Roman Catholicism was enforced in England and Wales during the reign of Mary I. Protestants were persecuted and a number were executed as heretics. Many fled for their own safety to Protestant states in Europe. However, all this changed on the death of Mary and the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558. Elizabeth had been educated as a Protestant and it as only a matter of time before she reversed the religious changes of Mary, sweeping aside Roman Catholicism. Her coronation was a signal for many Protestant refugees to return to their homeland. They returned but as angry men who expected the new Queen to turn on the religion that had forced them to leave their home country.

The Religious Settlement of 1559 made Elizabeth Supreme Head of the Church. However, she did not give any clear indication as to the direction of her Church and many of the clergy maintained altars and images and they refused to destroy any equipment needed for Mass. People frequently referred to the “old religion" and senior church bishops faced a very difficult task in stamping out support for Catholic practices.

Areas practicing Catholicism were not just remote places. In Sussex, the Bishop of Chichester reported pockets of Catholicism in Arundel, Lindfield and Battle.

Elizabeth was content to adopt a cautious approach in the early years of her reign. Many Catholic gentry held important positions in local government and she did not want to provoke any negative response so early on. Her formula was simple – if the Catholics were loyal to the Queen and discreet in their worship, she would tolerate them. However, Bishops had been instructed to remove all forms of Catholic practices as witnessed in services by clergy. The two stances seemed to clash and as a result, early religious policy with regards to the Catholics in England lacked any real clarity. On the one hand there was tolerance (as long as this came with loyalty) among the influential in local areas but a lack of tolerance in church services.

Catholicism remained strongest in remote areas and distance from London was an advantage. In the North and Northwest, the homes of the wealthy became important centres of Catholicism. Churches appeared to provide an acceptable service whereas in reality Mass was being heard in manor houses. However, it was this very behaviour that left Catholics open to claims of disloyalty – going behind the back of the Queen.

Elizabeth faced a test of her authority in 1569 when the Revolt of the Earls took place. Thomas, Earl of Northumberland and Charles, Earl of Westmoreland led this. Both men swore loyalty to Elizabeth but were Catholics. It was initially feared that the whole of the North would rise up in support and Elizabeth made it clear that she did not have full confidence in the President of the North, the Earl of Sussex, to restore the Queen’s authority. In truth, this was no slur on Sussex as the government accepted that many men were willing to join the Earls: