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:
“There are not ten gentlemen in all this country that favour her proceedings in the cause of religion.”
The revolt actually threatened a lot more than it produced and an instinctive loyalty to the Queen led to its collapse. However, to Elizabeth the revolt was no more than a very painful slap in the face of the toleration she had shown to the Catholics since her accession in 1558. The cause of the rebels was not helped by a Papal Bull that was issued in 1570 that severely criticised Elizabeth as a usurper of the throne; she was referred to as “wicked” and a “heretic” in the Bull. It sanctioned the right of Catholics to “deprive her of her throne”.
After the issuing of the Papal Bull, Elizabeth now viewed the Catholics as a major threat. This was compounded when Jesuits started to arrive in England with the sole purpose of expanding Catholicism in the land. The tolerance that Elizabeth had shown in the early years of her reign disappeared. William Cecil, Lord Burghley, advised execution for those who refused to pay allegiance to the Queen. Cecil emphasised that their executions would be based not on their beliefs but solely on their refusal to accept Elizabeth as Queen. The state’s relationship with the Catholics in England became even more difficult with the onset of the Revolt of the Netherlands when their Spanish masters systematically persecuted Protestants in the region. With thousands of Catholic troops literally just a few hours sailing away, England went on the offensive.
In 1585, now with the arch-conformist John Whitgift as Archbishop of Canterbury, an Act of Parliament ordered that all Jesuits and Catholics priests should be driven from the kingdom. Reports from spies in Spain about the impending Armada only made a campaign against the Catholics more vigorous. When the Armada came, the vast bulk of the population rallied around Elizabeth. Cecil had a simple equation – Catholicism in England equalled treason. Many agreed with him. Within the space of 30 years, Catholics who had been free to quietly worship in manor houses had become the hunted. In 1558, Elizabeth had no qualms about tolerating someone who practiced their beliefs even if they were different to hers. By the end of 1588, the Queen was unwilling to tolerate a group that threatened her very well being and title. The cause of the Catholics was not helped when Cardinal William Allen likened Elizabeth to Lucifer in his ‘Admonition to the Nobility and People of England’. Allen also referred to Elizabeth’s mother as the “infamous courtesan” and claimed that she herself was an “incestuous bastard”.
Catholics in England were tarred with the same brush but towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign a more balanced view had developed. There were those who were Catholic and loyal to Elizabeth and they greatly resented what Allen had written about their Queen. Their loyalty was respected, as was their Catholicism. The impact of the Jesuits had been broken and it was these men who were considered to be the main danger to Elizabeth and her position as Queen. It cannot be argued that there were Catholic families in England who felt aggrieved at their treatment. The family of the Catholic Robert Catesby had been fined for its beliefs and it was Catesby with others who was to mastermind the 1605 Gunpowder Plot.