Elizabeth, of course, was the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. As the daughter of this second marriage which, in the eyes of the Catholic Church was invalid as Henry’s first marriage to Katherine of Aragon had not been annulled, Elizabeth was considered a bastard by Catholics everywhere. Elizabeth had been preceded on the throne by her sister Mary, daughter of Henry and Katherine, and Mary had restored the Church of England to full communion with the Church of Rome. This was because her father, Henry, had broken communion with Rome in 1536 and her brother, Edward, who had ruled from 1547-1553, had led the Church of England into Protestantism with doctrinal and liturgical reforms. Mary, during her five year reign, restored Catholic doctrine and practice but Elizabeth, not recognized as legitimate in Catholic circles, was bound to reverse that.
Mary died and Elizabeth succeeded to the throne in November 1538. In February 1559 Parliament took up a bill reestablishing the independence of the Church of England from Papal authority. It also took up legislation to replace Catholic ritual with a slightly modified form of Edward VI’s Second Book of Common Prayer. Elizabeth had been crowned according to Catholic ritual in January 1559 but both at Christmas 1558 Mass and during her Coronation Mass Elizabeth had insisted on some minor changes in the ritual that reflected a tendency towards Protestantism.
Elizabeth’s religious preferences are difficult for historians to discern. She was both extremely intelligent—perhaps the most intelligent of British monarchs (which, I realize is not saying that much as Britain has seen an array of incredibly dumb [“stupid” doesn’t do them justice] Rulers in its history, but she actually was extraordinarily bright)—and highly educated, particularly in theology. Like many educated in theology, however, religion for her seems to have been more of an intellectual exercise than a genuine faith commitment. Consequently she can be described as having been Protestant in her doctrine but Catholic in her piety. While more zealous churchmen were sweeping away cross and candles from the altars, Elizabeth used the “ornaments rubric” of the prayer book as a justification for retaining them in her chapel where she insisted on more decorum than many of her bishops or priests maintained in their cathedrals and parish churches. Elizabeth also was clear that she preferred the clergy to be celibate although she could not enforce this on the more reform-minded prelates and priests of her English Church. But then Elizabeth herself seems to have had some very ambiguous attitudes about sex and historians are uncertain in their opinions about the Queen’s sexual history.
Some claim, and I think they are right, that Elizabeth would have preferred the Royal Catholicism of her father, that is, a Church that remained in worship and piety in the Catholic tradition while preserving its autonomy from papal power. This was never an option however. London had been thoroughly Protestantized during the reign of her brother King Edward and his thoroughly Protestant Bishop of London, Nicholas Ridley. Ridley had been burned at the stake in the reign of Mary and Londoners regarded him and other Protestant martyrs as heroes. London was a Protestant city through and through. When Elizabeth came to London in her coronation progress she was greeted by a series of pageants by the citizens that made it clear to her that her capital was a Reformed City, not a Catholic one. While attachment to “the old religion” was strong in the North and West of England, Elizabeth had to govern from London and London and the surrounding southern part of England wanted nothing to do with the cult the Reformation had wiped away.
Despite the Act of Supremacy making Elizabeth “supreme governor” in all things, spiritual and ecclesiastical as well as temporal and asserting that “no foreign prince, person, prelate, state or potentate” shall claim any jurisdiction within her realm, and despite the abandonment of Catholic liturgical practices, Rome moved slowly to respond with an excommunication. Despite some deliberate ambiguities to suit the Queen’s piety, Elizabeth’s 1559 Prayer Book was definitely Protestant in doctrine. However the following year a Latin edition of the Prayer Book was issued, ostensibly for use in the chapels of Oxford and Cambridge where scholars would be familiar with the language. A close examination of the two books, the Latin and the English, shows that the Latin Book is far more “Catholic” not only in its vocabulary but in is theology. I would not overstress this—the liturgy is substantially the same—but the variations are theologically significant. Elizabeth’s chief advisors undoubtedly realized that Rome would study the liturgical texts carefully to discern the theological stance of the English Church before making its judgment about the Queen’s faith and that given the choice of using a Latin or an English text for their research, they would choose the more familiar Latin. The Latin book is slanted to make the break seem somewhat less drastic than it in fact was.
In coming to the throne, Elizabeth had to deal with enemies both at home and abroad who wanted to use the opportunity of a woman on the throne to subordinate England to their own policies, foreign or domestic, by finding her a husband who would dominate her and thus dominate the realm. Elizabeth had no desire to be so manipulated but she was in no way secure enough on the throne to play her hand openly at first. Protestants wanted to find her a domestic husband from among their coreligionist nobility. (This was not an easy task as many of the old nobility remained Catholic while the “new-blood” families who had been elevated by her father to the nobility to side with him in his struggle against the Church and the old guard, were Protestant.) Catholics, on the other hand, hoped she would marry a Hapsburg (Spanish or Austrian) or Valois (French) prince who might persuade her to restore Catholicism. Elizabeth probably had no intention of every marrying anyone but she played these two factions off against one another. To do so she had to go easy on English Catholics lest she offend potential foreign suitors.
As I wrote, religion for Elizabeth was more a matter of intellectual exercise than a personal passion and she was genuinely reluctant to disturb individuals whose preferences and even ideologies differed from hers so long as that they did not disturb the peace of the realm. Many of “old families”—both noble and gentry—kept discreetly to the Catholic faith and Elizabeth was not wont to stir up hornets’ nests, especially as she did not feel secure on the throne with her nearest heir (Mary, Queen of Scots) being a Catholic and England’s powerful enemies—France and Spain—looking for excuses for war and possible conquest. Thus for eleven years things remained calm in England.
It was actually Catholics who ignited the fuse of rebellion that would lead to persecution. In 1569 there was a rebellion in the north of England that intended to overthrow Elizabeth and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots. The Plotters designed that Mary was to be married to the Duke of Norfolk, the leading peer of the realm and a Catholic. Elizabeth would be captured, perhaps killed but certainly deposed. Mary and Norfolk would reign. The plot failed. Pius V then issued a bull, Regnans in Excelsis, deposing Elizabeth “pretended Queen of England and servant of crime,” releasing her subjects of any obedience to her, and excommunicating any who did obey her. Well, this put Catholics in a bad spot—they were either to be excommunicate or be traitors, they could make their choice. Moreover, just to seal the deal there was another Catholic plot organized by a Florentine banker, Roberto di Ridolfi, with Pius’ blessing to murder Elizabeth. Subsequent Catholic plots—the 1583 Throckmorton Plot and the 1586 Babington Plot—would lead to Mary’s execution and to the arrests and execution of Catholics for treason.
What persecution of Catholics there was under Elizabeth was not on religious grounds but for suspected treason. While there were laity who gave their lives, the vast majority of Elizabeth’s victims were priests. Priests were considered foreign agents (of the Pope) who undermined the Queen’s authority. The execution of a woman in the city of York, Saint Margaret Clitherow, who was put to death on Good Friday 1586 for harboring priests, provoked a letter from an outraged Elizabeth stating that given her sex, Clitherow should not have been executed. By executing people for treason rather than religious beliefs, Elizabeth avoided the mistake her sister, “Bloody Mary,” had made of elevating her victims to martyrs in popular opinion. It was only in the nineteenth century that Catholic historians were able to change popular opinion concerning the Elizabethan victims from traitors to religious martyrs, and to be perfectly honest, the case of each needs to be looked at singularly to decide whether the individual was indeed a martyr for the faith or a criminal legitimately executed for treason.