VI. ELIZABETH AND THE CATHOLICS

It was now the turn of the Catholics to suffer persecution. Though still in the majority, they were forbidden to hold Catholic services or possess Catholic literature. Religious images in the churches were destroyed by government order, and altars were removed. Six Oxford students were sent to the Tower for resisting the removal of a crucifix from their college chapel.58 Most Catholics submitted sadly to the new regulations, but a considerable number preferred to pay the fines for nonattendance at the Anglican ritual. The royal Council calculated some fifty thousand such “recusants” in England (1580).59 Anglican bishops complained to the government that Mass was being said in private homes, that Catholicism was emerging into public worship, and that in some ardent localities it was unsafe to be a Protestant.60 Elizabeth rebuked Archbishop Parker for laxity (1565), and thereafter the laws were more rigorously enforced. Catholics who had heard Mass in the chapel of the Spanish ambassador were imprisoned; houses in London were searched; strangers found there were ordered to give an account of their religion; magistrates were commanded to punish all persons possessing books of Roman Catholic theology (1567).61

We must not judge this legislation in terms of the relative religious toleration earned for us by the philosophers and revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The faiths were then at war, and were entangled with politics—a field in which toleration has always been limited. All parties and governments in the sixteenth century agreed that theological dissent was a form of political revolt. The religious conflict became explicitly political when Pope Pius V, after what he felt had been a long and patient delay, issued a bull (1570) that not only excommunicated Elizabeth, but absolved her subjects from allegiance to her, and forbade them “to obey her monitions, mandates, and laws.” The bull was suppressed in France and Spain, which were then seeking friendship with England, but a copy of it was clandestinely posted on the door of the episcopal residence in London. The culprit was discovered and was put to death. Faced by this declaration of war, the Queen’s ministers asked Parliament for stricter anti-Catholic laws. Statutes were passed making it a capital crime to call the Queen a heretic, schismatic, usurper, or tyrant, or to introduce a papal bull into England, or to convert a Protestant to the Roman Church.62 The Court of High Commission was authorized to examine the opinions of any suspected person and to punish any of his unpunished offenses against any law, including fornication or adultery.63

The Catholic monarchs of Europe could not with much face protest against these oppressive measures, which so resembled their own. Most English Catholics continued to submit peaceably, and Elizabeth’s government hoped that habit would generate acceptance, and, in time, belief. It was to prevent this that William Allen, an emigré Englishman, founded at Douai, then in the Spanish Netherlands, a college and seminary to train English Catholics for missionary service in England. He expounded his purpose fervently:

We make it our first and foremost study … to stir up … in the minds of Catholics … zeal and just indignation against the heretics. This we do by setting before the eyes of the students the exceeding majesty of the ceremonial of the Catholic Church in the place where we live … At the same time we recall the mournful contrast that obtains at home: the utter desolation of all things sacred which there exists … our friends and kinsfolk, all our dear ones, and countless souls besides, perishing in schism and godlessness; every jail and dungeon filled to overflowing, not with thieves and villains but with Christ’s priests and servants, nay, with our parents and kinsmen. There is nothing, then, that we ought not to suffer, rather than to look on at the ills that affect our nation.64

The college functioned at Douai till 1578, when the Calvinists captured the town; then at Reims, then again at Douai (1593). The Douay Bible—an English translation of the Latin Vulgate—was produced at Reims and Douai (1582–1610), and reached publication a year before the King James version. Between 1574 and 1585 the college ordained 275 graduates and sent 268 to labor in England. Allen was called to Rome and made a cardinal, but the work went on; 170 additional priests were dispatched to England before Elizabeth’s death in 1603. Of the 438 total, ninety-eight suffered the capital penalty.

The leadership of the missionaries passed to a Jesuit, Robert Parsons, a man of enthusiasm and courage, a firebrand of polemics, and a master of English prose. He frankly announced that the bull deposing Elizabeth justified her assassination. Many English Catholics were shocked, but Tolomeo Galli, secretary of state to Pope Gregory XIII, gave the idea his approval.II65 Parsons urged the Catholic powers to invade England; the Spanish ambassador in England condemned the plan as “criminal folly,” and Everard Mercurian, general of the Jesuit order, forbade Parsons to meddle in politics.67 Undeterred, he decided on a personal invasion. He disguised himself as an English officer returning from service in the Netherlands; his martial swagger, gold-lace coat, and feathered hat carried him through the frontier officials (1580); he even smoothed the way for another Jesuit, Edmund Campion, to follow him in the guise of a jewel merchant. They were secretly housed in the heart of London.

They visited imprisoned Catholics, and found them leniently treated. Recruiting lay and sacerdotal aides, they began their work of inspiring Catholics to remain faithful to the Church, and reconverting recent “apostates” to the Protestant creed. Secular priests hiding in England, alarmed at the boldness of the missionaries, warned them that they would soon be caught and arrested, and that their detection would make matters worse for the Catholics, and they begged them to return to the Continent. But Parsons and Campion persisted. They moved from town to town, holding secret assemblies, hearing confessions, saying Mass, and giving their benediction to the whispering worshipers who looked upon them as messengers from God. Within a year of their coming they made—it was claimed—twenty thousand converts.68 They set up a printing press and scattered propaganda; tracts declaring that Elizabeth, having been excommunicated, was no longer the lawful queen of England were found in London streets.69 A third Jesuit was sent to Edinburgh to urge the Scottish Catholics to invade England from the north. The Earl of Westmorland answered a summons from the Vatican; he brought back from Rome to Flanders a mass of bullion to finance an invasion from the Netherlands; by the summer of 1581, many Catholics believed, the Spanish troops of Alva would cross into England.70

Warned by its spies, the English government doubled its efforts to capture the Jesuits. Parsons found his way across the Channel, but Campion was caught (July 1581). He was carried through sympathetic villages and hostile London to the Tower. Elizabeth sent for him and tried to save him. She asked, Did he consider her his lawful sovereign? He replied that he did. But to her next question, Could the Pope lawfully excommunicate her?, he answered that he could not decide an issue on which learned men were divided. She sent him back to the Tower, with instructions that he be kindly treated; but Cecil ordered him to be tortured into naming his fellow conspirators. After two days of agony he yielded a few names, and more arrests were made. Recovering his audacity, Campion challenged Protestant divines to a public debate. By permission of the Council a debate was staged in the chapel of the Tower; courtiers, prisoners, and public were admitted; and the Jesuit stood for hours on weakened legs to plead for the Catholic theology. Neither side convinced the other; but when Campion was brought to trial the charge was not heresy but conspiracy to overthrow the government by internal subversion and external attack. He and fourteen others were convicted, and on December 1, 1581, they were hanged.

Those Catholics proved right who had predicted that the Jesuit mission would exasperate the government into further persecution. Elizabeth issued an appeal to her subjects to judge between her and those who sought her throne or her life. Parliament decreed (1581) that conversion to Catholicism should be punished as high treason; that any priest who said Mass should be fined two hundred marks and be imprisoned for a year; and that those who refused to attend Anglican services should pay twenty pounds a month71—enough to bankrupt any but the richest Catholics. Failure to pay the fine incurred arrest and confiscation of property. Soon the prisons were so crowded with Catholics that old castles had to be used as jails.72 Tension rose on all sides, heightened by the imminent execution of Mary Stuart and the intensified conflict with Spain and Rome. In June 1583 a papal nuncio offered Gregory XIII a detailed plan for the invasion of England by three armies at once from Ireland, France, and Spain. The Pope gave sympathetic consideration to this disegno per l’impresa d’Inghilterra and specific measures were prepared;73 but English spies got wind of them, England made counterpreparations, and the invasion was postponed.

Parliament retaliated with more repressive legislation. All priests ordained since June 1559 and still refusing the oath of supremacy were required to leave the country within forty days or suffer death as treasonous conspirators; and all who harbored them were to be hanged.74 On the basis of this and other laws, 123 priests and sixty laymen were executed during the reign of Elizabeth, and probably another two hundred died in jail.75 Some Protestants protested against the severity of this legislation; some were converted to Catholicism; Cecil’s grandson William fled to Rome (1585) and pledged obedience to the Pope.76

Most English Catholics were opposed to any violent action against the government. One faction among them addressed an appeal to Elizabeth (1585), affirmed their loyalty, and asked for “a merciful consideration of their sufferings.” But as if to bear out the government’s claim that its measures were justified by war, Cardinal Allen issued (1588) a tract designed to rouse the English Catholics to support the approaching attack on England by Spain. He called the Queen “an incestuous bastard, begotten and born in sin of an infamous courtesan,” charged that “with Leicester and divers others she hath abused her body … by unspeakable and incredible variety of lust,” demanded that the Catholics of England should rise against this “depraved, accursed, excommunicate heretic,” and promised a plenary indulgence to all who should aid in deposing the “chief spectacle of sin and abomination in this age.”77 The Catholics of England answered by fighting as bravely as the Protestants against the Spanish Armada.

After that victory the persecution continued as part of the continuing war. Sixty-one priests and forty-nine laymen were hanged between 1588 and 1603; and many of these were cut down from the gibbet and were drawn and quartered—i.e., they were disemboweled and torn limb from trunk—while still alive.78 In a remarkable address presented to the Queen in the year of her death, thirteen priests petitioned her to be allowed to remain in England. They repudiated all attacks on her right to the throne and denied the authority of the Pope to depose her, but could not in conscience acknowledge anyone but the Pope as head of the Christian Church.79 The document reached the Queen only a few days before her death, and no result of it is recorded; but unwittingly it outlined the principles on which, two centuries later, the problem would be solved. The Queen died a victor in the greatest struggle of a reign stained with no darker blot than this victory.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!