Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

A common misrepresentation concerning the Elizabethan persecution of English and Irish Catholics from 1570 onwards is the statement that the victims devoted to imprisonment, torture, and death suffered not for their religious belief but for treason against the queen and her government. This view, officially promulgated by Elizabeth's lord high treasurer, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, in 1583, was constantly reiterated by the judges in the courts, by Protestant writers in their controversial works, and has thence made its way into popular manuals of history. At the present day it frequently reappears as one of the stock accusations brought against the Church by Anglican controversialists of various types.

The simple fact that in very many instances those condemned to death ostensibly for treason were offered their lives and liberty if they would attend Anglican worship, shows conclusively that the martyrs did in fact suffer for religion; but at this epoch religion and politics were so inextricably confused that this explanation, though valid in the case of individual martyrs, does not suffice to meet the general accusation. As a recent Anglican historian writes: "The vexed question whether the Romanists died for treason or for their faith implies an antithesis which had little meaning in that age of mingled politics and religion" (A.F. Pollard, "Political History of England ", VI, 377). Everything centres round the excommunication of Elizabeth by St. Pius V, 25 February, 1570. This act created a situation full of perplexity for English Catholics. It even underlies the history of the rising of the northern earls in 1569, for when they rose they had reason to believe that the excommunication had already taken place. Harassed as they were, the Catholics would take no steps in defence of their rights till the pope declared that Elizabeth's misgovernment had so infringed the spiritual liberty of her subjects as to absolve them from their allegiance. Once this declaration was made a number of Catholics acted on it, and there was a certain section who under the influence of Mendoza and others were implicated in plots against Elizabeth which were undoubtedly treasonable from the Government's point of view. But they might well have urged that in so assailing the royal power they were doing no more against Elizabeth than Bolingbroke had done against Richard II, or Richmond against Richard III. Yet neither Henry IV nor Henry VII are usually branded as "traitors".

The subsequent cases of Pym and Hampden, not to mention the successful revolutionaries of 1688, show that success or failure is often made the real test between treason and rebellion. That a certain party of English Catholics was in rebellion against Elizabeth is not disputed, but justified rebellion ceases to be treason and may be the noblest patriotism. Thus Allen with many of the exiles of Douai and Louvain, and Persons with many of the Jesuits, saw in the rule of Elizabeth a greater danger to the highest interests of England than had previously been threatened in cases where history had justified the deposition of kings. And the supreme authority had sanctioned this view. Moreover, such exercise of papal prerogative was one of the recognized principles of the Middle Ages throughout which it had served to protect the rights of the people. This became evident later, when, after the decline of papal power, the autocratic power of the European sovereigns was greatly increased and always at the expense of the people. Nevertheless, it remains true that in the eyes of Elizabeth and her ministers such opposition was nothing less than high treason. But a large number of English Catholics refused to go so far as rebellion. The historian already quoted admits that the opposition which relied on avowedly treasonable methods was "limited to extremists" (ibid., 297). Elsewhere he says of the rank and file of English Catholics : "They tried to ignore their painful dilemma between two forms of allegiance, for both of which they had deep respect" (p. 370). As Lingard writes: "among the English Catholics (the bull) served only to breed doubts, dissensions, and dismay. Many contended that it had been issued by an incompetent authority; others that it could not bind the natives till it should be carried into actual execution by some foreign power; all agreed that it was in their regard an imprudent and cruel expedient, which rendered them liable to the suspicion of disloyalty, and afforded their enemies a presence to brand them with the name of traitors" (ibid., 225).

The terrible strain of this dilemma was relieved by the next pope, Gregory XIII, who on 14 April 1580, issued a declaration that though Elizabeth and her abettors remained subject to the excommunication, it was not to bind Catholics to their detriment. The large majority of English Catholics were relieved in conscience by this dispensation, and never gave the Government the least ground for suspecting their loyalty, but they persisted in the practice of their religion, which was made possible only by the coming of the seminary priests. With regard to these priests, who entered England at the risk of their lives to preserve the Catholic religion and to give facilities for Mass and the sacraments there could be no presumption of treason by the ancient laws of England. But in the panic which followed the Northern Rising, Parliament had passed a statute (13 Eliz. c. 2) declaring it to be high treason to put into effcet any papal Bull of absolution to absolve or reconcile any person to the Catholic Church, to be absolved or reconciled, or to procure or publish any papal Bull or writing whatsoever. Thus for the first time purely religious acts were declared by Parliament to be treasonable, a position which no Catholic could admit. It is clear that persons suffering under such a law as this suffered for religion and not for treason. Elizabeth's Government, however, for its own purposes refused to make any distinction between Catholics who had been engaged in open opposition to the queen and those who were forced by conscience to ignore the provisions of this statute of 1571. These two classes, really distinct, were purposely identified by the Government and treated as one for controversial purposes. For when the reports of so many bloody executions for religion began to horrify Europe, the queen's ministers adopted the defence that their severity was not exercised against Catholics as such, but as traitors guilty of treason against their sovereign.

This view was put forward officially in a pamphlet by Lord Burghley, which was not only published in English but translated into Latin and other languages for foreign circulation. The very title of this work indicates its scope: "The Execution of Justice in England for maintenance of public and Christian peace, against certain stirrers of sedition and adherents to the traitors and enemies of the realm without any persecution of them for questions of religion, as is falsely reported, and published by the fautors and fosterers of their treasons." This pamphlet, which was issued on 17 December, 1583, may briefly be summarized. Attention is first drawn to late rebellions in England and Ireland which had been suppressed by the queen's power. Whereupon some of the defeated rebels had fled into foreign countries and there alleged that they were suffering for religion. Great stress is laid upon the Bull of excommunication ; and all Catholics living abroad are represented as engaged in seditious practices with a view to carrying the Bull into effect. The seminaries are exhibited merely as foundations established to assist in this disloyal object. They have been "erected to nurse seditious fugitives". The priests who came forth at the risk of their lives are not given credit for any religious purpose, but "the seminary fugitives come secretly into the realm to induce the people to obey the Pope's bull". This view is important as it shows the pretext put forth by the Government to defend the Act of 1585 by which it became high treason for any seminary priest simply to come to England. The pamphlet proceeds to decIare that some of these "sowers of sedition" have been taken, convicted, and executed "not being ddealt withal upon questions of religion, but justly condemned as traitors". They were so condemned "by the ancient realm made 200 years past". Moreover, if they retracted their treasonable opinions their lives were spared. As "the foreign traitors continue sending of persons to move sedition in the realm" who cloak their real object of enforcing the Bulls under the pretext of religion and who "labour to bring the realm into a war external and domestical", it becomes the duty of the queen and her ministers to repel such rebellious practices. Burghley insists that before the excommunication no one had been charged with capital crimes on the ground of religion, and brings everything back to the question of the Bull. "And if then it be inquired for what cause these others have of late suffered death it is truely to be answered as afore is often remembered that none at all are impeached for treason to the danger of their life but such as do obstinately maintain the contents of the Pope's Bull aforementioned, which do import that her Majesty is not the lawful Queen of England, the first and highest point of treason, and that all her subjects are discharged of their oaths and obedience, another high point of treason. and all warranted to disobey her and her laws a third and very large point of treason."

A fourth point is taken from the refusal of the Catholics to disavow the pope's proceedings in Ireland. After many other points some of an historical nature addressed to foreign princes the writer anticipates the objection that many sufferers had been simple priests and unarmed scholars. He says "Many are traitors though they have no armour nor weapon." Such people are like spies, "necessary accessaries and adherents proper to further and continue all rebellions and wars. . . . The very causes final of these rebellions and wars have been to depose her Majesty from her crown: the causes instrumental are these kind of seminaries and seedmen of sedition. The pamphlet ends by proposing six questions or tests by which traitors might be distinguished from simple scholars. These interrogatories, known later as "the bloody questions", were ingeniously framed to entangle the victim into admissions with regard to the pope's action in excommunicating Elizabeth, which might be construed as treason. This is the government case and it was promptly answered by Allen in his "Answer to the Libel of English Justice", published in 1584, in which he joins issue on all points, showing "that many priests and other Catholics in England have been persecuted, condemned and executed for mere matter of religion and for transgression only of new statutes which make cases of conscience to be treason without all pretence or surmise of any old treasons or statutes for the same". He defends Campion and the other martyrs from the imputation of treason, points to the oppression of the Government and the prudent attitude of the Catholics with regard to the Bull ; he explains the doctrine of the excommunication and deprivation of princes, the advantages of having a supreme authority to decide between princes and people in causes involving questions of deprivation; defends the pope's action in Ireland and concIudes by showing "that the separation of the prince and realm from the unity of the Church and See Apostolic and fall from Catholic religion is the only cause of all the present fears and dangers that the State seemeth to stand in. And that they unjustly attribute the same to the Pope's Holiness or Catholics and untruly call them the enemies of the Realm".

In the following year, 1585, the Government took another step forward in their policy of drawing religious and indifferent acts into the political net. This was the statute 27 Eliz. c. 2, by which it was made high treason for any Jesuit or any seminary priest even to be in England, and felony for anyone to harbour or relieve them. Even so biased an historian as David Hume realized the injustice of this measure of which he says: "In the subsequent part of the queen's reign the law was sometimes executed by the capital punishment of priests ; and though the partisans of that princess asserted that they were punished for their treason, not their religion, the apology must only be understood in this sense, that the law was enacted on account of the treasonable views and attempts of the sect, not that every individual who suffered the penalty of the law was convicted of treason" (Hist. of Eng., sub an 1584). The martyrs themselves constantly protested against this accusation of treason, and prayed for the queen on the scaffold. In very many instances they were offered a free pardon if they would attend the Protestant church, and some priests unfortunately yielded to the temptation. But the fact of the offer being made sufficiently shows that religion, not treason, was the ground of their offence. This is notably the case with regard to Blessed Thomas Percy who had himself been the leader of the Northern Rising and who yet was offered his liberty at the price of conformity. There are three beatified martyrs directly connected with the excommunication, Felton, Storey, and Woodhouse, who for that reason stand in a class apart from the other martyrs ; their cases have received special treatment by Father Pollen, S.J. (Camm's "Lives of the English Martyrs ", II, xvii-xxii). It may not be amiss to state that so careful is the Holy See in such questions that the cause of beatification of James Laborne has been postponed for more careful consideration simply because of certain words he uttered about the queen. With regard to all the other martyrs there is no difficulty in showing that they died for their religion, and that the accusation of treason in their regard is false and unfounded.


More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online

Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Ephesians 3:2-12
2 You have surely heard the way in which God ... Read More

Psalm, Isaiah 12:2-3, 4, 5-6
2 Look, he is the God of my salvation: I shall have ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 12:39-48
39 You may be quite sure of this, that if the ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for October 22nd, 2014 Image

St. Pope John Paul II
October 22: Karol J. Wojtyla, known as John Paul II since his October 1978 ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter