Sacred and secular martyrdom: a review

Sacred and secular martyrdom in Britain and Ireland since 1914
John Wolffe
London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2020, viii + 197pp., £85 (hardback), ISBN 978-1-35001927-0.
[A review forthcoming in the Journal of Beliefs and Values.]

After the terrorist attacks in the USA in 2001, and in London four years later, the idea of martyrdom gained a new salience. This important study by John Wolffe is the product of a RCUK Global Uncertainties Leadership Fellowship: an attempt to build an informed religious literacy on the subject to aid the making of public policy. The book fills a gap that, after having read it, seems obvious, and indeed glaring, but which was not so before (to this reviewer, at least): a measure of how significant and new a perspective on the period it presents.

Wolffe expressly adopts no a priori definition of martyrdom, opting instead to trace its shifting meanings. The churches, both Protestant and Catholic, had their sixteenth century martyrs, and the nineteenth century had seen their ranks added to from the mission field. While the Christian martyr tended to be passive, the historic shape of Muslim martyrdom was more activist, a life lost in struggle. Wolffe’s achievement is to show how far the idea could be extended into more secular contexts, concluding that no easy line may be drawn between sacred and secular varieties. Martyrs could be made in defence of a nation (particularly during the First World War), even if they were conscript soldiers, or of a different faith to the national one, or indeed of no faith at all. In Ireland in the 1920s there were competing martyrologies, nationalist and unionist. The former focussed on the Easter Rising of 1916 or the hunger strikers of the 1980s; the latter (though less explicitly articulated) centred on the Battle of the Somme. Whole nations could be cast as martyrs in a collective sense for rhetorical purposes, or individual towns. And it was not even entirely necessary to lose one’s life for it to be glossed in this way; such was the case of Martin McGuinness, a former IRA member who died of natural causes at the age of 66 after serving as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland.

Wolffe’s reading of the language of martyrdom is deft and subtle, showing the complex uses of religious texts and their overtones in the wider commentary, and the interplay of this specific language with the more ambiguous concept of sacrifice. The extent to which martyrs were made and remade according to the needs of the present is a persistent theme. But the range of sources is wider than this, taking in dozens of interviews, as well as fine readings of the architecture of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries in France and Belgium, and of myriad local war memorials at home.

Wolffe’s chronology is too complex to be easily summarised, but the period began with an unusually tight interweaving of national and religious stories. This was exemplified by the bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, who in 1914 described the war dead as ‘martyrs as really as St Stephen … covered with imperishable glory they pass to deathless life.’ Even then this connection was contested. Wolffe shows just how contingent on events and personalities the shape and symbolism of the commemoration of the war was. But by the centenary years of 2014-18, the process of secularisation had left the imagined community (on which such an idea depended) much less Christian, and (in the context of Scottish and Welsh nationalism) without another glue with which to bind itself together. Though the centenary events were in a sense a renaissance of remembrance, it was without a stable consensus on its meaning. By the end of the century, the language of martyrdom or sacrifice for the nation was being replaced by that of victimhood, a motif both more inclusive and more reflective of the ambiguity with which death in the trenches has come to be viewed.

All this will be of absorbing interest to scholars of national identity, but there is a parallel story concerning the churches. The view of William Temple, archbishop of Canterbury between 1942 and 1944, was subtly but substantially different to that of Winnington-Ingram. Even though the Nazi regime was a more unambiguously anti-Christian opponent, Temple could mark the sacrifice of those who had died without speculating on their salvation. By the time of the Falklands conflict, it was clear to many that too close an association with national remembrance compromised the churches’ attempts to present a Christian view of conflict focussed on reconciliation. The churches in both Britain and Ireland had also come to view Catholic and Protestant martyrs of the sixteenth century not as opponents, but as common witnesses to a larger truth, to whose number had been added others from other countries: Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King and the German, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These and others were commemorated in 1998 above the west door of Westminster Abbey, just inside which is the tomb of the unknown soldier: old and new (or perhaps rediscovered) understandings of Christian martyrdom in a symbolically crucial building. Wolffe’s telling of these stories will be required reading for all students of British and Irish religion and politics of the last century; no serious historical library will want to be without it.

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