Catholics, Conformists & apathy in the Elizabethan Church


The Church of the Elizabethan religious settlement was a Protestant Church imposed on a population given more to Catholicism. It is now often said that the legal change of the English Reformation took place in the reign of Henry VIII, and that the theological change took place under his successors. The Puritan movement was a growing one, but its counterpart was a reactionary Catholic movement, fuelled with the fire of the Counter-Reformation and the Council of Trent. The population of England was composed mainly of people in no intellectual camp, but naturally suspicious and disapproving of rapid change in the religious sphere of their lives.

The landed classes

Protestantism had, from the start, commanded more loyalty in the South East and around the capital than in the North. There were a number of rather mundane reasons for this, the first being the lack of government control in the North of the realm - the Council of the North had trouble projecting its influence over the Pennines from York into Lancashire, and many of the law enforcement officials in the North were sympathetic with the cause of the 'Old Religion.' Many of the gentry in the North sheltered Catholic priests, heard illicit Masses and declared their households to be "a parish unto themselves." When Mary, Queen of Scots was heading south across the Scottish border in 1568 she informed a Catholic priest that she "expected to find many friends when time did serve, especially among those of the Old Religion." She would later be involved in a number of plots revolving around her person, the last of which she would be executed for.

There were some who followed Catholicism out of scholary persuasion and fervent belief. Members of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, were the cutting edge of the evangelical movement. Often militant, one Jesuit outlined his purpose as to -

"preach the gospel, to minister the sacraments, to instruct the simple, to reform sinners, to confute errors and, in brief, to cry alarm spiritual against foul vice and proved ignorance wherewith my countrymen are afflicted"

A seminary was founded at Douai in 1568. Its purpose was to train a learned Catholic clergy to travel to England and preach among the population and replace the Marian bishops and Papists who were slowly dying out. Their task was to educate the laity and observe the Mass in secret. Whilst many began their actions among the poor of the nation, many started to filter into gentry households. Their patron gave them political power and a degree of protection against the authorities, and it is no accident that the areas of England which had the greatest number of recusants (people who illegaly abstained from attending the Church of England's services) were areas controlled by prominent Catholic nobles and gentry.

However, the patriotic pull of love for one's Monarch often over-rode the love of a particular brand of religion. The Revolt of the Northern Earls in 1569 failed to rouse a great number of the gentry families of the North, and many said they would not revolt in the name of religion because they refused to disgrace their families by doing so. After the publication of the Papal bull Regnans in Excelsis which excommunicated Elizabeth from the Roman Catholic Church and absolved her subjects' oath of allegiance to her, there was significant and justifiable fear among the Privy Council. The bull had arrived too late to be of any use to the insurgent Earls, though.

The commons

For their part, the Protestants and Puritans tried to evangelize as well. Much of the population was unmoved by their teachings and some were infuriated. The local opposition to Protestants in many villages was led by the local alehouse owner - having driven frivolity from the Church, Puritans now sought to suppress it outside Church as well. This was not because they were "boring" individuals - merely because many people decided their Sundays would be more profitably spent in drinking than in Church.

A great many people saw Protestant sermons as overly long and boring. They had been perfectly happy to conform to their inherited religion as their fathers and grandfathers had done before them, but this imposition of new teachings did not stir their hearts. It wasn't because they were doctrinally opposed to them, but because they had spent their lives in a ritual which had not demanded of them to be doctrinally informed. Catholics were now just starting to see the importance of educating the laity in Catholic doctrine and belief so that they would have ammunition with which to oppose the Protestant teachers, but this was not a process which was quick or effective. Catholicism in many areas remained the diluted set of quasi-mystical rituals which had been for centuries.

Many of the recusants brought before Church councils or the malcontents which disturbed the peace of the sermons cited such causes as boredom. Henry Hasellwood of Essex was reprimanded for walking out of a sermon, and explained to the Church council that -

"he was at Mr. Stoughton's sermon for two hours and a half, and being urged to exonerate nature was compelled to go out of the Church."

People complained of their "aching buttocks" and many fell asleep in sermons. Priests complained that it was as if they saw the Sabbath as a day in which to catch up on sleep they had lost during the week. This category of the commons could theoretically be won over to the Anglican cause, but it would clearly be very hard for the government to totally eradicate Catholicism whilst it remained the default in much of the country. Eventually the new religion might seep through and become the default, but clearly this would take time.

The crisis of English Catholicism

After the publication of the Papal bull of excommunication, there was a concerted effort by the group of doctrinally-informed and motivated Catholics to reconvert their nation. They had now received sanction from the highest source of their ecclesiastical authority to do so. There was a considerable reactionary backlash from a slightly cowed government - threatened abroad and from within, it sought to impose its will as strongly as was possible on the populace. There were no fewer than four plots on Elizabeth's life in the 1580s, which shocked many of the 'Old Religion' into choosing Monarch over Pope.

The bull was slightly atypical. It was not spread widely nor publicized highly, and it seems that the Pope never intended for it to actually assist the Revolt of the Northern Earls at the time of their uprising, but to assure Catholics that their rebelling was no sin. Pope Gregory XIII later assured Catholics that they were commiting no sin by tacitly followed Elizabeth's commands, but that they would likewise be commiting no sin in rebelling against her when the time came. The only person on the international scene capable of transforming the bull into reality was Philip II, and as I explain in King Philip II and the Catholic Church, Philip was very much a realist. Whilst he was a pious Catholic and would no doubt have loved to see a Catholic England, he realized that there was not sufficient Catholic sentiment in the country to do away with the new order and reimpose the old. Several hundred Catholic priests travelled with the Spanish Armada, but there appears to have been no plan to reconvert the entire country. However, the Privy Council didn't know this, and amidst the Council of Blood in the Netherlands and Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre, they were right to be fearful.

Prior to 1577, Elizabeth did not put any recusant or anyone refusing to take the oath of the Church of England to death. Afterwards, in the face of the new threat, legislation became much stricter, as did enforcement. The Privy Council were determined to make an example of those Catholics which they could, and hoped to cow the rest into at least outward conformity through fear1. There were executions (60 among the commons), confisfactions of property and fines. Rich Catholics could sometimes use their influence and money to bribe their way through the system. Where Royal authority was weak in the North the ability to impose anti-Catholic legislation was even weaker. It was estimated by a contemporary that out of 300 recusants in Yorkshire, around 10 had their estates seized.

In the Parliament of 1581 it became high treason to convert to Catholicism for the purpose of disloyalty to the Queen. It was still not an offence to be a Catholic, only to become one, and even then only if sedition was the purpose. In 1584-5 the death penalty was imposed on those who sheltered Jesuits or seminaries. So it went on. But, when, during the Spanish Armada, the Catholic population of England failed to rise up in rebellion against their Monarch, the situation seemed to become less prominent. The last anti-Catholic legislation of the reign was passed in 1593, and Sir William Cecil would soon be advocating a distinction between "good" and "bad" Catholics in national policy (this had been observed locally for a long time anyway.)

1. As every schoolboy knows, Elizabeth I said that in religion she wished for no "window into men's souls." The schoolboy is wrong, as it was in fact Sir Francis Bacon who said as Speaker of the House of Commons:

"Her Majesty, not liking to make windows into men's hearts and secret thoughts, except the abundance of them did overflow into overt and express acts or affirmations, tempered her law so as it restraineth only manifest disobedience..."


Alexander, H.G. Religion in England, 1558 - 1662: Hodder and Stoughton, 1968.

Elton, G. R. England under the Tudors 2nd ed.: Cox & Wyman, 1974.

Fletcher, Anthony. Tudor Rebellions 2nd. ed.: Longman, 1973.

Haigh, Christopher. The Reign of Elizabeth I: Macmillan, 1984.

Saxon, Malcolm. Elizabeth I: Religion in The Tudor Years, edited by John Lotherington: Hodder and Stoughton, 1994.

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