Queen Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth I

Elizabeth ascended the throne with the sincere purpose of restoring the Protestant religion. She was faced, however, with a work that was as difficult as it was great. The learned and eloquent preachers who had been the strength of Protestantism in the reign of her brother Edward had perished at the stake or been driven into exile, leaving the pulpits in the possession of the Roman Catholic clergy. On all sides she was surrounded by great dangers. The clergy of her realm were mostly of the Catholic faith. As the daughter of one of those wives of Henry that they disputed, in the eyes of these bishops her claim to the throne was more than doubtful. Abroad, the dangers were equally great.

During the first year of Elizabeth’s reign, the qualified Protestant clergy in England were few indeed, but their numbers rapidly increased as the news reached the cities to which they had been driven by persecution. Their arrivals in England greatly strengthened the work of restoring the Reformation.

As long as Scotland was Catholic in faith, it was a threat to Protestant England. The establishment of its Reformation in 1560 under John Knox, however, made it one in policy, as in faith, with England. At the time when Elizabeth was weakest, this sudden conversion of an ancient foe into a firm ally brought her unexpected help.

The Reformer, John Knox, landed in Scotland on May 2, 1559. A messenger immediately set off to bear the unwelcome news to the Scottish queen. A few days later, by royal proclamation, he was declared a rebel and an outlaw. If the proclamation accomplished nothing else, it succeeded in electrifying all of Scotland with the news.

Mary Queen of Scotts

Until the coming of Knox, a close alliance had existed between Scotland and France, a union of the gravest concern to Elizabeth. Francis II, upon ascending the throne of France, had openly assumed the title and arms of England. He made no secret of his purpose to invade the country and place his wife, Mary Stuart, heiress of the Scottish kingdom, upon its throne. The most obvious way to achieve his purpose, as it appeared to him, was to pour his soldiers into his wife’s hereditary kingdom of Scotland and then descend on England from the North. The scheme was proceeding with every promise of success, when the progress of the Reformation in Scotland and the consequent expulsion of the French converted that very country, in which the Papists trusted to be the instrument of Elizabeth’s overthrow, into her firmest ally.

It now became clear to Pope Pius V that the Reformation was centering itself in England, and, from there, influencing all of Europe. In the throne of England, Protestant forces were finding a focus and developing into a more consolidated and effective Protestantism than had ever before existed in Christendom. It was here, therefore, that the great battle must come which would determine whether the Reformation of the sixteenth century was to establish itself or to end in failure.

On May 3, 1570, Pius V issued his bull excommunicating Queen Elizabeth. Nearly three years before, the Jesuits had begun to infiltrate England. Professing themselves to be Protestant clergymen, they worked to widen the differences and create animosities between the various Protestant groups, eventually breaking the union and peace that had so largely prevailed in England during the first ten years of Elizabeth’s reign. The Massacre of St. Bartholomew, which occurred soon after, in 1572, sent a thrill of terror through the nation. The doom of the Huguenots taught Elizabeth and the English Protestants that Roman Catholic pledges and promises of peace were no security whatever against sudden and wholesale destruction.

To counter the influence of the Reformation movement in England, the Catholic Church founded a university at Douay in the northeast of France. To this school a small group of English youth came to be educated as seminary priests and later were employed in undermining the Reformation in their native land. The Pope so completely approved of the entire plan that he created a similar institution in Rome—the English College.

Before these foreign seminaries had had sufficient time to complete the work of training qualified agents, two students of Oxford, Edward Campion and Robert Parsons, traveled to Rome. While there, they arranged with the Jesuits to carry out the execution of the Pope’s bull against Queen Elizabeth. Returning to England in 1580, they began operations. Assuming new names and different dress each day of the week, they began to traverse England. In their travels, they lodged in the houses of Catholic nobles, seeking to arouse Roman Catholic zeal and the spirit of mutiny. At length, Campion addressed a letter to the Privy Council, boldly avowing to revive in England "the faith that was first planted, and must be restored," and boasting that the Jesuits of all countries were leagued together for this object. He concluded by demanding a disputation at which the queen and members of the Privy Council should be present. A warrant was issued for his arrest, and he was seized while in the disguise of a soldier and taken to the Tower. According to the act already passed, he was found guilty and, along with Sherwin, Kirby, and Briant, his accomplices, was executed for high treason.

Rome recognized that any hope of reestablishing the faith of Rome in England was hopeless as long as Elizabeth reigned. Finding themselves unwilling to wait for natural causes to make vacant her throne, they watched their opportunity to accomplish her removal. The record of England during the years following 1580 is a continuous record of these murderous attempts, all springing out of and justifying themselves by the bull of excommunication. Not a year passed, after the arrival in England of the Jesuits Campion and Parsons, that there was not a plot to insurrection in some part of the queen’s dominions.

In 1586 came the Babington conspiracy. It originated with John Ballard, a priest who had been educated in the seminary at Rheims. Respecting the bull of excommunication as the product of infallibility, he held that as Elizabeth had been excommunicated by the Pope, for him to deprive her of both her life and throne would be the most acceptable service he could render to God and the surest way of earning a crown in Paradise. The affair was to begin with the assassination of Elizabeth. The Catholics in England were then to be summoned to arms; and while the flames of insurrection were raging within the kingdom, a foreign army was to land upon the coast, besiege and sack the cities that opposed them, raise Mary Stuart of Scotland to the throne, and establish the Catholic religion in England.

Sir Francis Walsingham

By means of intercepted letters and the information of spies, Walsingham, one of Elizabeth’s leading secretaries, early learned of the secret. Soon he was in possession of as clear and precise a knowledge of the plot as the conspirators themselves. Quietly he stood by, watching the conspiracy develop until all was ready. He then stepped in and crushed it. The Englishmen who had plotted to extinguish the religion and liberties of their native land in the blood of civil war and the fury of foreign invasion paid for their crimes on the scaffold. The life of Mary, Queen of Scots, ended for her, not on the throne of England but with a headsman’s ax.

An attempt has been made to present the men executed for their share in this, and similar conspiracies, as martyrs for religion. The fact is, however, that it is impossible to show that a single individual was put to death under Elizabeth simply because he believed in or professed the Roman Catholic faith. In every case, the charges were for promoting or practicing treason. Surely had the Protestant government of Elizabeth thought to put to death Catholics for their faith, those others who had acted such prominent parts in the bloody tragedies under Mary would have been the first to fall. But these men who had murdered hundreds were never called to account for the deeds they had done. Instead, they lived out their lives in ease and peace amid the relations and contemporaries of the men they had dragged to the stake.

◄List of Articles►Next Article