By What Authority

Book cover: 'By What Authority'
Robert Hugh Benson
Lepanto Press
Sewn Hardcover
Number of pages: 
558 pages
Grade / Age level: 

It is early in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Religion and politics are curiously mixed and confused. How will the people of England survive this tumultuous time and emerge as one of the great powers on the earth. This is the setting for By What Authority by Lord Robert Hugh Benson. It is the story of how two families, one Catholic and one Protestant, sort through the confusion and endure the suffering of finding and maintaining a religious identity.

The head of the Catholic family, Sir Nicholas Maxwell, is the Lord of a section in England just south of London. The Protestant family, Norris, lives next door and has a good rapport with the old Catholic family. The primarily Protestant village has great love for the Lord and his family and forgive them their superstitious religion. It is obvious that the younger Maxwell son is in love with Isabel Norris but the differences in their religions keep them apart -- for a time.

Isabel Norris is a Jane Austen -type character, full of virtue and feminine moderation. She is happily Protestant and deeply devoted to her beloved Jesus. Her father, sensing the Maxwell youth's love for her, and worried lest the Maxwell ladies should convert her daughter to Catholicism, sends her to a friend in the country who is STRICTLY Puritan. His hope is that she will be repelled by the strictness and return to his middle-of-the-road Church of England Protestantism. Isabel is indeed horrified at the fiery God portrayed in the Puritan church but the movements of her heart and religious sentiments foreshadow her as a Catholic at heart. While she is away her father dies and when she returns, Lady Maxwell's sister becomes her living companion. This sister is actually a nun who was sent away from her convent and so begins the slow conversion of Isabel. Sir Benson is masterful at describing the mental and spiritual movements of a soul and so the reader is brought through all the agitation and wonder of Isabel discovering, discarding and finally accepting the truth about the Catholic Faith. In the midst of her struggles, young Hubert Maxwell has stated his intentions toward her and begs her to wait for him, claiming that the religious issue will resolve itself somehow. He leaves to sail off with Sir Francis Drake on one of his first piratical voyages. When he returns, ready to embrace her AND proud to announce his conversion to her Protestant faith, he finds that she has very nearly converted to Catholicism. He is furious and offers to be whatever religion she wants. In saying that, he has lost her. To her, the Faith is something so intrinsic that it cannot merely be put on and off as is convenient. She maintains her love for him through the whole story but she knows that she cannot be his wife.

All the while Isabel is suffering and coming into the Catholic Faith, her brother Anthony has graduated from Cambridge and, full of patriotism and religious fervor, sets out to set himself up in the world. He goes to work for the Archbishop of Canterbury and so is thrust into the politics and religion of the times. He has an occasion to meet and debate with a Catholic man and feels his Protestant beliefs disturbed. He also witnesses Edmund Campion's so-called trial and his execution and is very much affected by it. Sir Benson spends a lot of time describing the trial and relating the arguments made on both sides. During this trial, Anthony is basically converted. He sees that ALL the religious questions boil down to who has the authority to interpret the Bible and speak for Christ. Protestantism taken to its extreme would have each person interpreting the Bible as he would and becoming his own authority. That in itself did not fit with scripture, he thought. He realizes that the Church of Rome has the greatest claim to that authority. He submits his resignation to the Archbishop and attends an Ignatian Retreat with Father Robert Persons. At the end of the retreat he goes to tell his sister, Isabel that he has converted only to find her in the same situation. They come into the Church together to the great joy of the Maxwells (excepting Hubert).

Anthony becomes a priest at a seminary on the Continent and returns with Isabel to England at the time of the defeat of the Spanish Armada. He eventually is captured and threatened with torture and death. He meets with the Queen herself and she offers to let him leave the country alive yet have it let out that he signed "the oath" which says that he acknowledges the Church of England. He, of course, refuses and the enraged Queen sends him off to the torturers. He dies on Easter morning as Isabel kneels at his bedside reading the Gospel of the day. She has decided to leave England and perhaps enter religious life.

One of the most interesting aspects of the story is Benson's portrayal of Queen Elizabeth. She is fierce and unforgiving yet feminine and remorseful. He is very successful at describing the development of the awe in which her subjects hold her. She is awe inspiring. She is a formidable enemy and very moved by the loyalty of her people. She admires the gallantry and strength of the Catholic martyrs. She does not seem to be a deeply religious person herself and so cannot understand why these Catholics can't just accept things in order to live and have peace. He portrays her as having a certain goodness that is overshadowed by a multitude of forces, both within her and without.

The story would be excellent for upper high school level (and any interested adult). It might be interesting to read it along with a biography of St. Edmund Campion or Sir Francis Drake, and some history of the Spanish Armada. It is a compelling period in history and bears some deep thought as to its effect on today's world.

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