By What Authority? in a Nutshell

"By What Authority" brings the period of the Tudor Terror to life in a way that is hardly possible in a non-fictional historical narrative. We get to know the characters as they come to terms with the tyrannous time in which they’re living.

Robert Hugh Benson’s reception into the Catholic Church in 1903 was the most seismic of all the conversions of the Catholic Cultural Revival, with the sole exception of Newman’s. Benson was the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican “pope” (so to speak), so his conversion sent shockwaves through the Establishment in general and the Established Church in particular. It represented further proof that Catholicism was emerging as a potent religious and cultural force in contemporary England and that the Faith could no longer be dismissed or marginalized. It was confirmation that the Catholic Church had “arrived”—or, more correctly, that she had returned!   

Benson’s autobiographical Confessions of a Convert, in which he charted the course by which he had found his way from Canterbury to Rome, is a real classic of conversion literature. Apart from Augustine’s incomparable Confessions and Newman’s Apologia, there are few more powerful testimonies of a soul’s journey to Rome than Benson’s own Confessions

A later prominent convert, who was hugely influenced by Benson and is often mentioned in association with him, is Ronald Knox. The son of the Bishop of Manchester, Knox was received into the Church in 1917, three years after Benson’s tragic and untimely death. In the last few days before his reception, Knox had read several Catholic novels, enjoying Benson’s Come Rack! Come Rope! the most: “Hugh Benson, who had set my feet on the way towards the Church, watched over my footsteps to the last.” 

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Come Rack! Come Rope! is set in Elizabethan England, as is By What Authority? In both novels, the period of the English Reformation is brought to bloodcurdling life. The reader, if he allows himself to be carried thither, will find himself transported to the late sixteenth century, the terror and tension of the times gripping him as tightly as it grips the leading characters, who gave courageous witness to their faith in a hostile and deadly environment. 

Benson seems to have written much of By What Authority? before his reception into the Church in September 1903. According to Dom Bede Camm, who spent time with Benson in the days immediately after the latter’s conversion, Benson was keen to learn as much as possible about the Elizabethan period:

He…began to consult me on the book he was writing on the Elizabethan persecution…. He poured out the details of the book, as it was shaping itself, and eagerly seized on any points that would be of use to him. In the end it was settled that I should read and correct the proof-sheets and do my best to help him secure historical accuracy. 

It was a year later, in October 1904, after a period in which Benson fretted about whether he would be able to find a publisher for his first Catholic book, that Dom Bede Camm finally finished reading the proofs. Having done so, he persuaded Benson to change the title of the novel from Magnus Valde to the more accessible and comprehensible By What Authority?

Benson was wise and prudent to enlist the services of a Catholic historian of Dom Bede’s stature to help him iron out the historical creases. It was, therefore, little wonder that he should write in the frontispiece to the novel of his “wish to acknowledge a great debt of gratitude to the Reverend Dom Bede Camm, O.S.B., who kindly read this book in proof, and made many valuable suggestions.”

As for the novel itself, it brings the period of the Tudor Terror to life in a way that is hardly possible in a non-fictional historical narrative. We get to know the characters as they come to terms with the tyrannous time in which they’re living. There is the suffering of the recusant Catholics, the courage and sanctity of some and the apostasy of others, and the heroism of Protestant converts to the Faith. We are taken into the very presence of Bloody Bess herself, the cold queen, as Chesterton dubbed her, whose narcissism and cruelty is chillingly depicted. Last and indubitably least are those traitors and turncoats, whose teachery betrayed Catholics to their deaths.   

The most perceptive observation of By What Authority? was made by Benson’s biographer, C.C. Martindale, who observed that “Benson really teaches that, as in the Aeneid it is Rome, not Aeneas, who is ‘hero’ and gives the piece its unity.” Father Martindale’s point is that Christ, in His Mystical Body, the Church, is the real hero of the novel. Just as Virgil’s purpose was to eulogize Rome, not Aeneas, so Benson’s purpose was to eulogize Rome, not any of the individual characters of the novel, even those who exhibit the most heroism in the service of Rome. 

The beauty of By What Authority? is nothing less than the beauty of the Church made manifest in its pages. “[T]he supreme factor is a City,” Father Martindale writes; “or, if you will, that the two cities which Augustine saw, eternally opposed, God’s and the world’s, were here and now incarnated in Rome and England.” If one were to beg to differ with this sagacious reading of the novel, it would only be to insist that the English Martyrs were as English as Elizabeth I. It is they and not she who are the jewel in England’s crown. 

The England for which they died is the Catholic England, the Merrie England, which Elizabeth and her bloody servants were seeking to kill. This true England was also being martyred in the martyrdom of her holy sons and daughters. This true England is worth celebrating—as is this novel, which brings such an England to vibrant and vigorous life. 

The illustration above is the cover image of the new Cenacle Press edition of the novel, to which Joseph Pearce has contributed the foreword. 

Editor’s Note: This is the thirty-fifth in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”

  • Joseph Pearce

    Joseph Pearce a senior contributor to Crisis. He is director of book publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. An acclaimed biographer and literary scholar, his latest book, Benedict XVI: Defender of the Faith, is newly published by TAN Books. His website is jpearce.co.

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