corner graphic   Hi,    
Facebook image
Finding the new version too difficult to understand? Go to

The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 23 — Protestantism in England From the Times of Henry VIII

Chapter 16 — Excommunication of elizabeth, and plots of the jesuits

Resource Toolbox

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20

England the Headquarters of Protestantism—Its Subjugation Resolved upon—Excommunication of Queen Elizabeth—Jesuits—Assassins— Dispensation to Jesuits to take Orders in the Church of England—The Nation Broken into Two Parties—Colleges Erected for Training Seminary Priests—Campion and Parsons—Their Plan of Acting— Campion and his Accomplices Executed—Attempts on the Life of Elizabeth—Somerville—Parry—The Babington Conspiracy—Ballard— Savage—Babington—The Plot Joined by France and Spain—Mary Stuart Accedes to it—Object of the Conspiracy—Discovery of the Plot— Execution of the Conspirators.

When Elizabeth was at the weakest, the sudden conversion of an ancient foe into a firm ally brought her unexpected help. So long as Scotland was Popish it was a thorn in the side of Elizabeth, but the establishment of its Reformation in 1560, under Knox, made it one in policy as in faith with England. Up till this period a close alliance had subsisted between Scotland and France, and the union of these two crowns threatened the gravest danger to Elizabeth. The heiress of the Scottish kingdom, Mary Stuart, was the wife of Francis II of France, who on ascending the throne had openly assumed the title and arms of England, and made no secret of his purpose to invade that country and place his queen, Mary Stuart, upon its throne. In this project he was strongly encouraged by the Guises, so noted for their ambition and so practiced in intrigue. The way to carry out his design, as it appeared to the French king, was to pour his soldiers into his wife's hereditary kingdom of Scotland, and then descend on England from the north and dethrone Elizabeth. The scheme was proceeding with every promise of success, when the progress of the Reformation in Scotland, and the consequent expulsion of the French from that country, completely deranged all the plans of the court of France, and converted that very country, in which the Papists trusted as the instrument of Elizabeth's overthrow, into her firmest support and security. So marvelously was the path of Elizabeth smoothed, and her throne preserved.

We have briefly traced the measures Elizabeth adopted for the Reformation of her kingdom on her accession, and the prosperity and power of England at the close of the first decade of her reign. Not a year passed, after she unloosed her neck from the yoke of Rome, that did not see a marked advance in England's greatness. While the Popish Powers around her were consuming their strength in internal conflicts or in foreign wars, which all had their root in their devotion to the Papal See, England was husbanding her force in unconscious anticipation of those great tempests that were to burst upon her, but which instead of issuing in her destruction, only afforded her opportunity of displaying before the whole world, the spirit and resource she had derived from that Protestantism which brought her victoriously out of them.

It was now becoming clear to the Popish Powers, and most of all to the relating Pope, Pius V, that the Reformation was centering itself and drawing to a head in England; that all the Protestant influences that had been engendered in the various countries were finding a focus—a seat—a throne within the four seas of Great Britain; that all the several countries of the Reformations: France, Switzerland, Geneva., Germany, the Netherlands—were sending each its special contribution to form in that sea-girt isle a wider, a more consolidated, and a more perfect Protestantism than existed anywhere else in Christendom: in short, they now saw that British Protestantism, binding up in one, as it was doing, the political strength of England with the religious power of Scotland, was the special outcome of the whole Reformation—that Britain was in fact the Sacred Capitol to which European Protestantism was bearing in triumph its many spoils, and where it was founding its empire, on a wider basis than either Geneva or Wittemberg afforded it. Here therefore must the great battle be fought which was to determine whether the Reformation of the sixteenth century was to establish itself, or whether it was to turn out a failure. Of what avail was it to suppress Protestantism in its first centers, to trample it out in Germany, in Switzerland, in France, while a new Wittemberg and a new Geneva were rising in Britain, with the sea for a rampart, and the throne of England for a tower of defense? They must crush heresy in its head: they must cast down that haughty throne which had dared to lift itself above the chair of Peter, and show its occupant, and the nation she reigned over, what terrible chastisements await those who rebel against the Vicar of Christ, and Vicegerent of the Eternal King. Successful here, they should need to fight no second battle; Great Britain subjugated, the revolt of the sixteenth century would be at an end.

To accomplish that supreme object, the whole spiritual and temporal arms of the Popedom were brought into vigorous action. The man to strike the first blow was Pius V, and that blow was aimed at Queen Elizabeth. The two predecessors of Pius V, though they kept the sentence of excommunication suspended over Elizabeth, had, as we have seen, delayed to pronounce it, in the hope of reclaiming her from her heresy; but the queen's persistency made it vain longer to entertain that hope, and the energetic and intolerant ecclesiastic who now occupied the Papal throne proceeded to fulminate the sentence. It was given at the Vatican on the 3rd of May, 1570. After large assertion of the Pope's power over kings and nations, the bull excommunicates "Elizabeth, the pretended Queen of England, a slave of wickedness, lending thereunto a helping hand, with whom, as in a sanctuary, the most pernicious of all men have found a refuge. This very woman having seized on the kingdom, and monstrously usurping the supreme place of Head of the Church in all England, and the chief authority and jurisdiction thereof, hath again brought back the said kingdom into

miserable destruction, which was then newly reduced to the Catholic faith and good fruits."

After lengthened enumeration of the "impieties and wicked actions" of the "pretended Queen of England," the Pope continues: "We do out of the fullness of our Apostolic power declare the aforesaid Elizabeth, being a heretic, and a favorer of heretics, and her adherents in the matters aforesaid, to have incurred the sentence of anathema, and to be cut off from the unity of the body of Christ. And moreover we do declare her to be deprived of her pretended title to the kingdom aforesaid, and of all dominion, dignity, and privilege whatsoever... And we do command and interdict all and every the noblemen, subjects, people, and others aforesaid, that they presume not to obey her or her monitions, mandates, and laws; and those who shall do the contrary, we do strike with the like sentence of anathema." [1]

The signal having been given from the Vatican, the war was forthwith commenced. The Papal corps were to invade the land in separate and successive detachments. First came the sappers and miners, for so we may denominate the Jesuits, who followed in the immediate wake of the bull. Next appeared the skirmishers, the men with poignards, blessed and sanctified by Rome, to take off the leading Protestants, and before and above all, Elizabeth. The heavier troops, namely the armies of the Popish sovereigns, were to arrive on the field in the close of the day, and provided the work were not already done by the Jesuit and the assassin, they were to do what remained of it, and complete the victory by the irresistible blow of armed force. Over the great ruin of throne and altar, of rights and liberties, the Papacy would erect once more its pavilion of darkness.

In truth, before the bull of excommunication had been issued, the Jesuits had entered England. About the year 1567, Parsons and Saunders were found itinerating the kingdom, with authority from the Pope to absolve all who were wining to return to the Roman communion. Cummin, a Dominican friar, was detected in the garb of a clergyman of the Church of England, and when examined by Archbishop Parker, he pleaded that although he had not received license from any English bishop, he had nevertheless in preaching and praying most strenuously declaimed against the Pope and the Church of Rome. The source of his zeal it was not difficult to divine. The dispute respecting vestments was by this time waxing hot, and this emissary had been sent from Rome to embitter the strife, and divide the Protestants of England. Another startling discovery was made at this time. Thomas Heath, brother of the deprived Archbishop of York, professed the highest style of Puritanism. Preaching one day in the Cathedral of Rochester, he loudly inveighed against the Liturgy as too little Biblical in its prayers. On descending from the pulpit after sermon, a letter was found in it which he had dropped while preaching. The letter, which was from an eminent Spanish Jesuit, revealed the fact that this zealous Puritan, whose tender conscience had been hurt by the Prayer Book, was simply a Jesuit in disguise. Heath's lodgings were searched, and a license was found from the Pope, authorizing him to preach whatever doctrines he might judge best fitted to inflame the animosities and widen the divisions of the Protestants. The men who stole into England under this disguise found others, as base as themselves, ready to join their enterprise, and who, in fact, had retained their ecclesiastical livings in the hope of overthrowing one day that Church which ranked them among her ministers. So far the campaign had proceeded in silence and secrecy; the first overt act was that which we have already narrated, the fulmination of the bull of 1570.

This effectually broke the union and peace which had so largely prevailed in England during Elizabeth's reign. The lay Romanists now withdrew from the churches of an excommunicated worship; they grew cold towards an excommunicated sovereign; they kept aloof from their fellow-subjects, now branded as heretics; and the breach was widened by the measures the Parliament was compelled to adopt, to guard the person of the queen from the murderous attacks to which she now began to be subjected. Two statutes were immediately enacted. The first declared it high treason "to declare that the queen is a heretic or usurper of the crown." [2] The second made it a like crime to publish any bull or absolution, from Rome. [3] It was shown that these edicts were not to remain a dead letter, for a copy of the bull of excommunication having been posted up on the palace gates of the Bishop of London, and the person who had placed it there discovered, he was hanged as a traitor. The Massacre of St. Bartholomew, which occurred soon after (1572), sent a thrill of terror through the court and nation, as the possible precursor of similar scenes in England. The doom of the Huguenots taught Elizabeth and the English Protestants that pledges and promises of peace were no security whatever against sudden and wholesale destruction.

A school was next established to rear seminary priests and assassins. The catechism and the dagger were to go hand in hand in extirpating English Protestantism. Father Allen, afterwards created a cardinal, took the initiative in this matter. He founded a college at Douay, in the north-east of France, and selecting a small band of English youths he carried them thither, to be educated as seminary priests and afterwards employed in the perversion of their native land. The Pope approved so entirely of the plan of Father Allen, that he created a similar institution at Rome—the English College, [4] which he endowed with the proceeds of a rich abbey. Into these colleges no student was admitted till first he had given a pledge that on the completion of his studies he would

return to England, and there propagate the faith of Rome, and generally undertake whatever service his superiors might deem necessary in a country whose future was the rising or falling of the Papal power.

Before the foreign seminaries had had sufficient time to send forth qualified agents, two students of Oxford, Edmund Campion and Robert Parsons, repairing to Rome, there arranged with the Jesuits the plan for carrying out the execution of the Pope's bull against Queen Elizabeth. In 1580 they returned and commenced operations. They assumed a new name and wore a different dress each day. "One day," says Fuller, "they wore one garb, on another a different one, while their nature remained the same. He who on Sunday was a priest or Jesuit, was on Monday a merchant, on Tuesday a soldier, on Wednesday a courtier; and with the shears of equivocation he could cut himself into any shape he pleased. But under all their new shapes they retained their old nature." [5] Campion made the south of England his field of labor. Parsons traveled over the north, awakening the Roman Catholic zeal and the spirit of mutiny. They lodged in the houses of the Popish nobles. Their arrival was veiled in the deepest secrecy, they tarried but a night, employing the evening in preparing the family and domestics for mass, administering it in the morning, and then departing as stealthily as they had come. At length Campion addressed a letter to the Privy Council, boldly avowing his enterprise, which was to revive in England "the faith that was first planted, and must be restored;" and boasting that the Jesuits of all countries were leagued together for this object, and would never desist from the prosecution of it so long as there remained one man to hang at Tyburn. He concluded by demanding a disputation at which the queen and members of the Privy Council should be present. [6] A warrant was issued for his apprehension, he was seized in the disguise of a soldier, conveyed to the Tower, and along with Sherwin, Kirby, and Briant, his accomplices, executed for high treason, which the Act already passed declared his offense to be.

Campion and Parsons were but the pioneers of a much more numerous body. The training schools at Douay, at Rheims, and at Rome now began to send forth men who were adepts in all the arts which the enterprise required. They entered London, they crept from house to house, they haunted the precincts of the court, they found their way into the provinces. [7] In Salop alone were found not fewer than 100 recusants. [8] They said mass in families, gave absolutions, and worked perseveringly to pervert the people at once from the Protestant faith and their allegiance to Elizabeth. Every year their numbers were recruited by fresh swarms. They held reunions, which they styled synods, to concert a common action; they set up secret printing presses, and began to scatter over the kingdom, pamphlets and books, written with plausibility and at times with eloquence, attacking Protestantism and instilling sedition; and these works had the greater influence, that they had come no man knew whither, save that they issued out of a mysterious darkness.

The impatience of these men to see England a Popish country would not permit them to wait the realization of their hopes by the slow process of instruction and perversion. Some of them carried more powerful weapons for effecting their enterprise than rosaries and catechisms. They came armed with stilettos and curious poisons, and they plunged into plot after plot against the queen's life. These machinations kept her in continual apprehension and anxiety, and the nation in perpetual alarm. Their grand project, they felt, was hopeless while Elizabeth lived; and not being able to wait till age should enfeeble her, or death make vacant her throne, they watched their opportunity of taking her off with the poignard. The history of England subsequent to 1580 is a continuous record of these murderous attempts, all springing out of, and justifying themselves by, the bull of excommunication. In 1583, Somerville attempted the queen's life, and to escape the disgrace of a public execution, hanged himself in prison. In 1584, Parry's treason was discovered, and he was executed. Strype tells us that he had seen among the papers of Lord Burleigh the Italian letter of the Cardinal di Como to Parry, conveying the Pope's approval of his intention to kill the queen when riding out, accompanied by the full pardon of all his sins. [9] Next came the treason of Throgmorton, in which Mendoza the Spanish ambassador was found to be implicated, and was sent out of England. Not a year passed, after the arrival in England of Campion and Parsons, without an insurrection or plot in some part of the queen's dominions. The prisons of London contained numerous "massing priests, sowers of sedition," charged with disturbing the public peace, and preaching disaffection to the queen's government and person. [10]

In 1586 came the Babington conspiracy, the most formidable and most widely ramified of all the treasons hatched against the life and throne of Elizabeth. It originated with John Ballard, a priest who had been educated at the seminary of Rheims, and who, revering the bull of excommunication as the product of infallibility, held that Elizabeth, having been excommunicated by the Pope, ought not to be permitted to enjoy her scepter or her life an hour longer, and that to deprive her of both was the most acceptable service he could do to God, and the surest way of earning a crown in Paradise. Ballard soon found numerous accomplices, both within and without the kingdom. One of the first to join him was John Savage, who had served in the Low Countries under the Duke of Parma.

Many gentlemen of good family in the midland and northern counties of England, zealots for the ancient religion, were drawn into the plot,

and among these was Babington, from whom it takes its name. The conspiracy embraced persons of still higher rank and power. The concord prevailing at this time among the crowned heads of the Continent permitted their acting together against England and its queen, and made the web of intrigue and treason now weaving around that throne, which was the political bulwark of Protestantism, formidable indeed. The Guises of France gave it every encouragement; Philip of Spain promised his powerful aid; it hardly needed that the Pope should say how fully he accorded it his benediction, and how earnest were his prayers for its success. This mighty confederacy, comprehending conspirators of every rank, from Philip of Spain, the master of half Europe, down to the vagrant and fanatical Ballard, received yet another accession. The new member of the plot was not exactly one of the crowned heads of Europe, for the crown had fallen from her head, but she hoped by enrolling herself among the conspirators to recover it, and a greater along with it. That person was Mary Stuart, who was then living in England as the guest or captive of Elizabeth. Babington laid the plans and objects of himself and associates before Mary, who approved highly of them, and agreed to act the part allotted to herself. The affair was to commence with the assassination of Elizabeth; then the Romanists in England were to be summoned to arms; and while the flames of insurrection should be raging within the kingdom, a foreign army was to land upon the coast, besiege and sack the cities that opposed them, raise Mary Stuart to the throne, and establish the Popish religion in England.

The penetration, wisdom, and patriotism of the statesmen who stood around Elizabeth's throne—men who were the special and splendid gifts of Providence to that critical time saved England and the world from this bloody catastrophe. Walsingham early penetrated the secret. By means of intercepted letters, and the information of spies, he possessed himself of as minute and exact a knowledge of the whole plot as the conspirators themselves had; and he stood quietly by and watched its ripening, till all was ready, and then he stepped in and crushed it. The crowned conspirators abroad were beyond his reach, but the arm of justice overtook the miscreants at home. The Englishmen who had plotted to extinguish the religion and liberties of their native land in the blood of civil war and the fury of a foreign invasion, were made to expiate their crimes on the scaffold; and as regards the poor unhappy Queen of the Scots, the ending of the plot to her was not, as she had fondly hoped, on the throne of England, but in front of the headsman's block in the sackcloth-hung hall in Fotheringay Castle. [11]

Upon the discovery of this dreadful plot," says Strype, "and the taking up of these rebels and bloody-minded traitors, the City of London made extraordinary rejoicings, by public bonfires, ringing of bells, feastings in the streets, singing of psalms, and such like: showing their excess of gladness, and ample expressions of their love and loyalty to their queen and government. [12]

An attempt was made at the time, and has since been renewed at intervals, to represent the men executed for their share in this and similar conspiracies as martyrs for religion. The fact is that it is impossible to show that a single individual was put to death under Elizabeth simply because he believed in or professed the Popish faith: every one of these State executions was for promoting or practicing treason, If the Protestant Government of Elizabeth had ever thought of putting Papists to death for their creed, surely the first to suffer would have been Gardiner, Bonner etc., who had had so deep a hand in the bloody tragedies under Mary. But even the men who had murdered Cranmer and hundreds besides were never called to account, but lived in ease and peace all their days amid the relations and contemporaries of the men they had dragged to the stake.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, March 19th, 2018
the Fifth Week of Lent
There are 13 days til Easter!
Search Historical Writings
Enter query in the box below
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology