The Crucible of Faith: Reformation and Resistance in Northern England
by Mary Sharratt
The Northern Rebellion of 1569, the first of several such plots, left law-abiding English Catholics in a very difficult place, especially after Pope Pius V issued his 1570 Papal Bull, which excommunicated Elizabeth and proclaimed that it was her Catholic subjects’ duty to overthrow her. The pope’s uncompromising stance made English Catholics traitors to the crown by default. Far more politically astute than her half-sister, Elizabeth used this Papal Bull as an excuse to end her policy of religious toleration. She told her subjects that they must choose between her and this foreigner. By the 1570s, being Catholic was regarded as traitorous and subversive, whether one took part in plots or not.
By the 1580s it became treason to convert to Catholicism. Recusants who refused to attend Protestant services were fined £20, a fortune in that era. It was treason for Jesuits or seminary priests to enter the country—those who knowingly provided them shelter were also guilty of treason. Those convicted of treason were punished by hanging, then being cut down and disemboweled while still alive. In some cases the beating heart was ripped out of the body. By 1593, recusants were restricted to staying within five miles of their homes.
Fearful of a Spanish invasion with local Catholic support, Elizabeth’s government kept close watch of recusant nobility, especially in the North. Lord Burghley’s Map of Lancashire depicts a bird’s eye view of all the gentry estates in the county. The properties owned by recusant families are marked with a cross. The unmarked estates belong to trusted Anglican gentry. Also marked are the beacons where loyal Anglicans could raise the alarm should there be a Catholic uprising.
This was the era of the English martyrs, such as Margaret Clitherow of York, born in 1556. After her family adopted Protestantism, she converted back to Catholicism and offered her home as a secret refuge for traveling priests. Arrested in 1586 on suspicion of harboring priests, she faced trial at the York Assizes where she refused to plead, probably fearing that her young children would be asked to testify and tortured. Margaret received the standard punishment for those who refused to plead—she was crushed to death beneath a door weighted by heavy stones. She died on Good Friday, 1586. In 1970, she was canonized as a saint.
There has been some speculation as to whether William Shakespeare, who may have lived in Hoghton Tower in Lancashire with the recusant de Hoghton family during his “lost years,” was a secret Catholic. We do know that his father was Catholic, as a testament of faith was discovered hidden in his house.
Mary Stuart’s son, James I, separated from his mother and reared as a stern Protestant, ascended to the English throne in 1603. He brought an even harsher set of laws to all Catholics. Convicted recusants who refused to receive Anglican communion were fined and their property was taken from them. They were barred from public office, had no recourse to courts of laws, and if one owed money to a Catholic, one wasn’t obliged to pay it back. Catholic resentment of James I culminated in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
By the time of the English Civil War, 65% of Royalist families in Lancashire were still Catholic. The Restoration brought no relief. In 1678, recusants were barred from Parliament, and in 1692, they incurred double land tax. In 1699, they were barred from purchasing or inheriting land.
The tide only began to turn toward the close of the 18th century. The First Catholic Relief Act of 1778 permitted Catholics to own land. The Second Relief Act of 1791allowed Catholic clergy to legally exercise ministry. For the first time since Mary Tudor’s downfall, Catholics in England were allowed public worship under license.
The new Catholic churches built at this time were designed to resemble barns and thus remain as unobtrusive as possible, as not to attract too much attention. One such “barn church” still exists today, the Church of Saint Peter and Paul in Ribchester. The crosses were only added in the 19th century and the stained glass more recently still. When first constructed, the building was meant to look secular and the Mass was conducted behind closed shutters.
The Emancipation Act of 1829 finally allowed people of the Catholic faith to hold public office and to sit in Parliament. English Catholics owe their thanks to Irishman Daniel O’Connell, who was responsible for pushing this law through in order to prevent a violent uprising in his own country.
Mary Sharratt’s acclaimed new novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. To learn more about Mary and the true history of the Pendle Witches and their connection to pre-Reformation beliefs, visit her website: www.marysharratt.com .