By L R Gardiner, B.A.
Senior Lecturer in History, University of Melbourne
A.C.T.S. No 1432 (1964)
The tragedy of the English Reformation is part of the wider tragedy of
the Reformation in Europe, a tragedy for Catholics and Protestants
The sad effects of this tragedy are known to us all today when
Christians are beginning to discover each other as possible religious
allies and partners. The deepest causes of the tragedy are perhaps
known only to God; the more immediate causes are becoming better known,
and are constantly being debated by historians. Catholic and Protestant
historians are now reaching a larger measure of agreement on what
happened, and on why it was important.
For example, Catholic historians now generally recognize the important
religious content of Luther's and Calvin's teaching. These teachings
were developed to the disastrous point of heresy, and were condemned by
the Church. Yet, Luther and Calvin, in the words of one modern Catholic
"rediscovered these neglected truths,
that human effort as such can do nothing to save us, that salvation is
wholly and solely God's free gift in Christ to be received by a
self-surrendering faith, that God's sovereignty is absolute, shared by
no creature, His glory alone is the end and raison d'être (purpose) of
the entire creation and of man in particular; Scripture [as] His word
to man, addressed to each and every Christian." (E. I. Watkins: Roman Catholicism in England. 1957.
Protestant historians also recognize the tragedy of Luther's departure
from the Church from which he had drawn so much.
"Luther was a Protestant before there
was any Protestantism. He lacked that support and stay which a living
theological, liturgical and devotional tradition brings to a Christian
man, from within his own household of faith. . . . There was for him no
'Matthew Passion' of J. S. Bach, no hymns of Rinkhart and Gerhardt,
none of that rich and many-sided tradition which was to stem from his
own life and deeds. He had to make it up as he went along, and how he
made it - a German Bible, a Children's Catechism, a few dozen hymns -
all events in European history which counted for more than all the
battles of Gustavus Adolphus and Oliver Cromwell. To speak thus is not
to forget his deep debt to the past, the many signs that to the end of
his days he was nourished by great debts incurred during his monastic
training, the deep levels of mediaeval doctrine and theology and
liturgy to which he always owed more than he knew and more than most
Protestant historians have ever brought themselves to acknowledge."
(Gordon Rupp: The Righteousness of
God. 1953. p. 346.)
This growing sense of bereavement among Catholic and Protestant
historians augurs well for the future understanding of what happened at
TRAGEDY OF THE ENGLISH REFORMATION
The Tragedy of the English Reformation was smaller but not simpler than
that of the whole Reformation. On all sides there was spiritual
endeavour, heroic effort as well as much that was short-sighted,
selfish and sordid.
The three successive stages of the English Reformation were:
the reign of Henry VIII (1509-47) and his son, Edward VI (1547-53),
when Catholic life, doctrine and worship were first set aside;
the reign of Henry's elder daughter, Mary (1553-58), when Catholic
doctrine and worship were restored without an accompanying spiritual
the reign of Henry's younger daughter, Elizabeth I (1558-1603), when
Catholic life was once more pushed underground. At Elizabeth's death,
English Catholics could work and hope for relief from persecution, but
prospects of an early Catholic recovery of the English Church had
Distinct Stories in the English Reformation
Five distinct but not altogether separate stories make up the
Firstly, there is the ever-present background
story of ambitious laymen
reacting strongly against the dominating influence of the clergy who
ran so much of fifteenth and early sixteenth century society; the
universities and education; most of the government service; all
questions of business principle (defaulting business contractors could
be prosecuted for perjury in church courts); and parish priests had
been known to use charges of heresy as the most efficient debt
collecting devices against parishioners refusing to pay their dues.
Then, great wealth in the hands of the clergy induced itching fingers
among laymen. Schemes for unlocking church land and, using it for lay
education or the relief of the poor were usually fig leaves covering
Secondly, there is the ever-present foreground
story of the power and prestige of reigning Kings and Queens, who were
feared, flattered and fawned on as never before. The reigning King or
Queen was thought to be God's Prime Minister, whose commands had to be
obeyed, and whose leadership was in fact decisive at every crisis of
the English Reformation. The course of the English Reformation was
changed more by a change of monarch than by a monarch's change of mind.
Thirdly, there is the story of shortcomings among English Catholics.
The Church does not fail, but some of its members may falter. Spiritual
inadequacy was visible before the Reformation, and partly led to the
Reformation. English Catholics, proud of their saints, have little
reason to dwell on the fifteenth century as a century of sanctity. How
many English persons who died in the fifteenth century have been
Too many clergy made a business career out of their pastoral
obligations. Too many religious relaxed comfortably in their material
security. The spiritual life of too many laymen seems to have been a
round of devotional practices, mechanically performed. The Bible itself
was not well known to laymen by direct reading, although Biblical
events and characters were familiar from preaching, paintings and
popular stories. No English Bible was printed before the Reformation,
because the bishops feared that free reading would stimulate free
doctrine. Advanced study of the Bible, the Latin Vulgate, continued on
traditional lines. A revision of study methods was probably overdue.
The old way had been very fruitful and was still useful, but its
elaborate style made simple reading more difficult. When John Colet
lectured in 1497 on St. Paul's Epistles considered as immediate words
to living men, he was thought to be a startling revolutionary in
Protestant Religious Movements
Fourthly, there were the Protestant religious movements which inspired
the English Reformation. Significantly, they began before the Catholic
spiritual revival had any wide effect. They derived from three distinct
The Lollards followed the teaching of the fourteenth-century heretic,
John Wycliffe who urged men to read and interpret the Bible for
themselves. His translation, secretly studied, was used to attack the
doctrine of the Holy Eucharist, and understandably frightened the
bishops off freely circulating English translations of the Bible. The
Lollards, mainly poor men, were more active than was earlier supposed.
In the diocese of London alone between 1527 and 1532 over 200 heretics,
mainly Lollards, were made to abjure their heresy. Of the 273 burned
for heresy by Mary Tudor between 1555 and 1558, and commemorated in his
Book of Martyrs, John Foxe
gives little more than the bare names of two-thirds. Many of these may
have been Lollards.
B. Early Cambridge Reformers
Lollard heresy was strongly reinforced intellectually by the spread of
Luther's teaching among influential Cambridge scholars. Hugh Latimer, a Cambridge don, in 1524,
recalled how "from that time forward I began to smell the word of God
and forsook the school doctors" (i.e., the traditional scholastic
theologians). William Tyndale helped out from Oxford. His translation
of the New Testament, printed in Germany in 1526, was one of the great
instruments of the English Reformation. Concentrated Bible reading and
Lutheran views were the main support of the Cambridge reformers.
Tyndale deftly provided both at once.
Others from Cambridge were Thomas Cranmer,
Archbishop of Canterbury from 1533 to 1556, whose graceful style lives
in the Book of Common Prayer; Nicholas Ridley, Protestant Bishop of
London, 1551-3, whose theological eminence was acknowledged by an
opponent's claim that "Latimer leans to Cranmer, Cranmer leans to
Ridley, and Ridley to the singularity of his own wit"; John Bradford, scholar and preacher,
whose gentleness won acclaim from Robert Persons, S.J. ; John Rogers, translator and editor of
"Matthew's Bible", issued in 1537 partly because "the dissemination of
Bibles would put a stop to the religious disputes then rife in the
realm"! In Bradford's phrase, Rogers "broke the ice valiantly" as Mary
Tudor's first victim in 1555, and was attended by his "wife with her
eleven children who formed the tragic little retinue at the place of
execution". These five Cambridge scholars and theologians were all
burned as confirmed heretics by Mary Tudor between 1555 and 1556. By
then, however, their work had been done, and their legacy lived on in
the Church of England. A later sixteenth-century follower, Richard
Hooker (c. 1554-1600), the author of the most important Anglican
apologia, intended, according to his first biographer, "to show such
arguments as should force an assent from all men, if reason, delivered
in sweet language, and devoid of any provocation, were able to do it."
The Catholic reader will not agree, but he will gratefully remember
Hooker's reasonableness and gentleness and his warning against
C. Later Cambridge Reformers
During Elizabeth's reign and beyond, two further waves of Cambridge
reformers led the way towards a Puritan "New Jerusalem". Thomas
Cartwright (1535-1603) and Walter Travers (c. 1548-1643) carefully
constructed and expounded a complete Calvinistic church system to be
made supreme in England. A great organizer, John Field (1545-88) from
Oxford, brought them near, but not near enough, to success. Then
followed a succession of Cambridge Puritans who concentrated more on
Calvinistic religious ideas and behaviour than on Calvinistic Church
organization. Some of these were: William Whitaker (1548-95), whose
portrait hung in the study of his admirer, St. Robert Bellarmine, S.J.
; William Perkins (1558-1602), whose passing bell was heard with
unrepentant joy by one listener whose conscience would no longer be
troubled by the preaching of Perkins; William Ames (1576-1633), whose
library was shipped, after his death, to a grateful colony in New
England; Richard Sibbes (1577-1635), of whom one admirer wrote -
"of this blest man let this just praise
be given. Heaven was in him before he was in Heaven";
and John Preston (1587-1628), who, when visiting the barber,
characteristically went on reading the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, and
who would blow the falling hairs off the page and read on keenly.
It is difficult to exaggerate the influence of such "marching and
counter-marching of learned doctors on the printed page" in early
Puritan America and on the English Puritan Revolution in the
Catholic Spiritual Recovery
Fifthly, there is the story of English Catholic spiritual recovery in
the reign of Elizabeth I. This story has rarely failed to move those
interested in English history.
The beginning was disappointing. In the early years of Elizabeth,
Catholics in large numbers went to the Protestant Established Church.
William Allen, an Oxford scholar ordained in the Netherlands in 1567,
worked for a solution. He insisted on a way "to train Catholics to be
plainly and openly Catholics; to be men who will always refuse every
kind of spiritual commerce with heretics."
Catholic Missionary Movement
Allen's solution was to found at Douai in 1568, the first seminary to
train priests "the greatest religious achievement of Elizabethan
England", Fr. Philip Hughes has said. The English Catholic religious
recovery owed much to the Catholic Reformation on the continent of
Europe. Douai, now in France, near the border of Belgium, then in the
Spanish Netherlands, lay in the heart of a religiously rejuvenated
society. From Douai, Edmund Campion, in 1572, assured an English
Protestant friend that "every age, rank and sex" in the Spanish
Netherlands were a spiritual example "worth six hundred Protestant
Between 1568 and 1603 hundreds of young Elizabethan Catholics flocked
to the college to be trained and ordained for the dangerous duty of
missionary priests. From 1574 to 1603 four hundred and thirty-eight
Douai priests returned, ninety-eight
of them to martyrdom.
Twenty-five other martyr-priests
Sir Richard Grenville, the hero of the fight of The Revenge, in 1591, was knighted
not for his exploits at sea, but for his determination, in 1577, in
capturing, and ensuring the execution of, Douai's first martyr, Blessed
[now Saint] Cuthbert Mayne
In 1580, the Society of Jesus sent two priests, [Saint] Edmund Campion (1540-81), and his
superior, Robert Persons (1546-1610), to join the English mission.
Campion, outstanding in character and intellect, knew what to say,
Persons knew how to pass on the message to Elizabethan England, just as
he knew how to contact Catholics after a lonely arrival in 1580. He
went straight to the chief London prison holding Catholics. Campion
closed this first Jesuit mission with words at his trial and death
which aroused devout response among Catholics. Elizabethan authorities
who had to use perjury to convict him under the existing treason laws
were also affected but with dismay at the public effect of his words.
"If our religion do make us traitors, we are worthy to be condemned;
but otherwise we are, and have been, as good subjects as ever the Queen
According to William Cecil, a leading Elizabethan statesman, Campion
was "one of the diamonds of England". The setting of this diamond
included distinction at Oxford, the conversion of Cuthbert Mayne,
compassion for Sir Philip Sidney, "the poor wavering soul", the
friendship of William Allen, Douai's founder, and of Gregory Martin,
the first Catholic translator of the whole Bible into English.
The Elizabethan Catholic revival also went deep among lay people. Fifty-nine died for their faith.
Blessed [now Saint] Margaret
Clitherow (c. 1556-86), the wife of a York butcher, was
converted in 1574. She made her house a centre for priests and, in
order to save her family and friends from appearing as witnesses at her
trial, she refused to plead guilty or not guilty. She resolutely
suffered the legal penalty of being crushed to death for contempt of
Blessed [now Saint] John Rigby,
a London solicitor, martyred in 1600, readily admitted that he had been
"reconciled to the Catholic Church". His spiritual advisor, Fr. John
Gerard, S.J., recollected that Rigby "had been told that it was always
sinful not to confess his Catholic faith and he may not have known that
it was lawful to throw the burden of proof on the prosecution, as
Catholics who are wise to it do". Rigby told his judges, more
tellingly, that if the law held it treason "for a man fallen into the
displeasure of God through his sins to be reconciled to God again,"
then, "if this be treason, God's will be done."
Campaign of Spiritual Reading
Dedicated missionary work and vigorous lay response were supported by a
Catholic translation of the Bible and a campaign of spiritual reading.
Father Gregory Martin's translation of the New Testament appeared in
1582, and the translated Old Testament in 1609. These translations
together gave three thousand readings to the Authorized Version of
1611. Gregory Martin, in his preface, warned that translations were not
necessary, nor was indiscriminate reading without danger. His warning
was perhaps excessively heeded as Bible reading did not become widely
established among English Catholics. The fourth edition of this New
Testament, 1633, was the last, as was the second edition of the Old
Testament in 1635. Catholics were then to wait until Bishop Challoner
revised the work in the 18th Century.
Robert Persons' The Christian
Directory (1582) has claims to be ranked with Thomas a Kempis' Imitation of Christ (1471) and St.
Francis Sales' Introduction to the
Devout Life (1609). Ironically enough, while English Protestants
vilified Persons as a "lurking wolf" they pirated his spiritual message
from The Christian Directory
by as many as fifteen editions before Persons' death in 1610.
PROGRESS OF THE ENGLISH REFORMATION
Reigns of Henry VIII and Edward
The most striking Reformation development in the reign of Henry VIII
(1509-47) was the denial of the Pope's authority over the Church in
England. This renunciation took place in 1533-4 and replaced the Pope's
authority by the supremacy of the King. The main motive for this change
was Henry VIII's resentment at the Pope's failure from 1527 to annul
Henry's marriage with Catherine of Aragon so that Henry could marry
Anne Boleyn. If the Pope was held to be only a bishop, like any other
bishop, then Henry's case might then be tried in England by English
bishops under the vigilant eye of Henry, the newly decreed Supreme
Head. Indeed, after this was asserted in 1533 the six years of Papal
delay were ended by English bishops in under three weeks and in Henry's
favour. This revolution in the Church won influential support amongst
leading lords and gentry. Their secular and anti-Papal feelings were
reinforced by gifts and sales of the property of religious houses,
seized between 1536 and 1540.
Earlier opinion, Catholic and Protestant, deduced that Henry VIII's
Reformation was, essentially, a schism, a denial of Papal authority
without further alteration of Catholic doctrine. As the disappointed
reformer, John Hooper, declared, Henry VIII has destroyed the Pope, not
popery. According to this view, other important religious changes were
introduced only in the reign of Edward VI.
Today our understanding has been altered or enlarged in four ways.
1. Earlier Protestant Tendencies
Catholic and Protestant scholars have clearly shown that more
Protestant tendencies were encouraged in Henry VIII's reign than were
once thought. We have noted that Protestant reformers were active in
England from at least the 1520's. Then in the later 1530's and 1540's
disputes arose about the validity of some Catholic beliefs challenged
by Lutherans. Prayers for the dead, Purgatory, the number of
Sacraments, the purpose of good works and the meaning of Justification
were some vexed issues. No sixteenth-century government could allow
religious disputes to continue unchecked, as they would lead to brawls
and, perhaps, to civil war when loyalty to the state meant loyalty to
official religious doctrine.
2. Henry's Protestant Tendencies
Henry's government, denying itself any appeal to the Pope, decided for
itself. On five occasions between 1536 and 1547 Henry, with the help of
the bishops, issued pronouncements "to abolish diversity of opinions".
These pronouncements not all consistent with each other are not
entirely reassuring about Henry VIII's Catholic beliefs. His friend,
Archbishop Cranmer, later admitted that Henry, before his death, was
thinking of further changes in religion. And Henry did, after all,
place his son and successor, Edward, in the hands of educators and
advisers with Protestant sympathies. This decision led directly to
extensive Protestant changes by the governments of Edward VI.
3. Materialist Outlook
The sordid outlook of Henry VIII's England also needs to be given
greater stress. "It is difficult to think of an age in which
unselfishness, devotion to an ideal, faithfulness to a master or a
friend were rarer in public life, or one in which lust for material
gain was greater." And, according to Dom David Knowles again, even one
of the great exceptions to the prevailing spirit, the martyr of 1535,
St. Thomas More, appears to
have come late to his sanctity. He developed "very markedly in purity
of vision" only when he abandoned his interests and endured hardship,
treachery, loneliness and "the ultimate solitude of misunderstanding
from those he loved most".
4. The Bishops
Henry VIII's bishops must be seen against the background of career
making and profit seeking, with the shining exception of St. John Fisher (1469-1535), and to a
much lesser extent of William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1503 to
1532, whose stature, like More's, grew in adversity. Warham was, in
many ways, the typical Henrician bishop, whose promotion in the Church
was a reward for dedicated service to the King. His outlook reflected
his career as lawyer, administrator and diplomat. His frequent maxim
was "the wrath of the Prince is death". Such bishops, servants and
dependants as they were, needed the King's additional protection
against the rising tide of anti-clerical feeling, dangerously expressed
in Parliament from 1529 and skilfully directed from 1532 by Thomas
Cromwell, a master of ecclesiastical revolution. Such bishops could not
lightly risk royal displeasure and nearly all did not.
The strongly exercised secular spirit, with its distrust of Papal power
politics of the early sixteenth century, would probably have led to
some change in the exercise of Papal control of the Church in England
even without Henry VIII's divorce arrangements. Papal control in
England was more extensive in 1530 than in Catholic France or Spain. In
these countries Pope and King had rearranged the Papal exercises of
The clear duty of the bishops was to prevent such rearrangement
injuring the Pope's essential spiritual authority. In England, only
Bishop Fisher stood resolved on this from the beginning to the point of
martyrdom in 1535. Archbishop Warham finally abandoned his deference to
Princes. Before he died in 1532, he penned a noble protest against
royal intrusion into the rights of the Church. At the last, he
appreciated his position as successor to St. Thomas Becket, the victim
of earlier royal aggression. Old man that he was (he was nearly
eighty), Warham died just too soon. Had he lived his final resolution
might have made an impression on the other bishops from whom Fisher was
set apart by his sanctity. Warham's portrait reveals the man whose
steadfast integrity was long overlaid by monumental patience with the
arrogant claims of others and by a sad worldly realism. The tragedy of
Henry VIII's Reformation lines his face.
The Reformation in the reign of Edward VI, 1547-53, was the natural
climax of the Henrician Reformation. Protestant Reformers gathering
strength under Henry VIII won an expectedly clear victory over the
schismatic bishops, who had vainly trusted Kings to safeguard the Mass,
the Sacraments and Catholic devotional life. Such bishops, as Stephen
Gardiner, Cuthbert Tunstall and Edmund Bonner, were defeated as well as
discredited. Reformers, aided by royal power, now openly abandoned
Catholic fundamentals. They substituted a new form of worship contained
in the Prayer Books of 1549 and 1552 and Protestant doctrines contained
in the 42 Articles of 1553, the forerunner of the 39 Articles.
The Reformers, however, had to depend on the politicians and the age of
materialism reserved its most blatant specimens for the reign of Edward
VI. For example, Richard Rich, whose perjury betrayed More in 1535,
crowned an infamous career in 1548 by occupying Moor's old office of
Lord Chancellor. The Reformers wanted things to be otherwise. John
Hopper desperately nailed the leading politician of the reign, John
Dudley, as a "most holy and fearless instrument of the Lord". Dudley
willingly advanced Reformation measures, but the Reformation could
hardly have prospered for long under the patronage of this "incarnation
of the hypocrisy and self-seeking which marred the Reformation".
of Mary Tudor,
Under the Catholic Queen, Mary Tudor, the importance of royal
leadership was seen in the speedy restoration of Papal authority and in
the speedier undoing of the Reformation measures, except that, by Papal
insistence, the restoration of confiscated religious property was not
The new beginning was soon marred by serious governmental errors.
Indeed, one of the unending pursuits of historians of this reign is to
attempt to blame or exonerate one or other leading figures for the
One blunder was Mary's marriage to Philip II of Spain. A Catholic or
Spanish alliance was not unpopular in itself, but Mary allowed a
fiercely independent England to be subordinated to Spanish Continental
policies. It was a disastrous confusion of foreign interest with
Another blunder was the implacable drive against those convicted of
unrepudiated heretical opinion. This was more than blunder. In many
instances it was a crime. Many of those convicted of heresy were
brought up from 1534 in a heretical society. They were not properly
Catholic from the first. They had not renounced the Catholic faith.
They had never been taught it. In Fr. Philip Hughes' words, "Many of
those tried and convicted and burned were not, by the canon law, really
liable to these penalties, whatever their beliefs, and whatever the
obstinacy with which they clung to them."
To make matters worse the judges of heresy were those bishops of whom
nearly half had been responsible, in Henry VIII's reign, for creating
or furthering the heretical climate in which many of their victims were
Not all Mary's victims, however, were brought up in a heretical
society. Most of the famous names were technically heretics. Cranmer,
Latimer, Ridley, Rogers, Bradford and Hooper were all adult before
1534. Moreover, many of the victims ought more suitably to have been
tried for treason rather than heresy.
The Marian Restoration, for all its interest in burning, failed to
light the fires of spiritual fervour among Catholic clergy and laity or
to warm English hearts with ardent Papal loyalty. Wayward leadership
was made ultimately futile by bitter hostility from the failing, 80
years old Pope Paul IV. He detested everything Spanish, including
Mary's England, suspected Mary's Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal
Pole, of heresy, and refused to help him further. On this depressing
note Mary's reign ended in November, 1558, with vacancies in five
bishops' sees and the English Church insufficiently prepared for the
of Elizabeth I,
Under Elizabeth I, royal leadership proved once more important, and
this time decisively important, in the English Reformation. This was
not as clear at the time as it is now. In 1559 the Royal supremacy once
more replaced Papal authority in England and the Prayer Book service
once more replaced the Mass. In 1563, the 39 Articles, a revised
edition of the 42 Articles of Edward VI, reimposed Reformation doctrine.
In vain, all the surviving Marian bishops, except one, refused to
accept the revival of Royal supremacy, and were sent to die in the
Tower and were replaced by Protestant bishops. Most of the clergy
acquiesced in the change.
How long would the new arrangements last? The English Catholics
wondered as they waited.
Six issues must be noticed.
The Elizabethan government constantly aimed at the destruction, not the
toleration, of the Catholic faith in England. English Catholics, as far
as possible, were to be assimilated into the Elizabethan Church. This
was to be brought about in three ways.
- + The Elizabethan Church was made as attractive as possible to
Catholics even if some Protestants, especially Puritans, were
affronted. Vestments were used. The main service sounded familiar and
inoffensive and reassuring statements were made about the meaning of
the Royal supremacy.
- + Strong government pressure, backed by fine and imprisonment,
(and fire), was used to force Catholics to attend the Elizabethan
- + Catholics were to be spiritually starved by being denied the
ministrations of Catholic priests. By 1585 to give or receive such ministrations
became a capital offence.
POLITICAL AND RELIGIOUS INTENT
The Elizabethan policy, in intent, was both political and religious.
Politically, it accepted the common sixteenth-century assumption that
all good citizens had to profess the same official religion for the
sake of public peace. Furthermore, those who rejected this religion
rejected half the duty of citizens and were suspect on the other half.
Religiously the Elizabethan policy accepted the usual sixteenth-century
governmental view that one religion was true, its own, and all others
were false. False religion, offensive to God and dangerous to souls,
must be suppressed.
In all this Elizabethan policy was basically no different from other
sixteenth-century governments: "One King, one Faith, one Law," as the
French put it.
Of course, within Elizabethan government, various individuals differed.
Elizabeth herself was probably moved more by political interest
although she could use the religious argument. She said to Parliament
in 1585, "if I were not persuaded that mine were the true way of God's
will, God forbid that I should live to prescribe it to you." Her chief
minister, William Cecil, whose outlook was strongly political, seems to
have been moved by marked religious hostility to the Catholic faith.
Some others, like Francis Walsingham, appear to have been so obsessed
by hatred of the Catholic Church as to be constant advocates of a "holy
The public pronouncements of the Elizabethan government against
Catholics concentrated, however, on political arguments and spoke of
the mildness and patience of Elizabethan religious policy.
The Catholic Church could never accept the Elizabethan religious
policy, however commonplace it was in Europe, and however gently the
Elizabethan pressure might have been applied compared with the large
numbers killed by other sixteenth-century governments savagely trying
to stamp out religious opposition.
The Catholic Church had to forbid its members to attend Prayer Book
services whatever the penalties for absence.
The Catholic Church had to supply priests for England even if they had
to be smuggled in to work under cover, at the risk of being mistaken
for foreign agents, spies or plotters and of being killed for being
The Catholic case had also to be put clearly in pamphlet and book to
answer the Protestant case and to persuade public opinion. In the new
lay society opinion was best won by spiritual leadership and force of
argument. Campion's Ten Reasons,
Allen's True, Sincere and Modest
Defence of English Catholics, Persons' Christian Directory, and even the
Douai Bible itself, to mention a few, all armed and fortified Catholics
in the great battle of the books.
CATHOLIC SCHEMES OF MILITANT OPPOSITION
Religious efforts to rescue Elizabethan Catholics under persecution
were complicated by Catholic political and military efforts in the same
Between 1568 and 1586 a series of resistance movements and plots were
concocted to replace Elizabeth by her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of
Scots. In 1570, to ease Catholic consciences, Pope St. Pius V
excommunicated Elizabeth and absolved her Catholic subjects from
obedience to her. In 1580, Pope Gregory XIII's Secretary of State, in a
private answer to a private question, held it no sin to kill Elizabeth
but a glorious and meritorious deed if done "with the pious intention
of doing God service". In 1579 Pope Gregory XIII, the great patron of
seminaries and missions, sent a small military expedition to
Elizabethan Ireland to raise revolt. This embarrassed Campion and
Persons in England in 1580. In 1588, an attempt to restore the Catholic
faith by force was defeated, to the unmistakable relief of Pope Sixtus
V, when the Spanish Armada was dispersed before it embarked invasion
No doubt some of the plots were hopelessly organized and many known in
advance to the English secret service. But in the sixteenth century the
desperate weapon of assassination often succeeded and usually on
unexpected occasions. The current Catholics' method of trying to
explain away the plots is less convincing than to point to the obvious
loyalty and distaste of most English Catholics for plots and invasions,
whether these schemes were Papal, English or Spanish.
ELIZABETHAN PROFIT FROM CATHOLIC SCHEMES
The schemes provided a golden opportunity to the Elizabethan government
to identify all Catholic activity as treason, and to carry out its
unswerving policy of exterminating the Catholic faith under the cover
of patriotism and protection of the realm. For example, early
missionary martyrs, like Mayne and Campion, could only be convicted on
trivial technicalities or trumped up charges of conspiracy. But by 1585
the atmosphere changed enough to support legislation allowing priests
to be convicted merely for being priests.
FADING CATHOLIC OPPORTUNITY
Can we know when the Catholic opportunity of recovering England faded?
No certain answer is possible. Yet it seems to have been in Elizabeth's
reign and it seems to have little to do with the prospects of success
of militant activities like Catholic plots or the Spanish Armada:
Pope Sixtus V's doubt about the recovery of England by Spanish troops
came from a sound instinct. Catholic religion could not effectively be
restored by violence triumphant, while violence that failed would leave
a long legacy of hatred of all things Catholic.
Two factors were apparently more important.
A. Elizabeth's Long Reign
The unexpectedly long reign of Elizabeth. This enabled a new generation
to grow up to accept the Elizabethan Church, and enabled the puritan
movement to imbue Protestant Englishmen with a moral purpose, more
widespread than earlier Protestant influences and determinedly hostile
to Catholic claims.
B. Restricted Activity of Catholic
The Catholic missionaries in England for all their dedication, heroism
and suffering, necessarily moved in a very restricted field. Unlike,
say, St. Francis Xavier, S.J., who died near China in 1552, and who is
said to have made 700,000 Asian converts, the English missionary had no
wide opportunity of preaching or influencing large numbers. He was tied
to his host's family and friends as he moved secretly from country
house to country house. Fr. John Gerard, S.J., even declared that while
in the Clink, a London prison, between 1593 and 1597, "We had, by God's
grace, everything so arranged that I was able to perform there all the
tasks of a Jesuit priest, and provided only I could have stayed in this
prison, I should never have wanted to have my liberty again in
England." Furthermore, those they converted or whose faith they
confirmed were marked men in society and excluded, as far as possible,
from positions of public influence.
Catholic recovery of England was hardly possible under these
circumstances. The missionaries did not achieve what the world calls
success, yet they did not fail.
Blessed (now Saint) Robert Southwell,
S.J. (c. 1561-95) abandoned a great career as a poet for the greater
career of martyr-missionary. He knew that in Elizabethan England the
love of God was love in a cold climate. One of his poems speaks to
Catholics and Protestants alike.
"As I in hoary winter's night stood
shivering in the snow,
Surpris'd I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty Babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
'Alas!' quoth he, 'but newly born in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I.
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns;
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals;
The metal in this Furnace wrought are men's defiled souls;'
With this he vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas Day."
* * * * * * *
THE REFORMATION IN ENGLAND, Fr.
Philip Hughes, 3 vols., London, 1950-4, the most recent detailed
Catholic Study, is indispensable.
ROMAN CATHOLICISM IN ENGLAND FROM THE
REFORMATION TO 1250, E. I. Watkins, Home University Library,
1957, ch. 2. Needs to be read as well for a more balanced perspective.
THE RELIGIOUS ORDERS IN ENGLAND,
Dom. David Knowles, Vol. III, The
Tudor Age, Cambridge, 1957, is history as it should be written.
THOMAS MORE, by R. W. Chambers,
THE HUNTED PRIEST, the Autobiography of John Gerard,
EDMUND CAMPION, Evelyn Waugh,
SPIRIT AND FORMS OF PROTESTANTISM,
Louis Bouyer, Fontana Books.
* * * * * * * * *