Elizabeth I: Life Story

Chapter 19 : Catholic Mission

It had become an offence in England to be ordained into the Catholic Church and as those priests who had been ordained before Elizabeth’s reign began to die off, the only way for the Catholic Church to succour the faithful was to set up seminaries in Europe, such as that at founded at Douai by Dr William Allen. Once trained, the priests slipped across the Channel in what became known as the ‘English Mission’, which not only ministered to those who had never left the faith, but began proselytising and making new converts.

From 1581, it became an offence to convert someone to the old faith. The legislation was framed to appear as punishment for treason (considered to be a more palatable reason for persecution than religion) by making it criminal only if the conversion were done with intent to lead one of Elizabeth’s subjects away from his or her allegiance but this subtlety was ignored in the prosecutions that followed.

Despite some of these missionary priests being executed (or martyred, depending on the viewpoint) – Cuthbert Mayne, John Nelson and Thomas Sherwood being the first – there was no lack of recruits. One of the best known of these priests was Edmund Campion, who, as a young man at Oxford had attracted royal favour, but then converted to Catholicism. On being captured, he was tortured, in an attempt to extract some confession of plotting against the queen. He failed to give his captors what they wanted, insisting he had no thoughts on any matters pertaining to Elizabeth’s position as excommunicate, but false evidence was adduced to convict him at Westminster Hall on 1st December 1581. He was hanged, alongside two other priests, to widespread condemnation.

Persecution stepped up – and in 1585 it was enacted that merely to be a priest in England (unless ordained before the queen’s accession) was to commit treason, and anyone giving succour to such a priest was also guilty of a capital crime. Some 183 Catholics were executed under the anti-Catholic legislation during the whole of Elizabeth’s reign, and many more imprisoned or exiled. Torture was also employed, in later years under the supervision of the notorious sadist, Richard Topcliffe.

Elizabeth’s biographer, Anne Somerset, argues that it was the presence of Mary, Queen of Scots in England that made the link between Catholicism and treason so clear in the minds of Elizabeth’s government, and perhaps the queen herself.

In 1582, it seemed a solution might be found when Mary suggested that if she and her son, now sixteen, but under restraint from a pro-English group of Scots, known as the Lords Enterprisers, were recognised as joint sovereigns of Scotland and Mary treated less like a prisoner, although remaining in England, she, Mary would publicly affirm Elizabeth as rightful queen of England, and not seek to make any change to the settled Protestant religion in Scotland.

Whilst Elizabeth’s Lord Chancellor, Sir Walter Mildmay, encouraged Elizabeth to make terms with Mary, others of her councillors, particularly Walsingham, were suspicious, and when James asserted his own authority, the talks lapsed. Walsingham believed his misgivings were shown to be justified when one Sir Francis Throckmorton was found to be secretly visiting the French embassy in London, and writing covertly to Mary.

Throckmorton was racked into confessing that he had been plotting with Mary’s Guise relatives, who were in communication with Philip of Spain and the Pope, regarding a potential invasion of England. Throckmorton was executed, and another man involved in the plot, the 8th Earl of Northumberland (brother of the earl involved in the Rising of the Northern Earls, although he himself had then acted vigorously for Elizabeth) died in the Tower of London, shot through the heart with his own gun. A verdict of suicide was returned. Unsurprisingly, the verdict was challenged, and various anti-government pamphlets were circulated.

The talks with Mary resumed – if a solution to her presence in England could be found, it would minimise the likelihood of further plots. It emerged however, that, although Mary thought of her son with a mother’s love, he had no corresponding affection for her, not having seen her since he was eighteen months old. He had no desire for her to be in a position to reclaim sovereign power in Scotland and made it clear to Elizabeth that he was happy to maintain friendly relations with her, even if she did hold his mother captive.

Mary was heartbroken when she learnt this, but it made Elizabeth’s position considerably easier when dealing with James. Mary publicly condemned her son’s ingratitude, and made it clear she would turn again for help to France or Spain. Whilst Mary claimed that she would not condone assassination of Elizabeth, the Pope had apparently confirmed that to murder England’s queen would be a good deed and both Philip and the Duke of Guise seemed to think killing Elizabeth would be an acceptable solution to what they saw as the problem of Catholic repression in England.

Elizabeth, although she not unnaturally feared the blade or bullet, was too courageous to cower indoors, and continued to be seen in public, also refusing to restrict access to her court.