From: Religious Context 16th Century Bible Translation               Return to Home            

By Roland H. Worth, Jr.                               © 2016








Chapter Six:

Traditional Catholicism




Motivations For Rejecting

the New Regal Orthodoxy



            It required an individual of considerable moral fortitude to publicly stand up to the reformation in England.  The resentment of the Catholic Church on both real and exaggerated grounds was so pervasive, that only a deep conviction that it possessed the solemn truth would enable individuals to persevere when faced with a public consensus in the opposition direction.

            Yet caution must be exercised.  The degree of consensus varied from regime to regime and became undeniably present only well into Elizabeth’s reign.  Hence the degree of psychological pressure varied immensely and the amount of inner determination required to handle it.

            Furthermore, there were many more who would stand up for the church but not necessarily the papacy.  Indeed, few English Catholics were all that thrilled about papal supremacy.  If push came to shove many would have preferred the ultimate authority to dwell in church councils. 

What they were concerned with was the church as an institution and the faith of the church.  It was loyalty to the institution rather than to the papacy that motivated the bulk of those who retained their Catholicism through this trying and dangerous period.[1] 

            Idealistic reasons were one underpinning of their continued allegiance.  In the abstract there was an aversion against overt church division on the grounds that such schism was inherently sinful.  The charge of religious divisiveness obviously touched a tender point, since the reformers were clearly divided among themselves.  

            Of course, the reform minded were not without a counter-argument.  If one chose to, one could have pointed to the significant differences between  pro-council and pro-papal Catholics as to the source of ultimate religious authority in the church, not to mention significant differences in emphases (contradictions?) on issues of religious faith and practice.  These divisions, however, were not as obvious as the ones between the reformers and had not created formal schisms within the Catholic Church, though some of them had the potential for such.

            Furthermore, one could, of course, concede that such division was wrong.  But how would that necessarily prove that Catholicism was in the right rather than one of the movements it so vigorously criticized?  Contemporary pro-reform apologists pointed to the fact that Rome was but one of several religious divisions then existing.  In addition, they noted that earlier centuries had exhibited divisions both within Christianity and even within Judaism.[2] 


            If the question of religious issues and open schism stirred the Catholic in his or her heart, the potential impact upon society worried their political awareness.  The possible societal consequences of a collapse of the traditional faith encouraged many to remain as steadfast as personal survival permitted.  This was a specially pressing consideration in the first decades of the Reformation when everything was untried and uncertain and there was no established record of precedent by which to predict the future.

            In one sense, however, the argument was of minimum relevance to the kingdom.  Only one local example of social destructiveness due to heresy could be appealed to, but it had been so long before the days of those then living that it was of questionable relevance.  This was a Lollard supported revolt in 1414 and its approval by those earlier reformers.  They had encouraged the correlation of drastic doctrinal challenge and political revolt at the same time.  On the other hand, it is unclear as to the degree of actual Lollard involvement and the causes for their participation; all references to it are in the records of those who prosecuted the survivors.[3]  Furthermore, the revolt was so far in the past it is unlikely that it came to the mind of many. 

            More convincing “proof” of the heresy-unrest correlation came from abroad and this could be found in the massive recent excesses during the Peasants Revolt in Germany.  It vividly demonstrated the chaos that could undermine the very existence of governmental authority if religious extremism gained the upper hand.  Henry the VIII even explicitly blamed Luther for the bloodshed.  Sir Thomas More saw the collapse of civilized society if reform doctrine similarly gained the upper hand in England.[4] 

            Even in the German case, the supposed responsible party (Luther) repudiated the rebellion and called as loudly as anyone for the crushing of those involved.  Hence the correlation was an appealing one--but it was strongest with one was seeking grounds to blacken the reputation of a movement one was already opposed to.

            The social disaster scenario hinged upon a revolt of the “lower” against the “higher” classes, all being carried out in the nature of “reformed” religion.  The usefulness of the societal collapse scenario was grievously compromised when the King himself embraced a form of religious dissidence. 

In that context, the concern over potential societal disintegration could lead to the embracing rather than rejection of “heretical” control.  After all, if Henry were toppled, a period of uncertainty would follow, during which one or more individuals would be vying for the throne--and then probably fighting each other to assure the security of their new position.  Factoring in regional preferences, profound religious disagreements, and possible foreign military intervention, a virtual Pandora’s box was a very realistic possibility.  If one’s convictions led one to grasp the sword to oust Henry, without his unifying role as national leader, would there even be a “nation” left to lead?[5]   

            At the time, the argument equating religious disagreement with chaos could also be answered by conceding the danger while denying the conclusion that the reform movement was the religious element to blame.  For example, Tyndale conceded that the land was undergoing serious politico-social disruption, but traced it back to the disruptions that began much earlier, in the age of Wycliff,[6]


Let England look about them and mark what hath chanced since they slew their right King, whom God had anointed over them, King Richard II?  Their people, towns and villages are minished by the third part.  Of their noble blood, if I durst be bold, I might safely swear there remaineth not the sixteenth part.  Their own sword hath eaten them up!  And enough pastures be enlarged above measure, yet rot of sheep, murrain of beasts, with parks and warrens, with raising of fines and rent, making all things twice so dear as they were, to the destruction of our realm.


            In other words, it was not a new problem but a long term one that antedated the rise of the more recent religious reform movements.  The triumph of Catholicism over Wycliff had not solved it; now it would be the turn of Protestants to try.  (Not successfully, we might add.)

            Sir Thomas More was politically astute enough to be aware that the church's possessions represented a tidy value whose seizure appealed to the greed of rulers.  He implored them not to yield to the temptation for if they destroyed the church the next step would be their own destruction.  As he wrote in the Responsio ad Lutherum (1523),[7]


For just as very many of the princes look not without pleasure on a degenerating clergy, undoubtedly because they pant for the possessions of those who defect and hope to seize them on the grounds of abandonment, and just as those princes rejoice that obedience is withdrawn from the Roman pontiff with the hope that they will be able to dispose and divide and squander it all for themselves at home, so too there is no reason for them to doubt that the people look to the time when they may shake off in turn the yoke of the princes and strip them of their possessions; once they have accomplished this, drunk with the blood of princes and reveling in the gore of the nobles, enduring not even common rule, with the laws trampled underfoot according to Luther's doctrine, rurerless, without restraint, wanton beyond reason, they will finally turn their hands against themselves and like those earthborn brethren, will run each other through. 


            Yet most Englishmen found it inconceivable that they could fall into such traps.  True, they might war, plunder, and murder on an embarrassing scale.  But nothing in their recent national experience prepared them for the far greater excesses found on the continent.  To conjure those up, merely illustrated the depths of depravity upon the Continent rather than any realistic dangers their own nation faced.[8] 

            Furthermore, the alleged danger of such unrest could become the legal pretext for those opposed to church power to legislatively require innovation.  This way government showed that it was in control.  When Parliament enacted the initial legislation restoring Henry’s Independent Catholicism (though not yet papal Catholicism), it was justified on the ground that social unrest was pervasive and that it posed an imminent danger to the political system as  well,[9]


[The post-Henry innovations had produced] diverse and strange opinions and diversities of sects, and thereby grown great unquietness and much discord, to the great disturbance of the commonwealth of this realm, and in very short time like to grow to extreme peril and utter confusion of the same, unless some remedy be in that behalf provided, which thing all true, loving, and obedient subjects ought and are bound to foresee and provide, to the uttermost of their power.  


            It is of interest that the dire prophecy of More had proved itself erroneous.  On the other hand, it could have turned out that way. 

            Under Elizabeth’s reign, the fear of national instability eventually came into play as a significant argument against traditional Roman Catholicism itself.  Each generation tends to perceive its current situation as the typical one against which to judge all others.  It worked in favor of Catholicism when it was dominant and delayed the establishment of a Protestant control. 

On the other hand, when Protestantism became engrained; it became part of the root definition of social existence.  Except for that minority of conscious converts, the vast bulk of the population tended to continue the practices it had grown up in.  And fear that any major changes in them could be the beginning of the nation falling apart.        

            The possibility of successful Catholic opposition was weakened during Henry’s own reign by the lack of any effective and prominent clerical traditionalist around whom the cause could rally.  (The one exception was Cardinal Pole and he took refuge abroad, removing himself from any direct impact.)  Even if there had been such, the chances of success would have been marginal.  Without such a leader the cause hinged essentially upon the caprice of a changing king, a man who would act without the restraining influence of a powerful traditionalist voice. 

            Although there is much truth in this line of reasoning, the pro-traditional policy reversals while Cranmer served as Archbishop were executed without his support, over the opposition of many reform minded clerics, and without a clear and obvious leader of the traditionalist mindframe.  In spite of this, time and again pro-tradition supporters convinced Henry to reject further reform, to reverse himself in favor of traditionalism, and to use the power of the state to suppress various specific elements and proponents of change. 

But they still faltered short of their ultimate goal.  Which brings us back to our initial premise:  If this much was possible with an extremely disorganized opposition, if there had been a respected cleric to coordinate the traditionalist faction or to put in a key word at the most appropriate times, it is quite possible that the reform tide could have been successfully vanquished. 


            A final element that undermined the prospect of Catholic success in reclaiming England (especially during the years of Henry's rule) was its own internal divisiveness.  The Reformers were soon divided into factions.  The Anglican Catholics of Henry, the Calvinists, the Lutherans, the followers of the even more radical Ulrich Zwingli.  Off the scale were the even more revolutionary Anabaptists who repudiated the very infant baptism that all had been brought up accepting.  It is easy to dismiss this as evidence of the self-destructiveness of the Reformers.

            Yet there was considerable division manifested among those who professed traditional Catholicism (see below).  Erasmus was repeatedly denounced as a heretic and it was a convenient label to brand anyone that one disagreed with.  Indeed, individual claims of the reformers would find acceptance even among the orthodox; the body of the doctrine would be repugnant but specific assertions would find sympathy.  Furthermore Catholic monarch was divided from Catholic monarch in furthering the specific interests of his own nation, even when it meant de facto alliance with the heretical reformers. 

            This was the situation under Henry.  The divisiveness continued under Elizabeth.  There were on-going tensions between the Jesuit influenced Catholic community and the traditional Catholics who were skeptical of their role.  Not to even mention differences between Jesuits as to the proper degree of subservience/rebelliousness against the now entrenched Protestant regime.            

            It was an age in which neither Protestant nor Catholic could be fully sure of the outcome nor even of his own supposed compatriots.  The ability to successfully launch a religious counter-revolution in such an uncertain atmosphere was an "iffy" one indeed.

            Public opinion polling did not exist in the sixteenth century.  Even if it had, it is doubtful if many (most?) would have given candid opinions as to their religious convictions and the degree to which they held them.  Hence it is impossible to know how many held to the various religious options of the day and with what degree of passion they did so--at any point in the century.

            Human society has an inherent inertia that always works in behalf of preserving the status quo--whatever it might be.  This would be one factor assuring the preservation of sizable segments of traditional religion during Henry’s, Edward’s, and Mary’s reigns, but its strength would vary in degree from one region to another.[10]  Furthermore, it is likely that there were at least as many cultural Catholics (i.e., because they were raised as such) as there were doctrinal ones, i.e., those who retained their religion as an intentional act of will based upon intellectual commitment.  (From Elizabeth on, however, the force of inertia clearly shifted to the Protestant side of the ledger.)

            This is individual psychology at work.  It is emotionally and psychologically easier to persist in existing ways of thought and conduct than to undergo the sometimes wrenching experience of rearranging one's framework of social reality.  Hence existing patterns of Catholic opinion and comportment would tend to continue even beyond the period when Catholicism was the established faith.[11] 

            The targeting of England, under Elizabeth, for covert missionary work carried with it a minimum goal of bringing back into the fold wavering and lapsed Catholics who had not been carried off into Protestantism, but who had abandoned all religious expression.  At a maximum, it might be possible to make inroads into the Protestant ranks as well.  The latter was almost purely theoretical; the religio-political climate of the time made any serious efforts in that direction personally dangerous and carried little assurance of success. 

            In a real sense, converting the “schismatics” was viewed as of only token importance.  The conception was dominant that most of the land could be considered “lapsed” rather than overt “heretics.”  Hence, if only a sufficient number of those could be reached, an effective and obvious religious majority would be obtained--and with it the supporters able to implement changes in the political field.

            Then there were those that did not clearly fall into either camp—the religiously unconcerned.  At the time, the Jesuits themselves spoke proudly of how there had been a major influx of new Catholics into the fold due to their work.  Since those days, there has been a general consensus that in the last decades of the sixteenth century there, indeed, emerged a “new” Catholicism, one strong and vibrant enough to survive fully independent of official government support.[12] 

            On the other hand, the proportion of new converts as contrasted with the survivalists from earlier decades, is harder to determine.  Did the Jesuits really bring into the fold large numbers of new converts or did they merely reinvigorate the weak or lapsed Catholics of the kingdom? 

Either would have given the appearance of numerical growth.  Natural zeal and the interests of their clerical order understandably caused the Jesuits to stress the “true” growth element.  Protestant propagandists likewise found it useful to concede the point because it allowed them to maximize the “threat” posed by the reinvigorated movement.[13] 

            Whether we attribute the growth of Catholicism to the Jesuits or (which is more likely) the creative interaction between Jesuit input and the native English Catholic community, the religion unquestionably enjoyed a rejuvenation.  The Jesuits certainly contributed a vigor, enthusiasm, dedication, and education as they helped create a Catholicism more in the mold of the Counter-Reformation than that which had existed in the days of King Henry.

            They did so at a considerable price.  Approximately 20% of all Jesuits sent to England were caught and executed.[14]  The number of executions, however, directly correlated with the danger of foreign war and the possibility of military invasion that would reestablish Catholicism by force of arms.  Hence the crisis years of 1586 to 1591 produced 48% of all Jesuits executed.[15]  Furthermore, throughout the period, the Jesuit emphasis on work in the London area exposed a disproportionate number of priests to the greatest danger of arrest and punishment.[16]   

            Under Elizabeth, the nature of a “faithful” Catholic was redefined at the same time.  Previously some form of partial participation in the Anglican Church was usually deemed acceptable, though undesirable on its own merits.  This was now no longer perceived as adequate.  Increasingly the demand was for “recusancy,” a complete avoidance under any and all circumstances.  Even when government repression was the result. 

This approach had existed, to a lesser degree, throughout the past decades.  But the tendency had been to think in term of minimal participation; now the dominant thinking was maximum withdrawal.[17]  (This and several other phenomena of the period fall under more than one of the themes required to understand the century and will be referred to several times as they affect these other subjects.) 

            This shift in thinking became more publicly obvious after 1570 due to the hardened official church position of the past decade, and a more determined government effort to determine the degree of continuing nonconformity with the State Church.[18]  On the other hand, the proportion of Catholics who chose recusancy probably rose as well, since this was increasingly their self-definition of true faithfulness.

            The introduction of the Jesuits brought a needed infusion of “new blood” and the early stirrings of the Counter-Reformation with its potential for offering a reform agenda within the boundaries of orthodoxy.  On the other hand, it created tensions with the earlier generation of clerics and laypeople as well.

            In the 1520s and 30s, the stability of Catholicism in its doctrinal and worship manifestations (as contrasted with the ever changing face of Anglican Catholicism), provided an incentive to remain with the traditional faith.  By the 1580s and 1590s, clear divisions within English Catholicism existed on religio-political matters and theoretical unity in worship and theological belief could not paper these over.[19]  At this point, the divisiveness within Catholicism became an incentive for a limited number to seek refuge in Anglicanism.[20] 



Cultural Cleavage in

Moral Expectations



            Catholicism benefited from a more realistic “accommodation” with human nature than the reform movements found possible.  (Whether that evaluation should have been the basis for one’s religious decisions is an entirely different question.)  Catholicism had traditionally preached moral excellence as a goal for all but demanded it of only a tiny minority.  From the practical standpoint, this could be interpreted as a pragmatic acceptance of the limitations of human morality.  Most people "can't" live up to that standard; therefore one accepts a lower norm that will pose a challenge--but only a modest one, one that is reachable by many or most people.

            With the Reformation, came the growing expectation (especially among Puritan and more radical reformers) that all believers in Christ should reach a similar high level of moral achievement.  Not only did the failure to do so indicate a neglect of reaching one's potential, it also questioned one's basic commitment to the Lord. 

            In contrast, barring the most grievous offenses, the Catholic was safe in the bosom of the church; the sins he confessed to usually bore just modest penances.  If the penances were modest how could the sins they were for be really all that evil?  Hence the very act of attempting to provide a human scale level of forgiveness perversely and unintentionally encouraged the lowering of the mental framework of how "bad" particular sins actually were.

            In contrast, the militant reformer expected the most serious manifestations of reform, not merely the carrying out of prescribed rituals and ordinances.  One did not "do penance" for sin, one "repented" and reformed or faced the prospect of shunning and official exclusion from the believing community.  Indeed, if a particular congregation (or its prescribed leaders) refused to carry out such a policy, that congregation itself was regarded as manifesting a dangerous moral rot in its toleration.

            Furthermore Puritan type ministers tended to multiply the broadness of what they considered sin.  Modest consumption of alcohol could easily transform one into a drunkard.  The unwillingness to attend church services every time they were held became a manifestation of spiritual unconcern.  The pleasure in even the most innocent Sunday recreation was proof of unregenerate worldliness.  And if one were guilty of any of these, one was lumped in as virtually indistinguishable from those whose conduct was far more excessive, harmful, and injurious.  Hence they expected far more out of their countrymen than most people were willing to attempt.

            At this point society's modest expectations and Catholicism's restrained expectations merged into one similar mind frame.  Both tolerated (though in the latter case often disapproving of and requiring penances for) various acts and behaviors that appalled Puritans.  From a cynical public’s standpoint, the fact that much less was expected of a Catholic made Catholicism that much more appealing; from a more positive standpoint, the fact that Catholicism was far more “understanding” and “tolerant” of human imperfections also made Catholicism much more attractive.  So out of both self-service and “realism,” a lifestyle was permissible that was drastically foreign to the thinking of Puritans. 

            The Puritans ultimately became unable to distinguish between those who lived this way because they were religiously or morally unconcerned and those who did so because of Catholicism's greater "understanding" of their human weakness.  Indeed, in one of their less profound criticisms, the very existence of these faults was due to the popularity of Catholicism.

            This criticism extended to even innocent forms of Sunday recreation.  Indeed when James issued his “Declaration of Sports for Lancashire,” this was viewed as also implying a degree of toleration of  “Romanism” previously unknown.[21]  During James' reign, William Harrison wrote in his The Difference of Hearers, "Who are greater maintainers of this impiety [of Sunday recreation] than our recusants?  By these means they keep the people from the Church and so continue them in their Popery and ignorance."[22] 

            Indeed, even where large numbers came to church services in the morning, often few were willing to come a second time on the same day.  (If it had been merely a matter of Catholicism, would they have deemed it essential to willingly come even the first time each Sunday?  A thought the militants did not stop to consider.)  As Lancashire Puritan-minded ministers wrote in 1590, "The youth will not by any means be brought to attend the exercise of catechizing in the afternoon, neither the people to be present at the evening service, so that it were hard for the preacher to find a competent congregation in any church to preach unto."[23]         

            The phenomena of perceived religious neglect was common even in London, where the reform elements were numerous and which had been subjected to a steady barrage of such propaganda for decades.  As one London minister declared in a sermon during Elizabeth’s reign, “Will not a filthy play with the blast of a trumpet, sooner call thither a thousand, than an hour’s tolling of a bell bring to the sermon a hundred?”[24]    

            If these patterns produced such an intense reaction, more radical reformers were even more angered--even when one is dealing with behavior that Catholics also (at least in the abstract) would often denounce.  Again Catholics received the blame for the continuation of the problem.  As John White wrote in his The Way to the True Church (1624),[25]


For my own part, having spent much of my time among them, this I have found, that in all excess of sin, papists have been the ringleaders, in riotous companies, in drunken meetings, in seditious assemblies and practices, and in profaning the Sabbath, in quarrels and brawls in stage plays, greens, ales, and all heathenish customs.  The common people of that sort [are] generally buried in sin, swearing more than can be expressed, uncleanness, drunkenness, perficiousness, vile and odious, their families untaught and dissolute, their behaviour fierce and full of contumely injury [and] inhumanity. . . . 


            This mind frame did not develop overnight nor did the cleavage between societal/Catholic moral expectations and that of the reformer movement occur in a short period of time.  But as the decades went by, the difference became more and more obvious and worked in the direction of encouraging either religious unconcern or, if that were unacceptable to the individual, then Catholicism.  Only if one were personally willing to make a dramatic break with what much--surely, most--of one's fellow citizens found tolerable, did one accept the Puritan formula for moral behavior. 

            Partly nullifying the implicit pro-Catholicism appeal, was the existence of Anglicans who refused to go as far as the Puritans demanded.  However unsuccessful it was in gaining control of the Episcopal Church, Puritanism was far more effective in defining the mainstream concept of proper Christian-social morality.  The Anglican rhetoric might not be as extreme throughout even the end of the period in which we are interested, but there would have been tremendous sympathy for the aspirations being manifested.                 



The “Class” Element in Maintaining

and Undermining Catholicism



            Even when the position of bishop was held by a determined reformer, if the leading nobleman (or noblemen) of the area were determined traditionalists, most major religious change could be tempered, avoided, or at least delayed.[26]  New orthodoxies, however, wear out those who are traditionalists out of custom rather than intellectual-emotional-spiritual conviction. 

Hence, under Elizabeth, more and more “Catholic” noblemen of only modest religious commitment deemed it prudent or desirable to cast their lot openly with the modified Catholicism of the new Anglican religious establishment.  A minority remained Catholic out of conviction and their numbers were ultimately enlarged by the much hated and much feared Jesuit missionaries.[27] 

            In the highly “classed” society of that age, the nobles and leading men of each community provided the dominant secular moral and financial leadership of any movement.  By their allegiance, they added social credibility to it and made it more popularly acceptable to those many individuals acutely aware of the preferences of their “betters.”  In the early 1590s, Jesuit missionary John Gerard was the first to recognize this phenomena and advocate its utilization as the basis of missionary activities in areas where there were few Catholics,[28]


In other places, where a large number of the people are Catholics and nearly all have leanings to Catholicism, it is easy to make converts and to have large congregations at sermons. . . .  By contrast, in the districts I was living in now Catholics were very few.  They were mostly from the better classes, none, or hardly any, from the ordinary people, for they are unable to live in peace, surrounded as they are by most fierce Protestants.  The way, I think, to go about making converts in these parts is to bring the gentry over first, and then their servants, for the Catholic gentle folk must have Catholic servants.      


            The problem with this “top down” scenario was that the longer the Anglicanism of the day successfully survived as the dominant religious institution, the more it itself became the permanent embodiment of the status quo.  And the longer it represented the status quo--and the fewer who remembered a different age--the more a conscious repudiation would be required to reverse the situation. 

Change is comparatively easy in a time of flux and uncertainty.  But when a religion becomes the long-term “establishment,” conscious “deviance” from it can only be produced by the strongest of arguments.  And--for better or worse--Protestant reform found it far easier to create conscious dissent through argumentation than did the Catholic alternative. 

            The down-side of a gentry-based strategy was that the poor got squeezed out of the priorities of the priests.  Although one could potentially build a politically important Catholicism with the support of the gentry, a mammoth array of “foot soldiers”--the common men and women of the kingdom--was also required and the strategy overlooked that necessity. 

Furthermore, since there was a greater proportion of gentry in the southeastern part of the kingdom, other areas suffered from a lack of clerical effort.  This encouraged many who might have been salvaged for the movement to drift into Anglicanism or unconcern.  Hence the effort produced significant gains among the “important” elements of society, but neglected to systematically lay the mass roots required for the ultimate success it so desired.[29] 

            A “top down” scenario also required that class be the overwhelmingly controlling factor in shaping religious opinions.  Although all segments of English society recognized and practiced class distinctions, the most committed of the reform element knowingly, consciously, and intentionally based their dissent on the basis of their reading of the scriptural evidence. 

No amount of class respect would change that reading.   Hence, at best, the approach might have produced an upper class able to more or less suppress the religious dissenters.  Presuming, of course, that it could even obtain sufficient support within that upper class to make the attempt--and the toleration among their “inferiors” to implement it.



Factors that Minimized the

Suppression of Catholicism



            In addition to manifesting political loyalty (especially in time of crisis), religious suppression of the Catholic element of the population was held down by two major factors.  One might be called tokenism by Catholics and the other their control over the local power structure. 

Such elements also worked in the reverse direction for the protection of dissenters when more “orthodox” policies were the official government stance or when the reform convictions were far more “advanced” than a given regime desired.  We have alluded to these in our earlier discussion, but they deserve greater stress as major elements in the survival of English Catholicism in the sixteenth century as well. 

            By “tokenism” we refer to the minimal participation by which an individual might feel he or she was keeping the government happy without a sinful compromise with one’s private inner convictions.  Before the Papacy finally denied the Catholic any right to attend Anglican services at all, even the sincerest Catholic was usually able to accept at least some type of token presence at the new-style churches royalty was encouraging in the land. 

These individuals were, collectively, known as “Church papists.”[30]  (Fellow Catholics who thought these were guilty of ungodly compromise described them as “schismatics.”)[31]  The form of presence varied from individual conscience to individual conscience and (in reverse direction) similar forms of reasoning were used by devout Protestants when Mary temporarily re-imposed the old religion.  As Carl S. Meyer has summed up those options,[32]


Among the followers of Rome, as among the Protestants during the reign of Mary, some drew the distinction between participation in a church service or mass, whichever the case might be, and merely being present.  Others entered the church service after it had begun and left before it had been completed.  Some attended the English service without apostasy, they believed, so long as they did not participate in Holy Communion.  Some participated in the Sacrament, eating what they called “Calvin’s profaned bread,” because they disallowed its sacramental character.


            Clerics also practiced such dualism.  Certain closet traditionalists would publicly go through the required ritual of the Prayer Book for worship and Communion.  Privately they would consecrate the elements by the traditional rites and offer them to those on whose discretion they could rely.[33] 

            Such contradictory practices were both expedient (it kept quiet both the government and those citizens who disagreed with one’s inner convictions) and was at least theoretically consistent with one’s inner Catholicism (since no official position had been laid down for the guidance of English Catholics). 

This loophole was closed in 1562 when a group of English Catholics asked the Spanish Ambassador to secure for them official guidance as to the proper course to follow.  In October, the Council of Trent sent back emphatic word that even a passive presence in the Protestant Church service was inherently sinful.  This pushed many Catholics over the edge into the open “recusancy” of absolutely refusing to make even a token effort to conform to the legal church rites of the kingdom. 

Some continued the past practice because this was the judgment of a Council and not that of the Pope himself.  After a few years this rationalization was also eliminated by papal decree.[34]   

            Thereafter, the practice of dual participation left one in an untenable middle-ground:  rejected by one’s own preferred faith while unwilling to accept the Anglicanism of the day.  Although some could endure the psychological tensions this produced, many others were forced to make a commitment one way or the other.        

            Parliament might enact the laws it wished and the King or Queen might issue all the edicts they wished, but in the final analysis law was enforced on the local basis.  The enforcement was shaped by the twin factors of the degree of local Catholicism and the enthusiasm (or lack of it) by those who carried out the enforcement of the law.

            A law on the books and a law enforced are two different things--such is the case today and such was the case in the sixteenth century.  The anti-Catholicism laws were often not enforced as often or as severely as the text of legislation required because of a lack of support among the Justices of the Peace and others who formed the enforcement level of justice in the England of that century.  Nor was this just because of the proportion of Catholics among the Justices.  One preoccupation of almost any government official had to be the maintenance of peace and quiet.  And the over-zealous application of the religious suppression laws could easily upset that sometimes fragile situation.

            Furthermore, the initiation of a prosecution required the making of a formal complaint.  In many cases, theological, class, or personal friendship discouraged these from being lodged even when it was an open secret that the letter and intent of the law was being violated in such cases.[35]

            One of the unknowables of Tudor history is the number of committed Catholics at any given point between the annulment of Henry and the Elizabethan Settlement.  (In reverse, the same can be said of the Protestant side of the equation.)  It would seem inherently probable that the highest proportion would have been at the beginning of the break with Rome and with a declining percentage thereafter. 

Beyond such broadest of generalizations, all is uncertainty.  At the time of Elizabeth the estimates run from a low of 2-3 percent of the population to a high of around 25-30%.[36]  No matter what estimate one accepts, there is no question that in certain regions the percentage was far higher than any theoretical national average. 

The higher the percentage the less likely the desire to stir up the local people.  Unless, of course, the religio-power structure in that city or county was extremely devoted to the cause of further reform--and even then prudence might dictate considerable restraint.



Catholics as a Perceived

Security Threat


            What caused the persecution of Catholics in the kingdom?  Pro-government interpreters look upon the Catholics as a potential security threat to Henry and his successors.  Evidence can be found in two areas.  The first are the repeated Catholic efforts to replace the Protestant rulers with a Catholic regime.  The second are the public remarks of the Pope freeing English Catholics from all loyalty to their monarch.

            Pro-Catholic interpreters will often prefer to emphasize persecution as an effort to suppress the practice of their religion.  In this interpretation, the various Catholic supported insurrections (both those aborted and those actually launched) were spurred by that repression.  Which came first (repression or insurrection) really depends upon the individuals under discussion. 

Doubtless some felt cornered and were moved to plotting the overthrow of the government as a means of removing the pressure.  Yet others were theological ideologues at heart, moved by loyalty to the mother church to take the sword up against their immediate ruler.

            Indeed, if the Pope had his way, all Catholics would have been violent revolutionaries.  Persecution might have increased the personal temptation, but the absolute obligation to revolt had come from no one short of the head of the earthly church.  (Even in the period before it was committed to writing, the papal preference for the overthrow of the regime was well recognized.)   Hence if one took one’s own religious obligations seriously and granted to the Catholic that he took his obligations seriously as well, repression was essential.  

            In real life, however, the vast bulk of a religion is composed neither of zealots nor theologs (if we may suggest a verbal equivalent for political ideologues).  Rather it is composed of a minority faction of the deeply committed, probably never exceeding a third if anywhere near that high a proportion.  From there we go through a thousand and one gradations of religious interest and commitment, especially when one's secular position and economic welfare become significant alternative motivating factors.

            The long-range commitment to faith of some of them and their families was fatally undermined by their short-term commitment to financial self-aggrandizement.  Many Catholics freely purchased seized Church properties under both Henry and Edward.  When the powerful forces of an energetic continental Catholicism was arrayed against England under Elizabeth, this certainly undermined their enthusiasm for a return to the old religious order.[37]  They might continue to practice the old system, but they dreaded the possibility that it would become so powerful they had to cough up their confiscated properties.

            Under Henry to Elizabeth, Catholic traditionalists sought the "loop-holes" in the law, by which they could provide outward conformity while maintaining, in private, the traditional rites.  For example, consider the matter of obligatory church attendance.  One method utilized by many Catholics to obey the law requiring it, while not repudiating their own convictions, was by attending the required Anglican services--but not participating of the communion while doing so. 

This way they protected themselves against charges of obstructionism without denying their own convictions.  The formal excommunication of the Queen in 1570, with its explicit denial of the right to obey these and all other Elizabethan  laws, forced many Catholics into the position they least desired:  having to choose between their sovereign and their Pope.[38]

            In England it turned out that even this was not enough to push them into insurrection.  Most Catholics were politically loyal even if they preferred the mass and arranged for as frequent participation as was feasible.  Only the passage of time clearly revealed this, however.  Furthermore it was subject to immediate change if domestic circumstances so altered as to make putting a Catholic monarch on the throne a genuinely realistic possibility.  In such cases personal preferences might well lead to open rebellion that would never otherwise be countenanced.  

            Hence so long as the Pope claimed right to depose, the threat had to be taken seriously, especially since several European regimes were quite willing to actively support the effort.  (Unless, of course, diplomatic or economic concerns urged an immediate policy of greater prudence.)  This is the political reality that had to be faced.

Because of it, a policy of at least  moderate repression was inescapable.  Whether any degree of such suppression was ethically justified, however, depends upon which side one believes had the greater degree of religious and moral truth.  The secular consequences were the same whether the Catholics represented God's ideal for England or whether they represented the most reprobate faction of the populace.   

            The fears were confirmed (in the eyes of the reformers and their allies) by the religious insurrections that did erupt against the Protestantizing establishment, especially in the early decades.  When the new prayer book was officially introduced to the churches in 1549, the residents of one Devon village rebelled.  They forced the minister to offer the traditional rites and within a month many of the citizens of both Devon and Cornwall were open participants in the Western Rebellion. 

Economic and social difficulties in the region also encouraged them in this action, but in the religious realm they were essentially a conservative rebellion:  they simply wanted things rolled back to the way they were under Henry VIII.  Intensely Catholic they were, though, they did not demand a return to recognizing the Pope as supreme authority.[39] 

            The Independent Catholicism of Henry and his successors tended toward moderation in its suppression of traditional Catholicism.  Extreme action was most likely to occur in reaction to domestic insurrection or times of high international tension with the threat of potential invasion.  Yet there was heavy pressure during Elizabeth and James’ reign for far sterner steps whether these immediate provocations were present or not. 

Especially under Elizabeth, the crown resisted loud and boisterous demands that a more vigorous policy be pursued.  As Sir William Cecil observed in 1563, "Such be the humours of the commons house [of Parliament] as they think nothing sharp enough against the Papists."[40] 

            Of the various Catholic laymen and priests who died during Henry’s reign, the most memorable was Sir Thomas More.  Although he supported the king's religious independence policies as long as he could, More finally resigned his position as chancellor (willingly, though under pressure) rather than repudiate his root feelings of loyalty to the ancient church Henry was reworking. 

            Eventually neither his friends nor his silence was enough to preserve his life.   More would not oppose the king as head of the church, but neither would be explicitly affirm its legitimacy.  This was sufficient for the prosecutor.  As Christopher Hales rebuked him at his trial, "Though we should have no word or deed to charge upon you, yet we have your silence, and that is a sign of your evil intention and a sure proof of malice."[41]  Of all Henry's executions this was the one that sent the deepest shock waves throughout Europe.

            Yet throughout the sixteenth century, individuals suspected (sometimes rightly) of being covert Catholics continued to occupy significant roles as supporters of the monarchy.  During the reigns of Elizabeth and James, Henry Howard, Duke of Northampton, was a conspicuous example.[42]  When the Gunpowder Plot endangered James' life in the following century, the Duke wrote a lengthy work defending the right of kings to resist papal power.  It so impressed James that the monarch had it translated into Italian, French, and Latin and circulated among rulers on the Continent.[43] 

            The belief in international Catholic conspiracies was a “given” in the minds of influential English leaders throughout the age from Henry to Elizabeth.[44]  But astute analysts of the day recognized that conspiracies did not all function in one direction:  it was not a safe time for Catholic monarchs either. 

If France could be brought securely into the reformed camp, it was recognized as a very real possibility that all major governments would retreat from support for papal Catholicism within a decade.[45]  Hence, from the English viewpoint, it became a matter of not just surviving real plots, but also outlasting one’s rivals in the hope that one day the tide would decisively turn and make such conspiracies an utter impossibility.  And, if the right set of circumstances came one’s way, to encourage the destabilization of opposing regimes as well.



Catholic Plots against Elizabeth



            The actions of the Papacy did not make it any easier for nationalistic English Catholics.  Pius V's Regnans in Excelsis defined Elizabeth's excommunication in such terms that assassination (or, at the minimum, rebellion) was virtually required.  She was not merely "the Pretended Queen of England" but, "Peers, subjects and people of the said Kingdom and all others upon what terms so ever bound unto her are freed from their oath and all manner of duty, fidelity and obedience. . . .  They shall not dare to obey her or any of her laws, directions or commands."[46]

            The papal Secretary of State wrote that there would be no taint of sin attached to the act of murdering the Queen,[47]


Since that guilty woman of England rules over two such noble kingdoms of Christendom and is the cause of so much injury to the Catholic faith and loss of so many million souls, there is no doubt that whoseover sends her out of the world with the pious intention of doing God service, not only does not sin but gains merit, especially having regard to the sentence pronounced against her by Pius V of holy memory.  And so, if those English gentlemen decide actually to undertake so glorious a work, your Lordship can assure them that they do not commit any sin.  We trust in God also that they will escape danger.


            The excommunication bull was issued on February 25, 1570.  The English government did not learn of it until May 25, 1570.  A Catholic nailed it to the garden gate of the Bishop of London.[48]  If a Catholic were bold enough to, figuratively, wave it in the face of the government, might not a more dangerous one actually attempt to act upon it?

            Faced with active rebellion in support of Mary Queen of Scots, Parliament adopted legislation in 1571 that would not only require church attendance but also participation of the communion, something anathema to Catholic traditionalists.  Elizabeth exercised her right of veto.  Discreet observance of Catholic rites would be permitted while encouraging the public at large in the direction of Anglicanism.  

            The coming of the Jesuits to England, however, represented part of a deliberate strategy to return the nation to papal submission.  Their “English College” at Douai was begun in 1568 under the leadership of Cardinal Allen, with the explicit purpose of educating Catholic laymen.  The goal soon shifted to that of training priests to work in their homeland. 

A series of acts of Parliament resulted to discourage individuals from attending the institution and to punish them if they returned to their homeland.  In 1571, legislation required a license for anyone to go abroad for more than a year.  Failure to obtain such permission was punishable by confiscation of one’s land.[49] 

            In 1577 the first Jesuits were condemned to death.  Even so, by 1580, more than a hundred of these men were secretly working in England.[50]  In 1581, legislation made ordination punishable by death for treason if they had attempted to convince the people to refuse to obey Elizabeth as ruler and supreme governor of the church.  Such laws required a degree of proof difficult to obtain, however.  Hence in 1587 the evidence requirement was reduced to proof that an individual was a Jesuit (or a priest in seminary training).  In and of itself this was now sufficient evidence of treason.[51] 

            The Jesuits came in two stripes:  those overwhelmingly centered upon the moral reform of Englishmen that Puritans also recognized as urgently required and those to whom the political agenda was of equal or greater importance.  To them, restoring a Catholic monarch and submitting England to the tokens of loyalty to Rome were at least as pressing a need as moral rejuvenation.  

            It did not take many in this category to destroy both respect for the supposed moral reformation goal of the Jesuits as well as tolerance for the discreet practicer of  Catholicism.  Hence the draconian escalation of punishment passed by Parliament in 1581.  In the legislation of 1559, the individual practicing Catholicism was fined twelve pence; this was now escalated to 100 marks and a year imprisonment.  To the degree it was enforced, impoverisation of every Catholic was inevitable.[52]  The key was "to the degree."  The tools were present for whatever policy that was deemed appropriate. 

            Of course, there were also local difficulties even when it was desired to stringently enforce laws suppressing Catholicism.  Especially in the more Catholic sections of the country, there was a profound difference between fining Catholics for rejection of the new Anglican system and actually collecting the fine from them.  Although a significant number of individuals suffered financially from such impositions (and even from outright confiscation of property), the local justices of the peace often allowed such cases to slide by without enforcement.[53]           

            Foreign powers supported the Jesuit effort not only out of religious loyalty to Rome but also out of various specific complaints against England's national policies.  In the most extreme form, the effort to recatholicize England by external force resulted in the sailing of the Spanish Armada.  A 130 vessels strong, it included a fighting core of about forty warships.  The power of its might was designed to make an invasion of England feasible, but a combination of British daring, Spanish caution, and horrendous bad weather turned the threat into a disaster for the would-be invaders.

            Yet as long as foreign powers were willing to send money to England to subsidize revolution, domestic Catholics represented a potential security threat.  So long as European nations felt it might be possible to actually conquer England, the Catholic minority represented a group of potential collaborators that might flock to their ranks.  This is the unfortunate plight of any religious minority in a land where the dominant religion is faced off in a religio-political struggle with other nations that have the capacity to launch direct military action (and/or finance domestic subversion) against it.

            Because of the high stakes involved, men and women did die under suspicion (or proof) of disloyalty:  Under Elizabeth 183 Catholics in all.  But the numbers were not as large as one might expect nor was capital punishment the inevitable recourse.  The bulk of executions (123) were of clergy; 57 were of laymen, and 3 of laywomen.[54]  Most of the captured clerics were shown mercy.  Approximately three out of four were banished from the kingdom or imprisoned in place of being executed.[55]    

            Catholics attempted to portray themselves as continuing in loyalty to the Queen--and many were.  But they were caught in a logical trap between their nationalism and their loyalty to Rome and, human nature being as diverse as it always is, specific individuals might take either of the two approaches.  In his 1584 volume The True, Sincere and Modest Defence of English Catholics, William Allen did his best to convince his readers of the picture of Catholic loyalty to the nation.  He insisted that even though the papal bull had been issued against Elizabeth in 1570,[56]


We never procured our queen's excommunication; we have sought the mitigation thereof; we have done our allegiance notwithstanding; we have answered, when we were forced into it, with such humility and respect to her majesty and council, as you see; no man can charge us of any attempt against the realm or the prince's person.


            That might all be true, as far as it went.  But he undermined its power by what he, as a faithful son of the church, was compelled to add:  the right of the Pope to strip heretical rulers of their post--and upheld it as valid.  The actual execution of such a policy, he assured his readers, was hypothetical rather than one of pressing immediacy.

Even so, this would naturally set off alarm bells in the minds of even the mildly cynical reader.  If they had been aware that the author was simultaneously attempting to work out an arrangement with the Spanish to produce the overthrow of Elizabeth,[57] the reaction would have been nothing short of volcanic.

            If the government was uncertain how deep went the loyalty of Catholic subjects, those wanting the violent overthrow of Elizabeth were uncertain how pervasive was the willingness to act to obtain that overthrow.  John Bishop's Courteous Conference with the English Catholics Roman (c. 1574) denied that the pope had the temporal power to release anyone from their civil loyalty to their king.  

Catholic clerics arrested in the 1580s were likewise divided.  Some denied the deposing power.  Others were especially resentful of the Spanish claim to have the right to exercise such an intervention.  The middle of the road view of those opposed to insurrection was that though the Pope had the deposing right, he had no justification for utilizing it in the case of England as it existed in the 1570s.[58] 

            One fault line between opposers and supporters of the papal right of deposition was between the Jesuits and the secular clergy that remained in the land.  The Jesuits were usually the militants in behalf of the papal right; a number of secular clergy were annoyed at their insistence, not to mention their perceived arrogance and favoritism showed toward them by higher clerics.  In short ideological and intramural grievances merged together to sharpen the conflict.[59]   

            (The general Jesuit opposition to Elizabeth’s very right to rule also raises the question for later interpreters:  When they were sent to their death, shall we consider them as having died for their religion or for their political rejection of the Queen’s Queenship?  On the one hand, their political opposition grew out of their religious principles; on the other hand, the central concern of the regime--and its professed reason for acting--was the security threat to the government.)[60] 

            Underlying the perceived need for suppression was the fear of how Catholics would act if they regained their dominance.  (The massive bloodletting--by English standards--that occurred under Mary was far from reassuring, as were the repressive steps by contemporary European Catholic regimes.)  This latent suspicion was well presented by Elizabeth’s successor, James I, when he wrote, “I will never allow in my conscience that the blood of any man shall be shed for diversity of opinions in religion, but I should be sorry that Catholics should so multiply as they might be able to practice their old principles upon us.”[61] 

            The government under Elizabeth attempted to broaden the gap between the Jesuits and those Catholic clerics more amenable to acceptance of the regime.  In 1601, it assisted a group of "Appellant" clergy who wished to appeal to Rome against the pro-Jesuit (and anti-Elizabeth) policy of the official top Roman cleric in the country.  In 1602, the government banished Jesuits but permitted other priests to remain if they swore loyalty to Elizabeth and declined prosleytizing.  Thirteen did so but it is unknown how many others held similar sentiments but did not take the formal step.[62]  In essence a substantial freedom of religious practice was being offered in exchange for political loyalty.  

            Yet few openly expressed willingness to take advantage of the offer.  So the problem still remained of how the regime was to tell the difference between loyal Catholics and those willing to support foreign launched insurrections?  One method of doing so was through a spy network, that might give advance word when specific plots were under consideration or about to be implemented.

            Hence Elizabeth operated an exhaustive and quite effective intelligence operation against her present and potential foes both domestic and foreign.  Abroad, direct action to force out the truth was rarely feasible.  On English soil, there was considerably more freedom of action.

            Those arrested in England were subjected to persistent and intensive questioning to verify the truth of their claims of being patriotic citizens.  A key question in determining whether to order the capital penalty, was the answer to what Catholics came to describe as the "bloody question:"  if England were invaded by a foreign army would they fight for the Queen or the invader?[63] 

This was the nub of the issue from the standpoint of national security and the ability of the accused to convince the court of his sincerity determined his fate.  Of course in times of national alarm (the Armada year, for example) judicial cynicism was at its highest and the difficulty of convincing the court at its greatest.

            When all else failed and severe suspicion still existed, there was always torture.  A powerful case could be (and was) made for the execution of captured priests as traitors, especially since Pius V's excommunication in 1570 and the heavy influx of Jesuit missionaries (subversives so far as Elizabeth was concerned) during the late 1570s and the 1580s.  Their presence and zeal for orthodoxy was taken as part of a cold war being waged to undermine the regime. 

            Even so, there was considerable skepticism about the torture utilized to obtain evidence.  The legal generalization was that England was distinct from other nations:  torture was abhorable.  Sir Thomas Smith had written in his De Republica Anglorum, "Torment . . . which is used by the order of civil law and custom of other countries . . . is not used in England.  It is taken for servile."[64]  This was true--as a generalization.  (Not that imprisonment under the often vile conditions of the day was not intimidating enough, even without the threat of further coercion!)

            Like any generalization, there were exceptions.  But they were rigid ones.  To authorize torture required the prior written authority of either the Queen or her Privy Council.  Indeed, during Elizabeth's entire, long reign it was authorized in only ninety cases and twenty-four of these were for clearly non-religious offenses.[65]  Elizabeth made plain to her official torturers that she considered them as doing valuable work in a dangerous age.  On the other hand, she limited the number of cases where such extreme measures were permitted and sometimes had to be convinced to permit them at all.[66] 



Catholic Plots against James



            The most infamous religious based conspiracies against the monarchy occurred in the early years of the seventeenth century.  James had followed an intentionally ambiguous policy prior to his coming to the throne and in the initial succession to the position.  James’ moderate policies toward Catholics in Scotland encouraged those of that religious tradition to expect a similar approach to be taken in England when he became its monarch.[67]  This expectation was enhanced since he had also given promises to loosen or remove the anti-practicing Catholic legislation then on the law books of England.[68] 

            Certainly Catholics thought they had a commitment from him in such matters but rulers and politicians have always had a reputation for seeming to promise more than they had actually pledged.  Hence wishful hopes may have read into his indications of good will far more than the king was either willing or able to deliver.  

            Earl Henry Northumberland played the role of key intermediary for the Catholic minority, both before and after James came to the English throne.  Though not a practicing Catholic himself, he was the conduit through which continuing encouragement toward toleration could be funneled.  Indeed in May 1603 (prior to the king’s arrival in London) he was the vehicle by which a Catholic petition was delivered to the king.  His appointment to the position of chief of the royal bodyguards (Captain of the Gentleman Pensioners) gave him an important position in the government and regular access to the monarch as well.[69]         

            By the time of James, even the sentiments of the most militant Catholic clerics were divided concerning the overthrow of the monarchy.  In 1603, two Catholic conspiracies, furthered by some clerics as well as laymen, were simultaneously aborted by the government.  "The Bye Plot" (as it is known) called for the arrest of the King and his advisers.  The more hostile advisers (especially Cecil) were to be forced out of office and the King held prisoner until he signed the appropriate edicts granting full toleration to Catholics.  By revolutionary standards this was, of course, a rather mild agenda.

            The “Main Plot,” however, called for the death of the king and his replacement with James’ first cousin, Lady Arbella Stuart.[70]  It did not help that Arbella herself was quite content with her status as the second most important woman in the kingdom (behind the Queen) and had no interest in risking her neck for the throne.  Even if she had been otherwise inclined, government investigators brought both simultaneous conspiracies to an abrupt end by a series of arrests in July 1503.[71]    

            James ordered all priests out of the country--it hadn't worked before and didn't work this time--but also abolished the monthly fine levable on any Catholic who did not attend Anglican services.  Perhaps the latter was James’ way of showing appreciation to the two priests (one of whom was a Jesuit) who had heard of the Bye Plot and reported it to the Privy Council.  This was not mere patriotism on the priests’ part--at least not fully.  Those backing the plots were members of a rival faction of priests and intra-clerical relationships played a significant role above and beyond abstract questions of propriety and appropriateness.[72] 

Even so, there was no gainsaying the precedent it established--especially at a time when there was a lingering suspicion that James or his wife might be covert Catholics.  Likewise the financial relief of removing the fines was quite substantial in its own right.  In 1602 the government had earned more than 7,000 pounds from such fines; in 1604 it dropped to 1,500.[73]    

            The change in policies concerning fining practicing Catholics was certainly a significant step toward greater tolerance.  But this seemed ill repaid by the Catholic conspiracy of 1605 to blow up Parliament. 

            Robert Catesby led his fellow Catholics in this effort and one Guido (Guy) Fawkes was to actually blow up the kegs of gunpowder secretly stored at Westminster during a meeting of Parliament.  Parliament would be annihilated along with the king.[74]  It seemed to some of the conspirators that it was not the most appropriate thing to destroy Catholics who served in the Lords along with their Protestant foes.  Hence efforts were made to alert them to what was about to happen.  One who received an anonymous warning promptly informed the government and the conspiracy was broken wide open.

            Not surprisingly, the government version of what happened has been questioned as to when officialdom knew of the plot and to what extent it actively encouraged the conspirators on in order to have an excuse to retaliate against those of similar sentiments.  For example, some have argued that a sufficient amount of gunpowder would have been impossible to obtain without tacit government cooperation, a claim that is inaccurate.[75]      

            More questionable is the government claim that the Jesuits played the pivotal role in encouraging  the conspiracy.[76]  Whether justified or not, they were well known enemies of the Protestant regime and their being targeted for accusation was quite natural.  Certainly, they would have shed no tears if the plot had been successful and this, in itself, was sufficient to virtually guarantee the execution of Father Henry Garnet, S.J., the one cleric arrested as part of the anticipated mass bloodshed.  In retaliation for the conspiracy against King and Parliament, penalties were increased against Catholics who did not conform to Anglicanism and an annual day of celebrating the exposure of the plot was begun. 

            There were two aspects to the Gunpowder Plot.  First there were the active conspirators who were conspiring to blow up Parliament.  So determined were they to carry out their spectacular act of violence, that even warnings that the government knew what was afoot was inadequate to convince them to drop the attempt.

            Destroying the heart of the Protestant political leadership was only the first step.  Having done that, it would be necessary to rally the Catholic gentry to support of a new monarch.  To provide a launching pad for the second stage, the plotters had arranged for a major hunt to be held simultaneously in Warwickshire where such traditionalists were numerous.  Word was to be sprung upon them when the deed was accomplished and their support sought to fill the power vacuum.[77] 

            James’ spouse, Queen Anne, had been careful to encourage the views of herself as a Catholic sympathizer if not, perhaps, a covert adherent even after she came to the throne.[78]  This interpretation was quite correct:  in private, she was a practicing Catholic.   She continued to exercise her religion away from the public eye, while going through the necessary public rituals per the official Anglican approach. 

After the Gunpowder Plot, however, she had no further interest in encouraging either domestic or Continental Catholics to believe that through her influence the King would either embrace the faith or alter his religious policies.[79]  The Gunpowder Plot was simply too much.  As for the king himself, whatever olive branches he had waved to attract Catholic acquiescence to his reign were of insignificance after the attempt to destroy him and the entire top political leadership of the land.           

            The Gunpowder Plot of Fawkes sent anti-Catholic shock waves of indignation and rage throughout the kingdom.  One indication of James’ intentional policy of moderation was exhibited in his failure to exploit the plot to fuel the understandable paranoia that gripped the country.  Even at the height of societal indignation, King James publicly stressed to Parliament that only a few were involved in such monstrosities while most Catholics remained loyal to the crown.[80] 

            The plots against Elizabeth and James were part of a broader papally supported policy implemented on the continent.  William of Orange evaded assassination upon several occasions until his good fortunate failed him and he was struck down in 1584.  James escaped the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 but in 1610 King Henry IV of France was murdered as he prepared to go to war in an alliance aimed at Spain.[81] 

            To many of the twentieth century, such religiously inspired acts seem irrational and impossible.  Yet we seem to have no trouble grasping the rationale for the government inspired assassinations engaged in by the Communist bloc at the height of the cold war.  We may rightly abhor such but we can understand why they occurred. 

Just as there were men and women completely devoted to their secular ideological convictions in the twentieth century, many men and women were equally passionate in their religious convictions in the sixteenth.  If we understand how otherwise honorable and self-controlled individuals could be swept along by the means-justifies-the-end mentality, by their desperation to achieve a victory that seemed otherwise impossible, or by the emotional horror--the utter unthinkability--that the despised foe might win, if we can understand such things in a secular context, then we are touching the psychological well-springs from which similar brazen acts were implemented during the Reformation.             







[1] Richard Marius, Thomas More (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1984) presents him as an example of one faithful to the church rather than to the Pope in his study of the man’s life (517), but the principle would have been shared by many who die not pay the price of martyrdom that was inflicted upon that Lord Chancellor.  On More's support for councillar authority over papal, see 457-458.    


[2] For an analysis of one 1537 English tract attempting to neutralize the Catholic church division argument see McConica, 173-175.         


[3] On the need to consider the one-sided nature of the surviving sources on the rebellion, see Annabel Patterson, “Sir John Oldcastle as Symbol of Reformation Historiography,” in Religion, Literature, and Politics in Post-Reformation England, 1540-1688, edited by Donna B. Hamilton and Richard Strier (Cambridge [England]:  Cambridge University Press, 1996),  9-10, and n. 29, page 26.


[4] Marius, 307. 


[5] Jasper Ridley, Thomas Cranmer (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1962), 12, argues that concerns of chaos may have motivated Cranmer’s insistence upon following the royal policy line even when it differed from his own understanding of the scriptures.  He had lived in Germany for six months and had a German spouse so he knew full well what could occur if things got out of hand.


[6] As quoted by Lupton, Tyndale:  The Martyr, 53.   


[7] As quoted by Marius, 303.               


[8] For an evaluation of why the chaos theory did not impress most of the English, see Ibid., 437.        


[9] For the entire text of the legislation see George B. Adams and H. Morse Stephens, Select Documents of English Constitutional History (New York:  Macmillan Company, 1901), 281-283. 


[10] On the matter of inertia and regional variations, see Christopher Haigh, “The Recent Historiography of the English Reformation,” in The Eglish Reformation Revised, edited by Christopher Haigh (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1987), 31-32


[11] On societal drag see Wrightson, 201.


[12] Christopher Haigh, “The Continuity of Catholicism in the English Reformation,” in The English Reformation Revised, edited by Christopher Haigh (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1987), 177-178.


[13] For the case that it was a reinvigorated Catholicism rather than a new one based upon a new body of members, see Ibid., 178-192 in particular.  For evidence from Jesuit sources that their primary, almost exclusive thrust, was among lapsed Catholics see 196-197.


[14] For a discussion of why the figure is sometimes given as 25% and why the lower one is more accurate, see Christopher Haigh, “Revisionism, the Reformation and the History of English Catholicism,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 36 (July 1985):  401-402.


[15] Ibid., 402.  


[16] For a refutation of the theory that by working in the London area, a large number of Jesuits consciously courted death see Patrick McGrath, “Elizabethan Catholicism:  A Reconsideration,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 35 (July 1984):  427. 


[17] For the contrasting attitudes see Christopher Haigh, “The Continuity of Catholicism in the English Reformation,” 182, 185.


[18] Ibid., 190. 


[19] For a discussion of these see Michael C. Questier, Conversion, Politics and Religion in England, 1580-1625 (Cambridge [England]:  Cambridge University Press, 1996), 51-53.


[20] For a discussion of such changes of allegiance see Ibid., 53-54.


[21] R. C. Richardson, Puritanism in North-west England:  A Regional Study of the Diocese of Chester to 1642 (Manchester [Great Britain]:   Manchester University Press/Rowman & Littlefield, Publishers, 1972), 157.


[22] As quoted by Ibid.


[23] As quoted by Ibid.


[24] As quoted by Christopher Haigh, “Puritan Evangelism in the Reign of Elizabeth I,” English Historical Review 92 (January 1977):  46.


[25] As quoted by Richardson, Puritanism in North-west England, 157.    


[26] For the example of Suffolk, see Diarmaid MacCulloch, “Catholic and Puritan in Elizabethan Suffolk:  A County Community Polarises,”  Archiv fur  Reformationsgeschichte/Archive for Reformation History 72 (1981):  232-236.


[27] On the gradual decatholicization of many and their displacement by a smaller but more devoted group, see Ibid., 248.


[28] Quoted by Ibid., 248-249.


[29] On the repercussions of a gentry-centered strategy see Haigh, “The Continuity of Catholicism in the English Reformation,” 201-202, 205-206.


[30] Lee, 211. 


[31] On the nomenclature of partial dissent, see Alison Plowden, Danger to Elizabeth:  The Catholics under Elizabeth I (New York:   Stein and Day, 1973), 48.


[32] Carl S. Meyer, Elizabeth I and the Religious Settlement of 1559 (Saint Louis [Missouri]:  Concordia Publishing House, 1960), 129.     


[33] Alison Plowden, Danger to Elizabeth, 48-49.


[34] Ibid., 49.


[35] For a discussion of how such factors operated when the Catholics were on the receiving end, see D. M. Palliser, “Popular Reactions to the Reformation during the Years of Uncertainty,” in Church and Society in England:  Henry VIII to James I, edited by Felicity Heal and Rosemary O’Day (Hamden, Connecticut:  Archon Books, 1977), 51-53.  For how it could work in favor of more militant reformers, see 44.  Cf.  David W. Hall, “Foundation of Elizabethean Ecclesiology, 1560-1590:  A Key to Its Later Revival,”  Premise (Volume II, Number 3; March 27, 1995), (http://www.public. premise/95/march/eliz.html), AOL Netfind, August 22, 1997.


[36] Plowden, Danger to Elizabeth, 222.


[37] Trevelyan, Chaucer’s England, 109-110.


[38] Anne Somerset, Elizabeth I (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), 11.      


[39] Cf. the remarks of Bindoff, 155-156.


[40] As quoted by Ibid., 233.


[41] As quoted by Carolly Erickson, Great Harry, 253.


[42] On his Catholicism, see Linda L. Peck, "The Mentality of a Jacobean Grandee," in The Mental World of the Jacobean Court,  edited by Linda L. Peck (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1991), 148, 158, 316 (n. 60).


[43] Ibid., 159. 


[44] For examples concerning the Elizabethan era, see Malcolm R. Thorp, “Catholic Conspiracy in Early Elizabethan Foreign Policy,” Sixteenth Century Journal:  A Journal for Renaissance and Reformation Students and Scholars 15 (Winter 1984):  431-438.


[45] Ibid., 440 


[46] As quoted by Hibbert, 77.  For the full text in both Latin and English see Elton, Tudor Constitution, 414-418.


[47] As quoted by Hibbert, 77.  For the text in a different translation see Powel M. Dawley, John Whitgift and the Reformation (New York:  Charles Scribner's Sons, 1954; First British Edition, London:  Adam and Charles Black, 1955), 128.


[48] Somerset, 11. 


[49] Manning, 143.


[50] Bindorf, 236.


[51] For a discussion of the evolution of anti-Jesuit legislation, see Manning, 143.


[52] Bindoff, 238-239.


[53] See the discussion of this matter in Manning, 140-144.


[54] Somerset, 295.


[55] Ibid.  


[56] As quoted by Claire Cross, The Royal Supremacy in the Elizabethan Church (New York:  Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1969), 43.  


[57] Ibid., 44.


[58] For examples of the different views, see Ibid., 45.


[59] Ibid.


[60] For the view that they should be counted as religious rather than political martyrs, see Thomas M. McCoog, “ ‘The Flower of Oxford:’  The Role of Edmund Campion in Early Recusant Polemics,” Sixteenth Century Journal:  The Journal of Early Modern Studies 24 (Winter 1993):  907.      


[61] As quoted by Antonia Fraser, Faith and Treason:  The Story of the Gunpowder Plot (New York:  Doubleday, 1996), 38.    


[62] Cross, Royal Supremacy in the Elizabethan Church, 46-47.


[63] Somerset, 295.


[64] As quoted by Ibid., 393.


[65] Ibid 393.


[66] On the Queen’s ambivalent attitude, see Ibid., 394-395.  On popular and Puritan resentment of the practice, see 395. 


[67] Anonymous, “The Lot of the Recusants,” (

fawkes2.html), Magellan, September 2, 1997.


[68] David Cody and George P. Landow, “James I,” ( hypertext/landow/victorian/history/james1.html), AOL Netfind, August 31, 1997.


[69] Fraser, Faith and Treason, 53.


[70] For a discussion of the limited primary source documentation for the two overthrow efforts, see Mark Nicolls, “Sir Walter Raleigh’s Treason:  A Prosecution Document,” English Historical Review 110 (September 1995):  902-924.


[71] For a discussion of the two conspiracies see Fraser, Faith and Treason, 63-64.


[72] Ibid., 64-65.


[73] Ibid., 65 


[74] Those who look upon Guy Fawkes in a positive light, see him as creating a precedent for revolution against rulers who have abused the rights of the people.  See Anonymous, “How The Powder Plot Changed the World,” ( html/change.html), Excite, September 2, 1997, which quotes Thomas Jefferson at length in an attempt to prove that the Fawkes conspiracy inspired Jefferson’s revolutionary thinking.   


[75] See the discussion in C. Northcote Parkinson, Gunpowder, Treason and Plot (New York:  St. Martin's Press, 1976), 53-54..


[76] For an evaluation see Ibid., 98-115.


[77] For the two aspects to the Plot see Joel Hurstfield, “Gunpowder Plot and the Politics of Dissent,” in Early Stuart Studies:  Essays in Honor of David Harris Willson, edited by Howard S. Reinmuth, Jr.  (Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1970), 97-98.


[78] Fraser, Faith and Treason, 62-63.


[79] Ibid., 277.   To say that Anne’s Catholicism “irritated rather than influenced” James, as asserts James D. Douglas, “The King behind the [King James] Version,” Christianity Today 19 (March 28, 1975):  7, is not credible when one concedes on the same page that James “had a wild dream of joining forces” with traditional Catholics “to form one great united church of God” (7).  The difference seems to be that Anne practiced Catholicism (though discretely) while James was intellectually tempted by it both on idealistic grounds and as a means of preserving the unity of his kingdom. 


[80] Mark H. Curtis, “Trials of a Puritan in Jacobin Lancashire,” in The Dissenting Tradition:  Essays for Leland H. Carlson, edited by C. Robert Cole and Michael E. Moody (Athens,  [Ohio]:  Ohio University Press, 1975), 88.


[81] On foiled and successful assassination plots of the age, see Hurstfield, 100-101.  On the assassination of Henry IV, see Otto J. Scott, James I (New York:  Mason/Charter, 1976), 316.