297 Servant of Crime


Through the 1560s, the progress of the reformation gave both the Protestant Godly and Catholics much leeway and wriggle room. A series of events in the late 1560’s and early 1570s would begin to end that. One of those was the Papal bull, Regnans in Excelsis.


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Last time I left you with the Pope’s slipper…actually I have no idea what renaissance popes wore on their feet, so if someone has the lowdown on that, get in touch. But before I talk about said slipper, we should go back a bit; as Vladymir Ulyanov wrote in 1904, One step forward, two steps back. To hear about the progress of religion and all that sort of stuff in the 1560s.

So, there we go, we’ve seen the introduction of the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity, instituting Elizabeth’s via media, based on Edward VI’s church; followed by the 39 articles in 1563 from the Convocation of the church, the statement of the church’s core beliefs. All but one of the Marian bishops had walked, refusing to accept the church of England; most were initially imprisoned, none were executed, and after a few years those that remained were moved to comfortable house arrest. It is a feature of the early years of Elizabeth’s reign that as exiles retuned many of the hotter sort of protestant bayed furiously for revenge against the persecutors of Mary’s reign. Very rarely indeed did Elizabeth give in, and not at all in the 1560’s, only when the game changed from the 1570s. But wait for that slipper.

The new ABC was one Matthew Parker, an academic and theologian by nature rather administrator. Once hailed as the author of Anglicanism, it’s been recognised now that Anglicanism is a term of a distinctive religious philosophy only properly used after 1660, or even later, and Parker now gets little credit for doing more than survive his time in the job.  He had been chaplain to Elizabeth’s mother, but the position into which Cecil, Nicholas Bacon and Elizabeth forced him as ABC made his blood run cold. His was an unfortunate situation – working for a queen who had muttered job done after her religious settlement, a view that very few religious leaders shared; for them, the settlement was but the first step towards a fully reformed church. Parker was faced constantly with his mistress’ refusal to countenance further reform and left him frustrated and a rather beleaguered figure in Lambeth palace. Meanwhile a new set of bishops were appointed; almost inevitably, many were drawn from those who had left England in Mary’s reign and had now returned. A notable exception were those who had spent a lot of time in Geneva; of these, Elizabeth was suspicious. Their obvious misogyny and radicalism caused her to detest the Calvinist Knox, and she felt little better about the principal, Jean Calvin either. She also suspected the Genevans as being nowhere respectful enough of royal authority, and being less than super respectful of royal authority was no way to get yourself onto Elizabeth’s Christmas card list.

The role they came back to was different in a key respect to the pre-reformation church. Their focus was very much to be fully resident chief pastors of their diocese whose primary function was to direct the spiritual life of their flock. Gone were the days of the likes of Wolsey or Chancellor Gardiner or even Bishop White of Winchester, Prince Bishops and administrators who spent as much of their time serving government as they did the church. Gone were the days of the enormous wealth of Bishops of the larger sees. Only one bishop served on the Privy Council in Elizabeth’s reign – the last of her ABCs, AB Whitgift. The Bishops were put to work almost immediately, with the visitation ordered by Elizabeth from July 1559. Although guided by reasonable sounding instructions, there was nothing half hearted about the implementation of the visitation; the old survivor from Henry VIII’s day, AB Tunstall, before he left the see of Durham, was horrified at what he saw in London:

‘I do plainly see to be set forth here in London, as pulling down of altars, defacing of churches by taking away of crucifixes’.

The process was the same at each parish; the royal visitors would arrive, and preach a sermon justifying what was about to happen; the church wardens were sent away to do an investigation and come back with what they found against the instructions. Clergy were required to attend and present their letters of ordination and subscribe to the royal supremacy, Prayer Book and Injunctions. This put traditionalists in a bit of a hole – did they conform or leave? The vast majority conformed with varying levels of enthusiasm, but a significant number of the 9,000 priests in England did not. Historians are a bit hazy about how many, from a low of 200 to a high of 800, but these priests are important for the survival of Catholicism; these Marian priests often stayed, and travelled offering support and service to populations all over England. Their impact was enormous, and their contribution in the end may have been much more significant than the glory boys of the Jesuit missions later in the reign. But we’ll come to that in due course.

As in 1553-4, the public face of worship was transformed, with the whitewashing of walls and removal of images; over time, larger Pulpits pushed Altars to the background, rood screens were replaced and a crest and biblical texts hung on the wall. Pews began to arrive in greater numbers along with box pews, although it’s a myth that the reformation brought in box pews – remember they had been gaining in popularity since he 15th century. But the reaction was often different than it had been to the Edwardian visitations; this was the second time around, and locals now knew what the consequences would be – and there was more resistance in some areas. It would be decades before the process of physical transformation was finished in some areas.

For reformers, and to a degree Bishops, the 1560s were a period of growing confusion. Just as Cranmer never imagined that his 1552 Book of Common Prayer was the last word in reformation, so reformers never imagined that the 1559 religious settlement was the end – what they had was a hybrid, theologically close to a reformed church, physically retaining, as far as reformers were concerned, far too many reminders of the pre-reformation church. One Andrew Gilby for example wrote

‘That was but the first show of the light … we must grow to further perfection.’

It’s also worth noting that this was an attitude that would be shared by the much more clearly Calvinist Reformation in Scotland, which prided itself as being the most perfectly reformed church and looked at their southern neighbour as an unfinished work. English reformers understood Elizabeth, in taking the title supreme governor, to be saying that she would not make theological changes – which would be up to the church. But when, at several occasions and convocations, reforms were enthusiastically agreed – and then vetoed by the queen, the confusion of the more passionate reformers grew – let us call them Puritans, though it’s a loaded word.  They were horrified at survivals of traditional practice – such as bowing at the name of Jesus, making the sign of the cross at baptisms, the use of a wedding ring, and the use of cap and surplice for priest. This last, the vestments crisis, was a hangover from Edwardian days, and it is difficult these days to appreciate the furious depth of feeling they raised. But the fundamental truth was that the queen had decided the reformation was sorted now, job done, no more change. And despite all the pressure on her, she proved equal to the task of so sticking.

One of the beauties or frustrations of the Elizabethan settlement was that it was in many ways hazy, it was supported by the BCP and 39 articles, and that was it – there was still no reform of canon laws for example, the church courts retained the same structure and process, an often frighteningly confused and complex structure of overlapping jurisdictions. So as Protestantism advanced at a grass roots level it’s not just that traditional practices survived for a long time, but that practice varied widely according to where you might be. So for example, Puritans emphasised the importance of sermons even more strongly than the church; in some locations, the liturgy of the BCP was cut back to make room for longer sermons. Or, the Godly went as far as to withdraw from communal worship; for example on 19 June 1567, a conventicle of around a hundred persons was discovered worshipping at the hall of the Plumbers’ Livery Company, hired ostensibly for a wedding. In the liberty of the Minories in London there was a group of separatists, who

‘called themselves Puritans, or Unspotted Lambs of the Lord’.

The worst problem of all, as far as the puritans were concerned, was the question of discipline, the survival of the old courts and canon law and failure to implement a strict process of community disciple, a system that was implemented in Scotland and did an excellent job of enforcing conformity and consistency. It was also very hard for puritans to accept the latitude given to the Marian bishops and to priests, Elizabeth made sure that priests were only asked for ‘subscription’ to the royal supremacy rather than the formal oath supposedly required – she gave them wriggle room. In 1563, a new act for the security of the Queen made denial of the Supremacy a treasonable offence, and a second refusal punishable by death. The bill met with a lot of debate, and one MP passionately argued for something like toleration:

‘Let us therefore, for the honour of God, leave all malice, and notwithstanding religion, let us love together. For it is no point of religion, one to hate another.’

I do not know whether the irony was clear to said MP, of Catholics now pleading for toleration so signally denied during Mary’s reign, but of course to the modern ear it sounds eminently reasonable. But they were not modern ears listening, and to the vast majority of early modern ears all over Europe, non conformity was heresy, and a single heretic endangered the entire community by exposing them to the wrath of God’s judgement. As I have mentioned before it is one thing that Lutheran, Reformed and catholic churches agreed on. So Cecil was having none of it, linking compliance with the act of settlement with loyalty to the state in the face of the threat to the Queen’s safety. But the way the act was implemented was typical of the 1560s and of the queen’s approach to religious change. AB Parker and Cecil, at the Queen’s command behind the scenes, wrote to the Bishops instructing them to make sure that where used, the oath was only put once, rather than twice when a second refusal might lead to execution. Parker was worried that for the Godly and the Puritans, this would be deeply unsatisfactory, but for Elizabeth leniency was paramount.

So essentially, the Puritans faced a dilemma; should they continue to work within a defective national church and try to improve it? Or should they strike out on their own, and refuse to conform? They were trapped in a sense by exactly the same dilemma as Catholics; all the Elizabeth settlement demanded was outward conformity. You were required to go to church; what you thought when you were there was up to you. This is the meaning of Bacon’s dictum; Elizabeth wasn’t really interested in looking after your soul, that was your affair and that of the church. What Elizabeth wanted was your outward participation every week in the national church, with Communion taken 3 times a year.

The same dilemma applied to Catholics; the age old question of whether outward compliance was possible or not. In that first decade, as the new church fought to establish its procedures and educate its laity there was plenty of opportunity for a wide range of interpretations even of the liturgy.

So how about the survival of Catholicism? In 1561 Nicholas Sander, who left England to avoid the oath of supremacy, wrote a report for the church in Rome which claimed with laughable optimism that less than 1% was ‘infected with heresy’. It is the first of a long line of massively over optimistic reports about the extent of catholic survival and potential support for invasion which will adorn Elizabeth’s reign. But of course there is also a truth in there – in the 1560s Catholics were still probably in the majority, even if conforming to the outward forms. It’s essential to understanding the paranoia of leaders like Cecil, and Dudley that if there had been a regime change, by invasion or Elizabeth’s death, the protestant reformation could still have been overturned at this stage. By the end of Elizabeth’s reign that would no longer be the case, but in the 1560s to 1580s, it was still a real danger. Part of the problem was also that the people required to implement the reformation in law, the JPs, were themselves suspect – in 1564 a survey by the bishops reckoned that only 50% of JPs were supporters of the settlement.

In 1562 a group of Catholics petitioned the Council of Trent, asking them what they should do; was it acceptable to outwardly conform? After all, just as protestants in the time of Mary saw the mass as actively idolatrous, for Catholics the prayer book service was simply inadequate rather than sinful. Bishop Quadra, the Spanish ambassador, happily announced that the ‘Common Prayers’ of the Church of England,

‘contain no false doctrine whatever, nor anything impious. It is all Scripture or prayers taken from the Catholic Church.’

The Council of Trent was not inclined to be sympathetic to the painful dilemma of loyal Catholics:

‘You may not be present at such prayers of heretics, or at their sermons, without heinous offence and the indignation of God, and it is far better to suffer most bitter cruelties than to give the least sign of consent to such wicked and abominable rites.’

However, this command, pitilessly rigorous though it might be, was kept quiet by the Pope. In the background too, Phillip was working make sure that the pope did not excommunicate the English queen, still hoping for an Imperial marriage alliance with Archduke Charles.

Meanwhile a network of a kind existed to allow Catholics to continue to practice their faith, or even to become fully signed up, card carrying recusants – the word recusant is derived from Latin recusare, to refuse. Many of the Marian priests who had chosen not to stay with the church offered Catholic masses; for example the ex-archdeacons of Derby and Huntingdon, John Ramridge and Anthony Draycott, said recusant masses for Catholic gentlemen in East Anglia. Catholic aristocrats provided protection, and a place to offer services, and worried Bishops noted in their visitations that many people had withdrawn from services under the pretence of attending the chapel of a lord. So the Marian priests encouraged and supported the survival of catholic practice. If you were caught failing to attend church, a fine of 12d could be levied; which is significant for a labourer, loose change for the gentry. If you were caught organising a mass you could incur the death penalty – but such a penalty was not levied in the 1560s oo most of the 1570s.

The most zealous meanwhile fled to the continent, and began to produce catholic tracts and gather in academic communities especially in the low countries at Douai and Louvain. By 1564 a steady stream of these works were being produced and smuggled over to England as well. The sophistication of the printed attack on the English church came as a bit of a shock to the Protestants; John Jewel confessed himself to Cecil exhausted by constantly writing to refute the publications; and admitting the same concerns of Thomas More all those years ago that to engage was to publicise. Maybe he should have tried a bit of no platforming. The exiles were relentless and energetic and included names from the older generation who had struggled with Henry VII like John Rastell, and new leading lights like William Allen. An ex Oxford don, Allen spent years in the early 1560s shuttling between gentry households to encourage recusancy, with the message that ‘truth was to be found nowhere else save with us Catholics’, and then in 1565 was back in the low countries, writing material to trouble poor old Bishop Jewel. In 1568 he founded a seminary, called the English mission, specifically to train English priests to slip into England and support the Catholic community.

The other option of course was nicodemism, outward conformism and inward non conformity. A dilemma which we will pick up later is the sense of outrage the catholic nobility and gentry felt at being excluded from what they considered their traditional role – to serve the monarch, and lead their local community. And yet if they were to recuse, that is exactly what they must do; less so in the 1560s when the rules were less rigorously applied but increasingly by the 1580s. Catholics often declared that they were loyal to the queen and country – could that not be enough? But for Cecil and the PC, to separate the two, religious conformity and loyalty to the crown – made a nonsense of the royal supremacy – since denying that the Queen was supreme governor, was to deny the monarch’s right, and to suggest that a Catholic’s loyalty was split. However, many Catholics chose to hide in plain sight, to conform even though it was obvious to all and sundry in their local community that they were really Catholic. With that approach men like John Throckmorton might hold high offices like the vice President of the Council of Wales, but of course risk the disapproval of his church and peers.

So by the end of the 1560s, although progress had been made, the new church was far from deeply embedded in the English community, and progress to educate the laity and improve the quality of the priesthood was a long process. The Marian priests succored the survival of catholic practice, and even many churches themselves in some areas continued with elements of the old faith; 75 recusant priests were active in Lancashire, 100 in Yorkshire.  Edwin Sandys, after his adventure with the Duke of Northumberland in the market place of Cambridge in 1554, had fled to the continent, and travelled from Antwerp, to Augsberg, Strasbourg and Zurich; he had then returned to become Bishop of Worcester. In 1564 he reported

Popish and perverse priests which misliking religion have forsaken the ministry and yet still live in corners, are kept in Gentlemens’ houses and have great estimation with the people

Since he’d been travelling, I though maybe Edwin had picked up a bit of an accent, by the way. Anyway, In 1567, a visitation revealed 17 churches in Yorkshire which still had their catholic fittings. Meanwhile, for much of the laity the latitude in the new services as delivered by the protestant ministers made enthusiastic adoption slow. However, there were two more forces acting in favour of Elizabeth’s church. There were now fewer and fewer people who could remember the days when the Pope was head of the church, and as time went by, fewer and fewer who could remember the old ways. To a degree, the new religion was more enthusiastically espoused by the young and seen as a slightly rebellious reaction to the old, and the fuddy duddy.

Another force in Elizabeth’s favour was the publication in 1563 of Foxe’s book of martyrs, to be followed by a second edition in 1570. The book of martyrs created a new history of the reformation, in which the English church had returned to the ‘ancient church of christ’, that which had supposedly existed before its pure ancient practice had been concealed and corrupted by the accretions, barnacles, limpets and lichen of the Roman communion. The aim of the reformation was to recover and build a godly commonwealth, and it was the English who had been chosen to do it – the English were once more an elect nation. The parallels with Scotland, again, are interesting. The book of Martyrs grew and grew in popularity, helped by the blood curdling woodcuts, and obviously the horrifying stories of ordinary men and women. It was so effective in creating a story around the reformation, that Cecil tried to have a copy placed in every church.

You might notice, by the way that despite the continuance of catholic practice there is one thing missing here; the tales of horrific Catholic martyrdom, the burnings and executions. This is because none were executed for the act of denying the act of supremacy alone. This was to slowly change through the 1570s, until the everything is sadly turned up dramatically in the 1580s. The catalyst for the change came over the decade and in the light of the international situation with Spain in the 1580s. But it started with a few key years, 1567 to 1572 which ratcheted up the tension and the sense of beleaguered paranoia on the part of the protestants.

Number one was the arrival of the Duke of Alva in the Netherlands. This was not a holiday, the duke brought no swimming trunks; Alva was a talented and successful Spanish general, who had been appointed Governor of the Netherlands. He brought with him 40,000 close personal friends – veteran tercios of the Spanish army, supported by German and Italian mercenaries. Alva owed his appointment to the outbreak of a wave of Calvinist iconoclasm in the northern states of the Netherlands. He was sent to get a grip and stamp out heresy.

His appointment had been a while coming. In 1559, concerned by the dangers of heresy in his northern possessions, Philip had reformed the diocese, and for each bishop had thoughtfully provided two members of the inquisition to lead and manage the pursuit of heresy. As the new bishops started their work, they managed to trample on both religious and secular sensitivities; not only was this not the broad, flexible religion people were used to, the Bishops also violated secular liberties such as the right of citizens to be tried in a local court. From Phillip’s point of view this was dandy, it was a BOGOF, two for the price of one – strengthening central and political power while rooting out heresy. What’s not to like? In 1562 alone there were some 600 prosecutions for heresy. Hang out the bunting. But from a local point of view it meant that a broad coalition emerged against Philip – both the emerging Protestants communities and Catholics could make common cause, because they could unite over their political grievance, and even Catholics disliked the new, harder confessional lines produced by the Council of Trent.

So, thoroughly peeved, in 1566, a group of 250 nobles came to the court of Philip’s regent, Margaret of Parma. They brought a petition and a list of grievances. When Margaret worried at the numbers of these nobles, one of her advisors sneeringly referred to them being nobodies, merely beggars. It was a name that would stick, the dissidents would take pride in the name Beggars, and it would become a powerful rallying cry through the following revolt; the rebels would riff on the name, with Forest Beggars, Wild Beggars, and eventually of course the famous Sea Beggars.

Through the 1560’s attitudes on both sides hardened. In 1566, as Calvinism began to take hold of the country and the wave of iconoclasm that accompanied it, Philip was confirmed in his view that he was absolutely on the money, this lot needed to be taught a lesson and sorted out right now. So Enter, stage left, the villain, twiddling wax moustaches and rolling his eyes at the audience – the aforesaid Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, 3rd Duke of Alba, the Iron Duke.

These troubles must be ended by force of arms, without any use of pardon, mildness, negotiations or talks until everything has been flattened. Then will be the right time for negotiation.

Alava sought to squash revolt, with some success. He established the Council of Troubles, known to locals affectionately as the Council of Blood which  carried out trials for heresy on an industrial scale. The more conservative numbers have it that protestants suffered from 1,400 convictions for heresy, with 1,000 executions and by the time the Council was wound up, 12,000 cases were still undecided, all of those people affected presumably living in fear of their lives.

Alva’s intervention offended English leaders because it was not only the persecution of their co-religionists, but also because the low countries was right next door and there was now a whopping great army there, demonstrating a fervent desire to stamp out Protestantism. Just a stone’s throw across the channel.

Tension with Spain continued to grow. John Hawkins was causing trouble with the Spanish trying to trade in their colonial ‘hood and muscle in on the slave trade. Then in 1568 an odd incident caused more upset; in December a small Spanish flotilla took refuge from a storm in Plymouth and Southampton. It carried a whopping £85,000 quid for the army in the Netherlands.  On the basis that money belonged to the Genoese bankers until it was actually landed, Cecil persuaded Elizabeth to half inch it. Now Cecil used as an excuse the fact that the English Ambassador in Spain, Dr Man, had got over excited in a religious discussion and called the Pope a ‘canting little monk’, and been thrown out of the court by Phillip. Cecil was very cross about this but really I have to say it does sound a little rude, and not the height of good diplomatic practice.

Well, quite understandably the Spanish were livid at the seizure of their gold, and although Elizabeth hurriedly explained she’d pay it back with interest the damage was done; the likelihood is that Cecil had done this because paying that big hairy Spanish army in the Netherlands was very expensive. The Dutch rebels were continually let off the hook when Alva gave them a trouncing – and then the army mutinied for lack of pay, and the rebels had time to recover. Alva seized English good in the Low Countries in compensation.

Now, you might remember that when we talked about the Northern Rising last time, and the entrance of the Papal slippered foot into the backside of the English body politic. The revolting earls had desperately written to the Pope asking for guidance – and making the frankly treasonous suggestion that they’d have a better chance if you would kindly excommunicate Elizabeth. Pope Pius V thought this was a terribly good idea, and so he did. In February 1570 the papal bull Regnans in Excelsis was published, and had a right old go at Elizabeth – hopping mad he was. Some of it was rather stating the obvious it has to be said, declaring Elizabeth ‘to be a heretic and favourer of heretics’, and some of it was plain rude ‘Elizabeth, the pretended queen of England and the servant of crime’. Elizabeth was duly excommunicated, and Pius spelled out the consequences for her subjects; they  ‘shall not once dare to obey her or any of her directions, laws, or commandments, binding under the same curse those who do anything to the contrary’.

‘there is no place left for any excuse, defence, or tergiversation.’

Tergivasation? From Latin, to refuse, turn one’s back sort of thing – wimp out, bottle it I suppose. Incidentally, I discover that despite the centuries that have rolled by, there’s still enough Catholic in my philosophical DNA to find the idea of putting a fake accent on for the pope to be vaguely blasphemous, quite apart from the fact that fake accents are anyway something of a bad habit. Anyway, that same month, the protestant earl of Moray was assassinated in Scotland. Elizabeth’s subjects feared it would be her next.

Phillip II was also livid. Obviously, a man with a mission, he none the less clearly had a lot more nous than Pius, and his head hit his hands in despair. Partly his amour proper had been punctured

‘My knowledge of English affairs is such that I believe I could give a better opinion upon them and the course that ought to have been adopted under the circumstances than anyone else,’

But also he felt the bull would have no impact but to make life more difficult for English Catholics, which is emotionally quite intelligent for the lad. Because poor English Catholics now had a deeply unattractive choice. They could either obey their Queen and consign their souls to eternal damnation or they could obey the Pope and surrender their bodies and families to temporal punishment. Hmmm…tricky. Eternal damnation…the rack…oh, choices, choices

Many English Catholics were furious at the insensitivity of the decision; William Allen in Douai wrote that they ‘did think hardly of that deed’, and felt that such a weighty matter should have been left to the almighty.

Incidentally, on the very same day that Pius was writing his poison pen letter, all unknowing, Elizabeth was making one of her very rare ennoblements. This time it was William Cecil who was made Baron Burghley at a ceremony at Windsor. Obviously given that Elizabeth did this so rarely it was quite an honour…but given the dedication and skill he had shown steering the ship of state, it was perhaps, only just enough. Maybe she could have been more generous. Anyway, Burghley was jolly pleased and threw himself with renewed vigour into his ancestry work, which involved coming up with a grand and large fictitious family tree that went all the way back to Billy the Conq. Quite why he didn’t get back to the granddaddy of them all, Woden I do not know.

The Regnans created a tragic logic which would be constantly strengthened and re-inforced. Here’s a bit of doggerel that appeared in Northamptonshire:

And this is true, the time is come

I’ll tell you truer news:

All papists which have traitorous hearts and do their prince refuse

Must now relent, and turn forthwith, and true become God knows[1]:

The logic, of course, was Catholic = traitor, Protestant = loyal.

So you might want to scoff at this point. Pshaw you might say. Those English constantly panicking about imagined dangers. Well, let me remind you of Roberto Ridolphi – remember him, plotting to get Norfolk and Mary together? Last time we met him he’d been hauled in by Walsingham over the cash for Catholics scandal. Ridolphi promised faithfully not to plot against Elizabeth again, but he was a lying toad. When he left, he cooked up a scheme with the Spanish Ambassador Spes, and the Duke of Alba – and through them with Phillip. Here was the plan. The Duke of Norfolk, now out of prison but deeply cross and humiliated, would capture Elizabeth during her summer progress, and as a result thousands of English Catholics would joyously rise. The Duke of Alba would then arrive, Mary Queen of Scots would marry Norfolk and England would once more bask in the sun of Pope Pius’s gratification.

However, Burghley, as we now need to call Cecil, was across it. He interrogated the servants of the Bishop of Ross, Mary’s agent in London, and a merchant picked up in Shrewsbury. With a bit of judicious threatening of the rack to the servants, he knew there was a plan, and double agents were recruited. One of these came up good, and arrived in London on 2nd September to tell Burghley – that on 4th August, Phillip had approved the plan personally and sent Alba detailed instructions. Meanwhile Mary tried to play Elizabeth, saying she had news of a plot which she would divulge if they could meet. Elizabeth blanked her;

You have caused a rebellion in my realm and you have aimed at my own life. You will say you did not mean these things. Madam, I would I could think so poorly of your understanding. You tell me you have some mystery which you wish to make known to me. If it be so, you must write it’

By now more details of the plot had emerged, along with Norfolk’s involvement, as servants were threatened with the rack, and a secret cipher was discovered in Norfolk’s London home which confirmed his involvement. The Good Duke was pulled in – and threw himself on Elizabeth’s mercy after being convicted at his trial in January 1572. Elizabeth dithered – but at the third time of asking finally signed the warrant in the early summer, and Norfolk went to the block. Mary was under much suspicion, but she’d not put enough in writing, though one of her letters was found at Norfolk’s house. For the moment there was not enough to put her on trial. Mary was none the less gutted by the failure of the plot, and retired to bed for three days.

The discovery of the Ridolphi plot, and Walsingham’s work with Ridolphi in 1570 have convinced some that this was all a set up. There is however a long trail of interrogations and discoveries over months, and it’s probably unlikely. But the pursuit chillingly emphasises Burghley and Walsingham’s ruthlessness and willingness to use the rack if needed and the strength of their spy network.

With all this going on, the logic of catholic = traitor was unwinding at the 1571 parliament. Both the Commons and lords passed a new Act, with punitive penalties for catholics now – the fine for non-attendance at church at least once a quarter to £12, and instituting a fine of 100 marks (£ 66) for failure to receive communion at least once in the year. The aim of the bill was to give Catholics another nasty choice – conform to the church of England, or identify themselves as outsiders. You might have thought that with Northern rising, Regnans in Excelsis and the Ridolphi plot, Elizabeth would have accepted these immediately, with anti Catholic feeling running so high and her own life clearly on the line. But no, not a bit of it. Elizabeth vetoed the bill. Essentially, Elizabeth renewed her offer to English Catholics, an offer her protestant religious hierarchy desperately did not want her to offer; be loyal, conform outwardly and I will leave your souls alone. It was a most humane offer.

Sadly, the poison of Regnans in Excelsis had already begun to deliver its deadly fruit. It was now quite impossible to tell the difference between what protestants would term religious error, for which Elizabeth did not want to punish them, and treason that constituted a capital offence.

The first victim of the Regnans was John Felton, a wealthy merchant living in London, originally a Norfolk man. The task Felton was set was to publish the papal bull in England – without which it would not be legal. He gave a copy to his friend, William Mellowes, who was discovered and tortured on the rack, until he gave Felton’s name away. When Felton was pulled in, he gloried in what he had done – declaring that the queen ought not to be queen of England. Nonetheless he was also tortured – to reveal his links to the Spanish Ambassador. Then he was killed the old way for traitors – hung, drawn and quartered. You know the drill.

The second victim was the object of Protestant cries for vengeance. John Story had flown the realm under Henry, and returned when Mary became queen. He became in London, the face of Marian persecution. He boasted that the persecution would bring back uniformity of religion, and he acted as queen’s proctors for the trial of Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury. The extremity of his viciousness made him a hate figure; he stood accused not just of hunting down heretics, but torturing them in a heated iron cage and mistreating many of those convicted – one such occasion being the burning of John Denley. John Story was brought back for trial by Burghley’s spy craft – lured into a boat and kidnapped in the Netherlands. At his trial he hoped that he would avoid conviction by claiming he had sworn allegiance to Phillip and therefore was not a subject of the Queen of England. It did not help, unsurprisingly, and he was duly convicted.

Before he was hung drawn and quartered in June 1571, Story spoke for a long time on behalf of his wife. Mrs Story doesn’t sound a lot better than her hub, or at least heretic hunting clearly ran in the family. A printer called Thomas Green related how

Mistress Story flew into a rage, and sware a great oath, that it were a good deed to put a hundred or two of these heretic knaves in a house, ‘and I myself’, said she, ‘would set it on fire’

At the time, not many would feel a lot of sympathy for John Story, and in a way neither of these two are particularly typical of the people who will lose their life by execution and torture in Elizabeth’s reign. But Felton’s death in particular signals the new atmosphere Regnans had wrought.  Events in France, however, would ratchet up the heat one more mark.

[1] Childs, Jessie. God’s Traitors (p. 29). Random House. Kindle Edition.

One thought on “297 Servant of Crime

  1. Excellent episode, thanks. God’s Traitors is a fine book, particularly for people like me, who were raised to think the Reformation solely a Good Thing.

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