To what extent had Catholic opposition to religious changes disappeared by 1640?

The century heralding the break from Rome and ending with a King being despised, in part, for his Catholic tendencies saw enormous religious changes; and opposition to them from certain sections of society. The break with Rome marked the beginning of this religious turmoil. Smith argues there was Catholic opposition to this although it was not enormously significant; ‘the great bulk of the population-the upper ranks of the clergy and the aristocracy and gentry-accepted the royal supremacy without difficulty’. Infamously, Thomas More opposed the break and John Fisher was the only opposing bishop but they were in the minority, motivated by their ideological beliefs. The break changed little outwardly; services continued as before, hence the small amount of opposition. The Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 was admittedly in part a religious protest, or at least a protest under the guise of religion as the rebels wore badges of the Five Wounds of Christ and swore a contradictory oath to that of the Royal Supremacy, however it was motivated by other factors too.

For example, the poor harvest of 1535, followed by another one in 1536 and the peacetime taxation being collected all contributed to the atmosphere of anger at the time, especially in the North where the revolt started. The dissolution of the monarchies; something which directly affected people may have been a direct cause too but as the rebellion was in part organised and galvanised by the gentry of the area such as Darcy, Aske and Hussey, it was not necessarily a spontaneous rising of the masses. There was also opposition to the changes at court. The most influential and powerful Duke of the land, Norfolk, led this opposition and, in league with Bishop Gardiner, battled against the reforming ‘radicals’: Archbishop Cranmer and Cromwell, the latter of which was executed in 1540 as a result of the Conservatives’ plotting. But even this ostensibly opposing faction came to accept Royal Supremacy, although they did oppose further doctrinal change, whereas Cranmer and Cromwell wanted further reform. However, just because Henry broke with Rome it did not mean he was breaking with Catholicism, and there is evidence to suggest he died a Catholic.

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Guy claims the revolts in 1549 across England ‘were the closest thing Tudor England saw to a class war’. This implies, like the Pilgrimage of Grace, the Western Rebellion had other motivating factors than just religion, although the rebels did request a return to the church during the last years of Henry VIII’s life. The 1547 Injunctions introduced by Edward VI had not been received well by some who resented the attacks on Catholic symbolism; such as holy days, saints and images. Other factors though included another disappointing harvest and increased inflation and rents. Therefore this time, as Guy suggests, there was little co-operation between the masses and the gentry, suggesting even if the rebellions had been motivated predominantly by religion they were still not a sufficiently co-ordinated or threatening force. The 1552 Prayer Book did not stir much Catholic opposition, even though it changed the appearance of churches outwardly. Only the radicals objected that one had to kneel for communion, a ‘popish’ practice.

In fact, by the end of Edward’s short reign in 1553, the radicals, having been left the ‘upper-hand’ [Smith] by Henry VIII had secured vital Privy Council positions; enabling Cranmer to express his reforming ideas openly. This political power the Privy Council wielded is important when one considers, for example, the more radical direction that reform took when John Dudley gained power in 1550. His influence and manipulation saw England lurch in a more Protestant direction and a crack-down on those conservatives such as Gardiner who would have presented opposition, which is difficult to attribute to any strong Protestant feeling in England itself. Alas for Dudley however, the death of Edward in 1553 ensured the Forty-Two Articles, drawn up to list the doctrines of the new Protestant church, never became law.

Nigel Heard writes ‘all historians are agreed that by 1553 the Edwardian Reformation had resulted in a Church of England that was thoroughly Protestant’. Haigh claims that while England itself may have become legally Protestant, the English people still thought in Catholic terms. There is little evidence suggesting the population embraced Protestantism with massive enthusiasm, apart from in the southern counties circling London which is why Dickens’ claim that by 1558 Protestantism had become the popular religion seems slightly ambitious. Church papism may explain why there was not more opposition to the changes made during Edward’s reign, as people would go to church and hear the Protestant services only to appear conformist. But, during Mary’s reign, the number of those executed as heretics (230) exceeds that of any other in fellow Catholic countries on the continent and there was an attempt at rebellion led by Sir Thomas Wyatt. This may prove that Protestantism was beginning to take root and negates Heard’s argument that; despite ‘small minorities of committed Protestants and Catholics, neither religion seems to have had a strong hold in England when Mary died’. However, this is not to say that Catholicism was a dying force; as Elizabeth’s reign proves.

There has been much debate over the extent of Catholic opposition during this reign. Elizabeth did face difficulty trying to pass the initial religious settlement, and finally had to accept a watered down settlement due to opposition from ‘obdurate bishops’ [Haigh] in the Lords. However, the next decade of her reign was relatively peaceful, possibly explained by the aforementioned church papism. The Queen, trying to avoid causing any major upset, managed overall to keep extremists, on both Catholic and Protestant sides, at bay. There was little persecution, little recusancy and the hope was as the Marian bishops died, so too would Catholicism. The arrival of Mary Queen of Scots in 1568 though meant the Catholics had a focus on which to build up opposition. The Revolt of the Northern Earls in 1569 was the first overt challenge to Elizabeth and although according to Smith ‘it had important political and economic motives’, the revolt was predominantly meant to restore Catholicism; a fact highlighted by the restoration of Catholic services wherever the rebels went. The revolt resulted in England’s further polarization from Rome in the form of the Papal Bull excommunicating Elizabeth in 1570.

The Ridolfi plot of 1571 shows that Catholic opposition had become more blatant, and Ridolfi had even gone so far as to seek foreign support, although the Duke of Alva, with troops stationed in the Netherlands, never gave his support. The most significant outcome of the plot was Norfolk’s execution, thereby the removal of arguably the most vociferous, powerful and active member of the Catholic faction. Hence, Catholic power and strength of opposition was seriously reduced. With the gradual disappearance of the Marian priests, it seemed as if Elizabeth’s policy of assimilation was working.

The arrival of missionary priests from Douai in 1574 however, resulted in a slight reverse in this trend. Although on this issue it is hard to generalise, Haigh is correct to say their role was limited because they stayed in the south-east, but they did encourage recusancy. For example, in the ‘Catholic heartland’ [MacCulloch] Lancashire the number of recusants grew from about 300 in the mid-1570s to roughly 3500 by 1604. The problem for them though was that these recusants, in areas other than those of the south and south-east, were being progressively deprived of priests. Admittedly the priests did, as Smith states ‘stiffen the resolve of the hard core of Catholics’, but Dickens’ argument that the first two decades of Elizabeth’s reign saw the gradual decay of Catholicism is convincing because it does seem as if the missionary priests and Jesuits were trying to revive Catholicism from its grave. However, as their role was further hampered on account of their confined geographical location the priests could not wholly manipulate ‘the relative fertility of the conservative North’ [Smith] and so their influence was not as great as it might have been. Of course there were ongoing plots and threats to Elizabeth’s life but generally converts to Anglicanism were increasing as Catholicism decreased, even in the North West as Dures points out, where according to Haigh the priests were ineffective.

However, admittedly by this point there had been more significant plots. The Throckmorton plot in 1583 and Babington plot in 1586 signified the increasingly desperate attempts of the Catholics to remove Elizabeth and reinstate Catholicism. However, as Hurstfield claims ‘Despite the attempts of a few Catholic extremists, most Catholics did their best to serve…the queen’. Nationalism proved with many people, to be a more potent force than Catholicism; as illustrated by the failure of the Spanish Armada in 1588. This link between Protestantism and nationalism, and the increased xenophobia did much to break down Catholic opposition. Feeling braver, or perhaps more alarmed by the plots, the government introduced new legislation in the early 1580s designed to crack down on the remaining Catholics, attacking priests accused of converging people to Catholicism and raising fines for non-attendance of church. The splits within the Catholic faction during the 1590s between the Appellants and the Jesuits ironically weakened them even further.

But, Bossy’s estimation that there were 40,000 Catholics left shows how resilient the religion proved to be. Although, Smith writes, by 1603 the Catholics had come to realise ‘they were a small minority in an essentially Protestant England which would remain committed to the Reformed faith’. This view therefore accounts for the limited threat that the increased number of recusants posed to the established Anglican Church. Furthermore, as MacCulloch argues, by this time ‘English Catholicism became fossilised…as a largely upper-class sect’, and this class never forgot they were ‘English gentlemen’ and so remained ‘quite fervently and genuinely loyal to Queen Elizabeth’. This reinforces the fact that Catholics, predominantly gentry, during the end of Elizabeth’s reign were unlikely to present any real opposition.

In 1604 the Treaty of London heralded peace with Spain and so the end of any future hopes English Catholics may have harboured about foreign support. This fact combined with the reintroduction of recusancy fines resulted in the Gunpowder plot of 1605. This was really the last ditch attempt by Catholics opposing Protestantism, although the resulting legislation was not overly harsh. Catholics had to take a new oath of allegiance and fines were increased but no priests were executed as a direct result. (Although 20 Catholic ones were during James’ reign.) As Bossy stresses, it was this plot which marks the end of an era for the remaining Catholics in England. Although, the number of Catholics and Jesuits did increase at this time but they were not a significant threat and presented little opposition. James was tolerant enough to prevent any further outbreaks while ensuring that the balance did not swing back too much in the Catholic’s favour.

The change of opinion from the mid 16th century to that roughly one hundred years later can be seen by the climate of fear and hatred that grew up about Catholicism under Charles I, who like his father, married a Catholic and allowed it as a seigneurial religion. This of course in the end was a major contributor to the Civil War which was to rip much of the country in half. However, realistically the estimated 60,000 Catholics posed little threat as they no longer wished to overthrow the monarchy and had accepted the reformed church. The mindset of the vast majority had radically changed as had the culture of the country, in favour of Protestantism. For example, as early as 1621, James’ parliament had advised him to follow a Protestant foreign policy, a significant change when one considers in comparison the difficulties Elizabeth had in passing her religious settlement. The hostility directed towards Catholics remained steadfast for a long space of time, for example it was not until 1829 that Catholics could become MPs, 1850 that they could build their own churches and yet the monarch or heir to the throne still cannot marry a Catholic. This is the legacy that the century of religious strife has left.

By 1640 therefore, Catholic opposition was negligible. Plots had ended, foreign support had waned and the Catholic church had come to live peacefully with the Anglican Church. As many proved over the century, patriotism to their monarch and country had often proved a more potent force than that of religion. They were a tolerated and predominantly seigneurial religion but were surrounded by fear and mistrust. So, Dickens’ referral to the ‘residual Catholicism’ left by the 1550s ignores the fact that there were significant number of Catholics left by the end of Elizabeth’s reign, due perhaps, as Bossy argues, to the efforts of the missionary priests without which Catholicism may well have died out in the face of strengthening Anglicanism. However, these 40,000 Catholics constituted only a ‘minority religion’. [Dures] As Smith writes ‘The Catholic community in 1625 was not a serious threat either to the authority of the Established Church or to the integrity of the English nation state’.