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The Gunpowder Plot
By Alan Haynes
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Alan Haynes
All rights reserved.
The Politics of Salvation
It was a defensive and angry King Henry VIII with his compliant ministers, clerics and a complacent Parliament who had snatched the English church from papal control. In the years after this sensational event, the struggle for the soul of England and Wales was conducted variously with dignity, acrimony and cunning cruelty, as well as raging conviction. Religion remained 'the motive power of the age'. The puzzled and beleaguered English Catholic community of clerics and laymen struggled to find a secure place in a challenging, discordant Protestant society in which some Protestant reformers heaped scorn on Catholicism, calling the Catholic Church 'the Pope's playhouse' and endeavouring to prove that the pontiffs had in the later ages fulfilled the prophecy of St John in regard to the Antichrist. The chronological and historical sense of identity and obligation became severely distorted. The Elizabethan calendar year for the Church, law and government began late in March, generally coinciding with the major festival of Easter and the timeless, visible hope of spring. Popular usage continued to call 1 January 'new year's day'. Protestants and puritans alike shifted their religious observance away from the quotidian cycles of the land and the old liturgical cycle, because they lived in towns and there were clocks to rival bells. The disconnection had profound consequences. 'The Protestants took upon themselves in different spirits the robes of the prophets.' For those of the old faith an arhythmic and unnatural tugging at the spirit took place, engendering simultaneous feelings of belonging and estrangement. These were especially disturbing for the lesser peerage and gentry class of landowners; from the Humber to the Severn there stretched a solid belt of opulent and obstinate followers of the old religion.
Pressure on Catholics was immediate under Elizabeth since the religious settlement effected by and for her in 1559–60, which smothered the flames of Protestant martyrs, also completed the 'institutional wreckage begun with the monasteries, advanced by the chantries acts and furthered by the conversions of the priesthood'. Even a mild resistance to this was hard to muster after the crashing failure in 1569 of the rebellion of the northern earls of Northumberland and Westmorland. From then on, Catholicism, like a great lake subject to a newly hostile climate, began to shrink to areas remote from London and the privy council, to country villages, sometimes to just a great seigneurial house and its environs, where observation and obligation fast tethered it. Lord Vaux made the point in 1581 when he claimed that his house had become his parish. The rituals of the old faith could be conducted indoors with some trepidation, but public expressions of it were normally held to be too risky. Even so, there were those for whom its importance overrode disquiet at the possible consequences. The Rookwoods in Suffolk, for example, kept Corpus Christi, the greatest feast of the late medieval church, with great solemnity and music 'and the day of the Octave made a solemn procession about a great garden', but ventured no further. The most unhappy pendant to the woeful failure in 1569, and the fierce government repression that then followed, on the instigation of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, was the insidious growth of self-pity.
This erratic growth could lead to a lack of realism as the government pressed their advantage and devised an auxiliary policy of seeking to impoverish Catholics materially. As their wealth was gnawed away, so too was their chief spiritual resource – the priesthood. Out of this dismal jam of oppression and self-repression (a key component in the growth of a conspiracy) came elements of resistance and among the clerics in exile there was the notable Dr (later Cardinal) William Allen to give voice and funds to their efforts. His initial leanings to Protestantism had been swamped and he regarded the Elizabethan Settlement as an affront to believers. When he at length founded the English College at Douai in Flanders it was 'so that English seminarians could return home to gentry households, primarily in London and the Thames valley where Catholicism was not the strongest, in order to provide pastoral care and, in some cases, engage in soul-saving.' Since the gentry household was a supportive institution for an extended 'family' of blood relations and servants, the government saw no option but to apply pressure. The looming problem was now to extirpate Catholicism by statute without provoking a sequence of bloody stirs that would have to be put down with rigour. It was a problem given another twist by the maverick presence in England of a Catholic claimant to the English throne – Mary, Queen of Scots. Moreover, the end of the rebellion in 1569 had not been instantly achieved, and the government doubtless reflected ruefully on their good fortune that the earls were incompetents.
Nor had their external sympathizers proved much wiser, it has to be said, and the publication of the papal bull Regnans in Excelsis (25 February 1570) confirmed this. The purity of intention of Pope Pius V need not be doubted for he had a mode of thinking unblemished by low political considerations. He held Elizabeth to be an open, avowed heretic, who had broken her solemn promise, and all that was necessary was this bull which would restore the faith. It excommunicated her from the Roman Catholic Church without warning because of her manifestations of heresy, and it immediately deposed her from the throne without the usual formal delay of one year following excommunication. The people were hence released from obligation or allegiance to this ruler and commanded to flout her laws. Even without a clear call to Catholics to rebel, such risings as happened were condoned, so encouraging those who previously might have held back from such an extreme tactic. So the bull polarized domestic matters in an international context when it was made public in England by John Felton, the Catholic barrister who nailed it to the door of the Bishop of London's residence in a wry parody of Luther. It suggested to many 'that patriotism could not permit them to follow so extreme a religion'. But others recoiled because if they took the Pope at his word it was likely that they too would die like Felton on the gallows. Papal support of the Ridolfi plot against Elizabeth was equally ill-advised; the vision of a saint in the making in Rome did no harm for the time being to Mary Stuart, but her ally the Duke of Norfolk was tried and executed in 1572.
It is worth recalling that in its particulars the Elizabethan Settlement never had been lenient. To accelerate acceptance and flush out dissenters a parliamentary statute was passed in the spring of 1563. Known as An Act for the assurance of the Queen's Majesty's royal power ... it was directed 'against those that extol the power of the Bishop of Rome and refuse the oath of allegiance'. The dilemma for Catholics was underscored by the retributive element: on the first refusal to take the oath they were liable to loss of lands and imprisonment, and a second refusal was regarded as treason and punishable by death. After the 1569 rebellion, which had so shaken confidence, the government issued Queen Elizabeth's Defense of Her Proceedings in Church and State which outlined her authority in the Church. It made claims for royal authority that were modest when compared to the statements of her father, while still declaring the intention to oversee 'the laws of God and man which are ordained to that end to be duly observed, and the offenders against the same duly punished ...'. New legislation was passed in 1571 by Elizabeth's third Parliament. In the Treasons statute there was a direct borrowing of a phrase from the earlier statute of 1534 which prohibited any speech of writing that labelled the monarch a 'heretic, schismatic, tyrant, infidel or an usurper' – all things that the more reckless of the animated disciples of Mary Stuart were liable to example. To buttress the statute there was now a prohibition on spoken words or texts that denied Elizabeth's lawful occupation of the throne. A second statute made the attempt to execute a papal bull treason, as was any attempt to lure to Rome anyone willing to jettison their obedience to the queen. The third statute was directed against the property of Catholic exiles, especially those who had scattered after the disaster of late 1569 – the rebellion being followed by summary trials and many executions.
In the mid-1570s the effort of William Allen at Douai, then Rheims and later Rome, in the English colleges for seminarians, began to mature. The clandestine return to England of enthusiastic young priests in disguise led to some gains, but the grip of the government remained severe. Nor was there anyone among the opposition with sufficient political weight to negotiate for toleration of dissident religion, and with the secret arrival of the first Jesuit mission a new and unnerving political component was suddenly thrust into the exchanges. It was assumed that the provisions of Regnans in Excelsis had a meaning beyond the papal court, especially in Spain, which was set on a course of expansion, absorbing Portugal by force of arms and threatening to crush the Dutch rebels. Remove practical leadership or block its growth and the void is inevitably filled by heedless enthusiasts whose prescriptions are moulded by fanaticism. Such a man at the end of the sixteenth century was Father Robert Persons (or Parsons) of the Society of Jesus who mesmerized the eager and impressionable after returning to England in company with Father Edmund Campion and others. Persons was a yeoman's son and scholarship boy whose formidable abilities had allowed him to better himself. The former fellow and dean of Balliol College, Oxford, was as covertly political as any Jesuit was allowed to be by the rules of the order. The Instructions to the returners said that they were not to become involved in affairs of state, nor write to Rome about political matters, nor speak, nor allow others to speak in their presence, against the queen – except perhaps with those whose fidelity had been long and steadfast, and even then not without strong reasons.
Still, the agenda of the Jesuits was not a mystery. They intended the reversal of Protestant gains and capitulation to Rome, and though Edmund Campion, whose covert preaching aroused such tender admiration and fervour, might be regarded as less obviously political than Persons, he belonged to an order that was meshed with the enemies of England, and the Spanish party, supported by Persons as an active and able member, did not confine itself entirely to writings. In order to defeat the Jesuit mission which was noted by English spies of the privy council even before the covert landing in England, the government set out new legislation in the third session of the fourth Elizabethan Parliament: two anti-Catholic measures 'to make provision of laws more strict and more severe' in order to force them 'to yield their open obedience'. The bill introduced by Sir Francis Knollys, father-in-law of the Earl of Leicester whose puritanism had an increasingly political slant, raised the fine for absence from Sunday communion from 1s. to a startling and potentially ruinous £20 per lunar month. This put pressure on the gentry of whom Burghley was most suspicious, and it met his demand for a weapon against 'the socially influential and politically dangerous'. It became treason to convert anyone to Catholicism, and even to be present at mass meant a year's imprisonment as well as a fine. To ensure that the Act worked as intended informers were rewarded. The second measure stiffened penalties for seditious words and rumours spoken against Elizabeth, with a second offence leading to execution. It was also made a felony to write or print material regarding the possible longevity of the queen and the acutely interesting matter of the succession. Even the puritans in the House of Commons flinched at this since they wondered if the government had them in its sights as well.
Meanwhile, Burghley was concerned with hunting down the Jesuits, particularly Campion who declared mildly he had come to preach the faith and not as an agent of the papacy to meddle in politics. The challenge for the energetic Persons was to do his work and evade all efforts to take him by scampering from one hideout to another. He succeeded triumphantly, but Campion was less fortunate and was eventually seized at the Yate family home, Lyford Grange in Berkshire. This was the result of the persistent efforts of a pursuivant George Eliot – known as 'Judas'. After a spell in the Little Ease in the Tower of London (a cell that cramped the body as well as the spirit by restricting movement), Campion was subjected to several examinations, including one by Elizabeth herself and another by ecclesiastical commissioners. He was willing to defer to the queen's temporal power – she was his 'lawful governess' – but he must pay to God what was his, including the supremacy of the Church, a view that he maintained with sublime conviction after torture on the rack. On trial with the absent Allen and Persons (who had taken refuge at Michelgrove in Sussex, the home of the Shelley family, before taking a boat to exile), charged with a cluster of crimes against the state, Campion pleaded not guilty. Evidence against him was woefully thin, but he was still convicted by the jury under the terms of the Treason statute of 1352, because the government did not want the trial to slide into a forum for debate on the relationship 'between political allegiance and religious conversion'. It was difficult after Campion's execution on 1 December to brand him as a traitor – to many he was a martyr and Burghley thought it necessary to counter this with a special publication after the capture by Walsingham of Francis Throckmorton, and the discovery of Somerville's plan in the same year to assassinate Elizabeth. He developed his views (and those of the government) in the ominously titled pamphlet The Execution of Justice in England (1583) in which he affirmed 'the states right to take whatever measures it thought necessary in its own defence'. Only if England could be isolated from the phenomenon called the Counter-Reformation (and martyrs for the Church were martyrs for the Pope and his allies), would Catholicism in England be effectively held up and then stifled. As it has been pointed out by a biographer of Burghley, where political Catholicism was concerned he was ruthless because he was fighting for the survival of the Tudor realm, but somewhat surprisingly he was also capable of charity towards recusants as the leading Catholic Sir Thomas Tresham noted in his own correspondence with him.
Both Father Persons and Dr Allen responded to Burghley's pamphlet, the former also using the opportunity to attack another privy councillor, the Earl of Leicester, in a lengthy diatribe published in 1584 and known under the short title of Leicester's Commonwealth. Copies began to appear in England in the autumn of that year after the text had been assembled by a group of English lay Catholic exiles in France, with abundant help from Persons who organized its distribution from his bases in Rouen and Paris. In September Ralph Emerson, one of Persons' aides, for the second time smuggled copies into England before being arrested and committed to the Counter prison in Poultry Street. Leicester's self-esteem was wounded by the vitriolic text and he soon persuaded the privy council that it was not merely a personal squib aimed at his public and private reputation, but, more insidiously, an attack on the regime. However, the main effort to refute Burghley came in Allen's A True, Sincere and Modest Defense of English Catholics, which reiterated the claim that the prosecution of Catholics was actually for religous reasons; they suffered death only for 'cogitations and inward opinions' and 'never took arms in all England upon the bull of Pius V'. Against this the government was able, through its spy clusters and agents provocateurs, to offer apparent evidence that Allen was lying.
Excerpted from The Gunpowder Plot by Alan Haynes. Copyright © 2011 Alan Haynes. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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