Religious Freedom was a Long Time Coming

I love hearing from readers who are also authors – and Patricia Bernstein is one such person. Her new novel A Noble Cunning: The Countess and the Tower released on March 7th. The novel is based on the true story of Winifred Maxwell who rescued her husband from the Tower of London the night before his scheduled execution. Now there’s a dramatic intro. And here’s Patricia to tell us more.


Wars over religion plagued Europe from the beginning of the Protestant Reformation well into the 18thcentury. While Catholics dominated France and Spain, a spirit of virulent anti-Catholicism prevailed in Britain.

When I began to write my novel A Noble Cunning, based on the true story of persecuted Catholic noblewoman Winifred Maxwell, I was shocked to learn of the extreme oppression of Catholics in Britain for a period of over 200 years. In fact, to this very day, the ruling monarch in Great Britain may not be a Catholic! 

Winifred Maxwell, Countess of Nithsdale inspiration for A Noble Cunning

            After Henry VIII ended allegiance to the pope, the populace’s hatred of Catholics grew gradually, stoked by such events as Queen “Bloody” Mary’s effort to force the nation back into Catholicism, Catholic plots to assassinate Elizabeth I, and Guy Fawkes’ attempt to blow up Parliament and kill the king on behalf of Catholics in 1605. In the meantime, the Spanish attempted to invade England with the Spanish Armada, while the Spanish Inquisition burned “heretics” at the stake. In Louis XIV’s France, the Edict of Fontainebleau drove almost all French Protestants (Huguenots) out of the country.  Thousands of these Protestant refugees settled in England. The British not only viewed domestic Catholics as traitors but feared invasion of Britain by Catholic Spain or Catholic France. 

Catholics were not murdered en masse or expelled from the country as Jews had been in 1290, but they could not practice their faith. Priests, celebration of the mass and even religious objects like rosaries were all forbidden. A series of draconian laws provided that Catholics could not hold public office, vote or buy land. Everyone was required to attend Church of England services or pay a fine. Of course, to the many splintered sects of Protestants that evolved, the Church of England was just about as bad as Roman Catholicism, and they also suffered from some of these laws. But public opposition to the various Protestant sects dissipated more quickly over time than hatred of Catholics.

When Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch, died in 1714, over 50 relatives to Anne were skipped over solely because they were Catholics. The finger of fate finally landed on the first Protestant in the series of relatives, George Louis, the Elector of Hanover, a minor German potentate. George was a Lutheran who spoke almost no English and knew next to nothing about Britain. Nevertheless, he was picked up and plunked down on the British throne as King George I. But Catholics were sick to death of being oppressed and thought their best chance to end it would be to depose George and install a real English-born prince, James Francis Edward Stuart, the “king across the water.” 

George I

James was the son of King James II, the last Catholic to rule Britain, who had been hustled off the throne in 1688 in the so-called “Glorious Revolution.” The young prince had been raised in exile in France. His supporters were called “Jacobites” because Jacobus is Latin for James

It’s not hard to see why even many British who were not Catholic also opposed submission to a foreign king. To make matters worse, George was a sordid, unappealing character whose wife Sophia Dorothea had referred to him behind his back as “pig snout.” Having divorced Sophia and installed her in a kind of permanent house arrest in Germany, George arrived in England with two mistresses in tow, one tall and emaciated who was called “the Maypole” and the other enormously fat, who was known as “the Elephant.” These two and George’s other retainers proceeded to use their positions close to the king to line their pockets.

The Jacobite Rebellion against George kicked off in August 1715, but was badly managed and had already fizzled out by November. In A Noble Cunning the redoubtable Winifred Maxwell is represented by my heroine Bethan Glentaggart. A victim of anti-Catholic persecution all of her life, Bethan learns that her beloved husband Gavin has been condemned to death for his participation in the Jacobite Rebellion and is shut up in the Tower of London awaiting his execution. The climax of the story revolves around Bethan’s fierce determination to find a way to save her husband’s life.

Of course, even in the relatively small-scale “wars” like the Jacobite Rebellions, it is obvious that other factors are at play besides religious animosities. Many of the religious wars of this period also featured intense struggles for power between or within nations. But the intensity and cruelty of these conflicts were enhanced by the conviction by all parties that God was on their side and their opponents were agents of the Devil.

            Perhaps the very worst of the religious wars was the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), which rolled back and forth across Central Europe, resulting in the deaths of between four and eight million people. Perhaps 400,000 were killed or wounded in battle; the rest, whose land was completely despoiled, died of hunger and bubonic plague, typhus and dysentery. Starving people tried to eat grass; reports of cannibalism became common.

            It is no wonder that America’s founding fathers were opposed to any sort of official, state-supported establishment of religion. In a letter to Benjamin Rush, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” He saw that only complete religious freedom would make possible a union composed of so many different ethnicities and religions.

            Virginia originally had a state church, the Church of England, and Jefferson saw official discrimination against Presbyterians and Baptists which greatly troubled him. He later wrote in his autobiography that the resulting conflicts, ending in the adoption of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, were “the severest contests in which I have ever been engaged.”

            While Jefferson was serving as ambassador to France, Madison took up the gauntlet and fought an effort to establish a tax in Virginia to benefit all Christian sects. Jefferson wrote that religious freedom was “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination.” Although Jefferson prayed in both of his inaugural addresses, he opposed any kind of official prayer proclamation or effort to imply that “good citizens” or “patriotic citizens” were necessarily religious.

There is a tendency among those who advocate for greater intrusion of religion into public life to assume that the religion represented will always be their own particular religion. Jefferson always believed that the best protection of religion—all religions–was to keep it clearly separated from the functions of the state, for the good of all.

Many thanks for sharing this history, Patricia. It’s sad to think how little we’ve learned over the generations about religious freedom and tolerance – and I believe it’s safe to say that this is the case throughout the world. Thomas Jefferson had the right idea.

A Noble Cunning by Patricia Bernstein ~~ A thrilling tale, based on a true story, of one woman’s tremendous courage and incomparable wit in trying to rescue her husband from the Tower of London the night before he is to be executed.

The heroine of A Noble Cunning, Bethan Glentaggart, Countess of Clarencefield, a persecuted Catholic noblewoman, is determined to try every possible means of saving her husband’s life, with the help of a group of devoted women friends.

Amid the turbulence of the 1715 Rebellion against England’s first German king George I, Bethan faces down a mob attack on her home, travels alone from the Scottish Lowlands to London through one of the worst snowstorms in many years, and confronts a cruel king before his court to plead for mercy for her husband Gavin. As a last resort, Bethan and her friends must devise and put in motion a devilishly complex scheme featuring multiple disguises and even the judicious use of poison to try to free Gavin.

Though rich with historical gossip and pageantry, Bethan’s story also demonstrates the damage that politics and religious fanaticism can inflict on the lives of individuals.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

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3 Responses

  1. An interesting look back at the way religion was used as a means of dividing people. One wonders if there will ever be a time when it will not be so.

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