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Letters, Acts and Proclamations of Elizabeth I.

Although it was Henry VIII, the father of Elizabeth I who first renounced papal authority in England after the Pope refused to grant him a divorce from his first wife, it was not until the reign of Elizabeth that a steady stream of legislation was passed by the government effectively outlawing the Catholic faith, and savagely punishing any who adhered to it. During her reign, partly through her own initiative, and partly in response to subversive political and religious activity, the laws changed from restrictive to prohibitive, and can be classified in two general categories, laws which subjected Catholics to penalties and punishments for practicing their religious worship, and laws which punished them for not conforming to the Established or Protestant Church (The Statutes of Recusancy).

Elizabeth began her reign with the introduction of the Statutes of Supremacy (I Eliz. 1) and Uniformity (I Eliz. 2) which established her position as head of the English Church. These were quickly followed by the amending statute (5 Eliz. c. 1.).

By the Act of Supremacy all who maintained the spiritual or ecclesiastical authority of any foreign prelate were to forfeit all possessions, both real and personal, for the first offence, or in case the value of these was below 20 pounds, to be imprisoned for one year. They were liable to the forfeitures of Praemunire (protection under the sovereign) for the second offence and to the penalties of high treason for the third offence (which constituted three punishments - death by hanging, drawing, and quartering, corruption of blood, by which heirs were incapable of inheriting titles and positions of office, and thirdly the forfeiture of all property).

In essence the Act of Supremacy acknowledged that the supreme spiritual authority in the land was vested in the crown. Obviously, Catholics who believed that the ultimate spiritual authority was the Papacy, could not swear to this. Over the years that followed, most Catholic scholars left their studies incomplete, unable to swear the Oath, and Catholics in office were gradually removed.

These first statutes were made stricter by the amending act which declared that to maintain the authority of the Pope in any way was punishable by penalties of Praemunire for the first offence and of high treason, though without corruption of blood, for the second.

The Act of Uniformity, was successful in establishing a conformity among the country to a common Anglican Book of Prayer. It was initially aimed at clerics who refused to reside over Anglican service, punishing them by deprivation and imprisonment. People who refused to attend Anglican services were punished with a fine of twelve pence for each aberration.

With the Papal Bull of 1570, and the threat of Catholic rebellion, the potential of which was seen through the abortive Northern Uprising, Elizabeth enacted specific law against any further attempts to undermine her authority.

    13 Eliz. c.1, which, among other enactments, made it high treason to affirm that the queen ought not to enjoy the Crown, or to declare her to be a heretic or schismatic, and
    13 Eliz. c. 2, which made it high treason to put into effect any papal Bull of absolution, to absolve or reconcile any person to the Catholic Church, or to be so absolved or reconciled, or to procure or publish any papal Bull or writing whatsoever.

A third act, 13 Eliz. c. 3, which was designed to stop Catholics from taking refuge abroad, declared that any subject departing the realm without the queen's license, and not returning within six months, should forfeit the profits of his lands during life and all his goods and chattels.

The third and most severe group of statutes which was aimed specifically at the Jesuits and Seminary priests who began to return to England in the early 1580's, began with the "Act to retain the Queen's Majesty's subjects in their obedience" (23 Eliz. c. 1), passed in 1581 soon after the capture of Edmund Campion. This made it high treason to reconcile anyone or to be reconciled to "the Romish religion", prohibited Mass under penalty of a fine of two hundred marks and imprisonment for one year for the celebrant, and a fine of one hundred marks and the same imprisonment for those who heard the Mass. This act also increased the penalty for not attending the Anglican service to the sum of twenty pounds a month, or imprisonment until the fine was paid, or until the offender went to the Protestant Church.

The climax of Elizabeth's persecution was reached in 1585 by the "Act against Jesuits, Seminary priests and other such like disobedient persons" (27 Eliz. c. 2). This statute, under which most of the English martyrs suffered, made it high treason for any Jesuit or any seminary priest to be in England at all, and felony for any one to harbor or relieve them.

As Elizabeth's reign neared its end, growing concern within the Catholic community caused several important events to transpire. Firstly, the Catholics began courting James VI of Scotland who many saw as the successor to the ailing Elizabeth. They began to send emissaries to the Scottish court, and were initially buoyed by James's apparent agreement to improve their standing should he become King, by relaxing the harsh penalties and allowing them greater freedom to practice their faith. On another stage, a schism had developed within the Catholic community. The hardline Catholics refused any compromise, but the Appellant priests now wished to follow a different approach to the restoration of Catholicism in their country. Whereas the hardline Catholics, still under the influence of the Jesuit faction, sought to hold true to the sacred tenets of Catholicism, spread them where possible, and die in the attempt if not, the Appellants believed in establishing some kind of compromise with the state and pledging their fervent loyalty to the government, even to the point of denouncing the Jesuit's as foreign invaders. This way they could set up Catholicism as a non-threatening minority religion which would be officially tolerated.

It was difficult to reach anything other than opposition. The Jesuit faction was still being partially driven from outside of England, by foreign based exiles who had chosen to live abroad, but still supported an overthrow of the crown, which would enable them to return. Doing so at this time meant almost certain death if they were caught.

The last of Elizabeth's laws was the "Act for the better discovery of wicked and seditious persons terming themselves Catholics, but being rebellious and traitorous subjects" (35 Eliz. c. 2). Its effect was to prohibit all recusants from removing more than five miles from their place of abode, and to order all persons suspected of being Jesuits or seminary priests, and not answering satisfactorily, to be imprisoned till they did so. The hopes of the Catholics on the accession of James I were soon dispelled, and during his reign (1603-25) five very oppressive measures were added to the statute-book. In the first year of his reign there was passed the "Act for the due execution of the statue against Jesuits, seminary priests, etc." (I Jac. 1, iv) by which all Elizabeth's statutes were confirmed with additional aggravations. Thus persons going beyond seas to any Jesuit reminary were rendered incapable of purchasing or retaining any lands or goods in England; the penalty of 100 pounds on everyone sending a child or ward out of the realm, which had been enacted only for Elizabeth's reign, was now made perpetual; and Catholic schoolmasters not holding a licence from the Anglican bishop of the diocese were fined forty shillings a day, as were their employers. One slight relief was obtained in the exemption of one-third of the estate of a convicted recusant from liabilities to penalties; but against this must be set the provision that retained the remaining two-thirds after the owner's death till all his previous fines had been paid. Even then these two-thirds were only to be restored to the heir provided he was not himself a recusant.

In short, for any priest ordained before the accession of Elizabeth it was high treason after 1563 to maintain the authority of the pope for the second time, or to refuse the oath of supremacy for the second time; after 1571, to receive or use any Bull or form of reconciliation; after 1581, to absolve or reconcile anyone to the Church or to be absolved or reconciled. For seminary priests it was high treason to be in England at all after l585. Under this statute, over 150 Catholics died on the scaffold between 1581 and 1603, including among others Francis Ingilby, uncle of the Gunpowder Plotters Robert and Thomas Wintour.,

 

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