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  • 142. To Confess and to Recant

To Confess and to Recant

  • Category(s): Religion Essays
  • Created on : 10 December 2014
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  • Author: Richard Michael Lamb


The challenge faced by the Forty canonised English and Welsh Martyrs in centuries gone by and whom proved their Roman Catholic faith on English soil and by their bloodshed freely.

1. Introduction

We speak of the good man keeping his pledge come what may:

“Such a man shall stand firm forever.”

One approach is to the accused to cave in and admit his guilt. As regards the man of God, those against him wish him to resile from his belief and deny his faith. Clearly the accused/ suspect would do well to admit his complicity in the crime great or small. For a man like Sir Thomas More to go back on his affirmation for God in his heart, and give his oath of allegiance to the King above his stand for God would not be mere heresy, but capitulation to the prince of darkness himself so influential was More’s stand against his Monarch as More well knew. More had already admitted his belief in God inwardly before he faced his namesake Thomas Cromwell - the King’s right hand man. The suspect will in all probability have denied his criminality to himself before arrest. Will he go back on this refusal to admit his culpability, or maintain his denial during the investigation? More’s conduct demonstrates the dishonourable conduct of the accused in my example, whilst his own honour to the point of the executioner’s block is truly inspiring. More is now accepted through Christendom as a Man of utter bravery and incomparable Christian decision making.

2. The Modern Criminal Justice Scene in England

In my day the average serious criminal case was based on the accused’s admissions as contemporaneously recorded by the investigating detectives. Did those detectives become motivated by partisanship and allow their professionalism to become tainted by deceit and dishonesty? Although as a criminal barrister (1975-82) I challenged police evidence as defence counsel and presented such evidence to the Jury as credible in my role as Crown Counsel, I would submit that those Juries rightly were reluctant to go against those recorded admissions. The investigating detectives would never repudiate their own evidence in my experience. They held firm and had the contemporaneous note to prove it. In the Guildford Four Case (1974-75) an attempt was made, unsuccessfully, to prosecute for perjury in the 1990’s certain of those detectives who recorded the contemporaneous notes originally in 1974-75. The Guildford Four case is a classic case of recantation as certainly Conlon resiled from his contemporaneously recorded confession before the Appeal Court – I don’t know if he also did so at trial at the Old Bailey. He did himself no favours by this summersault, whatever he said years after his 1974-75 trial about the police oppression and inhumane treatment when he was detained in the police station before being charged. The act of recantation is a terrible damnation of any accused who has confessed in the investigation process. You cannot question a murder suspect in his drawing room; it has to be in the place of interrogation and in duly solemn process by highly trained and specialised police officers. That is the British procedure – not the investigating Judge as in France today. The accused will have his lawyer present.

3. The Religious Persecutions of the 16th and 17th Centuries

Here the pressure, without doubt, was on to confess to saying the Roman Catholic Mass in England in Elizabethan times. Once offering up that Mass, attending it or facilitating it by, for example, harbouring a Catholic Priest was admitted, and many Catholics would be prepared to so admit, you were a condemned man unless you recanted your Roman Catholic religion. The prize for Thomas Cromwell and Sir Francis Walsingham under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I respectively was to not only extract these confessions but secure the recantation of those confessions of Catholicism, i.e. denials of their Roman Catholic faith. It was the recantations these two interrogators were after to totally discredit the Roman Catholic Church and such prominent Catholics as Abbot Richard Whiting, Fisher, More and later Campion the leading Jesuit working underground in Elizabeth’s England. Walsingham took in many Catholics for questioning mostly not well known – how many retracted the Catholic Faith? We shall never know, as we will never know how many accused resiled from their incriminating admissions in the 1960-82 period to secure acquittals when the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 came in.

4. Conclusion

Cromwell and Walsingham would go to great lengths to bring down English Catholics by their recantations of their Catholicism to be made public and spreading that news widely. Campion’s printing press countered these efforts in Elizabeth I’s reign. He distributed his writings, thus he was a prime target for the Tudor anti-Catholic apparatus, lead by Sir Francis Walsingham. Campion, like many of his following, would not flinch. When a man or Priest was faced with hanging, being drawn and quartered alive, and beheaded because of his religious stand, there is a strong desire in him to save his life and avoid all this torture and brutality. Sometimes that survival intent prevailed but, thank God, not invariably or we would have a Catholic Church in tatters to this day. That is the answer Catholicism has grown: -

“the grain of wheat has fallen to the ground and died for the rich harvest to grow up.”

As Catholicism has grown from these penal times so has Christianity and World unity of purpose. I argue the link is between those who would not recant in Tudor and 17th Century Stuart England despite the severe threat from the state upon these Catholics. When I say link I mean this harvest has grown up invisibly through those martyrs’ example and their great long suffering and persistence Roman Catholicism is at work: -

“The yeast has leavened the bread.” - “The salt has kept its taste.”

We can all say whoever we are and wherever we live we live for our neighbour next to God Himself.