The Catholic Reformation and Conspiracies Against Elizabeth, 1558–1580

views updated

The Catholic Reformation and Conspiracies Against Elizabeth, 1558–1580

The Roman Catholic Church had undergone many periods of change before the time of the Protestant Reformation, the sixteenth-century religious movement that resulted in the establishment of Protestant churches. But in the 1520s Catholic leaders became concerned because many of their members were leaving the church to join the Protestant movement. In an attempt to keep people from leaving the church, they tried to eliminate corruption within the church and to clarify the church's doctrine. (Doctrine is a principle, or set of principles, held by a religious or philosophical group.) Church leaders also opposed the new Protestant beliefs, which they considered heresy, or religious opinions that conflict with the church's doctrines. During this time the Catholic Church tried to reunify Europe under Catholicism and to spread Roman Catholic Christianity to the New World, Asia, and Africa. Some scholars call this period the Counter Reformation, assuming the Catholic Church was responding to the Protestant movement; most Catholics, however, refer to it as the Catholic Reformation, arguing that the effort was an independent action within the church.

When Elizabeth I (1533–1603), a Protestant, became queen of England in 1558, Catholics made up the majority of the population. Though most English Catholics remained loyal to the queen despite their religious differences, many of her chief councilors feared a Catholic uprising. Moreover, they feared that Catholic countries and societies abroad would either aid the English Catholics in a rebellion or invade England themselves in their efforts to eliminate Protestantism. There was some basis for these fears. There were English Catholics both in England and in exile in Europe who plotted to restore Catholicism in England. There were also powerful monarchs in Europe seeking to spread Catholicism. Furthermore, by the end of the 1560s, the beautiful and persuasive, exiled queen of the Scots, Mary Stuart (1542–1587), became a representative of their cause.


The head bishop of a province or district.
A clergyman ranked higher than a priest who has the power to ordain priests and usually presides over a diocese, or church district.
A written communication from the pope to all Catholics worldwide.
Atop official in the Roman Catholic Church, ranking just below the pope.
Authorized religious leaders, such as priests and ministers.
Counter Reformation:
Also called the Catholic Reformation; the period beginning in the 1520s when the Catholic Church, partially in response to the rise of Protestantism, tried to reunify Europe under Catholicism and to spread Roman Catholic Christianity to the New World, Asia, and Africa.
A person who serves or participates in the royal court or household as the king's or queen's advisor, officer, or attendant.
A principle (or set of principles) held by a religious or philosophical group.
A religious opinion that conflicts with the church's doctrines.
lay person:
A person who is not a member of the clergy.
A person sent by his or her church to help people of other countries and to convert nonbelievers to the church's doctrines.
papal legate:
A representative of the pope within a particular nation.
Protestant Reformation:
Also known as the Reformation; a sixteenth-century religious movement that aimed to reform the Roman Catholic Church and resulted in the establishment of Protestant churches.
An established ceremony performed in precise ways according to the rules of the church.
A deceased person who, due to his or her exceptionally good behavior during life, receives the official blessing of the church and is believed to be capable of interceding with God to protect people on earth.
In Christianity, deliverance from sin and punishment.
A school similar to a university that trains students in religion, usually to prepare them to become members of the clergy.

The Jesuits

A new order of Catholic priests called the Jesuits, or the Society of Jesus, provided strong support to the Catholic Reformation. They were founded in 1540 by a former Spanish soldier, Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556). Loyola had never been a particularly religious man, but after being seriously injured in battle, he suddenly became passionately Catholic. During his recuperation, Loyola had been profoundly moved when he read a book about the lives of the saints. A saint is a deceased person who receives official recognition from the church for his or her holiness during life; saints were considered capable of performing miracles and of interceding with God on behalf of the people who pray to them. Loyola wanted to follow in their footsteps and become a "soldier of God." He established the Society of Jesus to restore Catholicism to its status as the single greatest spiritual and political power in Europe and the one true religion worldwide. Known for their military-like organization, the Jesuits believed that the ends justified the means, and they were willing to resort to extreme tactics if it would benefit the church and spread the Catholic religion.

By the time Elizabeth became queen, the Jesuits had headquarters in nearly all the major cities of Europe. They had also established seminaries, or schools similar to a university that train students to become members of the clergy, that were training highly disciplined Jesuit missionaries. (Missionaries are people sent by the church to help people of other countries and to convert nonbelievers to the church's doctrines.) The Jesuit order did not retreat from worldly affairs. Rather, Jesuit priests were active in politics and worked to gain the trust of powerful people, including most of the Catholic monarchs of Europe. The Jesuit order also sent missionaries to the Americas, Asia, and Africa to spread Catholicism. Jesuits were also responsible for some of the Catholic Church's most charitable reforms. They created the world's first organizations designed to promote widespread social welfare: feeding the hungry, providing jobs for the unemployed, and helping the sick and elderly. This kind of charitable work had never been carried out on such a large and organized scale before.

The Council of Trent

In the 1540s the Catholic Church called all of its bishops together to discuss church reform and define Catholic beliefs. The Council of Trent first met in 1545. It would continue to meet off and on for nearly eighteen years. The Council of Trent defined Catholic beliefs in a way that clearly separated the Catholic Church from the Protestant Church. The Council ruled that the Latin Vulgate (the official Latin translation of the Bible) was the official Bible of the church, and that Latin was the language of all Catholic prayer. Protestants, on the other hand, favored the use of the Bible translated into their vernacular, or everyday, languages. The council also ruled that the ancient traditions of the Church were equal in authority to the Bible. The German Protestant leader Martin Luther (1483–1546) had, in contrast, asserted that the Bible should be the only rule of faith. The council reaffirmed the Catholic belief that the church was the only route to salvation, or deliverance from sin and punishment, and that it was the church's role to interpret and instruct its members about the Bible. The Catholic Church did not support Biblical teachings by the lay people that formed the foundation of Protestantism. (Lay people are people who are not members of the clergy.) The Council of Trent affirmed the belief that human beings could help ensure their own salvation by engaging in good work. But Protestants believed that an individual's fate is determined by God. If God had determined that a person's soul would be sent to hell after death, no amount of good works could change that. The rulings of the Council of Trent were the most specific description of Catholic beliefs ever stated. This clearly expressed doctrine helped Catholic officials determine what was heresy and what was not.

The Catholic Queen of Scots

To Elizabeth and her advisors, the forces of the Catholic Reformation were a great threat to the security of England. Their fears increased with the return from France of Elizabeth's Catholic cousin, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. (For more information on Mary Stuart, see Chapters 3 and 7.) England had reason to fear her intentions. When Queen Mary I (1516–1558) had died in 1558, Mary Stuart claimed to be the heir to the English throne. Her family background supported this: she was the great-granddaughter of Elizabeth's grandfather, King Henry VII (1457–1509). Since Elizabeth had been declared illegitimate by the Catholic Church, which did not accept the marriage between her mother, Anne Boleyn (c. 1504–1536), and her father, Henry VIII (1498–1547), Mary was, from a Catholic point of view, the logical heir to the throne.

The Spanish Inquisition

Spain was a major center of the Catholic Reformation during the Elizabethan Era, the period associated with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) that is often considered to be a golden age in English history. This was in part because of the nation's religious experiences during the previous century. Until the late fifteenth century, Spain had been a confederation of smaller states, some of which had long been ruled by the Moors, a Muslim group. The Moorish states also contained a large Jewish population. In their struggle to conquer the Moors' territory and unify Spain, Catholic monarchs Ferdinand (1452–1516) and Isabella (1451–1504) established an inquisition in 1478. The inquisition was a Roman Catholic Church practice in which the church appointed priests to form tribunals (judicial proceedings with people appointed to act as judges) to find and eliminate heretics. (Heretics are people who do not conform to the church's beliefs).

In 1492 a newly united Spain expelled Jews and Muslims from its borders. With fewer non-Catholics in Spain, the inquisition reduced its efforts, but the tribunals remained. In the 1520s, when the Protestant Reformation spread across Europe, the Spanish Inquisition tribunals worked to combat Protestantism. In Spain, Italy, and Portugal, tribunals headed by powerful priests descended upon towns suspected of harboring heretics. Local preachers instructed their church members either to voluntarily confess to heresy or to name other suspects from the community for the inquisitors. Treatment of the accused became increasingly harsh: their land and goods were taken from them; suspected heretics were jailed at their own expense until the hearing was completed; and if the accused did not confess despite insufficient evidence, the inquisitors were permitted to use torture. Torture was not used as frequently as some historians have suggested, however.

When Elizabeth I became queen of England in 1558, the Spanish Inquisition was mainly directed against Lutherans, the followers of Protestant leader Martin Luther. Philip II (1527–1598), king of Spain and ruler of the territories in the Netherlands, was a very serious, powerful leader and a devoted Roman Catholic who felt it was his duty to fight heresy and spread the true religion. No significant Protestant movement ever became established in Spain, but Philip set the Spanish Inquisition in motion in the Netherlands to suppress Protestantism there.

On April 19, 1561, the nineteen-year-old Mary arrived back on Scottish shores after having lived in the French royal court for thirteen years. She had even been the French queen for one year before the untimely death of her husband, King Francis II (1544–1560). In the year before Mary's return, Protestantism had become the public religion of Scotland. Many believed that Mary, a devout Catholic, meant to reestablish the old religion and realign Scotland with Catholic states in Europe. But converting Scotland was probably never Mary's intention. In the nearly seven years she served as the queen of Scotland, she accepted Protestantism as the religion of the country, though she continued to practice Catholicism in private.

During her time in France Mary had matured into a warm, lively, and beautiful woman of nearly six feet tall. She had been well educated in the French court and had an appealing personality. Most who served her were passionately devoted to her. Her attraction was magnetic, and she was well known for being able to charm men into dangerous actions. When it came to her personal relationships, though, her judgment was questionable, causing many problems later in her life.

Both Scotland and England anxiously waited for Mary Stuart to marry, wondering what the nationality and religion of the new king might be. In July 1565 the queen of Scots married her nineteen-year-old cousin, Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley (1545–1567), with whom she claimed to have fallen deeply in love. Because Stewart was also an heir to the English throne, this marriage strengthened Mary's claims to the throne of England. Mary and Stewart had an extravagant Catholic wedding, provoking fears among the Protestant lords that they intended to bring back Catholicism to Scotland. Stewart was detested among the Scottish lords; he was immature, arrogant, lacking in morals, and by most accounts, not very smart. Soon after the wedding, the Scottish lords staged a rebellion. Mary was forced to use military force to defeat them, but she was already beginning to understand their dislike for her husband. As she grew familiar with Stewart's many faults, Mary decided not to grant him the royal powers of a king. She turned for comfort to her Italian secretary, David Rizzio (c. 1533–1566). In 1566 a jealous Stewart and a few other nobles dragged Rizzio from Mary's room and stabbed him to death.

Three months later Mary gave birth to a son, James (1566–1625; later James VI of Scotland and James I of England). The queen made an outward show of reconciliation with Stewart. Then, early in 1567, the house Stewart was staying at was destroyed in a violent explosion. He was found dead in the garden outside, apparently strangled when trying to escape. Evidence pointed to James Hepburn (Earl of Bothwell; 1535–1578) as Stewart's murderer, and many suspected that Mary was involved. The queen would not allow an extensive investigation into the murder, and Hepburn was released after a superficial inquiry. After the investigation he was granted a divorce from his wife, and he quickly married the queen of Scots. The Scottish lords thought Mary's behavior proved her involvement in the murder. Outraged by their queen's behavior, they rebelled in 1567. This time they were successful. A defeated Mary was captured and brought into the Scottish city of Edinburgh. As she passed through the streets of the city she was insulted by the crowds, who shouted "Burn the whore." Mary Stuart was imprisoned and forced to abdicate, or give up the throne in favor of her infant son, James.

Less than a year later Mary escaped her Scottish prison. She tried to rally enough forces to take back her rule of Scotland but failed. She then attempted to flee to France, but did not receive French help and never made it out of Scotland. Finally in May 1568 Mary crossed the border into England, where she asked Elizabeth to help restore her to her kingdom. Elizabeth was torn. She was appalled that Mary, a legitimate monarch, had been treated so poorly by her subjects, but she was equally shocked at Mary's behavior and not at all happy about having the Catholic with claims to the English throne so close at hand. The rebel leaders in Scotland quickly informed her that they did not want their queen back under any circumstances. For lack of alternatives, Elizabeth set up a commission of inquiry to investigate Mary's involvement in the death of Stewart, although she herself firmly believed that no commission had the right to put a queen on trial. In the end Elizabeth would not allow the commission to make a judgment on the issue of Mary's guilt, deciding that Mary should remain in England so that the Protestant government in Scotland would be undisturbed by its scandalous queen.

Mary was placed under house arrest in the homes of noblemen who were loyal to Elizabeth. She remained an English prisoner for nearly eighteen years, from 1569 to 1587. Mary never stopped appealing to those who might have reason to help her—Catholics in Rome, Spain, and France, and those who remained in England. But her interest had turned from regaining the Scottish crown to taking the English crown. She lured potential rescuers with the promise that, with a little help from outside, she could make England a Catholic nation once more.

Plots against Elizabeth

Plots against Elizabeth began soon after Mary arrived in England. The chairman of the commission that had tried Mary, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk (1536–1572), was one of Elizabeth's closest advisors and the highest ranking noble in England. He had been disgusted by the overwhelming evidence of adultery and murder presented against Mary. Yet despite his disgust, Howard was unable to resist either her charms or his own ambitions. He soon began to consider the idea of marrying the queen of Scots. At first many of Elizabeth's councilors supported the plan, thinking Howard could keep the Scottish queen under careful control. But when Elizabeth heard of the plan she was suspicious, and summoned Howard to appear at court. Guilty and fearing the queen's anger, Howard repeatedly claimed illness as the reason for staying away from court. He and Mary were in constant communication and planning their marriage.

The Northern Rising and the papal bull

Even as she made plans with Howard, the queen of Scots was at the center of another plot in northern England. The shires, or counties, in the north had always been so remote from the capital in southern England that the powerful noble families ruled their districts almost independently of the queen. Protestantism had never thrived in the north, and even after Elizabeth established the Anglican Church as the official, Protestant church of the nation, the northern nobles continued to practice Catholicism in defiance of the laws of the land. They resented the new Protestant queen and in 1568 began to plot a rebellion to overthrow Elizabeth and place Mary on the English throne. The plot was communicated abroad with the help of the Spanish ambassador to England, and the lords were put in touch with a banker from Florence (in present-day Italy), named Roberto Ridolfi (1531–1612) and the French king, both of whom promised to provide financial support. Through spies, though, Elizabeth heard about the preparations for the uprising. She feared that Howard might join the rebellion, and he was arrested and held in the Tower of London.

In November 1569 the northern lords gathered twenty-five hundred men and marched south toward Tutbury in a rebellion called the Northern Rising. They headed straight for the residence of Mary Stuart with the intention of releasing her and claiming her as their queen. Under Elizabeth's orders Mary was moved so the rebels could not get to her. By December the rebellion had collapsed. The queen's forces chased the rebels back to the north. Though many of the nobles were able to flee from England, hundreds of their troops were brutally executed. The powerful noble families lost their land and tides. Without land and tides, they no longer had enough power and influence to be a threat to Elizabeth.

The head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Pius V (1504–1572), wanted to support the northern lords. Two months after the rebellion collapsed, on February 25, 1570, he issued a bull, or a written communication from the pope to all Catholics worldwide, on the situation in England. The bull excommunicated Elizabeth, forbidding her membership in the Catholic Church), and called her "the serpent of wickedness." The bull proclaimed that Elizabeth was not rightfully queen, since she had been the child of an illegitimate marriage. The pope encouraged Catholics to rise up against Elizabeth and to help Mary, Queen of Scots, to the throne. The bull arrived in England too late to help the rebel northern lords. Its major effect was to force English Catholics to choose between their loyalty to their queen and their religion. Most chose to ignore the bull.

The uprising and the papal bull made English Protestants view Catholics with suspicion. Even Elizabeth changed her policy. After the bull she treated all Catholic plots as treason rather than religious disagreement. By 1571 a series of acts were passed making it a crime to call the queen a heretic or to use rosary beads, crucifixes, or religious images in one's worship. For the first time, Catholics in England had to be very careful in their religious practices and everyday conversations for fear of being charged with treason.

The Ridolfi Plot

After helping to sponsor the Northern Rising, Roberto Ridolfi, the Florentine banker and agent of the Roman Catholic Church, started another conspiracy against Elizabeth in 1571. His plan called for the Catholic forces of Spain and Rome to invade England and to immediately promote an uprising of all English Catholics. (According to most historians, Ridolfi grossly overestimated the number of Catholics who would join in the rebellion.) Under this plan the invaders would liberate Mary Stuart. She would quickly marry Howard and together they would seize the English throne. Ridolfi, backed by the pope, tried to enlist the support of Spain's King Philip II (1527–1598), who was initially reluctant to agree to the murder of Elizabeth. Relations between Spain and England were greatly deteriorating, though, and at last he consented to participate, at least in the planning.

Major Catholic Reformation Popes of the Elizabethan Era

1555–59: Pope Paul IV
(Giovanni Pietro Caraffa; 1476–1559). An unpopular pope who fought with many European monarchs, especially Philip II of Spain. He was ruthless in stamping out heresy, even accusing some high-ranking Catholic clergy of the crime. When English Queen Mary I strove to reconcile England with the Roman Church in 1554, Paul IV initially refused to settle, demanding to be paid back for the property of the monasteries taken from the church by her father, Henry VIII. On Mary's death he rejected Elizabeth's claim to the crown, claiming she was of illegitimate birth.
1559–65: Pope Pius IV
(Giovanni Angelo Medici; 1449–1565). A pope known for successfully bringing about the conclusion of the Council of Trent and for his mildness when treating possible heresy.
1566–72: Pope Pius V
(Michele Ghisleri; 1504–1572). Pius V struggled against Protestantism in Germany, France, and the Netherlands. He excommunicated Elizabeth in 1570 and promoted Mary Stuart's right to the throne.
1572–85: Pope Gregory XIII
(Ugo Buoncompagni; 1502–1585). Carrying on the fight against Protestant heresy, Gregory XIII was dedicated to creating institutions for the training of Catholic priests to minister to Catholics in Protestant countries like England. After Elizabeth's administrators captured and brutally executed Catholic missionaries, Gregory XIII viewed Elizabeth as a tyrant and an enemy to Catholics. He plotted several times to overthrow her by force. He was detested by Protestants for ordering a celebration in Rome to commemorate the massacre of tens of thousands of Huguenots (French Protestants who followed the teachings of theologian John Calvin) by French Catholics on St. Bartholomew's Day in 1572.
1585–90: Pope Sixtus V
(Felice Peretti; 1521–1590). A strong and practical pope who organized and streamlined the church and is today considered one of the great leaders of the Catholic Reformation. He was pope at the beginning of the wars between England and Spain. He renewed the excommunication of Elizabeth in 1588, exonerating from sin anyone who killed the queen. He urged the invasion of England, agreeing to help fund Philip H's Spanish Armada, but only if the mission was successful. He never paid.

Elizabeth had released a repentant Howard from prison after obtaining his promise that he would stay away from Mary Stuart. In February 1571 Mary wrote to him describing Ridolfi's plan. Howard was at first true to his word and refused to go along with the plan, but Mary persisted. By March Howard had agreed to the plot, in which he was to lead the revolt of English Catholics against the queen and her administration. The plan never materialized. The invading Spanish troops were to come from the Netherlands, but the Duke of Alva (1508–1583), the Spanish governor there, distrusted Ridolfi and refused to go along with the plot. In the meantime, England's secretary of state William Cecil (1520–1598) learned of the plans, and Howard was arrested. A search of his residence turned up letters in code from Mary that discussed the plot. Howard confessed his involvement and was found guilty of high treason. Elizabeth always had difficulty authorizing the execution of her close associates. Even after the court found Howard guilty, Elizabeth could not bring herself to consent to his execution. Her worried Privy Council called a special session of Parliament, which demanded that the execution take place. Elizabeth yielded and Howard was beheaded in 1572. Parliament pushed for the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, as well, but on this issue Elizabeth stood firm. Mary remained in captivity in England for fifteen more years.

English Catholics in exile

When Elizabeth established a Protestant church as the official church of the nation, everyone holding a public or church office or working toward an academic degree was required to swear loyalty to the Act of Supremacy, which declared Elizabeth the supreme governor of all religious matters in England. None of the English Catholic bishops in office when Elizabeth took the throne were willing to swear to the act, and consequently they lost their posts. Under the Act of Uniformity of 1559 all of England's Catholics were fined heavily if they failed attend their local Anglican, or Church of England, service every Sunday. (For more information on the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity, see Chapter 3.) There was an even bigger fine for attending an illegal Catholic mass. Most Catholics tried to preserve their belief system while outwardly conforming to the Anglican Church. For deeply religious Catholics, however, conforming to the new church went against their most basic beliefs. For them, leaving England was the only choice. Most English Catholics moved to Catholic-friendly countries in Europe.

William Allen and the missionaries to England

One English Catholic exile was William Allen (1532–1594), a prominent educator at Oxford University who was studying for the priesthood when Elizabeth became queen. Allen refused to take the oath of supremacy and in 1561 left England for Louvain, Flanders, where he continued his schooling. (Flanders is a region in present-day northern Belgium.) He returned to England after a year abroad where he secretly ministered to English Catholics. He found Catholics who were eager to practice their faith but, without church or clergy to guide them, they were worshiping in the Protestant churches. After three years Allen, fleeing from the authorities, left England again for the continent. After becoming an ordained priest in Flanders, in 1568 he founded a seminary at Douai (a city in the Spanish Netherlands, now part of present-day France) to train English Catholic exiles as missionaries who would return to England to conduct masses and confessions in secret. Their aim was to preserve the outlawed Catholic faith in any way possible.

By 1574 a small but brave group of Catholic missionaries from Douai and other seminaries had begun to arrive on English shores. The missionaries landed at their own peril; if caught by the English authorities, they were imprisoned and usually tortured under interrogation. Many were brutally executed as traitors. Men who were not of noble birth who were convicted of treason faced the gruesome execution of being hanged, drawn, and quartered. This cruel punishment began with the victim being dragged on a wooden frame to his place of execution, where he was hanged by the neck, but taken down before death. While still alive he was disemboweled—his vital organs were cut out from his body—and the organs were burned before his eyes. Then the body was hacked into four parts, which were usually hung in a public place. Non-noble women convicted of treason were burned at the stake. Nobles of both sexes were generally beheaded.

In 1580, outraged at the deaths of Catholic missionaries, Pope Gregory XIII made a pronouncement that encouraged Elizabeth's murder, saying, as quoted in translation by Alison Weir in The Life of Elizabeth I, it would be justified to kill: "that guilty woman who is the cause of so much intriguing to the Catholic faith and loss of so many million souls. There is no doubt that whoever sends her out of the world with the pious intention of doing God service, not only does not sin but gains merit." For the Catholic missionaries who genuinely wished to offer their priestly services and not to overthrow the government, this kind of declaration was disastrous, for it led the English authorities to assume that all Catholic missionaries were spies and conspirators.

Edmund Campion

During the 1560s Edmund Campion (1540–1581) was one of Oxford University's most brilliant scholars. In fact, on a visit to Oxford in 1566, Queen Elizabeth sat in on a debate in which Campion was participating. His intelligence, poise, and knowledge impressed her greatly. At that time Campion was training for the priesthood in the Anglican Church and would almost certainly have become one of the nation's most prominent priests and educators. But Campion had doubts about Protestantism. Like many English citizens at the time, his personal religion had gone through as many upheavals as the country itself. His parents had been Catholic, but Edmund was born in the last years of Henry VIII's reign, after the king had severed ties with the Roman Catholic Church and founded a church based on his own, mostly Catholic, religious notions. When Campion was seven years old, England became a Protestant nation under Edward VI (1537–1553), and Campion and his parents, at least outwardly, converted. When he was thirteen, he, like everyone else, returned to traditional Roman Catholicism under the reign of Mary I. Campion and his parents had again become Protestants in 1559 with Elizabeth's rise to the throne and he had taken the oath of supremacy that was required of him when he took his degree. But his doubts grew and finally led him to convert to Catholicism in 1570. He journeyed to Douai in 1571 to enter the Catholic seminary there, and he was ordained as a Jesuit priest in 1578.

In 1580 the Jesuits began sending missionaries to England; Campion was selected for the first mission. He traveled in the company of another exiled Oxford Jesuit priest, Robert Persons (also spelled Parsons; 1546–1610). Campion knew the dangers that faced him, having heard of the terrible deaths that had befallen some of William Allen's missionaries in England. English authorities had become extremely watchful, with spies looking for Catholic priests throughout the country. Campion arrived in England in disguise. He made his way to London, where he wrote a letter to the Privy Council, which became known as "Campion's Brag." In the letter Campion admitted to being a Jesuit priest who came to England to save souls, but vowed he never had any plans to act against the government. He confidently added that he was so certain of the truth of the Catholic faith that he would be happy to debate it with any Protestant.

Campion traveled throughout England, constantly trailed by the spies of the government. He hid from authorities in the homes of the wealthy Catholics, particularly those who lived in the northern regions of England. When he arrived in a new district, Catholics gathered from miles around. Campion tirelessly heard their confessions, celebrated the forbidden mass, and conducted marriages or funerals. He was forced to move every few days to avoid capture. Still, Campion and Persons managed to set up a printing press. They published Campion's argument in defense of Catholicism, Ten Reasons, and secretly distributed it to the students at Oxford University. Campion's writings quickly spread in secret to England's Catholics.

In the summer of 1581, after numerous close calls, Campion was caught by authorities and placed in the Tower of London, where he was tortured. At his trial the queen's prosecutors claimed, with no proof, that Campion was part of a conspiracy to overthrow Elizabeth and replace her on the throne with Mary Stuart. Campion was quickly convicted of treason, but maintained to the end that he remained a loyal subject to the queen and only differed with her in his religious beliefs.

One day during his imprisonment, without warning, he was brought to a room of the Tower and instructed to debate religious questions with several prominent Protestant theologians who, unlike himself, had been allowed to prepare for the debate. Even in these unfair circumstances, Campion defeated every debater, impressing a large and distinguished audience. He was brought back to debate several other Protestant theologians and excelled each time. Nevertheless, he was brutally executed by being hanged, drawn, and quartered in front of a huge crowd. He was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church in 1886. (Beatification is the first step in the process of becoming a saint, in which a deceased person is officially blessed.)

Campion's mission had been to peacefully save the souls of English citizens, but not all Jesuits were as peaceful as he was. His companion, Parsons, escaped from England and began to seek ways to overthrow Elizabeth's government. He became closely associated with William Allen, who was becoming convinced that Catholicism could not be restored to England by peaceful means. The two become major organizers in conspiracies against Elizabeth involving military and financial support from Spain.

For More Information


Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. New York: Norton, 2004.

Smith, Lacey Baldwin. The Elizabethan Epic. London: Panther, 1969.

Watkins, Susan, with photographs by Mark Fiennes. In Public and in Private: Elizabeth I and Her World. London: Thames and Hudson, 1998.

Weir, Alison. The life of Elizabeth I. New York: Ballantine Books, 1998.


"List of Popes." Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. XII. Copyright 2005 by K. Knight. (accessed on July 11, 2006).

Sommerville, J. P. "Elizabethan Catholics." (accessed on July 11, 2006).

――――――. "The Catholic Reformation" (a list of online primary sources). (accessed on July 11, 2006).

About this article

The Catholic Reformation and Conspiracies Against Elizabeth, 1558–1580

Updated About content Print Article