Obituary: John Bossy (1933-2015)

By Fred Smith | @Fred_E_Smith

‘John Bossy, where are you when we need you?’

So wrote Christopher Haigh over a decade ago, expressing the need for ‘big ideas’ to ‘shake up the field’ of early-modern English Catholicism, just as John Bossy had done twenty-five years previously.[1] His words have never rung so true.

It was with great sadness that I learnt of the recent death of Professor John Bossy, an historian whose published works range from a three-hundred year history of Christianity in Western Europe, to a micro-analysis of events and individuals surrounding the French ambassador to England from 1583 to 1596.[2] I am possessed of neither the knowledge nor the ability to adequately represent his contribution to the historical field in the lines which follow, a task better to left to historians who knew and worked alongside the eminent professor at the University of York until his retirement in 2000.[3] However, I feel it is only right to offer a few words about an historian whom I greatly admire, and whose work has profoundly shaped my own study of history.

Bossy’s first book, The English Catholic Community, 1570-1850, published forty years ago, is widely regarded as a ‘major landmark in Catholic historical studies’.[4] By the late twentieth century, the study of post-Reformation English Catholicism had become something of an intellectual backwater. It attracted little interest from the majority of scholars, for whom history’s ‘winners’ were far more exciting than its ‘losers’. Those who did venture into it presented their subjects as victims in a helpless and ultimately doomed battle. Bossy, on the other hand, focussed on the constructive side of post-Reformation Catholicism, asking not why the traditional faith collapsed, but how a new community of English Catholics came into being following the accession of Elizabeth I, and how it grew and adapted over the following three hundred years.[5] He quite literally revolutionised our conception of the Catholic community in England.

Of course, as with all great works, many of Bossy’s arguments have since been reviewed and revised. However, it is his enduring legacy that historians of English Catholicism no longer treat their subjects through the lens of victimhood, and instead focus on the creative and often curious ways in which England’s Catholics negotiated their survival with a hostile regime. In that respect, all students of religion in England are in his debt, a truth testified by Alexandra Walsham, who dedicated her most recent book to the emeritus York professor.[6]

I owe a personal debt of gratitude to Professor Bossy. One of the key debates inaugurated by his first book, namely the question of when, and in what form, the English Catholic community came into existence, drove my MPhil research last year, and continues to guide my thinking as I start my PhD. John Bossy, you were there when I needed you, and I am certain that your legacy will be there for generations of historians to come.


[1] Christopher Haigh, ‘Catholicism in Early Modern England: Bossy and Beyond’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 45, Issues 02 (2002), pp. 481-494, at p. 494.

[2] John Bossy, Christianity in the West 1400-1700 (Oxford, 1985); John Bossy, Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair (New Haven, 1991), and its ‘sequel-of-sorts’ Under the Molehill: An Elizabethan Spy Story (New Haven, 2001).

[3] See for instance the obituary for Professor Bossy written by Professor Pete Biller, Professor Stewart Carroll and Professor Simon Ditchfield of the York Department of History (

[4] Eamon Duffy, ‘Review of The English Catholic Community, 1570-1850’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 27, Issue 04, pp. 447-450, at p. 448.

[5] John Bossy, The English Catholic Community, 1570-1850 (London, 1975).

[6] Alexandra Walsham, Catholic Reformation in Protestant Britain (Farnham, 2014), p. xv.

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