Wht was the greater danger to the Elizabethan Church: Catholicism or Protestantism?
What was the greater danger to the Elizabethan Church: Catholicism or Protestantism?
James Kim (g)
Catholicism and Protestantism were both present during Elizabeth’s reign although the society consisted mostly of the latter. Both religious groups were not satisfied with the religious settlement of 1559. The Catholics were unsurprisingly against the already-Protestant establishment while the more radical Protestants were at odd with the too conservative dimensions of Elizabethan settlement. Furthermore, we must all acknowledge the fact that the majority of moderate Catholics and Protestants were willing to conform to Elizabeth’s religious or political ideologies. Many were actually against with the extremists’ zeal to depose the Queen. However, in the wider spectrum, Catholicism posed a larger threat than Protestantism as Catholics were trying to completely eradicate the Church from outside, even from outside the nation as AGR Smith heavily emphasises the international Catholic threat. The Protestants wanted to reform the Church from within and make amendments to the Protestant Establishment rather than destroy it. Although we have no idea how willing people were to keep faith in their religion, the reaction from Elizabethan Church against potential threats would indicate which religious group Elizabeth perceived as the greater danger.
Catholicism can be summed up as a “threat to the independence of the nation” as AGR Smith phrased it. However, during the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, Catholicism really did not pose much threat. They lacked a clear motive or driving force to fuel rebellions against Elizabeth. The Pope had not given any direct pronouncement against Elizabeth, which is why she did not intensify penal legislation against Catholics in the 1560s. At this time, even Philip II did not see a clear reason why he would have to invade England. It was in the 1580s when tension grew between Catholic loyalties and the Protestant establishment. Catholic missionary priests from the Spanish Netherlands started arriving in England. They originated from the seminary of Douai, which was founded by Father William Allen, an English ex-Catholic exile. In the beginning there were a 100 seminary priests willing to risk their lives to bring spiritual guidance to Catholics. These numbers grew to approximately 400 by the end of the 16th century, which highlights the growth in determined priests who wanted to restore Catholicism even though that meant they would become martyrs to the Catholic movement.
This is a preview of the whole essay
To further pose a threat, Catholics planned several plots to assassinate and depose Queen Elizabeth with the most famous plot being the Babington Plot of 1586, which Mary Queen of Scots was allegedly involved in. Although it eventually failed and led to the execution of Mary, the English government was sensing danger. England going to war against Spain in 1585 did not help either as international Catholic threat from King Philip II would not only make matters worse for Elizabeth’s Protestant Church settlement but also pose a direct threat to Elizabeth’s life. Elizabeth’s strong reaction to all these Catholic threats indicated how much of a danger the Catholics were to her. Act of 1581 made it treason to convert people into Roman Catholics. Act of 1585 made any priest ordained by Pope guilty of treason if they were to come to England. This was probably to prevent international threat from growing. By 1603, 120 priests were executed out of 180 Catholics. This demonstrates that even with priests failing to reach their goal in restoring Catholicism due to their focus mainly being South of England where Catholicism was relatively weak, failing to properly address the “lower orders of Catholics” according to Christopher Haigh, Elizabeth took these threats seriously. The Elizabethan Church propagandists would justify these priests’ execution by saying they simply were against Elizabeth’s secular policies. They tried to cover up the religious conflict by claiming there were only secular problems between Catholics and the Church. Even with strong resistance, the zeal of priests did not die down that shows that even a minority could easily hold its potentially-dangerous stance against Elizabeth.
Threat from Radical Protestants was also seen as a danger to the Elizabethan Church even though the Catholic threat was still more prominent. Presbyterians were not fond of the episcopal structure of the current church. The reason why Elizabeth would have found the Presbyterian structure of the church threatening is because this would completely undermine Elizabeth’s position as the Supreme Governor of the Church. Not having bishops to support her, her position in the Church would severely be weakened. Furthermore, Protestant proposals to change the 1559 Prayer Book as emphasised by Puritans in the “Bill and Book” were going against her fundamental policies of the Church. This Presbyterian movement was supported by the minority of Protestants as it was a much more extreme type of reform; however, it had a lot of support from the elite social class. This meant this more radical reform was rapidly encouraged and grew quickly with the help of social authority from the elite. Unfortuantely, reactions from Whitgift, Archbishop of Canterbury, easily exposed the fragmentation within this Presbyterian movement, which meant it was never really going to go through. Furthermore, this radical reform lacked the Parliamentary support as seen in both 1583 and 1584, as many were not willing to accept such radical policies. Therefore, the threat posed by the Presbyterians had its limits due to its lack of support amongst the laity. Whitgift’s Six Articles of 1583 made sure all radical Protestants to conform to the 1559 settlement and accept the royal supremacy and 1559 Prayer Book. This really weakened the Protestant reform groups as their main aims of amending the Church in terms of getting rid of the episcopal system had been blocked off by Whitgift and Elizabeth’s church. Intensified legislation against radical Protestants meant that more people would opt to be loyal to the Queen than pursue their radical Protestant faith, which would guarantee negative consequences.
Catholics and Protestants had to deal with heavy blows from Elizabeth’s Church. The slightly milder reaction from the state against the Presbyterians and how easily the Puritans gave way to such reactions show that the Catholics were the slightly more dangerous threat to Elizabeth. In addition, we must also acknowledge the fact that the Catholic threat was also fuelled from international sources like King Philip II and seminary priests from the Spanish Netherlands. In the end, both groups were minorities and had their own setbacks and fragmentations from within, which is why they never truly succeeded in attacking the Elizabethan Church or deposing her. The majority of Catholics and Protestants were satisfied with outwardly conforming with Elizabeth’s church policies and practicing their faith freely within their households. Therefore, neither of the two religious groups really posed a true threat to the Church but the Catholics were marginally more dangerous as international Catholic aid was readily available.