How To Be a Catholic in Elizabeth’s England

Ellie Monks

The Break from Rome in 1533 was definitely a moment in history

The Break from Rome in 1533 was definitely a…moment in history. Whilst Henry VIII’s choice to remove England from the Catholic church was not motivated by any type of religious thought, it had a lasting impact on English society in more ways than just the obvious. Henry himself was not so concerned about truly changing how the Church of England worked and until his death considered himself to still be an orthodox Catholic. During the reigns of his children, however, the religion of England changed from Protestant to Catholic and back again. Edward VI’s reign included the destruction of chancery chapels, and it has been stated that had he not died so young he would have overseen the slaughter of a greater number of Catholics than his oldest half-sister Mary did Protestants. The stunted reigns of Edward and Mary did not give anyone in England a firm sense of security in their religion, but during Elizabeth I’s reign there was finally a stable, firmly Protestant England which we still know today. However, not everyone wanted to be Protestant. It’s easy to understand why people would not want to convert to this new type of Christianity. The health of the soul was more important than the health of the body in this time, and the risk of your soul not being able to go to heaven was not to be taken lightly. But on top of that, personal belief is a powerful motivator and a good enough reason by itself to not convert.
<strong>How To Be a Catholic in Elizabeth’s England</strong>
A Priest Hole

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<strong>How To Be a Catholic in Elizabeth’s England</strong>
A map of Catholics in England 1715-1729

Elizabeth was determined to stamp out any signs of Catholicism

But idea of respecting personal choice didn’t seem to occur to Elizabeth though, and she was determined to stamp out any signs of Catholicism. The Mass was banned and any priest who had not been ordained in England – such as the Jesuits – were automatically considered a traitor and would lose their life. Even rosary beads were considered suspicious by 1571 (only thirteen years into Elizabeth’s reign) and to be seen owning one would lose you your lands and goods. If you missed church, as many Elizabethan Catholics (known as recusants) did, you had to pay a fine of twenty pounds which was a crippling amount in the sixteenth century. But that was not enough for Elizabeth, she employed spies to ensure that everyone was complying to the new world order. The leader of this spy network was Walsingham, and he hired many. Even the playwright Kit Marlowe was rumored to be a member of the network. Walsingham’s spies were responsible for going across the country and investigating those who were suspected of harbouring Jesuit priests or conducting secret Masses in their homes. Walsingham was ruthless in his actions towards Elizabethan Catholics, searching homes for incriminating evidence like portable altars. He even had a map which detailed all of the homes of known recusants, and those who harboured Jesuits.
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Speke Hall

One of those houses was Speke Hall in Lancashire (now in Merseyside). Lancashire was considered a hotbed of Catholic activity and after the Gunpowder Plot the entire county was viewed with suspicion. And the owners of Speke Hall at that time – the Norris family – knew that Walsingham knew that they were hiding priests. Speke is now owned by the National Trust, so you can go look around and see all the additions that the family built into to their home to keep themselves safe. From the eavesdrop over the front door to the entrance of a priest hole hidden next to a fireplace, the Norris family were prepared for all possibilities. The fact that people were forced to hide their religion is a terrible shame. The true impact can never really be known due to the fact that we don’t really know the exact number of Catholics from this time. The well-known English Catholics are the ones who responded with violence, but that doesn’t mean that this persecuted minority were all like that and it is important to look beyond the obvious to discover the reality.
<strong>How To Be a Catholic in Elizabeth’s England</strong>
Speke Hall, Liverpool, (c) National Trust Images - Arnhel de Serra
<strong>How To Be a Catholic in Elizabeth’s England</strong>

Ellie Monks

Ellie Monks is a historian and history blogger from the north west of England. She gained a BA (Hons.) at the University of Winchester in 2018 and got her MA at Bangor University (in Wales) over the academic year 2019-2020, writing her dissertation over the first two lockdowns in Britain. Currently, Ellie owns and runs the history blog Historians Edge and it’s attached Instagram where she discusses gender and social history.
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