Stephen Hamrick, The Catholic Imaginary and the Cults of Elizabeth, 1558-1582. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009. vii+232pp.  ISBN 978 0 7546 6588 5.

Jonathan Wright
Hartlepool, UK

Jonathan Wright. “Review of Stephen Hamrick, The Catholic Imaginary and the Cults of Elizabeth, 1558-1582." Early Modern Literary Studies 15.2 (2010-11): 9.1-8 <URL:>

  1. The ‘imaginary’ of the title refers to a core of Roman Catholic ideas, practices, rituals, tropes and images that, by Hamrick’s account, lost little of their cultural power during the reign of Elizabeth I. The faith they underpinned may have been outlawed, but this did not prevent writers of all confessional varieties from deploying them. This work of cultural appropriation allowed the subjects of Hamrick’s book (a handsome handful of Petrarchan poets) to praise and scold the queen and her courtiers, to comment (albeit in coded ways) on contemporary events, and to play a significant role in the creation of the cults and anti-cults which grew up around Elizabeth. Hamrick occasionally over-eggs his thesis, seeing cogency and clear authorial intent where it is hard to descry. That said, his cardinal point is robust. Our appreciation of Reformation Petrarchanism is much enhanced by a close study of its exploitation of Catholic imagery and constructs.

  2. Hamrick rightly sees the opening years of Elizabeth’s reign as an uncertain period: no one was quite sure which way the doctrinal wind was blowing. There were some telling hints, however. Hamrick recounts three of them: the famous episode in 1558 when Elizabeth walked out of a religious service when, against explicit instructions, the host was elevated; the parodic entertainments of Twelfth-night 1559 when, among other spectacles, Catholic priests were portrayed as asses, crows and wolves; and the January 1559 attack on a statue of Thomas Becket. Hamrick recruits these incidents as early examples of exploitation of the Catholic imaginary. It might be more sensible to categorize them as decidedly unsubtle instances of anti-Catholic sentiment: there is no obvious reason to apply added layers of interpretation. Also, Hamrick’s attempt to re-evaluate the host-elevating debacle does not succeed. Traditionally, the episode has been seen as an example of Elizabeth indulging in a fit of pique: an unpremeditated action which caused considerable uproar and which Elizabeth probably regretted. Hamrick’s suggestion that Elizabeth intended to provoke consternation does not quite wash.  

  3. Hamrick is on firmer ground when he turns to Barnabe Googe and his 1563 Eclogues, Epitaphes, and Sonnets. He makes a compelling case that this neglected work (which included one of the first Elizabethan outings of the Petrarchan image of the wanton Venus) was profoundly influenced by the political events of the 1560s, not least the burning issue of whom (if anyone) Elizabeth ought to marry. Googe found subtle ways to comment upon this question (he was dead-set against any marriage to Robert Dudley) and also played with the theme of the Catholic imaginary (including a rejection of the prevailing courtly aesthetic encapsulated by the extravagant celebrations of the Order of the Garter) to pour scorn on Elizabeth’s courtiers: people, in Googe’s eyes, mired in pride. Comparing their peacock antics to the illustrious deeds of patriarchs like Daniel, Moses and Elias was a hackneyed but efficient tactic.

  4. By the early 1570s a concatenation of events — Mary Stuart’s arrival in England in 1568, the Northern Rebellion of 1569, the papal excommunication, the Ridolfi Plot — had brought concerns about Catholicism to fever pitch in some circles. It had never been more urgent to hold forth on how England ought to be governed. Here, the irony at the heart of Hamrick’s book comes into the sharpest focus. In The Delectable Historie of the Sundrie Adventures Passed by Dan Bartholomew of Bathe George Gascoigne strenuously supported the Queen’s ability to define her own and her country’s destiny. This was a much-needed counterblast to those who questioned the rectitude of granting Elizabeth too much political agency. The curious thing about Gascoigne’s work is that, according to Hamrick, it shamelessly and unexpectedly exploits Catholic imagery. The queen is represented as a textbook Petrarchan mistress, Ferenda Natura, and her virtues and values are highlighted by reference to an astonishing range of Catholic notions and behaviours. The martyred saint, the pious devotee, the mystery play tradition, burial rituals, penance and confession are all pressed into service. As Hamrick argues, “virtually all forms of contemporary [Catholic] practice” (128) are deployed. Hamrick sometimes gets carried away by his theme. There is surely exaggeration in suggesting that “much as Catholic piety instructed devotees… to raise their hands in adoration of the elevated Host during the Mass, Bartholomew adores Ferenda-Elizabeth as a substitute Host in his own Petrarchan church.” (114) Still, the basic point remains intact: the Catholic imaginary could be put to some staggeringly unexpected uses.

  5. Hamrick ends with an analysis of Thomas Watson’s 1582 Hekatompathia or Passionate Century of Love. Here, we cross to the other side of the confessional aisle and see how someone who may nor may not have been a Catholic but certainly had lots of Catholic friends and sponsors (Watson) defended someone with clear Catholic leanings (Edward de Vere, earl of Oxford) from charges of disloyalty. Needless to say, the Catholic imaginary, filtered through the wit and eroticism of Petrarchanism, came into its own in such an endeavour. As such this is the least surprising but also the most secure section of Hamrick’s book.

  6. Hamrick is to be credited for his ingenuity and his painstaking readings of some neglected Elizabethan texts. He expands our understanding of the era’s poetry and wisely cautions us against seeing references to Catholicism as nothing more than ornamentation. The ground-note of his thesis ought to resonate through all subsequent scholarship: even those who wrote anti-Catholic verse deployed elements of the Catholic imaginary and “ironically participated in transferring Catholic sensibilities to the cults of Elizabeth” (189). That is an excellent point. It is important to voice a few reservations, however. First and foremost, it is crucial to draw a distinction between the Catholic imaginary (to deploy the author’s phrase) and a broader, more inclusive Christian imaginary, and this is something that Hamrick often fails to do. When it comes to shibboleths like transubstantiation there is no doubting the Catholic emphasis but a whole host of orthodoxies, habits and tropes (martyrdom, piety, ritual gestures, for instance) straddled the confessional divide, especially in a place like Elizabethan England where neatly defined religious identities were still being hammered out. There are times when one wonders whether Hamrick’s Catholic imaginary is quite so exclusively Catholic as he suggests.

  7. A final caveat concerns methodology. Hamrick rightly takes literary scholars to task for behaving in ahistorical ways and ignoring the context in which texts were written. This is a sin that Hamrick avoids. He makes great efforts to provide a historical backdrop and one of the key tasks of his book is to demonstrate how seemingly harmless flights of poetic fancy could be freighted with meaningful social, religious and political commentary. On the other hand, Hamrick occasionally replaces one hermeneutic gaffe with another. There is a clear anthropological flavour to these pages and it is not always beneficial. Let’s return to Hamrick’s analysis of Elizabeth storming out when the Host was elevated. “Viewed through the lens of cultural anthropology” rather than “religiopolitical [sic] history” the gesture seems to “fulfil the first phase of ‘separation’ characteristic of liminal states” (24). Call me old-fashioned, but I sustain an affection for the exacting standards of “religiopolitical” history (evidence and all that), especially when confronting this history of religion and politics.

  8. These caveats aside, Hamrick’s book is bold, fluent and well-crafted. It opens up new vistas of textual investigation and it ought to be read by every student of the period’s literature.  



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