How Catholic Nobles Were Persecuted in Elizabethan England

History Hit Podcast with Jessie Childs

3 mins

27 Sep 2018

This article is an edited transcript of God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England with Jessie Childs on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 29 April 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

Not even the nobility were exempt from anti-Catholic persecution in Elizabethan England. One example is the story of Lord William Vaux (pictured above), a wonderful, simple and gentle soul who was a loyal patriarch.

The priest disguised as a jewel merchant

Lord Vaux one day welcomed into his home his children’s former schoolmaster, Edmund Campion, who was disguised as a jewel merchant and on the run.

Ten years earlier Campion had trained as a priest but Catholic priests were not welcome in Elizabeth’s England, hence his disguise.

Campion was later captured and charged with treason. Elizabeth’s government typically tried Catholics for political rather than religious crimes, although legislation was required to ensure that religious heresy was framed as treason.

During his capture, Campion was tortured. After a session on the rack, he was asked how his hands and feet felt, and replied, “Not ill because not at all”.

At his arraignment, Campion could not raise his hand to make his plea without assistance.

Eventually, he was hanged, drawn, and quartered.

All the people who had given Campion shelter while he was on the run were then rounded up, including Lord Vaux, who was put under house arrest, tried and fined. He was essentially destroyed.

The execution of Edmund Campion.

Distrust and fear on both sides

When the Spanish Armada was en route to England, a lot of the prominent recusants who refused to go to church (they were called recusants from the Latin recusare, to refuse) were rounded up and imprisoned.

There are wonderful, emotive accounts of this rounding up, including from Lord Vaux’s brother-in-law, Sir Thomas Tresham, who pleaded for the queen to let him fight for her to prove his loyalty:

“Put me in the vanguard, unarmed if necessary, and I will fight for you.”

But the Elizabethan government simply didn’t know who was loyal and who wasn’t.

After all, some of the Catholics were genuinely treasonable and, from 1585, England was at war with Catholic Spain.

Figures like William Allen gave England legitimate cause for concern. Allen had set up seminaries on the continent to train young English men, who’d been smuggled out of the country, to be priests. They would then be smuggled back in to sing the mass and give the sacraments in Catholic houses.

In 1585 William Allen petitioned the pope for a holy war – effectively a jihad against Elizabeth.

He said, “Only fear is making the English Catholics obey her at the moment but that fear will be removed when they see the force from without.”

You can understand why the government was worried.

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There were a lot of plots against Elizabeth. And not just the famous ones like the Ridolfi plot and the Babington plot. If you look at state papers from the 1580s, you’ll find a continuum of plots.

Some were cack-handed, some didn’t get anywhere, some were little more than whispers and some were really very well-developed.

Tresham, who petitioned the queen to let him fight for her, was privately less unequivocal in his support.

His son, Francis Tresham, was involved in the gunpowder plot. After that, all the family papers were gathered up, wrapped up in a sheet and bricked into the walls of their house in Northamptonshire.

They remained there until 1828 when builders knocking through the wall discovered them.

The hidden papers show that Tresham was equivocating on his loyalty. And we know from the Spanish ambassador that he was involved in a plot against Elizabeth.