30 May 2015

Terror and Catholic faith in Elizabethan England

This is a world where Sunnis and Shias have slaughtered each other (eg the Iraq War), Christians murdered Jews (eg the Holocaust), Catholics and Protestants slaughtered or starved each other's civilians (eg The Thirty Years' War) and Christians murdered Muslims (eg the Crusades). But I would not have expected a solidly Prot­es­t­ant nation to expel or murder its own Catholic citizens. So it was time to read God's Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England, by Jessie Childs, Oxford UP, 2014

Post-Reformation England seemed totally consumed by fears of a Catholic re­surgence. And no-one was considered more dangerous than the Jesuits, an order established back in 1540 to beef up the Catholic faith. Not wanting to live their lives in a remote monastery, Jesuits took their Gospel message out across the world, evangelising Protestants and encouraging them to return to the Catholic fold.

Then the fear get suddenly worse. We moderns can understand how the English must have felt when Catholics killed French Protestants in Paris’ St Barthol­omew’s Day Massacre in 1572. Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, who had witnessed the killings from the English emb­assy in the city, said the massacre only reconfirmed his hatred of Catholicism.

Yet we shocked that by the 1580s it had become a hanging offence for any Jesuit to live in Eng­land or to visit. Edmund Campion was only the first of the Elizabeth­an Jesuit martyrs to be imprisoned, tried and executed for treason.

I knew all of this before. But Childs presented a new perspective. This was not just a religious battle; this was predominantly a political battle. Rightly or wrongly, Cath­ol­ic efforts were seen as danger­ous­ly unpatriotic in England. The pope wanted to reimpose not just religio-spiritual authority over England but also secular power in alliance with the devilish Catholic nations of France or Spain. King Philip II of Spain considered himself the chief defender of Catholic Europe against the forces of the Protestant Reformation, and wanted the English throne for himself.

England was right to be fearful - Pope Pius V really DID act!! In 1570 the Pope declared "Elizabeth, the pretended Queen of England and the servant of crime" to be a heretic, released all of her subjects from any allegiance to her, and excommunicated any who obeyed her orders.

The arrest of Guy Fawkes in 1605 … the gunpowder plot tainted all English Catholics
photo credit: The Guardian

And Jesuits were seen as the sect that most supported a papal plan to give Queen Elizabeth's throne to a Cath­ol­ic ruler. Spymaster Sir FrancisWal­sing­ham proved this true when he discovered a Catholic consp­ir­acy to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne and to depose her cousin Elizabeth I; Walsingham had much joy in authorising Queen Mary’s beheading in 1586.

Then the Spanish Armada’s attack on England in 1588 only intensified Walsingham’s determination to cleanse England of traitors. In the post-Armada years, Jesuits and other Catholics paid a very great price for Protestant fear. Catholic priests had to hide in dark dank priest-holes, they could be disembowelled and hacked into small pieces, and they were demonised across the country. In a political stance that was to resonate for centuries, English Anglicans came to believe that English Catholics could never be true patriots.

Although I normally do not like personalising history, and thereby reducing its sweep, I understand why the Catholic crisis in Elizabethan England had to be examined by Childs through the eyes of one Catholic family: the Vauxes of Harrowden Hall in Northamptonshire. Like other landed Catholic families, the Vaux family developed an underground network to protect the missionary priests, and held illegal Catholic services.

Margaret Clitherow was pressed to death for her role in a Catholic plot to overthrow the Elizabethan regime in 1586. A year later, the execution of Mary Queen of Scots took place.
photo credit: History Today

These recusants, i.e those who refused to attend Anglican services, were involved with Catholicism all the way until the later Gunpowder Plot by Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators. The Vaux family's rural estate was frequented by the plotters, including the Jesuit leader Henry Garnet. Garnet did not participate in the 1605 plot himself but he was brutally hanged, drawn and quartered in St Paul’s Churchyard in 1606 for knowing about it in advance.

Catholics today understand why the newly powerful Society of Jesus was training up English ordinands to infiltrate Elizabethan England, ministering to the flocks, enlisting new recruits and keeping the channels of communication with Rome open. But does the modern reader believe that Walsingham’s spy ring systematically planted his men in Catholic seminaries abroad? Armed with information from his spies based at home and abroad, Walsingham certainly could trace lines of communication between Catholics everywhere. And the Elizabethan diplomatic corps and spy system was certainly sophisticated enough to spread fear, intimidate potential traitors and control by distrust. Today the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) would have envied the coding skills, hidden mail systems, double agents and torture techniques of Walsingham's huge security team.

Childs was clear. She showed that Catholic citizens of Elizabethan England found that their Mass was banned, their chapels clandestine, and their priests faced dawn raids, impossible fines, torture and death. Under constant surveillance, haunted by the threat of imprisonment or death, the lives of recusants became marked by evasion, subterfuge and constant fear. Persecutions of Catholics were clearly based on brutal state politics.

Some readers will conclude that those Catholics who clung to their faith in wretched times were incred­ibly brave and godly, and that the Protestants were insanely paranoid and murderous. Other readers will see English Catholics as supporters of the Spanish Armada, the plot of Mary Queen of Scots to take the throne and the plot to blow up Parliament. Cath­olics, according to this second view, were therefore nothing less than traitors, the enemy within. 

A Priest Hole in a library. This hiding space, behind a swinging beam, would have had book shelves and cupboard doors in front of it. The Catholic priest would hide in the silent darkness, until the Protestant search teams left.

In either case, the result was the same. It was believed that Catholics could not possibly maintain a dual allegiance to their Catholic God and their Protestant Queen. Even today Catholics are still stunned by the savagery that led to the growth of the modern British state. It is worth repeating that Catholics could not enter British Parliament until the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829. Worse still, Catholics could not graduate from Oxford, Cambridge and Durham universities until the passage of the University Tests Act in 1871.


Elizabeth I: War On Terror is a BBC television programme that analysed Elizabethan England's morbid fear of Catholic plotting. The focus was on the summer of 1586 when the Babington Plot intended to assassinate Protestant Queen Elizabeth I and replace her by her cousin, Catholic Mary Queen of Scots.


Andrew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew said...

Thankfully we now live in more enlightened times......don't we?

Joe said...

It is not hard to understand the fear of Catholicism in England. The Gunpowder Plot would have been a nightmare if it had succeeded. The Spanish Armada meant to put King Philip II of Spain on the throne as part of the Catholic Spanish empire. Yes even the Pope made his wishes for England perfectly clear. But why were Catholics in Ireland excluded from power, lost their own properties and oppressed under the Penal Laws? Those Penal Laws seemed one sided, cruel and violent.

Hels said...


I would imagine that it is just as bad now and probably worse. One good bomb dropped by Shias on a Sunni market, or Sunnis bombing a Shia pilgrimage site, can kill hundreds of civilians in a single morning. So in that sense, our century has simply produced more efficient killers.

Is that the same as the the majority religion trying to claim religio-spiritual authority and secular power over the feared minority religion, _within_ the one country? I suppose it is.

Hels said...


In one way, Cromwell's taking over of Ireland was similar in feel. The Protestant English were brutal; the loss of Irish land to English overlords led to starvation, disease, huge civilian death rates and everlasting anger. The English even deported some 50,000 Irish men as slave labourers.

If there was one big difference it was that in England, most people were firmly Protestant. If the tiny minority of Catholics were persecuted unfairly (or even fairly), the vast majority of the English population was treated very well. In Ireland, however, the majority of the population was happily Catholic! Perhaps the Protestant English came across in boats to the island to punish the Catholic Irish for previous military crises, but I think Cromwell had a religious crusade in mind. The land grabs and starvation were part of a plan to Protestantise a previously Catholic island. It was vicious.

JahTeh said...

I might be getting my Kings tangled here but I think it was Charles 1 who hired Irish Catholic mercenaries to fight Cromwell and they were shown no mercy on the battlefield even the Irish women camp followers were struck down. Elizabeth had lived with death for all of her life because of religion and Walsingham kept her as safe as he could even down to forging letters to Mary, Queen of Scots to encourage her to aim for England's crown. It didn't pay to be a high born woman with intelligence in those times.

Hels said...

Jah Teh

The situation changed in the decades after Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603. In 1641 the political position of the land owning Irish Catholics was under ever more threat by the English government of Ireland. They were not happy chappies under the rule of Charles I.

But then the Irish Wars continued in Ireland. Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army was indeed opposed by the Irish Catholics and royalists. Cromwell decisively defeated the Irish royalists and re-conquered the country. So they were even LESS happy.

Hels said...

For an excellent link, go to the blog Cherie's Place. The book is called "St Nicholas Owen, Priest Hole Maker" by Tony Reynolds. St Nicholas Owen died in 1606, tortured on the rack in the Tower of London.

Amfortas said...

The Catholics were feared, yes. But the Catholics were the ones that feared well before. The entire nation for the previous 20 generation had been Catholic and the King, Henry, could have been the Greatest Catholic King in Christendom. The entire society especially in the country was devoutly Catholic. All holidays, festivals and feasts were Catholic. But Henry wanted to get rid of his wife. !! For that the entire history was overturned and tens of thousands of good men and women were put to the knife and all the goods of the Churches were taken. That is, taken from the people. For they were the Church.

Even today a Catholic cannot be monarch, prime minister, chancellor and a host of other roles.

Hels said...


I agree with everything you say but I would modify "Henry wanted to get rid of his wife" as the reason for converting to Protestantism.

Firstly King Henry VIII was so strong a Catholic that he was called “Defender of the Faith” by the pope for protecting Catholicism against the new religion. But when the pope denied Henry’s request for a divorce, Henry was furious with the pope and not with his unwanted wife. After all, the king could have simply had his unwanted wife executed, or thrown in the tower.

Secondly King Henry had a death bed conversion. Certainly in life he ordered the dissolution of the monasteries, the Supremacy Act and the provision of an official English Bible, but they were part of a power battle against Rome, not against God.