KEY FIGURES OF THE REFORMATION – ELIZABETH I
By Fr. Dwight Longernecker
Very few historical figures have been as hated and admired as England’s Queen Elizabeth I. On the one hand, she is portrayed as “Gloriana” — Good Queen Bess or the “Virgin Queen.” She is the noble and virtuous heroine who led her country through times of crisis and threat to end her reign victorious, regal, wise, and calm.
On the other hand, Elizabeth is despised as the illegitimate daughter of a lecherous king and an adulterous vixen. Hated by Catholics, she is perceived as a cruel tyrant who ran a police state — hunting down and ruthlessly torturing her enemies before subjecting them to grisly, humiliating public executions.
Like Henry VIII, her father, she is a controversial, larger-than-life character whose decisions and actions changed the course of history, the religion of England, and the hearts of her people.
THE SIX WIVES OF HENRY VIII
To understand anyone, we must understand their family background, and this is never truer than for the tumultuous and troubled characters of the Tudor dynasty.
Henry VIII married the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon. A faithful, Catholic queen, Catherine only had one child who survived — a daughter, Mary. Desperate for a male heir and bewitched by the young lady-in-waiting Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII divorced Catherine and married Anne.
Anne also bore him only one child — the princess Elizabeth. After Boleyn was executed for adultery, Henry VIII married Jane Seymour, who gave birth to a son named Edward. After Seymour died from complications of childbirth, Henry married, one after another, three other women — none of whom produced an heir. On Henry’s death in 1547, three children remained: the boy Edward and the two princesses, Mary and Elizabeth. Although he was younger than his two half-sisters, Edward became king.
It might have seemed that the throne was in safe hands and the kingdom stable, but Edward was only 11 and sickly. Furthermore, succession to the throne of England was confusing and controversial — not only because the three heirs were from dubious parentage, but also because of religion.
The Seymour family were Protestant sympathizers, so Edward was brought up by the Protestants. Princess Mary, on the other hand, was faithful to her mother’s memory and staunchly Catholic. Elizabeth wavered between the two, and because many considered her illegitimate, she held her cards close to her chest.
After Henry VIII’s death, events moved rapidly. Under the governance of his advisers, Edward retained and promoted his father’s break with Rome. But Edward died in 1553, when he was just 15 years old. This opened the way for Mary Tudor (the daughter of Catherine of Aragon) to succeed him. Catholics rejoiced as Mary brought England back to the Catholic faith. The restoration was not to last long, however. After a reign of just five years, Queen Mary died childless, leaving Anne Boleyn’s daughter Elizabeth to take the throne.
Would Elizabeth keep England Catholic following Mary’s reign or flip the Church back to Protestantism again? Elizabeth and her counselors believed they had found a solution to the religious turmoil.
THE ELIZABETHAN SETTLEMENT
When her father dissolved the monasteries, confiscating their riches and their land (the source of huge incomes), he gave the land to his political allies. Therefore, the newly enriched noblemen had a vested interest in keeping England Protestant. They feared that a Catholic monarch would attempt to confiscate their land and give it back to the Catholic Church, and this is exactly what Queen Mary attempted to do.
When Elizabeth ascended the throne, she knew who held the real reins of power: the rich Protestant noblemen who controlled Parliament and the country’s wealth. Elizabeth was only 25 when she became queen. By then all of her family members had died. She was isolated and aware that many of her subjects considered her illegitimate and not a rightful queen.
Although Elizabeth was sympathetic to the Catholic faith and seems to have been Catholic in her own personal devotions, she understood that she could only reign with the support of the Protestant noblemen.
Wanting to be tolerant, however, Elizabeth devised a solution. The Elizabethan Settlement meant that her people could practice a Catholic form of religion, but they would still have to take the oath of allegiance to her as both queen and head of the Church of England.
She permitted the celebration of Mass, devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, processions, vestments, candles, pilgrimages, and all the outward signs of Catholicism. The religion under the new queen looked and felt like Catholicism.
There was only one thing missing: the pope.
It was Elizabeth’s clash with the pope that brought her toleration experiment crashing down into one of the most repressive regimes the world has ever known.
In the 16th century it was impossible to separate religion from politics. Elizabeth had to keep England Protestant, but she soon came to realize that Catholics were not satisfied simply with the outward forms of religion being Catholic.
The old religion didn’t die out easily. Pockets of resistance to Protestantism existed throughout the land. Catholics resented the destruction of the monasteries. They despised Protestantism and feared being ruled by heretics. There were constant rumors of rebellions, such as the Pilgrimage of Grace her father had ruthlessly suppressed some 20 years earlier in 1537.
The rebels believed that Elizabeth was illegitimate because she was the child of an adulterous union. With the death of Mary, Catholics rallied around Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots.
Mary Stuart had married into the French royal family and was the only surviving heir of the king of Scotland.
In 1569 the Catholics of northern England rose up in revolt and tried to depose Elizabeth and put Mary, Queen of Scots, on the throne of England. The rebellion was crushed by Elizabeth’s forces, and Mary was imprisoned.
Believing that the revolt had been successful, Pope Pius V issued a decree in 1570 that excommunicated Elizabeth and declared that her subjects were no longer bound to obey her. The pope’s decision would prove to be disastrous for English Catholics.
SPIES AND PERSECUTION
The pope had drawn a line in the sand. Elizabeth and her counselors concluded that one could not be a faithful Catholic and a loyal English subject.
The Catholic faith was outlawed. To convert someone to Catholicism was declared treason punishable by the death sentence. The Mass was considered an act of treason. Priests were hunted down and killed. Citizens who protected priests were imprisoned, tortured, and executed. A spy network was set up to discover priests, capture them, torture them, and execute them by being hung, drawn, and quartered.
This form of execution was particularly gruesome. After being imprisoned and usually tortured, the priest would be dragged through the streets behind a horse on a wooden rack while the public humiliated him with mockery, raining down excrement and garbage on him.
Once on the gallows, he would be stripped of his clothes and hung by the neck but cut down while still breathing. Then, while still alive, he would be emasculated, and disemboweled. Once dead he would be beheaded and cut into four parts. His head and body parts would be dipped in tar and sent to the four corners of the realm. His head would be put on a pike on London Bridge.
Such a reign of terror horrified Catholics across Europe, and the king of Spain planned an invasion of England.
In 1588 the Spanish fleet was defeated, and Protestant England was saved, but the continued attacks by Catholics on the continent hardened Elizabeth’s heart against her Catholic subjects.
The persecution increased, and by 1591 her Catholic citizens were also subject to increased persecution. Attendance at the Church of England was mandatory. Absence was noted, and those who stayed away were interrogated, fined, and if they continued to disobey, had all their property confiscated. Then they could be imprisoned, tortured, and killed.
PROTESTANTISM AND POLITICS
From 1570 to her death in 1603, Elizabeth’s police state effectively crushed the Catholic faith in England.
On Elizabeth’s death, the son of her old enemy Mary, Queen of Scots, came south and claimed the English throne. James was raised as a Protestant, but like Elizabeth before him, he attempted religious peace and toleration. However, two years into his reign, a Catholic plot to overthrow James’ government was discovered.
Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up the houses of Parliament during the state opening — killing the king and all the members of Parliament. Historians still debate the origins of the Gunpowder Plot, with many holding the opinion that it was a false flag conspiracy to demolish James’ policy of religious toleration and fuel the anti-Catholic spirit in England.
CENTURIES OF CATHOLIC PERSECUTION
Elizabeth I reigned for 44 years. During that time the Catholic faith went underground, and it wasn’t until 1829 that all restrictions on Catholics in England were finally lifted. The sufferings of English Catholics for nearly 300 years have been largely ignored or forgotten by secular historians.
Their sufferings cannot be forgotten by Catholics, however. Their examples of courage should inspire all Catholics to stand firm in the face of opposition and hold to the faith once delivered to the saints.