Elizabethan Catholicism: Questions of Perspective

R.E. Foster emphasises the threat to Elizabeth’s regime.

Marie Rowlands’ article (History Review December 2007) serves as a useful introduction to Elizabethan Catholicism. Seen largely from the perspective of the Catholics themselves, it offers a sympathetic assessment of the struggle to keep the Old Faith alive in the apparently unequal struggle against an overbearing state. In arguing this, its thrust is essentially traditional: the Mission’s attempt to reconvert England was doomed to failure (since as Sellar and Yeatman memorably put it in 1066 And All That, ‘England is bound to be C of E’).

Some recent work, however, reminds us that contemporaries did not regard the triumph of English Protestantism (Anglicanism) as inevitable. This perception is critical to understanding the Elizabethan state’s response to Catholicism. In the early years of the reign, religious conservatism was endemic: John Scory, Bishop of Hereford, complained to the Privy Council in 1564 that his canons ‘are but dissemblers and rank Papists’. A regime which relied upon the consent and co-operation of the governing class could draw little comfort from the knowledge that three quarters of the gentlemen in the North Riding were Catholics in the 1560s, or that up to one third of the nation’s magistrates in 1563 were not well-disposed to the 1559 settlement.

Worse was to follow. Mary Stuart’s arrival in England (1568) presented the regime with a dilemma that took a generation to resolve. She was at once Elizabeth’s logical heir and the focus of Catholic ambitions. Her inveterate enemy, William Cecil, conceded in 1572 that many saw her as ‘the lawful Queen’ and that ‘She doth daily win the hearts of her Majesty's subjects from her’. Cecil could not even bring himself to write Mary's name, preferring to identify her as S.Q. (Scottish Queen).

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