The Council of Trent in session


 Elizabethan Catholics

Just as there was a Protestant Reformation, so there was a Catholic Counter-Reformation. Between 1545 and 1563, the Council of Trent responded to the Protestant challenge by reforming the Catholic Church of abuses and defining Roman Catholic doctrine with new clarity. It denounced all the Protestant "heresies" and set about training a new generation of priests to obliterate them. England was one of the main targets of "missionary" priests.




Roman Catholicism in England is best seen in three phases:







I.  1558-1570



1559 The Bishops appointed by Mary were deprived, but most ordinary ministers conformed.


Many gentlemen (especially in the North of England) continued to attend Catholic worship in the safety of their own households.


Initially, Elizabeth's government took few measures against Catholic gentry. But every Member of Parliament had to swear the Oath of Supremacy (recognizing Elizabeth as Governor of the Church of England and denying papal jurisdiction), and this excluded scrupulous Catholics from influence.


The Oath of Supremacy

I, A. B., do utterly testify and declare in my conscience that the queen's highness is the only supreme governor of this realm and of all other her highness's dominions and countries, as well in all spiritual or ecclesiastical things or causes as temporal, and that no foreign prince, person, prelate, state, or potentate hath or ought to have any jurisdiction, power, superiority, pre-eminence, or authority, ecclesiastical or spiritual, within this realm; and therefore I do utterly renounce and forsake all foreign jurisdictions, powers, superiorities, and authorities, and do promise that from henceforth I shall bear faith and true allegiance to the queen's highness, her heirs, and lawful successors, and to my power shall assist and defend all jurisdictions, pre-eminences, privileges, and authorities granted or belonging to the queen's highness, her heirs, and successors, or united or annexed to the imperial crown of this realm: so help me God and by the contents of this Book



During the 1560s, most Catholics began to drift into conformity. The two universities (Oxford and Cambridge) were also purged of Catholics.


William Allen, one of these ejected dons, went to Louvain and helped organize the printing of Catholic propaganda in English.
In 1568, he founded a seminary at Douai to train new English Catholic priests.


Coughton Court, Warwickshire
Home of the Throckmortons,
one of England's foremost recusant families



II. 1570-88



The influx of new missionary priests, the revolt of the Northern Earls, and the deposition of Elizabeth by Pope Pius V all helped provoke the government into harsher measures against Catholics.


Anti Catholic feeling was exacerbated by the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre (24 August 1572). French Catholics killed thousands of Protestants (or Huguenots).
England's relations with Spain also steadily deteriorated.


Ignatius Loyola,
founder of the Society of Jesus

The English College at Rome was established to train more priests and this soon fell under the sway of the Society of Jesus - Protestants regarded Jesuit priests as the most seditious and dangerous, for in addition to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience taken by all priests, Jesuits took a fourth vow of complete obedience to the pope.



More seminaries were established at Valladolid (1589) and Saint Omer (1596)


In 1574, the first missionary priests began to arrive in England, and in 1580, the first Jesuits. By the end of Elizabeth's reign three hundred missionary priests were serving in England.


Two of the most important English priests were Robert Parsons (or Persons) and Edmund Campion.



Edmund Campion
 was saintly and persuasive. He traveled around England, staying with Roman Catholic families, preaching sermons and publishing attacks on Protestant ideas on a secret press. In 1581, he captured, tortured, and executed.

Robert Parsons
was less saintly but more effective. He had been an Oxford don, but left for the Continent in 1574 and became a Jesuit. He returned briefly to England in 1580 with Campion, but then went to Spain, where he spent his time trying to persuade Philip II to invade England and restore Catholicism. From 1597 to his death in 1620, he was in charge of the English College at Rome.




By the end of Elizabeth's reign there were only about twenty Jesuit priests in England, but their influence was far disproportionate to their numbers because of their high-level connections in Spain and Rome.


English Jesuits in particular, and Catholics in general, were especially distrusted because it was known that some (for example, the Jesuit Robert Southwell) were willing to use equivocation in their dealings with Protestants.


The English knew that Roman Catholic leaders were plotting with Spain, attempting to assassinate Elizabeth, and trying to put Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne. This led to widespread hatred of Catholics (especially at the time of the Spanish Armada 1588) and persecution increased during the 1580's.


Between 1581 and 1588 at least sixty-four priests were executed. (Eighteen laymen and two women were executed for their part in harboring priests).


William Allen

Cardinal William Allen was given the task of restoring England to Catholicism if the Spanish invasion succeeded and he published an Admonition to the English encouraging them to revolt against the "deposed" "bastard" Elizabeth.
However, the Elizabethan government cautiously disarmed Catholic gentlemen and imprisoned many of them at the time of the Spanish Armada, and the Spanish army never actually landed. Consequently, there was never a point when a Catholic uprising would have stood any real chance of success.



The persecution of English Catholics was as cruel as it was necessary in the government's eyes. One of the chief seekers of priests, Richard Topcliffe, showed particular relish in his use of his own personal portable rack, and priests sentenced to death died painfully by hanging, drawing, and quartering.
[More on Tudor torture].


The Catholic threat diminished after the defeat of the Armada, although the assassination of Elizabeth remained a constant threat.


Sixtus V
(Pope 1585-90)
supporter of Philip II's attempted invasion of England



 III. 1588-1603



To lessen the Catholic threat, Elizabeth's government also tried tactics of "divide and rule". In 1590, a dispute developed between Jesuits and other priests imprisoned at Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, over who (the Jesuits or a Bishop appointed for the purpose) should control the mission to England. The quarrel soon spread throughout the English priesthood.


Richard Bancroft helped the group of priests who opposed Jesuit control (known as the Appellants) -
even arranging to have their pamphlets printed.




In 1603, 13 leading Appellants made a Protestation, repudiating the political ideas of the Jesuits. This was a real propaganda coup for the English government.


The Jesuits continued to work for regime change in England.


In 1594, Parsons (under the pseudonym Doleman) published A Conference about the next succession, which argued that the people of England had the right to choose their monarch, and that on Elizabeth's death, Parliament should appoint Philip II's daughter - not the Protestant James VI. Naturally, this alienated James VI who was eager to succeed to the English throne, and who had the best claim to do so.



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