In 1828, builders removing a lintel over a doorway at Rushton Hall in Northamptonshire were surprised to see an old, beautifully bound book come down with the rubble. They decided to investigate and knocked through a thick partition wall, exposing a recess, about 5 feet long and 15 inches wide. Inside, wrapped up in a large sheet, was an enormous bundle of papers and books that had once belonged to Sir Thomas Tresham, a Catholic gentleman in the reign of Elizabeth I.


There have been other discoveries in other counties: a secret room chanced upon by a boy exploring a derelict wing of Harvington Hall, near Kidderminster, in 1894; a small wax disc bearing the imprint of a cross and a lamb (an Agnus Dei), found in a box nailed to a joist by an electrician working in the attic of Lyford Grange, Berkshire, in 1959; and a ‘pedlar’s chest’ containing vestments, a chalice and a portable altar, bricked in at Samlesbury Hall, Lancashire. Each bears testimony to the resourcefulness and courage with which Catholic men and women tried to keep their faith in Protestant England.

Under Elizabeth I, Catholics grew adept at concealment. Their lifeblood – the Mass – was banned. Anyone who heard it risked a fine and prison. Hence the need for secret Mass-kits and altar-stones small enough to slip into the pocket. Their priests – essential agents of sacramental grace – were outlawed.

Reconciling anyone to Rome (and, indeed, being reconciled) was made treason. After 1585, any priest ordained abroad since 1559, and found on English soil, was automatically deemed a traitor and his lay host a felon, both punishable by death. Hence the need for priest-holes, like the one at Harvington Hall, or at Hindlip, where a feeding tube was embedded in the masonry.

Even personal devotional items like rosary beads or the Agnus Dei found at Lyford were regarded with suspicion, since a statute of 1571 had ruled that the receipt of such ‘superstitious’ items, blessed by the pope or his priests, would lead to forfeiture of lands and goods.

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It is impossible to know how many Catholics there were in Elizabethan England, for few were willing to be categorised and counted. John Bossy (defining a Catholic as one who habitually, though not necessarily regularly, used the services of a priest) estimated some 40,000 in 1603, less than one per cent of the population.

This was not a homogenous group, rather a wide and wavering spectrum of experience. Many were branded ‘church papists’: they attended official services according to law, but some conformed only occasionally or partially. William Flamstead read his book during the sermon “in contempt of the word preached”, while for two decades of attendance Sir Richard Shireburn blocked his ears with wool.

Parishioners might refuse Protestant communion or they might hide the bread up their sleeve to dispose of later. Mrs Kath Lacy from the East Riding of Yorkshire trod it “under her foot”. Other wives avoided church altogether and, since their husbands owned the property, they often escaped prosecution. “Such here have a common saying,” groused one Northamptonshire official in 1599, “the unbelieving husband shall be saved by the believing wife.”

At the disobedient end of the spectrum were those individuals (8,590 recorded in 1603) who staunchly adhered to the Roman church’s insistence that compliance was an insult to the faith. They were known as recusants (from the Latin recusare: to refuse) and they paid a high price for their ‘obstinacy’. In 1559 the fine for missing church was 12 pence. In 1581 it was raised to a crippling 20 pounds.

In 1587 enforcement became much stricter with the introduction of cumulative monthly fines and the forfeiture of two-thirds of a defaulting recusant’s estate.Lord Vaux of Harrowden was reduced to pawning his parliamentary robes; poorer folk did not have that luxury.

What recusants publicly requested – freedom of worship and the right to abstain from official church services – may not sound unreasonable, but this was the age of Inquisition, of conquistadors, religious wars and, in the case of Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary I, human bonfires. Elizabeth was a divine-right queen with a sworn duty to maintain the one true faith but, unlike Mary, she had conformed during her predecessor’s reign. She did not like “to make windows into men’s hearts and secret thoughts” noted the oft-misquoted Francis Bacon, but she expected outward obedience, in church and state.

Illegitimate pretender

On 25 February 1570, Pope Pius V issued a bull of excommunication against Elizabeth I. In late support of the 1569 northern rebellion (led by the Catholic earls of Northumberland and Westmorland and crushed with ruthless efficiency – 450 executions under martial law is the conservative estimate), the bull declared Elizabeth an illegitimate pretender and bound her subjects to disobey her, upon pain of anathema (a formal curse by the pope).

A later resolution from Pius’s successor, Gregory XIII, allowing for provisional obedience “under present circumstances”, did not alter the fundamental message. It was impossible, wrote the Privy Council clerk, Robert Beale, “that they should love her, whose religion founded in the pope’s authority maketh her birth and title unlawful”.

There was, indeed, some rancour towards the queen. In 1591, the recusant gentleman Swithin Wells retorted to a jibe about papists having been begotten by bulls with the words: “If we have bulls to our fathers, thou hast a cow to thy mother.” He swiftly apologised and the circumstances were exceptional: Wells was just about to swing for the crime of priest-harbouring. But even a self-fashioned loyalist like Sir Thomas Tresham privately entertained hostile views on the ‘bastardised’ Elizabeth.

Conflicted loyalties caused considerable anguish, as evinced by the desperately sad letter that the 24-year-old convert Robert Markham wrote to his parents in 1594. “Every hour presents a hell unto me… In the night, I cannot sleep or take any rest, so monstrous is the horror of my conscience.” He pledged never to fight against Elizabeth, nor to have any truck with conspiracy. “I am,” he declared, “and will be as good a subject to her Majesty as any in England.” But there had to be a caveat: “My conscience only reserve I to myself, whereupon dependeth my salvation.”

Markham chose exile, like many others, some of whom became radicalised by the experience. The Catholics who stayed at home used various methods to sustain their faith, from spiritual reading, prayer and meditation to the preservation of rosaries and relics. They were advised to internalise their devotions. For instance, certain spots in the garden could be linked to different saints, so that walks would become, “as it were, short pilgrimages”. But there was no substitute for the sacraments and, although some erstwhile Marian priests continued to minister in secret, it was only when William Allen’s seminary boys started coming off the boats in 1574 that Catholic hopes – and government fears – were revived.

The first English missionaries came from Douai in Flanders, where William Allen, the former principal of St Mary Hall, Oxford, had founded a college in 1568. In June 1580, they were joined in England by the Jesuits, members of a dynamic religious order founded in the furnace of the Reformation.

“We travelled only for souls,” insisted Edmund Campion at his execution at Tyburn on 1 December 1581, “we touched neither state nor policy.” These were indeed the instructions that this Jesuit and his co-missioner, Robert Persons, had carried from Rome. But they were also armed with faculties to print books anonymously, they insisted upon absolute recusancy and they challenged the state to a public debate. Campion’s ‘brag’ chilled his adversaries:

“Touching our Society, be it known unto you that we have made a league – all the Jesuits in the world, whose succession and multitude must overreach all the practices of England – cheerfully to carry the cross that you shall lay upon us and never to despair your recovery while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or to be racked with your torments, or to be consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God, it cannot be withstood. So the faith was planted, so it must be restored.”

Campion was one of about 130 priests executed for religious treason in Elizabeth’s reign. A further 60 of their lay supporters were also put to death. Torture was used more than in any other English reign. Margaret Ward, destined for the gallows for organising the escape of a priest, protested that “the queen herself, if she had the bowels of a woman, would have done as much if she had known the ill-treatment he underwent”. But it was the heart and stomach of a king that were required for England’s defence.

Assassination attempts

With no named successor, and a Catholic heir presumptive – Mary, Queen of Scots – waiting, wings clipped but ready to soar, Elizabeth I was vulnerable to conspiracy. The security of the realm depended entirely on her personal survival in an age that saw brother rulers taken by bullet and blade.

The assassination in 1584 of William of Orange, the Dutch Protestant figurehead shot in the chest by a Catholic fanatic chasing the bounty of Philip II of Spain, was particularly alarming. The following year, parliament passed a statute licensing the revenge killing of assassins, or witting beneficiaries of assassins, in the event of a successful attempt on the queen’s life.

The threat from Spain, the papacy, the French house of Guise and the agents of Mary, Queen of Scots was very real and seemingly unceasing. From the sanctuary of exile, William Allen agitated for an invasion of England and frequently exaggerated the extent of home support. Only fear made Catholics obey the queen, he assured the pope in 1585, “which fear will be removed when they see the force from without”. The priests, he added, would direct the consciences and actions of Catholics “when the time comes”.

In reality, there were very few Elizabethans willing to perpetrate what would now be called an act of terror. But there was a vast grey area that encompassed all kinds of suspicious activity – communication with the queen’s enemies, the handling of tracts critical of the regime, the non-disclosure of sensitive information, the sheltering and funding of priests who turned out to be subversive. Even the quiescent majority was feared for what it might do if there was ever a confrontation between Elizabeth I and the pope.

Catholic attempts on the queen’s life

Elizabeth’s advisors foiled a series of assassination plots

Spain plans an invasion, 1571

Named after the Florentine merchant who acted as the go-between for the Duke of Norfolk, Mary Stuart, Philip II and the pope, the Ridolfi plot was a plan for a Spanish invasion of England and the substitution of Elizabeth with Mary. Roberto Ridolfi was known to the English government and met with Elizabeth before heading for Rome. The plot was foiled upon the arrest of a courier at Dover. Norfolk was executed, Mary survived and Ridolfi later emerged as a papal senator. He clearly relished intrigue.

Throckmorton’s sorry end, 1583

Francis Throckmorton was the linkman for a plot that might be seen as part of a continuum of intrigues sponsored by the powers of Catholic Europe in the 1580s. The aim, as with the Ridolfi plot, was the overthrow of Elizabeth and the restoration of Catholicism in England. Mary Stuart’s kinsman, the Duke of Guise, was set to invade at Arundel, but the plan was aborted upon Throckmorton’s arrest in November 1583. Throckmorton was “somewhat pinched” (ie tortured) and executed the following July.

The lone extremist blows his cover, 1583

Not every attempt on Elizabeth’s life strained the sinews of Europe’s whisperers and watchers. John Somerville, a distant kinsman (by marriage) of William Shakespeare, seems only to have had a “frantic humour” and a pistol in his pocket when he set off from his home in Warwickshire to kill the queen. He failed because he broadcast his intentions en route, but, as events elsewhere proved (see page 54), it only took one extremist, bent on martyrdom and blind to worldly consequence, to effect an assassination.

Walsingham ensnares Mary Stuart, 1586

The plot that brought down Mary Stuart was, from the outset, a conspiracy to assassinate Elizabeth. Anthony Babington was not its chief architect, though it was his letter of 6 July 1586 that floated to Mary the plan for “the dispatch of the usurper”. The plot was uncovered – and arguably fomented – using an agent provocateur, intercepts (via the bung-hole of a beer keg) and forgery. Whatever the ethics of the sting, the plot was real. Priests were involved and Mary, executed on 8 February 1587, was complicit.

Jesuits prepare to strike – or do they? 1594

Elizabeth’s last decade saw court rivalry seep into intelligence work and the result was an occasional – and occasionally deliberate – blurring of perception and reality. Immediately after the Earl of Essex’s exposure of a dubious poison plot, the queen’s adviser William Cecil went one up with a Jesuit conspiracy involving several Irish soldiers, whose confessions seemed remarkably fortuitous, if somewhat muddled. Two of the assassins-designate were known to Cecil. One he had not deemed a significant threat; the other was an informant and possible plant.

When asked the “bloody questions”, framed to extract ultimate allegiances, Catholics proved as adept as their queen at the “answer answerless”. Spies and agent provocateurs were thrown into the field, moles were placed in embassies and recusant houses were searched for priests and “popish trash”. The queen’s agents were sometimes overzealous, sometimes downright immoral, in their pursuit of national security. “There is less danger in fearing too much than too little,” advised the queen’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham.

In 1588, when the Spanish Armada beat menacingly towards the English Channel, the “most obstinate and noted” recusants were rounded up and imprisoned. Sir Thomas Tresham begged for a chance to prove his “true English heart” and fight for his queen. He vigorously disputed the claim that “while we lived, her Majesty should not be in security, nor the realm freed from invasion”.

Nevertheless, the Spaniards sailing aboard the Rosario were told to expect support from at least a third of England’s population. Elizabeth’s Privy Council was “certain” that an invasion would “never” have been attempted, “but upon hope” of internal assistance. It may have been a false hope, built on a house of cards by émigrés desperate to see the old faith restored at home, but for as long as it was held, and acted upon, by backers powerful enough to do damage, Tresham and the rest, whether “faithfullest true English subjects” or not, were indeed a security risk.

England’s victory in 1588 was celebrated as the triumph of Christ over Antichrist, the true church over the false, freedom over tyranny. Elizabeth I was hailed as Gloriana, the Virgin Queen who “brought up, even under her wing, a nation that was almost begotten and born under her, that never shouted any other Ave than for her name”.

There was no place for rosaries in this predestined, Protestant version of English history. Even Philip II, usually so sure of his status as the special one, was momentarily confounded by the mysteries of God’s will. He soon rallied, however, and there were more failed armadas. At every whisper of invasion, the screw was turned on those ‘bad members’ known to be recusants. In 1593, the ‘statute of confinement’ ruled that recusants could not travel beyond five miles of their home without a licence.

Observance could be patchy and enforcement slack. Anti-Catholicism was nearly always more passionate in the abstract than it was on the ground, but it still must have been alienating and psychologically draining to be spied on, searched, and branded an ‘unnatural subject’ at every critical juncture. Tresham likened it to being “drenched in a sea of shameless slanders”.

Tresham outlived Queen Elizabeth by two years. His hope for a measure of toleration under James VI and I did not materialise and, having paid a total of £7,717 in recusancy penalties, he died on 11 September 1605 a disappointed man. The following month, his wife’s nephew, ‘Robin’ Catesby, tried to recruit his son, Francis, into the Gunpowder Plot. Francis Tresham was arrested on 12 November and died before he could face trial. On, or soon after 28 November 1605, the family papers were bundled up in a sheet and immured at Rushton Hall. They lay there, undisturbed, for over two centuries, until, in 1828, the builders came in.

Jessie Childs is the author of God's Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England (The Bodley Head, 2014). The book, which won this year's PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History, is out now in paperback. To find out more, click here


This article was first published in the May 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine