Lady Antonia Fraser on how belief has deepened her understanding of the subjects she tackles
Lady Antonia Fraser I WAS once attacked in a review of my biography of Oliver Cromwell for being unable to identify myself with my subject, and thus by implication unqualified to write a book. "What does this modest, sensible woman," wrote the famous historian, "know about the dark passions of an Oliver Cromwell?"
Leaving aside the modesty and the common-sense I am at least inarguably a woman that review led me to examine more closely the whole question of the biographer, and self-identification with her or his subject. For the historian in question had declared himself on other occasions to have no particular faith: and it did occur to me at the time that when writing a biography of Cromwell, it was probably more important to have, or have had faith of whatever sort than anything else.
Twenty years later. I will stick my neck out. Without a knowledge and understanding of the pre-eminent part that faith and its ramifications in which I include the agonies of doubt played in Cromwell's life, I doubt whether anyone is really equipped at the deepest level to write his biography.
As it happens. I come from a background which I might describe as multi-faithful, if the word did not have a rather odd ring. Although both my parents are now, and have been for many years, Catholics, they were neither of them Catholics at the time of my birth. My father was. I suppose. a rather inactive member of the Church of England (or Ireland) and my mother, having been born to prominent Unitarian parents her mother was a Chamberlain had abandoned Unitarianism while at university, and believed, she tells me, in nothing very much. But she remained a dutiful daughter. so that my first religious experiences were in fact of Unitarianism.
I remember my maternal grandfather. inveighing from the pulpit, all too well. He was a truly terrifying figure to a child: his eyes, a particularly piercing bright blue, would flash, and his great height struck awe into my heart. He also inveighed, as it seemed to me, for a very, very, long time. Yet I often thought about those sermons when I was writing about Cromwell, and I thought about my grandfather, his kind of faith, and my NonConformist heritage. as being unexpected boons for a writer then concentrated on the turbulent religious conflicts of the seventeenth century.
My father became a Catholic when I was eight, my mother following him six years later; at that point my eldest brother and I were considered to be old enough to choose whether to join them or not.
I was actually received as a Catholic at my aew school, St Mary's, Ascot, on November 30 1946. The thing I remember best about the whole occasion is the fact that I insisted on undergoing the full adult ceremony although at the age of 14 apparently I could have avoided it. But my sense of drama overcame my modesty. So in front of the whole school. I was first received, and then made my first confession new style by going into the vestry while the school waited. for benediction. I think.
This meant that I found it essential to keep them waiting a really long time, reciting my sins very, very slowly, so that the school would imagine that the church had captured a truly great sinner! I made my ultimate first communion on the feast of Edmund Campion and the English Martyrs the next day a moving date incidentally for a future historian of Elizabethan England.
Despite reaching this safe harbour? quite a few little gold crosses inscribed with forgotten dates. stamped leather prayer books of another faith and other godparently presents still survive, as relics of my progress towards Catholicism. More importantly, I believe that this somewhat varied journey towards an adolescent conversion did provide me with an innate sense of the vitality and richness of faith in a person's life even if that faith was not the Catholic one.
That was an unconscious legacy. Now came a discovery: the Catholic Church I had now so willingly joined was a minority religion in my own country. The girls I was at school with bore. some of them. the ancient names of families who had suffered persecution for centuries. Both of these lessons were crucial in my understanding of my first biographical subject, Mary Queen of Scots.
I realise that I was extraordinarily lucky to have hit upon a topic of such universal appeal in writing my first biography, particularly as I did not do it for that reason, more to exorcise a youthful obsession. I realise something else, however. looking back. I sec how much my portrait of the unfortunate queen owed to my peculiar background as a Catholic: as a writer, I was both an insider and an outsider, as it were. I could appreciate Mary Queen of Scots diplomatic tolerance of Protestantism when she came back to rule Scotland; at the same time I could admire the staunchness with which she refused even to countenance giving up her own religion.
I think no Catholic can fail to be moved by the execution scene at the end of her life: as a Catholic. I hope humbly I was able to give something to my narration of that scene which a non-believer could not have done. I was certainly very proud to learn that after its publication Mary Queen of Scots was read aloud in both convents and monasteries including Downside, where my future son-in-law Edward Fitzgerald listened to it as a schoolboy. He tells me (1 hope truthfully) he was deeply impressed...
should perhaps counterbalance this with the story of how my pride was humbled in Ireland when working on Cromwell. It is not a good plan to go round southern Ireland looking for the sites of Cromwellian battles. I know. I have tried it. arrived full of innocence. and also. alas full of ignorance. since I had just been researching Cromwell's birthplace, Huntingdon (yes, he too was MP for Huntingdon!) and of course in Huntingdon, Cromwell was treated as the local boy made good.
Not so. very much not so. in Ireland. Let my experience at Drogheda stand for all the others. Arriving at Drogheda. I wanted to find something called the Cromwellian Mound, from which Cromwell had stormed the city. I saw a car. and beside the car a priest and two nuns.
"Excuse me. Father." I said. "could you direct me to Cromwell's Mound?" At which the priest crossed himself, pushed the two nuns rapidly into the car, and was about to drive away horrified when my companion grabbed my arm, "That's not the way to do it," he said. "Excuse me, Father," he said this lady is the daughter of the good Lord Longford you know Lord Longford?" The priest nodded. just slightly less suspicious, "and she is making a study of' the wicked usurper, Oliver Cromwell. Now could you perhaps direct us...?". Of couise we were shown the way to the wicked usurper's mound straight away. And I learnt a valuable lesson about respecting the faith and susceptibilities of other people.
My third biography. that of King Charles II, the so-called "merry monarch". was to involve my own attitude to faith in a very different way. I refer once again to a death-bed, but a very differe.nt scene from that of Fotheringay: the royal death-bed of King Charles at which he either did or did not convert to the Roman Catholic Church (as it was then known. incidentally, to Catholics themselves, who wished to express their allegiance to the Pope; it was not a perjorative term). Did this last-minute conversion really happen? Alternatively, had King Charles perhaps been a secret Catholic for a decade, ever since he privately promised Louis XlV to turn to England Catholic?
reject this view for historical reasons. But if the last-minute conversion did take place, was it not a totally cynical gesture'?
An honest biographer should always be able to say "don't know." and of course no-one can be absolutely certain except God about what took place on the king's death-bed.
Nevertheless from my own concentration on the king's character over several years. I am personally convinced that the king was received into the Catholic Church on his death-bed. movingly enough by that very Fr Huddleston who had helped hint to escape after Worcester.
The various accounts of the conversion scene vary in detail, but the king's general reaction to Fr Huddleston's appearance is clear: "You that saved my body are now come to save my soul."
When the king made his full confession, among the things for which he declared himself most heartily sorry" was the fact. in his own words. that "he had deferr'd his reconciliation so long".
After that. Fr Huddlosion questioned him concerning the blessed sacrament: "Will you receive it'?" To which King Charles replied: "If I were ourthy of it, amen."
Those were very nearly the last words of a man who had certainly. in the sense of adultery at least. been the greatest kind of sinner.
Now it is possible I suppose. to view this scene in a c nical light, if you must. to see King Charles-convening to Catholicism at the last moment, tidying enjoyed a life full of sin. being forgiven by his poor wife at the last when he had enjoyed numerous mistresses in his prime.
BUI if faith plays a part in your make-up to say nothing of sin then I think it is possible to see this moving scene in quite a different light, as part of the mysterious workings of God upon the soul of an individual who had undoubtedly been a great sinner (like the good thief on the Cross) but was to to be rescued through divine mercy at the last.
This article and part two which follows next week are based on Lady Antonia Fraser's Lenten talk on ''Faith and Writer" at Our lady of Victories, wecr London.