Gordon, a skilled propagandist, inflamed the sentiments of the protestors, who gathered outside Parliament to deliver a petition demanding a repeal. The protest was irrational in nature, but seems to have circled around the insistent belief that Catholics were dangerous and subversive, and suspicions that any sympathy toward Catholicism would allow the influence of the Pope to sway the Protestant rulership of England again. Gordon's protest quickly spun out of control, and became the infamous Gordon Riots, in which rioters sacked and burned many important parts of London, including Catholic churches, embassy chapels, the Bank of England, two prisons, and entire neighborhoods housing mostly Irishmen. The government sent in the British Army in response, and after five days of riotous destruction, nearly 1,000 rioters were either shot dead, wounded, or arrested.
The British government, which had dismissed Gordon's petition by an overwhelming vote, had reasons for a more measured stance against Catholics. Their reputation with the rest of the European nations suffered as a result of anti-Catholicism, and they wanted allies on their side of the American Revolutionary War. Parliament passed the Second Relief Act in 1791 allowing Catholics freedom to worship, and causing suspicions to bubble under the surface of discourse. Matthew Lewis' The Monk is a prime example of the Gothic tradition of anti-Catholicism, and was such a smashing success, so often imitated in chapbooks, that it certainly played a role in perpetuating public sentiment.
Courtesy of Wendy Fall, Marquette University
Graham, Wendy C. Gothic Elements and Religion in Nathaniel Hawthorne's Fiction Marbug: Tectum Verlag, 1999. Print.
Wright, Angela. Britain, France and the Gothic, 1764-1820 : The Import of Terror / Angela Wright. Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2013. Print.