Our Left Foot: Downton Abbey & Anti-Catholic Snobbery

Not a few American Catholic fans of Downton Abbey were taken aback by a couple of scenes in last night’s episode from Season 3. [Spoiler warning, if you're a DA follower who's behind on your dvr.] When Lady Sybil’s widower—the Irishman Tom Branson, who was also once the family chauffeur—announces his intentions to have their newborn daughter baptized a Catholic, he triggers an explosion of protest from Lord Grantham. “A left-FOOTER?” Robert blurts at the breakfast table.

In later scenes, the downstairs staff weigh in on the religious (and more importantly, the social) drawbacks of letting Catholicism into the household. And at an uncomfortable dinner, to which the Dowager Duchess, the Anglican vicar, and even the wayward-woman sheltering Isobel Crawley, who hasn’t even had time to change, for God’s sake, have been invited in an effort to persuade Tom of the error of his ways, the vicar spews a whole line of anti-Catholic rhetoric that sounds as though it could come from the combox of today’s LA Times.

If you don’t know the history of the Church in England, this could be some mighty surprising and perplexing stuff. Anyone who imagines that anti-Catholic sentiment in England died out soon after Bonnie Prince Charlie’s last sad stand is mistaken. And it’s never been truly about doctrine, as Thomas pointed out in last night’s episode by challenging Albert on his notion of Transubstantiation. As with most things about Downton and the society it so faithfully represents, attitudes toward Catholicism are all about class, with a side order of politics.

Lord Grantham’s casual anti-Catholicism was not uncommon for his times, although it was much more outspoken among the middle classes. By the Edwardian era, England’s Catholic nobility—a tiny, often impoverished minority since the Reformation, suffering from laws that prohibited land ownership, public worship, Catholic education, and involvement in politics or the law, to some degree or another, until the late 19th century—had begun to recover some respect. The Dowager Duchess even noted last night (in a kind of “but some of my best friends are . . .” noblesse oblige) her social approval of the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, head of one of England’s most prominent Catholic families.

But since the famines of the 1800s sent thousands of poor Irish to England in search of work, Catholicism had for the most part been associated with the lower classes, the ignorant, the superstitious, and worst of all, those with bad taste. “Don’t let Cora do the flowers,” the Dowager Duchess cautioned Lord Grantham during a Season 2 episode. “She always makes it look like an Italian First Communion.” Irish Catholicism also bore (and continued to bear into our own times) the taint of rebellion and terrorism, as Irish Republicans sought to throw off the rule of Protestant Britain. Poor Tom Branson offends on both counts; he’s of the working class, and he’s a Republican activist.

When Lord Grantham pales at having a left-footer in the family, he’s using an anti-Catholic British epithet rooted in the Irish economy. By late Victorian times, factories in Ireland’s Protestant north were turning out steel spades for digging, with metal footrests on either side of the shaft for digging with either foot. Catholics in the south retained their old narrow spades, with a footrest carved out of one side of the wooden shaft. They “dug with the wrong foot,” and even though it was most often the right foot, the association of the left side with all things sinister (the Latin for left) quickly turned “wrong” to “left.”

Lord Grantham’s sneering reference to Tom’s “tribe” reflects another tendency among the Protestant British to equate Catholics with Jews in their “otherness.” Over the centuries, both Jews and Catholics have suffered persecution in England. Jews were expelled from the country in 1290 by King Edward I, and though his Edict of Expulsion was overturned by Oliver Cromwell in the 1600s, Jews were not permitted to serve in Parliament until the 19th century. Catholics endured virtual expulsion, under laws that suppressed the practice of the faith. And though the laws have changed, attitudes have not necessarily kept up. It was just last year, for example, that Britain’s Act of Succession was amended to allow the heir to the throne to marry a Catholic.

Because I’m avoiding spoilers, I haven’t looked ahead to see what difference, if any, the younger Crawleys’ more open religious attitudes will make at Downton. But I welcomed the chance to review again the complicated history of the Church in England—a history my own family was part of. And I love the irony, in the end, of Lord Grantham’s exercising his anti-Catholic snobbery at the dining table in his beloved Downton Abbey, an estate whose name betrays that it was built on property seized from a Catholic religious order during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.

Tread lightly, Lord Grantham. You’re living on left-foot land.

  • Julie

    With your lengthy explanation, I’m curious why you didn’t mention the writer of Downton Abbey, Oscar winning screenwriter, Julian Fellowes, who should be applauded for his scripts which have bravely delved into British anti Catholicism?

  • Eva Arnott

    As a former Episcopalian who has lived in England I find what you write is completely accurate except that Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector (or dictator who had Charles 1 beheaded) ) was in power in the middle of the seventeenth century. There’s a reference in the diaries of Grahame Green, the 20th century literary convert from an upper-class background, to his feeling of discomfort at being in a Catholic church with all those Irish people.

    • joannemcportland

      Thanks! Fixed.

  • http://littleportionhermitage.blogspot.com/ The Hermit

    Here in the north of New England we who have a bit of the “Johnny Foreigner” about us, to coin Lord Grantham’s anti-Catholic slur from an episode or two ago, are still referred to in some corners as “Mackerel snappers” (fish on Friday, get it?). Left-footer, Johnny Foreigner, Mackerel snapper…call me what they will. I am truly blessed to be Catholic. Stick that in the end of your after-dinner cigar and smoke it, Lord Grantham! :-)

    • Molly

      I agree with The Hermit.

      I’m puzzled. I’ve long associated the term with an epithet aimed at Protestants.

      My husband’s very Irish family (his father actually a member of the IRA in his teens during the same historical period as Downton Abbey) would call Protestants “left-footers.” Maybe it became kind of a “back at you” in Cork during his day. I don’t remember ever hearing the term anywhere else.

      • Molly

        Very quick research on Google of “left footer Protestants” turned up an answer to my puzzlement.

        “Left-footer’ can be either Catholic or Protestant, depending on the speaker’s norm – so in the South, the norm is Catholic so left-footers are Protestants, whereas in the North, the norm, traditionally, are Protestants, so that left-footers are Catholics.”

    • Subsistent

      Regarding fish-on-Friday “mackerel snappers”: When I was about to marry my Protestant wife (now deceased), her mother expressed misgivings to her about her marrying a Catholic. But when she and I went to Tennessee to visit (few Catholics there, mostly either Baptist or Church-of-Christ), her mother habitually prepared on a Friday a fish meal for herself and us, not out of any religious reason (Friday abstinence was not obligatory for American Catholics in the 1980′s), but because that’s what she and apparently most of her Protestant friends and relatives in Tennessee had always done on Friday!

    • Neil

      …but now you are Popeless.

  • Rich Leonardi

    “A left-FOOTER?” Robert blurts at the breakfast table.

    I believe he was fuming in the garden at the time of this “blurtation.”

    • joannemcportland

      OK, OK, I didn’t fact check my memory. :)

    • USDIrish

      No. He was at the breakfast table.

      • TrueBlueMajority

        No. He was at the breakfast table when the desire to have the baby “baptized Catholic” is revealed to him. He is in the garden with Mary when he uses the term “left-footer”, a term I had never heard before. The sad thing is that Anglicans do not believe in such a thing as being “baptized Catholic”. Baptism makes you a Christian, a member of the Household of God, but is not denominational, especially for babies. The denominational choice is made at confirmation. Still, Sybil was willing to do what meant a lot to her husband, and their wishes should be respected. It’s cool that Mary is taking Sybil and Tom’s side. The generational acceptance of change is always an issue. I think that’s why people like Downton Abbey so much. It parallels the feeling in modern society that things are changing rapidly and the young people are with it and the older generation is not.

        • joannemcportland

          That may be the understanding among Anglicans, but Baptism for Catholics confers membership as a Christian in the Catholic Church. Confirmation, initially a part of the rites of initiation, was separated out over the centuries and has taken on the qualities of a rite of passage, but was never intended to be a time of denominational choice–simply a reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant.

          Thanks for settling the breakfast table / garden debate, though. I’m such a conflater.

    • Neil

      No , not the first time.

  • pagansister

    Fantastic show—–I can’t get enough Downton. I hope that Branson does have his little daughter baptized in the Catholic faith—as he is Irish, and according to her sister, (Mary?) just before she dies, Lady Sybil wanted it also. Lord Grantham will be most “displeased”. Most fun entertainment.

  • http://www.mulberryandbliss.com Tim Canny

    Anyone want to join my Downton Abbey inspired sodality? tmblr.co/ZEVqOydVinrp

    • Patty

      I LOVE the idea and design…very clever!!!

  • John

    Fifth generation American here, of mixed Scottish, German, but mostly Irish ancestry. These “let’s play the perpetual victim card” exercises offend me. I’m an Army veteran (not in combat, post Vietnam, pre-Gulf) who lauds the Brits as our firm allies from 1941 onward. Yes, there was anti-Irish and anti–Catholic feeling among the British until post WW II changed most of it. It had less to do with theology than with class and culture as you correctly point out. But is our American history anything to boast about. Know-Nothings, James G. Blaine, the public schools with the Protestant bible and let’s not even talk about slavery followed by Jim Crow and racism which still animates much of the poisonous hatred of our First Family.

    Moreover, these days self-described “traditionalist” Roman Catholics are quite capable of their own nose in the air triumphalism when it comes to us Protestants.

    • joannemcportland

      Oh, completely agree. My point wasn’t to slap Lord Grantham’s knuckles with a ruler or plead victimization—just clarifying the history for folks who were distinctly puzzled and thought there was current anti-Catholic sentiment (Lord knows it exists) creeping anachronistically into Downton Abbey. There’s enough anti-whomever snobbery to go around, sadly.

  • http://www.conchapman.com Con Chapman

    Here’s a little history on the subject of Protestant anti-Catholic sentiment in the U.S., written by the son of a Catholic father and a Protestant mother.

  • Ronk

    It wasn’t Cromwell who allowed Jews back into England. If he had his way 100% of the population would be Calvinist. It was the crypto-Catholic Charles II, whose father, Charles I, Cromwell had murdered.

    • joannemcportland

      The Decree of Expulsion was lifted under Cromwell’s Parliament, though no efforts were made to encourage Jewish return.

  • HermitTalker

    Those of us who were raised with a Northern Irish parent, whose family moved from the South just after Indpendence of the Free State, now called the Republic we experienced the worst of the bigoted hatred of the racism of the British Reformation and more so the fratricidal hatred of their fellow Celts when the Scots lowlands turned Calvinist- Knox- vicious Cromwellian Protestant and took over the land closest to Sotland and were deceptively allowed to hold onto that and the six of the Counties, two of which are still predominantly Catholic.Anti-Catholicism, disguised as Nationalism/Republicam and mixed inseparably with it.. It is a mix of fear, ignorance and bigotry based on power as jobs, land and business and now the slow dismantling of their former gerrymandered control of housing, health care, segregated housing and schools as a result. Downton Abbey WWI , a very mild version of the reality today of 2013 in Belfast and surrounds, Please pray the current row over their Union Flag does not unleash the ever-present hate-fear barely covered under their scared facade, as well as the few remainng republican dissidents who are using gun and bomb to pursue their Culture of Peace through Murder, Bad cocktain mix for sure.

  • http://breadhere.wordpress.com Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

    Very nicely done, Joanne, thanks for this. Now back to the up and down, gymnastics of the mass! (sheesh)
    A side note from me about Tom Branson. (spoiler alert! Take note and stop reading if you must!) Last night when he was speaking with Lord Grantham about Matthew’s plan, he went on to say that everyone had certain gifts, and that when you were part of something, you had to put “gifts at the disposal” of the greater good. WOW, I thought. That is a very Catholic way to see the world!

  • Richard Hall

    My granduncle, born in Scotland in 1891, always referred to Roman Catholics as “left footers”. I howled when I heard it. Hadn’t heard it since my granduncle had died in the 1970s.

  • Oregon Catholic

    I enjoyed the poke in the ribs that Lady Grantham gave her husband when they were doing the photos after the baptism. LG and his mother were both scowling when it was suggested that the priest join in for a picture and Lady G says something like “are you afraid it (Catholicism) will rub off on you?” That’s when I knew the writers were making an attempt at keeping it balanced.

    I noticed the same approach with Thomas and the homosexual issue, calling him foul on the one hand and saying he didn’t choose it on the other. I wonder if opinions were as liberal at that time as they portrayed (Lord G certainly was accepting of it) – or if that was just a nod to the current times.

  • http://www.FuturesStrategyGroup.com Peter Kennedy

    Speaking of Left Footedness, what do you suppose the Crawleys of Downton would have made of the Flights of Brideshead?!?!

    • http://Mangiamamma.blogspot.com MangiaMamma

      I am pretty sure they never would have gotten together for tea!

  • Bryan

    I think what is being lost in this whole confusion over whether “left-footer” epithets apply to Catholics or Protestants is sympathy for the true victims of prejudice and bigotry…left-handed (and footed) people.

    To quote C. Montgomery Burns: “The worm has turned, has it not, my tin-plated friend? You, who were once so proud…feel the wrath of the left hand of Burns!”

  • Neil

    Kudos to the writer JF for confronting not only the Left Footer subject, but also just about every controversial social taboo, and showing us how little has changed in some ways. Also Kudos for taking the medical conundrum behind Sybil’s demise with many, like myself learning that it is not fully understood even to-day. Ironically a death happened lately in Catholic Ireland (possibly) due to a similar delay in putting the woman’s health first in decision making.
    We love Downton for central depiction of the theme of change on society and individuals coping with that change, as much as for it’s drama and pomp. There is something for everyone, my wife cant always tell you what Lord G might have said, but she pulls tell you exactly which antique cushion is on each antique chair.

  • Anthony

    Excellent essay. I just learned that Jullian Fellowes was a Catholic, which explains the brilliantly subversive naming of the estate as Downton Abbey. I wondered, agog, whether the show’s producer — or even the writer — might be unaware of the significance of the name. The best stroke in the last episode was when Grantham indulges in some crude anti-Catholicism and Irish Tom Branson’s boorish brother laughs. The look on Grantham’s face shows his discomfort, though perhaps not complete consciousness that his anti-Catholicism is at Kieran Branson’s coarse level.

  • Anthony

    I meant to add that “left-footer” surprised me too because I’ve heard it hundreds of times in Scotland as an insult that Catholics use against Protestants (along with other affectionate epithets, such as bluenose bastards and Huns).

  • Pingback: On the Death of Matthew Crawley

  • Just Wondering

    Please clarify something for me. Is Lord Grantham a member of the Church of England? If so, are his comments on Roman Catholic traditions misplaced? I thought the Church of England shared nearly all of it practices with the Roman Catholic church.

    • joannemcportland

      It appears that the Downtonites are social Anglicans—marriages and christenings, and have the vicar to dinner—or yes, they would know that the Church of England generally practices pew calisthenics as vigorously as Papists do. There are (and always have been) degrees of Romanism among Anglicans, though, and their attitudes reflect “low Church” practices, plus the anti-immigrant snobbery factor.

  • romy

    This show just gets better and better although I thought the close-up visions of Matthew’s injuries after his demise were unnecessarily graphic . Just loved the Downton Abbey cook Mrs Patmore’s retort in response to the newest maid’s assertion that a cat may look at a king … yes, but not at a cook!

  • E. C. Dabis

    Left-footers Right-footers. Shovels. Some shovels were made for the left foot to help push it into the ground. Some were made for the right foot to help. Shovels were made and sold regionally. The left-footed shovels were used regionally by Catholics potato growers. In other areas right-footed shovels were sold. People congregate with their own kind, and eventually noticed the differences in the leg used to push the shove into the ground. It’s simply a matter of how the shovel was made, not a matter of segregation or hatred.