Debate on Elizabeth's Catholic Policies

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Debate on Elizabeth's Catholic Policies

Excerpt from The Execution of Justice in England

    By William Cecil

Excerpt from A True, Sincere, and Modest Defense of English Catholics

    By William Allen

    Reprinted in The Execution of Justice in England by William Cecil and A True, Sincere, and Modest Defense of English Catholics by William Allen

    Published by Cornell University Press, 1965

Elizabeth I (1533–1603) began her reign hoping to promote religious tolerance in England. The country first moved toward Protestantism when her father, Henry VIII (1491–1547), officially rejected the authority of the Roman Catholic pope in the 1530s. Under his heir, Edward VI (1537–1553), the English church became more strictly Protestant; changes in worship services, for example, eliminated many prayers and rituals that had been part of Catholic tradition. After Edward's death, however, his half-sister, Mary I (1516–1558), attempted to force England back to Catholicism. Though English Catholics who had been deprived of the right to worship freely under Henry and Edward rejoiced at this move, many of Mary's subjects had accepted the Protestant church and had no wish to shift their allegiance back to Catholicism. Frustrated at their resistance, Mary began enforcing heresy laws against Protestants. (Heresy is a religious opinion that conflicts with the church's doctrines.)

"Most prisons in England be full at this day and have been for divers years of honorable and honest persons not to be touched with any treason or other offense in the world other than their profession and faith in Christian religion."

        —William Allen.

Over about three years, she ordered approximately three hundred men, women, and children—many of them ordinary people who had no political power—burned to death at the stake for being Protestants.

Seeing how Mary's intolerant policies had earned the hatred of her subjects, and understanding that continued religious conflicts would drive the country apart, Elizabeth gave England a compromise. She reinstituted Protestantism as the country's official religion and required outward acceptance of the new church, but she did not persecute Catholics for their beliefs. She hoped that Catholics would find it acceptable to participate in Protestant worship, since the English church was based on the same biblical teachings as was Catholicism.

Elizabeth's Religious Settlement did bring a sense of relief to England after the pitiless years of Mary's religious persecution. But Catholic sentiment remained strong in many parts of the country, particularly the northern regions. Elizabeth's Catholic subjects were deeply troubled that they had no legal right to attend Mass, the Catholic religious service, or participate in traditional Catholic rites. Many also believed that Elizabeth should not have been made queen, since her birth had been illegitimate under Catholic law. In their view, Elizabeth's Catholic cousin, Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots; 1542–1587) had a more legitimate claim to the English crown. Support for Mary's cause inspired the Northern Rising in 1569, in which the earls of Westmoreland and Northumberland raised an army against Elizabeth in the northern counties. In support of this rebellion, Pope Pius V (1504–1572) issued an official proclamation, known as a papal bull, excommunicating Elizabeth and freeing English Catholics from any obligation to obey her. (Excommunication officially deprives a person of church membership.) Because the bull also commanded English Catholics to try to overthrow the queen, Elizabeth's government soon began to suspect all Catholics of treason.

Though England quickly defeated the northern rebels, the government feared additional conspiracies and was especially worried that Catholic powers in Europe would give support to Mary Stuart's champions. Harsh anti-Catholic legislation was enacted and enforced in England; many English Catholics fled to Europe where they lived in exile, hoping for the eventual return of Catholic rule in England. Their spiritual leader, Cardinal William Allen (1532–1594), trained missionary priests who would later return to England to minister to Catholics and try to convert Protestants. Two Jesuit priests, Edmund Campion (1540–1581) and Robert Persons (1546–1610), arrived secretly in England in 1580.

Elizabeth's agents soon discovered Campion's whereabouts and arrested him for treason. Though he insisted that his mission had nothing to do with politics and that the pope had expressly forbidden him to meddle in government matters, he was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered—a gruesome method of execution, reserved for the most serious of crimes, in which the prisoner was hanged, cut down while still alive, and disemboweled before his limbs were cut off and he was finally beheaded. Though the queen hoped that Campion's execution would deter future missions, it had the opposite effect, inspiring exiled Catholics to continue their efforts to depose Elizabeth.

The execution of Campion and other missionary priests who followed him provoked so much criticism that Elizabeth's secretary of state and chief advisor, William Cecil (Lord Burghley; 1520–1598) wrote a pamphlet defending the government's actions. In The Execution of Justice in England, first published in December 1583, Cecil argued that Catholics in England were not punished because of their religious beliefs but because they had committed treason. He explicitly stated that Campion and other missionary priests were part of a military campaign to overthrow the queen and place a Catholic monarch on the throne. The government's treatment of these men, therefore, had been entirely reasonable and necessary for the defense of the realm.

Cardinal Allen responded almost immediately with a document of his own, A True, Sincere, and Modest Defense of English Catholics. In this work he refuted each of Cecil's claims, and argued that Catholics in England were, in fact, persecuted solely on the basis of their faith. He gave examples of individuals against whom no charge of treason had been made, and he argued further that, since Elizabeth's government had abolished heresy laws, it had no legal right to put Catholics to death.

Things to remember while reading The Execution of Justice in England and A True, Sincere, and Modest Defense of English Catholics:

  • Though Elizabeth's religious policy was tolerant at first, Catholics could not openly practice their religion.
  • Plots against Elizabeth from Catholic nations like Spain created distrust of Catholics both abroad and at home.
  • Cecil and Allen each had their own motivations for writing their pamphets. Cecil wanted to protect England's image as a just nation ruled by a lawful queen, while Allen wanted to gain sympathy and support for the Catholic cause.

The Execution of Justice in England

… Of which sort of late years are specially to be noted certain persons, naturally born subjects in the realm of England and Ireland, who, having for some good time professed outwardly their obedience to their sovereign lady, Queen Elizabeth, have nevertheless afterward been stirred up and seduced by wicked spirits, first in England sundry [various] years past, and secondly and of later time in Ireland, to enter into open rebellion, taking arms and coming into the field against Her Majesty and her lieutenants, with their forces under banners displayed, inducing by notable untruths many simple people to follow and assist them in their traitorous actions. And though it is very well known that both their intentions and manifest actions were bent to have deposed the Queen's Majesty from her crown and to have traitorously set in her place some other whom they liked, whereby if they had not been speedily resisted they would have committed great bloodsheds and slaughters of Her Majesty's faithful subjects and ruined their native country; yet by God's power given unto Her Majesty they were so speedily vanquished as some few of them suffered by order of law according to their deserts, many and the greatest part upon confession of their faults were pardoned, the rest (but they not many) of the principal escaped into foreign countries; and there … these notable traitors and rebels have falsely informed many kings, princes, and states, and specially the Bishop of Rome, commonly called the Pope (from whom they all had secretly their first comfort to rebel), that the cause of their fleeing from their countries was for the religion of Rome and for maintenance of the said Pope's authority. Whereas divers [various] of them before their rebellion lived so notoriously the most part of their lives out of all good rule….

But notwithstanding the notorious evil and wicked lives of these and others their confederates [allies], void of all Christian religion, it like the Bishop of Rome, as in favor of their treasons, not to color their offenses, as themselves openly pretend to do, for avoiding of common shame of the world, but flatly to animate them to continue their former wicked purposes, that is, to take arms against their lawful queen, to invade her realm with foreign forces, to pursue all her good subjects and their native countries with fire and sword; for maintenance whereof there had some years before at sundry time proceeded, in a thundering sort, bulls, excommunications, and other public writings denouncing Her Majesty, being the lawful Queen and God's anointed servant, not to be the queen of the realm; charging and, upon pains of excommunication, commanding all her subjects to depart from their natural allegiances whereto by birth and by oath they were bound; provoking also and authorizing all persons of all degrees within both the realms to rebel….

But God's goodness, by Whom kings do rule and by Whose blast traitors are commonly wasted and confounded, hath otherwise given to Her Majesty, as to His handmaid and dear servant ruling under Him, the spirit of wisdom and power, whereby she hath caused some of these seditious seedmen and sowers of rebellion to be discovered, for all their secret lurkings, and to be taken and charged with these former points of high treason, not being dealt withal upon question of religion, but justly [by order of laws, openly] condemned as traitors. At which times, not withstanding all manner gentle ways of persuasions used to move them to desist from such manifest traitorous courses and opinions, [with offer of mercy,] yet was the canker of their rebellious humors so deeply entered and graven into the hearts of many of them as they would not be removed from their traitorous determinations. And therefore, as manifest traitors in maintaining and adhering to the capital enemy of Her Majesty and her crown (who hath not only been the cause of two rebellions already past in England and Ireland, but in that of Ireland did manifestly wage and maintain his own people, captains and soldiers, under the banner of Rome, against Her Majesty, so as no enemy could do more), these, I say, have justly suffered death, not by force or form of any new laws established, either for religion or against the Pope's supremacy, as their slanderous libelers would have it seem to be, but by the ancient temporal laws of the realm, and namely by the laws of Parliament made in King Edward the Third's time, about the year of Our Lord 1330, which is above two hundred years and more past, when the Bishops of Rome and Popes were suffered to have authority ecclesiastical in Ecclesiastical: Relating to a this realm, as they had in many other countries. But yet of this kind of offenders, as many of them as after their condemnations were contented to renounce their former traitorous assertions, so many were spared from execution and do live still at this day; such was the unwillingness in Her Majesty to have any blood spilled without this very urgent, just, and necessary cause, proceeding from themselves….

A True, Sincere, and Modest Defense of English Catholics That Suffer for their Faith both at Home and Abroad; Against a False Seditious, and Slanderous Libel Entitled: The Execution of Justice in England

Chapter I

… Now to the principal points of the libel: we first affirm that the very front or title thereof (importing that no Catholics at all, or none of them whom they have executed, were persecuted for their religion) is a very notorious untruth and contradictory to the libeler's own words in his discourse following, where he confesseth underhand that some be corrected otherwise for religion. Or (if they will stand in the contrary) we appeal to the conscience and knowledge of all the Catholics and Protestants within the realm, who of their equity will never deny that most prisons in England be full at this day and have been for divers years of honorable and honest persons not to be touched with any treason or other offense in the world other than their profession and faith in Christian religion.

Secondly, we say and shall clearly convince that, contrary to the pursuit of the same libel, a number have been also tormented, arraigned, condemned, and executed for mere matter of religion and upon the transgression of new statutes only, without any relation to the old treasons so made and set down by Parliament in Edward the Third's time, by which they untruly avouch all our brethren were convicted.

And herein to deal particularly and plainly, we allege the worthy priest and Bachelor of Divinity, Mr. Cuthbert Mayne (who suffered a glorious martyrdom at Launceston in the province of Cornwall, for that the case or cover only of an Agnus Dei, and a printed copy of that bull, now expired, which denounced to the Christian world the last Jubilee, were found about him), condemned not by any old laws (as is deceitfully pretended to abuse the simple of our own nation and strangers that know not our lamentable condition) but by a late statute enacted the thirteenth year of the Queen's reign which marketh it high treason to bring from Rome any beads, sacred pictures, Agnus Deis, bulls, or (as the express words of the said statute are) "any writing or instrument, written or printed, containing any thing, matter, or cause whatsoever," by which words they may condemn a man to death as guilty of high treason though he bring from Rome but letters testimonial for a traveler's credit and commendation in journey: a thing unheard of in all ages, not credible to foreigners and a fable to the posterity, or rather a warning to the world to come, into what misery and barbarousness a kingdom that forsaketh the Church may be brought unto. And an honorable gentleman of an ancient family, for only receiving the said blessed priest into his house, remaineth condemned at this day to perpetual prison and hath lost both lands and goods of great importance for that fact.

Likewise Thomas Sherwood, a layman indicted, adjudged, and put to death for questions of the Queen's supremacy in causes spiritual and other articles made capital by the new laws only two years at the least before this fiction of conspiracy against the realm or person of the princess was made or heard of. The same year was a reverend priest named Mr. John Nelson condemned and executed for affirming (being driven thereunto by the commissioners' captious interrogatories) the Queen's religion to be heretical and schismatical, which is made death not by the old laws of the realm, nor by any other of any Christian country, but only by a statute made in the said thirteenth year of the Queen's reign, providing by a special clause that none shall affirm Her Majesty that now is (for it holdeth not in other princes' cases to come) to be an heretic or schismatic, under pain of incurring high treason and death.

After these, Mr. Everard Hanse was indicted and so condemned to death (which he constantly suffered) only upon a statute made in the last Parliament of all (by which it is made a crime capital to persuade any man to the Catholic religion), into the compass of which law they violently drew the blessed man by calumnious interpretation of his speeches, when he affirmed (being urged thereunto) that the Pope was his superior in causes spiritual "and had in such matters spiritual as good right as he ever had in England or hath at this day in Rome," for which words, though enforced from him, he was there presently indicted, arraigned, and condemned to death, and soon after most cruelly executed, whose case, together with that of Mr. Nelson, which goeth before, declareth what truth is in this libeler who writeth here in one place that none are for their contrary opinions in religion persecuted or charged with any crimes or pains of treason, nor yet willingly searched in their consciences for their contrary opinions. And again within a leaf after he repeateth the same untruth, saying: "Without charging them in their consciences or otherwise by any inquisition to bring them into danger of capital law, so as not one was called into any capital or bloody question upon matters of religion, but have all enjoyed their life as the course of nature would."…

What happened next …

Cecil made sure that The Execution of Justice in England was widely read. A second edition appeared in 1584, and the pamphlet was translated into several languages, including Latin, French, Dutch, German, and Italian. This suggests that Cecil was deeply concerned about European opinion. Catholic sentiment was strong throughout the continent, and England could not let it appear that it was persecuting Catholics for their religious beliefs. If European Catholic monarchs became convinced that England was bent on exterminating Catholicism from the realm, they would most likely decide to invade the kingdom, depose Elizabeth, and install a Catholic ruler on the English throne.

Meanwhile, despite his assertions that English Catholics had no interest in committing treason, Cardinal Allen actively conspired with the pope and several European monarchs to do just that. As early as 1575 he had plotted with Spain to send an armed force to England to depose Elizabeth and put Mary Stuart in power, and he continued to seek ways to remove Elizabeth from the throne. After 1585 he worked actively with the pope and the Spanish king, Philip II (1527–1598), to plan a massive naval invasion of England. Philip's powerful Armada, the most formidable navy in the world, would carry troops across the English Channel; once this army landed, the English people, incited by a new papal bull urging resistance against the queen, would join the troops and overthrow the Protestant government. The Armada sailed in 1588, but the invasion failed due to tactical errors, poor weather, and the superiority of England's naval technology. Even if troops had landed, however, it is doubtful that English Catholics would have heeded the pope's command to join the invaders. As the country braced for attack, Catholics and Protestants alike rallied to England's defense, showing that most English Catholics would remain loyal to their country rather than accept foreign rule. The English considered the defeat of the Armada proof that God approved of Elizabeth's Protestant government. Though religious unrest did not entirely subside after 1588, Protestantism became firmly established in English government and culture.

Did you know …

  • In 1584–1585 Parliament enacted a law stating that any English man who had been ordained as a Catholic priest could be put to death.
  • During the 1580s Cardinal Allen's seminary sent 438 priests to England, 98 of whom were executed.
  • Cuthbert Mayne, whom Allen mentions in Defense of English Catholics, was the first English missionary priest to be put to death. He studied at Cardinal Allen's seminary and returned to England in 1576. He was executed in 1577. Campion was the first of several Jesuit missionaries to be executed in England.
  • English Catholics who sheltered or gave support to priests also faced the death penalty.

Consider the following …

  • Whose argument do you find most convincing, Cecil's or Allen's? What are some of the differences in the way they each try to influence their readers? Which technique do you find most effective?
  • Elizabeth's government chose to pursue an aggressive anti-Catholic policy after the pope excommunicated the queen. How well did her policy succeed? If you had been her advisor, what actions would you have recommended she take to deal with the problem of national security?

For More Information


Brigden, Susan. New Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors, 1485–1603. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.

Bryant, Arthur. The Elizabethan Deliverance. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981.

Hogge, Alice. God's Secret Agents: Queen Elizabeth's Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

Kingdon, Robert M., ed. The Execution of Justice in England by William Cecil and A True, Sincere, and Modest Defense of English Catholics by William Allen. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1965.

Starkey, David. Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne. New York: Perennial, 2001.


"Elizabethan Church and Catholics." Elizabeth I. (accessed on July 24, 2006).

"Elizabethan Plots and Rebellions." (accessed on July 24, 2006).

"Protestant England."∼dee/REFORM/ENGLAND.HTM (accessed on July 24, 2006).

Seditious: Rebellious.

Canker: Source of corruption

Ecclesiastical: Relating to a church.

Agnus Dei: Image of Jesus as the Lamb of God.

Jubilee: Catholic religious festival to celebrate a Holy Year.

Captious: Intending to trap or confuse.

Schismatical: Causing a split within a church.

Calumnious: Harmful misrepresentation.