Above the economic and political strife, but deeply rooted in it, the religious warfare raged. Half the pamphlets that bruised the air were blasts of Puritans against Anglican bishops and ritual, of Anglicans against Puritan rigor and intransigence, or of both against Catholic plots to restore England to papal obedience. James underrated the intensity of these hatreds. He dreamed of an entente demi-cordiale between Puritans and Anglicans, and for that purpose called their leaders to a conference at Hampton Court (January 14, 1604). He presided like another Constantine, and astonished both parties by his theological learning and his debating skill, but he insisted on “one doctrine and one discipline, one religion in substance and ceremony,”22 and declared episcopacy indispensable. The Bishop of London thought the King divinely inspired, “the like of whom had not been seen since the time of Christ”;23 but the Puritans complained that James had acted like a partisan rather than a judge; and nothing came of the conference except the unexpectedly historic decision to make a new translation of the Bible. The Convocation of 1604 issued canons requiring conformity of all clergymen to Anglican worship; those refusing to comply were dismissed, and several were imprisoned; many resigned; some migrated to Holland or America.
James disgraced himself by having two Unitarians burned for doubting the divinity of Christ despite the proofs which he offered them (1612), but he distinguished himself by never thereafter allowing an execution for religious dissent; these were the last men to die for heresy in England. Slowly, as secular rule improved, the idea that religious toleration was compatible with public morals and national unity was making headway against the almost universal conviction that social order required a faith and a Church which were unchallengeable. In 1614 Leonard Busher’s Religious Peace argued that religious persecution intensified dissent, compelled hypocrisy, and injured trade; and he reminded James that “Jews, Christians, and Turks are tolerated in Constantinople and yet are peaceable.”24 However, Busher thought that persons whose religion was “tainted with treason”—probably meaning such Catholics as put the pope above the king—should be forbidden to hold assemblies or to live within ten miles of London.
For the most part James was a tolerant dogmatist. He offended the Puritans by permitting—encouraging—Sunday sports, provided one had first attended Anglican services. He was inclined to relax the laws against Catholics. Over the heads of Robert Cecil and the Council he suspended the recusancy laws; he allowed priests to enter the country and say Mass in private homes. He dreamed, in his loose and philosophic way, of reconciling Catholic and Protestant Christendom.25 But when Catholics multiplied in this sunshine and the Puritans denounced his lenience, he allowed the Elizabethan anti-Catholic laws to be renewed, extended, and enforced (1604). To send anyone abroad to a Catholic college or seminary was made punishable by a fine of one hundred pounds. All Catholic missionaries were banished, all Catholic teaching prohibited. Persons neglecting Anglican services were fined twenty pounds per month; any default in paying such fines involved forfeiture of property, real and personal; all the cattle on the delinquent’s lands, all his furniture and wearing apparel, were to be seized for the Crown.26
Some half-crazed Catholics thought there was now no remedy but assassination. Robert Catesby had seen his father suffer imprisonment for recusancy under Elizabeth; he had joined in Essex’ rebellion against the Queen; it was he who now conceived the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Westminster Palace while the King, the royal family, the Lords, and the Commons were assembled there for the opening of Parliament. He brought into the conspiracy Thomas Winter, Thomas Percy, John Wright, and Guy Fawkes. The five men swore one another to secrecy and sealed their oaths by taking the Sacrament from a Jesuit missionary, John Gerard. They engaged a house adjacent to the palace; sixteen hours a day they labored to dig a tunnel from one cellar to the other; they succeeded and placed thirty casks of gunpowder directly under the meeting chamber of the House of Lords. Repeated postponements of Parliament kept the project in precarious abeyance; through a year and a half the conspirators had to feed the fires of their wrath. At times they doubted the morality of an enterprise in which many innocent persons would perish with those whom the Catholics thought mercilessly guilty. To reassure them, Catesby asked Henry Garnett, provincial of the Jesuits in England, whether in war it was permissible to share in actions that would bring death to innocent noncombatants; Garnett answered that divines of all faiths agreed in the affirmative, but warned Catesby that any plot against the lives of governmental officials would only bring greater suffering to English Catholics. The provincial conveyed his suspicions to the Pope and the general of the Jesuits; they bade him keep aloof from all political intrigues and discourage all attempts against the state.27 To another Jesuit, Oswald Greenway, Catesby in confession revealed the plot, which now included measures for a general rising of Catholics in England. Greenway reported the plot to Garnett. The two Jesuits hesitated between betraying the conspirators to the government and remaining silent; they chose to keep silent, but to do all in their power to dissuade the conspirators.
Catesby sought to quiet the qualms of his associates by arranging that on the morning of the appointed day friendly members of Parliament should receive urgent messages to call them away from Westminster. A minor figure in the plot warned his friend Lord Monteagle several days before the session was to begin. Mounteagle laid the matter before Cecil, who told the King. Their agents entered the cellars, found Fawkes there and the explosives in due place. Fawkes was arrested (November 4, 1605); he confessed his intentions to blow up Parliament the next day, but, despite extreme torture, refused to name his accomplices. These, however, revealed themselves by taking up arms and attempting flight. They were pursued and gave battle; Catesby, Percy, and Wright were mortally wounded, and several subalterns were hunted and secured. When the prisoners were tried they freely acknowledged the conspiracy, but no threat or torment could induce them to implicate the Jesuit priests. Fawkes and three others were drawn on hurdles from the Tower to Parliament House and were there executed (January 27, 1606). England still celebrates November 5 as Guy Fawkes Day, with bonfires and fireworks and the carrying of “guys,” or effigies, through the streets.
Gerard and Greenway escaped to the Continent, but Garnett was captured, and with him another Jesuit, Oldcorne. In the Tower these two found means of what they supposed to be secret conversation, but spies reported their words. Separately accused of these conferences, Garnett denied them, Oldcorne admitted them; Garnett confessed that he had lied. Breaking down, he conceded that he had had knowledge of the plot; but as this had come to him from Greenway, and Greenway had received it under the seal of confession, he had not felt free to reveal it; however, he had done all in his power to discourage it. He was pronounced guilty, not of the plot but of concealing it. For six weeks the King delayed signing the death warrant. Garnett, falsely informed that Greenway was in the Tower, sent him a letter; it was intercepted; asked if he had communicated with Greenway, he denied it; confronted with the letter, he argued that equivocation was permitted to a person to save his life. On May 3, 1606, he was hanged, drawn, and quartered.28
Parliament felt justified in intensifying the statutes against Catholics (1606). They were barred from the practice of medicine or law, and from serving as executors or guardians; they were forbidden to travel more than five miles from their houses; and a new oath was demanded of them which not only denied the power of the popes to depose secular rulers, but branded the assertion of that power as impious, heretical, and damnable.29 Pope Paul V forbade the taking of this oath; a majority of English Catholics obeyed him; a large minority accepted it. In 1606 six priests were executed for refusing it and for saying Mass; between 1607 and 1618 sixteen more were put to death.30 The prisons held several hundred priests, several thousand Catholic laymen. Despite these terrors, Jesuits continued to enter England; there were at least 68 there in 1615, 284 in 1623.31 Some Jesuits found their way into Scotland; one of them, John Ogilvie, was put to death there in 1615, after having his legs crushed in torture by “the boots,” and being kept awake for eight consecutive days and nights by the insertion of pins into his flesh.32 All the sins of the old Church were visited upon her by the new certainties and powers.