During the first ten years of Elizabeth I’s reign she took very little notice of the English Catholics who led their home shores to find sanctuary in Europe. Very sensibly she had no desire to create martyrs. There was also the lesson of her half-sister to consider. She had begun her reign on a wave of popularity which swiftly dissipated when she started burning people.
In 1568 Dr William Allen founded an English College at Douai with the aid of donations from the Pope and from Philip II. Men such as Edmund Campion, somewhat unexpectedly a deacon in the Church of England prior to his arrival in Douai, made their way there for training. After the papal bull of 1570, however, Elizabeth began to take a different view of these well educated men. In addition to which there were a growing number of English lords dependent upon Spain for their pensions – men like Dacre who had fled during the rising of 1569.
Inevitably as the political pressure on England increased along with the likelihood of war despite Elizabeth’s attempts to maintain some form of peace or at least to delay the inevitable through marriage negotiations attitudes hardened. By 1585 it was a treasonable offence to give shelter to catholic priests in England. The fact that William Allen was corresponding with Philip II and the Pope hardly helped matters. Nor did it help as the number of plots against Elizabeth increased.
In Rome, Anthony Monday noted that members of the English college there competed to make the worst insults about Elizabeth – “frying bacon” apparently took on a whole new meaning amongst the seminarians. Essentially Once the Catholics gained power Sir Francis Bacon would be toast – to mix a rather old metaphor.
As the English Catholics entered the priesthood and finished their training in record time they returned to English shores. Eighteen English Catholic priests returned home in 1576. Elizabeth might not want to meddle with men’s souls but she certainly didn’t want Catholic sponsored invaders arriving either and this was a problem.
Whilst London had a reputation for being Protestant the counties were a little behind with the times and many of the older aristocratic families were proud of their Catholic affiliations. In 1566 the Lord Mayor of Oxford told the Privy Council that he couldn’t find three houses in the city that weren’t packed with papists. Elizabeth dealt with this by going to visit Oxford and talking to all the students. Amongst the men there that day was Edmund Campion who gained Robert Dudley’s patronage on the strength of his intellectual abilities.
1569 saw the Northern Earls Rebellion and the following year saw Elizabeth excommunicated. Pope Pius V had done nothing for the safety or happiness of Catholics in England, Ireland and Wales. In 1572 more than 2000 French Protestants were massacred. Paranoia grew along with Walsingham’s spy network. Men like John Gerard and Nicholas Owen grew up Catholics in suspicious times.
By 1573 letters were being intercepted on their way to both Oxford and Cambridge inviting students to join with the exiles in Douai and later in Rome (1575 onwards). In 1574 Cuthbert Maine answered the call to go to college in Douai. He journeyed with four companions. Men like them and Gerard believed that their families had and were still suffering at the hands of a protestant government. Others thought that the occasional famines that England experienced during the mid-Tudor period were manifestations of God’s displeasure. Still others thought that Protestants were wrong – their Jesuit training hardened their beliefs.
In 1578 the college at Douai was forced to shut when Elizabeth reached a compromise with the Spanish and booted the Sea Beggars out of England. They went to Rheims under the protection of the Guise family who were fiercely Catholic and rather enjoyed creating havoc in England.
The students and their tutors had become much more hard core in their views. Now they didn’t just want to convert their neighbours back to Catholicism or to care for the needs of the Catholic flock – now they were adamant that there should be a Spanish backed invasion. As early as 1576 Allen’s men had preferred to die rather than take an oath of obedience to Elizabeth if they were captured. Cuthbert Mayne went to his death declaring that should any Catholic happen to invade the nation it was every English Catholic’s duty to support them in that goal.
Martyrdom beckoned along with a healthy dose of fundamentalism. Inevitably Mary Queen of Scots was nominated as an alternative monarch. William Allen corresponded with her as well as the Pope and Philip II. No wonder Walsingham and Elizabeth’s Privy Council became increasingly keen that the undoubted royal catholic alternative to Elizabeth should be disposed of once and for all. It was just a question of getting Elizabeth to agree.
Hogge, Alice. God’s Secret Agents
Hutchinson, Robert. Elizabeth’s Spymaster
Ronald, Susan. Heretic Queen