|Saint Edmund Campion|
one of the Jesuits who
died a traitor's death for
holding to his Catholic
Upon assuming the throne, Elizabeth had to make some decisions as to in which direction the Church of England would go. It was never seriously considered that she would maintain the Catholic policy of her sister, Mary. Elizabeth had always been illegitimate in Catholic eyes, her father’s marriage to his first wife never having been properly annulled and Elizabeth’s mother, therefor, being only the king’s mistress. Elizabeth was devoted to the memory of her mother, a woman whom she probably could not even remember, and she would have no part of a Church that saw her mother as something less than a common slut. Even more crucial, of course, was that if Elizabeth were illegitimate she would have no claim to the crown. So Catholicism was out.
On the other hand, she had lived the first fifteen years of her life under that particular brand of Catholicism her father maintained throughout his reign. The Mass was still in Latin. Priests were celibate. Vestments and ornaments were part of the Church’s worship. And Elizabeth understood how Catholicism—Roman or Henrician—supported hierarchy and hierarchy is the prop of monarchy.
To further complicate matters, Elizabeth had been well tutored in theology. Indeed she was well tutored in many subjects. Thomas Cranmer had overseen her education and she was given good sound Protestant doctrine. But the rising Puritan-style Protestantism of the England Elizabeth inherited upon becoming queen, was a bridge too far for her. Many of the leading Protestant clergy—over 800—had fled to the continent during the reign of Elizabeth’s sister, Mary, who had become an ardent persecutor of Protestants. There they had been influenced by Calvin and this was a different Protestantism than Cranmer’s—far more aggressive, far more fundamentalist, far less anchored in the Patristic Tradition. As these exiles returned to England now that it had a Protestant sovereign once again, they expected to refashion the English Church after the Reformed congregations of Geneva and Strasbourg. They were not inclined to the narrow liturgical standards of the Prayer Book’s official liturgy, but tended to more extemporaneous (and long) prayers. They were sacramental minimalists—rejecting vestments and even the use of the ring at marriage as “too Catholic.” Holy Communion was celebrated more rarely and a greater emphasis put on preaching. And most to Elizabeth’s discomfort, they wanted to abolish bishops. Elizabeth probably could not have cared much about bishops from a theological point of view, but she well understood the political axiom: “no bishops, no king. There was a democratic view of Church polity in Presbyterianism (a Church led by presbyters [priests] and not bishops) and Elizabeth was well aware that this could spill over into the political arena and undermine the monarchy. She was not about to have it.
Elizabeth moved quickly to set the religious policies of her reign. Within the first six months she had re-introduced by law the Protestant Liturgy of the Prayer Book and had herself declared “Supreme Governor of the Church.” What is peculiar is that her re-introduction of Protestantism was pretty much ignored by Rome. Pius IV was involved in the final session of the Council of Trent but he gave no reaction to events in England. Consequently Elizabeth was willing to allow her Catholic subjects some “wiggle room” for the practice of their religion. Technically attendance at Protestant service was required by law and Catholic worship was illegal, but the fines were small and often not imposed. That all changed, however, in 1570 when Pius V published the Bull Regnans in Excelsis declaring Elizabeth deposed for her Protestantism and freeing her Catholic subjects of any allegiance to her.
Catholic historians have always seen Pius V as one of the truly great Popes in history. He was to Trent what Paul VI was to Vatican II in terms of translating the Conciliar decrees into concrete pastoral practice. To Pius we own the liturgical reforms that gave us the Mass we had for four hundred years until the 1970 revision of the Missal after Vatican II. I think, however, historians might need to take a new and more nuanced look at Pius V. His doctrinal rigidity and autocratic style had some very negative long-term consequences. And his action towards Elizabeth put his faithful in her realm in great danger.
We look on the Pope as a spiritual leader. But in the sixteenth century he was a political figure who had, in addition to his political agenda, a spiritual mission. The spiritual mission was often seen as secondary to his political role and indeed most of the popes of the end of the fifteenth century and the first half of the sixteenth century had treaded their responsibilities towards the Church as an afterthought—their primary concern being the expansion of their realm and the securing of advantageous marriages for their children. The Pope ruled a significantly large portion of central Italy, maintained armies, had spies and ambassadors alike. To Elizabeth the Pope was a monarch like herself and he was allied to her traditional enemies—most notably Spain. How could Elizabeth trust her subjects who also gave allegiance to this foreign enemy prince? In freeing her subjects from their allegiance to the Queen, indeed calling on them to rise up and overthrow her, Pius V made being a Catholic a traitorous act.
Up to this point, Elizabeth had permitted Catholics to live in peace but Pius forced the issue. In fact, most English Catholics were loyal to Elizabeth and remained loyal to her. She had been—and to a certain extent continued to be—their protector against the radical Protestant party that wanted “popery” to be drive out of the Island Kingdom forever. But the Queen could not ignore the political overtones of Regnans in Excelsis and she had to crack down on those Catholics whom she saw as a threat to her crown, and indeed her life.
Elizabeth’s main drive was against the clergy whom she saw as papal agents stirring up rebellion. Catholic priests, in those days, had to be educated abroad as it was obviously impossible for the establishment of Catholic seminaries in a kingdom where Catholicism was illegal. Most of the priests were educated in France or in Flanders (today’s Belgium) though there were also English Colleges in Rome and in Spain. Completing their studies, they would then return surreptitiously to England where they would take up a position as a tutor to the children of prominent Catholic families. They would serve as private chaplains to such families and also minister to the Catholics of the surrounding neighborhood. Even at this point Elizabeth was not anxious to pick a fight over matters religious, but the radical Protestants often forced the issue, denouncing the priest to the local authorities and leaving no choice but for prosecution. And the matter only became more critical when after 1580 the Jesuits began sending priests to work in England. Many of the secular priests, like the Catholic families they served, were politically loyal to Elizabeth and disregarded Regnans in Excelsis, but the Jesuits were ardent papalists. Moreover the Jesuits had strong ties to the Spanish Crown, Elizabeth’s chief enemy.
It is interesting to think of what might have happened if Pius had not published the Bull of Excommunication. You really can’t play “what if” in history as variables arise at every turn of events, but it is quite possible that Catholicism would have continued to be discretely tolerated and that large sections of England, especially in the North and West, would have remained Catholic.
Elizabeth made it very clear that Catholics were not executed for their religious faith but for their treason. The penalty for treason was to be hanged, drawn, and quartered—a particularly gruesome fate. The victim was first hanged until almost dead, then cut down and disemboweled while still alive. Finally his corpse was cut into four quarters.
A Catholic convicted under Elizabeth was in a difficult position. The only way out to prove his loyalty to the Queen was to take the oath of supremacy, but to affirm that the Queen was indeed supreme governor of the Church made him disown his Catholic faith. All in all, about 200 Catholics were executed under Elizabeth. For the Church they are martyrs; for England, traitors. It is all a matter of perspective.