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Queen or Pope – Catholics in Elizabethan England

Caitlin Moran talks in her book, How to be a Woman, about the idea that often when we discover a particular book, we are suddenly introduced to all its friends, and so join this society that we hadn’t even known existed before.  So if you, for example, start reading Dorothy Parker, suddenly before you know it you’re on Germaine Greer and the entire canon of feminist authors have started talking to you.  I’m going through that right now with Catholics.  For three hundred years after the start of the Reformation, Catholics in England had a pretty rough time, barred from holding public offices or training for the priesthood.  But in the reign of Elizabeth through the Civil War, it was downright dangerous to carry a rosary or say too many Hail Mary’s.

I am not a Catholic.  Nor have I ever been a Catholic.  But I got on a kick of learning about Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s spymaster who deeply feared an invasion by a Catholic European power, and then an internal uprising in support by the Catholics in England.  So he went on a rampage trying to root out any suspicious Catholics before they had an opportunity to commit any kind of treasonous acts.  Under Walsingham, torture was utilized more than at any other time in English history, and hundreds of Catholic priests were executed, many with a traitor’s death (being hung, cut down while you’re still alive, having your innards cut out and burned in front of your face, and then having all your limbs and your head cut off).

I hope you’re not reading this at dinner.

god's traitorsThe book, God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England by Jessie Childs was my entre into this world of priest-hides and secret masses.  Then I read a biography of Walsingham, followed by several books about Mary Queen of Scots, and I started to get the picture of what life was like for Catholics, all the way up until the 19th century.

There were a lot of reasons why Catholics were seen with such suspicion including:

  1. The question of their allegiance.  The whole reason Henry VIII split with Rome wasn’t particularly because he believed in the Protestants.  Until his death, he still upheld the idea of transubstantiation – that the wine and wafers literally turned into Christ’s actual blood and body during the sacrament of Communion, which is a core Catholic belief.  Like no kidding, people died because they thought it was just bread or wine.  He wasn’t singing Martin Luther’s praises.  But his whole beef with the Pope came from the fact that he wanted a divorce, and the Pope, under the control of his first wife’s nephew, wouldn’t give him one.  What right did the Pope have over who Henry could or could not marry, anyway?  How was it fair that someone in Rome, a thousand miles away, controlled by a foreign monarch to boot, had such control over ordinary people’s lives in England?   Catholics would begin to experience suspicion over where their loyalties were.  How could you be loyal to a monarch when your first spiritual loyalty was to a foreigner?  And one who had excommunicated your monarch?  How could you serve two masters?  You were either a good solid British citizen, or you supported the Pope, and their was no middle ground.  You’re either for the Queen or against her, and you couldn’t be both for her and for the Pope at the same time.
  2. “Popery”.  As Protestantism grew, the church saw changes in the liturgy including a change to English for the services, simpler music, and a stripping of all things that seemed at all Catholic including rosaries, altars, and stained glass windows.  As new generations of Protestants grew up around this simpler church without the same level of ceremony and mysticism, they became suspicious of all the chanting and the reciting of rosaries, confessions, etc.  These things were seen as foreign, and frightening.  And it became illegal to own relics, or bring rosaries into the country.  Catholics who wanted to have these things needed to have very good hiding places in case their homes were searched.
  3. Secrecy.  As the divide widened between Catholics and Protestants in England, Catholics did develop networks in which to communicate with each other.  Then, as seminaries closed in England, those who were drawn to the Catholic faith needed to study abroad at English-language schools opened up in Europe (thus giving even more fuel to the stigma of foreign-ness attached to Catholicism), and those missionary priests (Jesuits, mostly) had to be smuggled back into England so that they could preach to the faithful hungry for their words.  Priests needed to know who they could trust.  An entire cottage industry developed around building priest-hides for when homes were raided by Protestant authorities, and Nicholas Owen became a master architect who specialized in building priest-hides (one of which wasn’t discovered for nearly three hundred years).  Walsingham was nervous about the secret network of Catholics in England, but what he neglected to realize was that it was created by his own persecution.
  4. Catholics in other countries.  Catholics did themselves no favors by killing Protestants with such abandon.  The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France, witnessed and survived by Walsingham and retold in horror stories by Huguenots arriving in England scared the bejesus out of everyone.  Even though Catholics in England had nothing to do with the massacre, hearing how gangs in France paraded around killing women and children in the street and then stopping for a pint at the local tavern did nothing to help their cause.  They did a very bad job of distancing themselves from the horrors, and would be unable to get away from the association.
  5. Uncertainty over the Succession.  To Catholics, Elizabeth I was a bastard.  She was born to Anne Boleyn when Catherine of Aragon (Henry VIII’s first wife) was still alive, and therefore she was a product of bigamy, and wasn’t able to inherit the throne.  Henry VIII himself wrote as much after he had Anne beheaded, calling Elizabeth a bastard.  The Catholics who challenged her rule simply had to look at her father’s own words about her.  And the Catholic powers in Europe, ever ready to cause some drama in England, backed the frustrated minority.  Once Elizabeth was securely on her throne, she was hesitant to name her successor.  Her logic in this was that the second person in the realm, her heir, would be the focus of plots or intrigue, and she wanted to keep everything up in the air to avoid the plots and schemes.  What she missed was the fact that everybody could guess who the next heir was (Mary Queen of Scots) and still create intrigue around her.  Ironically, even though she was killed, Mary Queen of Scots’ son James became the next king of England when Elizabeth died.

There were a lot of other forces that conspired to divide the Catholics and Protestants so that they eventually fought a Civil War, in part to settle the question of religion in England, but those are five of the main ones.  Thinking about the way people were persecuted, and killed for their beliefs (and, incidentally, still are even today) makes me grateful for the freedom I have to explore many religious and traditions, and ultimately to worship in the way I feel called.  It’s not a right to be taken for granted.