Goldsmith is best known for his novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), his play She Stoops to Conquer (1773), and his poem The Deserted Village (1770). It was, however, an abridged version of his A History of England (1764) that raised the ire of the Roman Catholic church. That abridgment—which contributed nothing to Goldsmith’s literary reputation—was first published shortly after he died in 1774, and it was often revised and republished in Great Britain and North America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1823, an Italian translation of the text was listed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum with the proviso donec corrigatur (“until it is corrected”).
Goldsmith’s negative remarks about the Catholic church at the time of the Reformation, were doubtless a primary reason for his book’s condemnation. He wrote that the “vices and impositions of the church of Rome were now almost come to a head; and the increase of arts and learning among the laity . . . began to make them resist that power which was originally founded in deceit.” The book also discusses how Pope Leo X’s greed led to the hated practice of selling of indulgences, which were easily purchased “at taverns, brothels and gaming houses,” and it emphasizes base financial squabbles among Catholic monastic orders. In Goldsmith’s view, the Catholic church was petty and weak, and thus an easy mark for England’s forceful and astute King Henry VIII. Goldsmith’s account of Pope Innocent III’s interdict against England in the reign of King John is also notable for its unflattering portrayal of Catholic leadership: “This instrument of Terror in the hands of the See of Rome was calculated to strike the senses, and to operate on the superstitious minds of the people, in the highest degree.”