English Catholics in the Reign of Elizabeth

Marie Rowlands charts the changing fortunes of a religious minority.

A portrait of William Allen. He set up a seminary at Douai in 1568 to train missionary priests to reconvert EnglandIn the sixteenth century Catholicism, an international religion based in Europe, was reaching out to the New World. It was conducting a vigorous overhaul of its teaching, its organisation and its procedures, to meet the challenge of Protestantism. Its decrees were to be obeyed by all Catholics, whether they lived in Catholic countries or in countries like England where Protestants were in the ascendant. The experience of Catholics in England in the reign of Elizabeth was therefore shaped not only by events and policies within the country, but also by the policies of the Papacy, of the European Catholic powers and of theologians abroad.

Elizabeth’s Settlement 

In the five years before Elizabeth’s accession, her sister Mary had made a determined attempt to re-establish Catholicism in her realm, and to participate in the European Catholic Reformation. Although Elizabeth’s accession was peaceful, there was great underlying anxiety and tension, and many unanswered questions. She was expected to restore the Edwardian settlement of religion but she needed to maintain the friendship of both Lutheran and Catholic powers abroad (including the Pope) because England was a small power, and lacked money, ships and a standing army.

The first act of her first Parliament established her supremacy as monarch and supreme governor in all matters spiritual and temporal. The Catholic Bishops had opposed the Act of Supremacy in House of Lords and refused to swear the oath of supremacy incorporated in the Act. They were deprived, imprisoned or allowed to resign. Elizabeth was able to appoint 27 new bishops, many of them men who had actively opposed Mary’s religious policies and who would support her in the House of Lords.

The second act of Elizabeth’s reign laid down the form of public prayer now required in every place of worship. On Sunday June 24 1559 the statutory Book of Common Prayer was first used instead of Mass. All people over the age of 16 were required to show their loyalty and obedience to God and to the Queen by attendance at the Book of Common Prayer service at their parish church on the 77 days of obligation in the year. A shilling fine was levied on those who did not do so. Ministers and churchwardens had to report those who did not attend to the church courts. Those who failed to attend for a month were listed by the constables and reported to the county magistrates. The crown had additional powers to enforce the legislation through proclamations, visitations and special commissions.

The parish was the key agency for winning over the minds and hearts of the people for the reformed religion. Before and after the Reformation, parishioners had to attend services in the parish church throughout their lives. Life began with baptism in the parish church and ended with burial in the parish churchyard, and the public act of Sunday worship was as much part of everybody’s life as the planting and harvesting of crops.

The Survival of Catholicism 

The overwhelming majority of the parish clergy accepted the new order. They were accustomed to change. Yet about 200 priests were deprived of their livings or resigned, though often they continued to live in England and said Mass when and where they could. For 15 years, in 1559-1574, these ‘Marian priests’ were the only Roman Catholic priests in England. There were also parish clergy who stayed in their posts but retained Catholic practices in their church, and for some time traditional Catholic activities continued among the people. 

Others went abroad to seek protection and financial support in Spain, Portugal or in Rome, or in France and the Catholic Netherlands. Among them were those who had been particularly prominent in the government of Queen Mary. Some members of the staff of Oxford University (all clerics at this date) were opposed to the changes and they too went abroad, mainly to Catholic states in the Netherlands. These English Catholics in exile were influential in shaping the future of English Catholicism. Catholics in England were in constant communication with Catholic leaders and institutions on the continent, despite the efforts of Elizabeth’s government to prevent priests, books and pious objects coming across the channel and into England.

At first, there was much uncertainty among Catholics. Many lay people were able to put off or blur the choice to support or to oppose the changes in religion. Marian priests debated how far lay people should be called upon to resist by non-attendance at the parish church, and some at least encouraged compromise. The response of individual Catholics to the new religious laws varied greatly. They were not only influenced by religious considerations, but also by local circumstances, the demands of work and such simple but important factors as the distance from the parish church or the character and influence of the local Marian priest or lord of the manor. Some had a deep personal knowledge and belief of the teaching and decrees of the Roman Catholic Church, some clung to a few simple ideas. Some conformed outwardly, but had Mass said secretly at home. Some were Catholics at some stages of their lives and not at others. Some went abroad. All these people were ‘Elizabethan Catholics’. Those who refused to go the Sunday Book of Prayer service were known as recusants. 

Battle Lines Drawn

After the first five years, the Elizabethan version of Protestantism was gaining ground. The new Bishops were putting their dioceses in order, vacancies were being filled, the parish churches were being cleared of Catholic devotional objects. The teaching of the Church of England was further clarified in 1563. The Protestant Bishops and clergy meeting in Convocation set out 39 articles of the beliefs of the Church of England, which became law in 1571. 

In the same year on the continent, the Council of Trent completed its deliberations. The decrees of the Council put great emphasis on the training of priests to recover Protestant lands for the church. It defined the doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants and forbade Catholics to participate in heretical worship. Clear lines of separation were now drawn for Catholics, with the differences between Catholics and Protestants presented on both sides as non-negotiable by the theologians.

William Allen was an Oxford academic who was a Catholic. He left Oxford ;University and settled in the university town of Douai in the Low Countries. In 1568 he founded a College to train and ordain English Catholic priests who would return to England. Allen and other Catholic leaders abroad believed that England could again become a Catholic country and that these new priests were the advance guard for the re-conversion of England. Subsequently, three other Colleges were founded, in Valladolid, Rome and Seville, all preparing English men to be priests in England. These men are known as the seminary priests. The Colleges attracted students very readily and by the end of the reign over 800 priests had been trained for the English Mission.  

Elizabeth was more immediately challenged in 1568 by the arrival in England of Mary Queen of Scots as a royal refugee. Mary was a Catholic and the nearest successor to Elizabeth’s throne. She immediately became a focus for Catholic discontent. Between 1568 and 1587 there were several conspiracies involving Catholics which proposed to free Mary and get rid of Elizabeth. The northern earls rebelled in 1569 gathering thousands in their support and converging on Durham. The earls were all Catholics, but the rising was by no means only about religion. Even so, the news of Mass being said in Durham Cathedral and the use of banners with Catholic symbols linked the rebellion with Catholicism, and frightened Protestants. 

The events of the next years increased their anxieties. In January 1570 Pope Pius V issued a Bull declaring Elizabeth a heretic, and therefore excommunicated. In mediaeval theory, an excommunicate monarch could not lawfully reign, and his subjects were to withdraw their allegiance. This Bull did not rally the Catholic powers against England, it was never properly promulgated in England, and most English Catholics protested their loyalty to the crown and ignored it. Even so, it was important because it raised the question of the loyalty of Catholics. Catholics were represented as the enemy within, traitors potential or actual. Parliament passed an act declaring it treason to bring Bulls and objects blessed by the Pope into England, and to call the Queen a heretic. The royal council of the north was reconstituted under the earl of Huntingdon who conducted an effective campaign to suppress Catholicism in the north of England in the wake of the rebellion of the Northern Earls. It was becoming much harder for English Catholics as anxiety mounted. 

Catholic Missionaries

Against this background a new generation of Catholic priests, trained at Douai College or the English College in Rome, began to arrive in England. The first four came in 1571 These priests in normal times would have been under the authority of a Catholic Bishop. They joined those Marian priests who were still active in England. 

In 1575, the English Jesuit Robert Parsons obtained the support of the Pope to begin a Jesuit mission to England. Jesuits were already active in the New World, in Poland and Bohemia. They were highly trained in theology and controversy and were directly responsible to their superior in Rome. All the priests were committed to mission, but the Jesuits, although few in number, were especially confrontational in challenging Protestant teaching. At the same time, many secular priests hoped to establish a more normal and long-term position for Catholics. 

Parliament responded in 1581 and 1585 by further laws against seminary priests (secular and Jesuit) ordained abroad and returning to England. The mere presence of the seminary priests on English soil would incur the death penalty. This act did not apply to Marian priests, but as the years went by their numbers were inevitably dwindling. 

The first seminary priest to die was the secular priest Cuthbert Maine. He had been harboured at the home of Francis Tregian in Cornwall. He was sentenced under the acts of 1559 and 1571. In 1577 he was hung, drawn and quartered in the market place of Launceston with his ‘quarters’ subsequently being displayed at Bodmin, Wadebridge, Tregony and his home town of Barnstaple. His head was impaled on the gate of Launceston castle and later it was taken to Lanherne, the home of the Catholic Arundel family, where was it was preserved as a holy relic. Tregian was imprisoned for 30 years, and his estates confiscated. 

In June 1580 the Jesuits Robert Parsons and Edmund Campion arrived in England, openly challenging the Elizabethan government. Parsons preached, arranged missionary tours, and organised a body of young men to help the priests. He also wrote books and pamphlets, and set up a printing press with the assistance of some Marian priests. On his arrival, Campion published a public challenge to dispute the faith with Protestant authorities called Decem Rationes, which was printed at the secret press. There was a great outcry at this and the government had to respond quickly and publicly. Campion was captured, was interrogated by torture and executed with several companions in December 1581 after a show trial. Parsons escaped abroad and continued to work for the re-conversion of England.

In 1585 all priests ordained abroad and returning to England were declared guilty of High Treason, and those who helped them of a felony. The fine for not attending Book of Common Prayer worship was raised to £20 a month. Pressure on recusants, especially those with property, became much more systematic and effective. It was of course impossible for most Catholics to pay such a fine but the processes of law were carried out and people of all degrees were imprisoned or allowed to compound for a lesser sum. The government would accept two-thirds of their property, which was then leased to a nominee of the crown. Catholics landowners quickly found ways of protecting their wealth by trusts, leases and family settlements Even so, recusancy fines became an important source of income to the crown and a real burden on many Catholic landholders. Catholics who paid tax were subject to double subsidy payments and double levies. A Catholic of any rank was usually involved in an endless series of legal transactions and expedients. Even poor Catholics were harassed by constant listing and occasional imprisonment. 


Mary Queen of Scots, the heir to the throne, was still attracting young men to her support. Francis Throckmorton, the son of a Catholic family prominent in the reign of Mary I, returned from the Continent and acted as a go-between for Mary Queen of Scots and the Spanish ambassador in London. In November 1583 he was betrayed and arrested. Papers were discovered in his study, and confessions extracted on the rack, which provided evidence of a Spanish plot to invade England. Throckmorton was executed.  

Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s Principal Secretary, had for many years been especially active in attempting to reduce and control Catholics as part of the larger policy of resisting Spain. In 1586 Anthony Babington, from Derbyshire, was drawn into a plan to kill Elizabeth and free Mary. However, the coded letters were intercepted by Gilbert Gifford, a Catholic double agent. When enough evidence was amassed, Babington was executed, with six others. Elizabeth’s councillors used this conspiracy to persuade her that, after nearly 20 years in England, Mary be tried for treason. She was executed early in 1587. However, this did not reduce the pressure on Catholics, for between May and September 1588 the Spanish Armada was launched against England, and Protestants eyed Catholics with suspicion as potential traitors. 

Warfare and Rebellion

The Spanish had many political and financial reasons for invading England and controlling the English Channel, but on both sides the Armada was presented as a great conflict between Catholics and Protestants. There were 180 priests on board the Spanish fleet, but (as it was put in England) God blew with His [Protestant] wind and they were scattered. On August 28 1588 five Catholic men and on August 30th one Catholic woman and five men died on the scaffold in London. Altogether 20 Catholic priests and 11 Catholic laymen were executed in Armada year. There were also many imprisonments, and much listing and fining of Catholics.

The last years of Elizabeth were turbulent and difficult for the nation as a whole and especially so for Catholics. There were two more attempted invasions by Spain (1594 and 1597). There were very bad harvests, inflation and riots. The war continued until 1604 despite the death of Philip II in 1598. Lord Justice Popham was especially active in arresting priests and royal visitations were sent to round up Catholic suspects especially around London. Richard Topcliffe (employed by the Crown to pursue Catholics) was, quite exceptionally, granted a private licence to use torture in his own premises at Bridewell prison to extract information.

In 1593 a new law required all convicted popish recusants over the age of 16 to live in their family home and forbade them to travel more than five miles, believing that this would prevent them plotting sedition and rebellion. The government recognised that in many cases it was women who were most dangerous in supporting priests and there were a number of exemplary imprisonments of outstanding Catholic women. This raised a number of problems. English law deferred punishment of a pregnant woman until after delivery of her child on the principle that the child was innocent even if the mother was guilty. Thus she could avoid prison by claiming that she was pregnant. Again, a married woman had no property of her own and her husband was responsible for her transactions in law. How could the law separate what God had joined? Between 1595 and 1606, legislation was introduced into Parliament to control ‘recusant wives’, but it failed to become law. It seems probable that MPs could not come to terms with treating married women as independent, and in any case some MPs had Catholic women relatives.  

End of the Reign 

Secular priests in England at this time had no leadership, no co-ordination and no territorial organisation. Some secular priests were deeply suspicious of Jesuit influence both in England and in the colleges abroad. In 1598 the pope appointed George Blackwell as ‘archpriest’, that is as a Bishop but with limited powers. It was hoped that he would be able to co-ordinate Jesuits and seculars, but he added to the tensions rather than alleviated them. Some of the secular clergy appealed over his head to Rome to get him removed, but without success. These clerical disputes about leadership involved relatively few priests but they were symptomatic of the strains they were under, committed to a life of real danger, uncertain whom they could trust, suspicious even of each other. 

Lay Catholics were constantly trying to reconcile the demands of religion with those of family and secular responsibilities. The Catholic gentry formed a network of kinship through marriage and inheritance, but even the strongest Catholic families usually had some conforming relatives, and made use of them to minimise the risks. On the other hand, some were denounced to the authorities by their relatives. Not all Catholics were devoted to the cause: some became spies and informers, or double agents. Given the numbers of deaths and imprisonments in this decade it is not surprising that some Catholics conformed to the established church. 

By 1603, Catholics were a very small minority of the population: there can be no certain figures but the consensus among historians is that they comprised about one or two per cent of the population. In the provinces, they were most numerous in Lancashire, Yorkshire, Staffordshire, Derbyshire and the Welsh marches. The upper class Catholics could afford the recusancy fines, had houses large enough to provide chapels and to hide priests, and had the political influence to keep themselves and their retainers free from interference. There were also many yeomen, alehouse keepers and tradesmen who were active in assisting priests, smuggling books and rosaries into the country, keeping relics of the executed priests and taking boys and girls to the Catholic schools and convents abroad. In London and York there were both substantial Catholic tradesmen and poor families, and in the prisons priests, lay people and their visitors heard mass and supported each other. 

By 1603, 116 secular priests, seven Jesuits, one Benedictine and one Franciscan had been executed. As many as 75 laymen and two women had also died on the scaffold, and one woman had been pressed to death for refusing to plead. Among the laymen executed were three schoolmasters, a printer and a dyer. From the beginning, Elizabeth’s government insisted that they were all punished for treason not for religion. Catholics believed that they were martyred for their religion and collected relics of their bodies and blood, and in England and on the continent they circulated printed accounts of their heroic behaviour. Ballads, hymns, pictures, prayers and pilgrimages kept their memory alive and miracles were attributed to them. All who had suffered death or imprisonment were perceived as sharing Christ’s death on the cross, ensuring salvation by their sacrifice, and saving the Church from heretics. 

On the other hand, sermons, serious books, pamphlets and chapbooks, caricatures and comedians on the stage portrayed Catholics as assassins, dishonest and untrustworthy. Jesuits were especially feared, even though there were never more than 14 of them in England. They were believed to be particularly clever at disguising themselves, cheating and scheming and preying on women and young people. The English media constantly reported how Protestants suffered in Catholic countries, especially from the Spanish Inquisition, and how the Pope, Spain and other Catholic powers were plotting to subvert England. Both Protestant and Catholics were defining themselves by their differences, making a virtue of dissension. Anti-Catholicism was becoming a significant part of what it meant to be English. 

And yet there were no wars of religion in England. English Catholics, despite real difficulties, suffered less than did religious minorities on the continent. Catholic and Protestant neighbours worked and traded together, and many Catholics had non-Catholic relatives. Catholics were in touch with current developments in knowledge, literature, music, architecture and art as well as religion. There were Catholics at court, and there were Catholics in the House of Lords and some famous poets and musicians and even lawyers were Catholics. The boundaries between Catholics and Protestants were always shifting and permeable and the daily realities were never as clear-cut as the stereotypes of the media and the politicians.

Issues to Debate 

  • Why did Elizabeth and her government see Catholics as dangerous?
  • How successful was Elizabeth in controlling Catholics?
  • What does the experience of English Catholics tell us about the behaviour of religious minorities under pressure? 



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