This article is an edited transcript of God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England with Jessie Childs, available on History Hit TV.
We’re told that Elizabeth I was a great beacon of tolerance, that she presided over a golden age of Drake and Raleigh and the Renaissance. But, while all of that may be true, there is also another side to the reign of Good Queen Bess.
The fate of the Catholics under Elizabeth’s rule is an important part of her story that is so often airbrushed out.
Under Elizabeth, Catholics simply weren’t allowed to worship their faith as they wanted to. Their priests were banned and, from 1585, any priest who had been ordained abroad since the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign would automatically be deemed a traitor. He would be hanged, drawn, and quartered.
Even those who put a Catholic priest up in their house would likely swing for it if they were caught.
Of course, if you didn’t have a priest then you can’t have the sacrament. There was a strong sense that Elizabeth’s regime was trying to suffocate the Catholics of their sacraments.
Indeed, Catholics weren’t even allowed things like rosaries if they had been blessed in Rome.
The importance of faith in the Elizabethan era
We’re largely secular in Britain nowadays, so it’s hard to fully comprehend just how stressful such religious persecution was for practising Catholics who believed that, unless they had the mass and had access to priests, they might go to hell for eternity.
This is why an understanding of faith is so important to any reading of the early modern period, even if you’re not of faith. It was a time when people’s religious beliefs were very often fundamental to the way they lived their lives.
The afterlife was what mattered, not this life, so everyone was trying to find the pathway to Heaven.
The rise of Protestantism in England
Catholicism, of course, was our ancient national faith, so it’s interesting that during Elizabeth’s reign it was rejected so forcefully in favour of Protestantism. Under Elizabeth, being a Protestant became an act of patriotism.
But in fact, it was a remarkably recent import. The word “Protestant” comes from the Protestation at Speyer in 1529. It was a German import, a faith that came from Wittenberg, Zurich and Strasburg.
It was an amazing act of PR that by the 1580s people in England were happy to call themselves Protestants.
Catholicism was largely seen as the nasty religion in Elizabeth’s reign. This was for a number of reasons, not least because Elizabeth’s half-sister, Mary I , burned around 300 Protestants in a brutal attempt to reverse the Reformation.
Elizabeth’s reputation may be less bloodthirsty than Mary’s today, but plenty of Catholics were killed during her reign. It should also be noted that her government was very clever because it executed people for treason rather than burning them for heresy.
Of course, because laws were passed in parliament that essentially made practising the Catholic faith treason, plenty of Catholics were executed for being disloyal to the state, rather than being burned for their religious beliefs.