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History is written by the winners
on 11 October 2012
. . . and the version of the Tudor period told to Catholic children differs from the version taught in state schools. To the majority of us, Elizabeth was the golden queen who held the balance of power for 40 years, redeeming the bloodbath of her sister's reign with mercy and temperance, and saving us from the terrors of the Inquisition as carried in the holds of the Armada. More or less, anyway. It is, of course, a biased view in which Henry the Eighth, despite being a Bad Man, did a Good Thing when he got rid of monasteries, relics, chantry chapels and the other institutions used by Rome to maintain her hegemony.
Fraser, as a Catholic, necessarily has a different view from the mainstream on the history of the years from 1520 to 1620. She takes the view that the Gunpowder Plot was an extremist manifestation of a wide-spread seething of Catholic frustration and suffering. Her sympathy with fellow-travellers, and pity for the (admittedly wrong) conspirators, is evident from the start. Perhaps it is, indeed, high time the balance was redressed.
However, this is a weighing down on the other side of the scales, rather than an impartial view. From the start, Fraser refers repeatedly to the extremity of the 'persecution' of Catholics under Elizabeth. But if they felt so very persecuted, why was there so little insurrection during her reign? We need to look at matters from both sides.
Henry never embraced the theology of advanced Protestantism; he remained an Anglo-Catholic and liked to see himself as a sort of demi-pope rather than a trailblazer for reform. His short-lived son, educated in a more radical vein, brought in the main recognizable features of the Church of England. Mary's subjects, however, were left in no doubt that Protestantism was heresy and punishable with the utmost severity; moreover that in order to ensure the supremacy of the True Faith she was prepared to bring England into the Spanish sphere of influence. Her sister Elizabeth was constantly badgered about her beliefs and learned to walk a very fine tightrope as a result; any clear evidence of heresy could have given Mary the excuse to rid herself of a rival. Considering how young the Reformation still was, Mary found a surprising number of her subjects were sufficiently convinced she was wrong, to take the radical step of becoming martyrs for their beliefs. It is almost impossible for most of us to appreciate the mindset which, faced with the safe option of going along with the herd, is prepared to stand out and invite a hideous fate.
When Elizabeth came to the throne, both she and her new subjects had had quite enough of the hard-line approach. She made it as easy as possible for Catholics to fudge the issue, stay inside the law and carry on normal lives. The less devout, in droves, did just this. Anyone who doesn't find this surprising must be reminded of the following:
*According to Catholic dogma, attending C of E services, not attending Catholic mass, not going to confession and obtaining absolution, and dying without the services of a Catholic priest, all placed one in peril for one's immortal soul or, at the very least, a long spell in Purgatory; not an abstract concept for people of the time. "Fudging the issue" meant just this.
*By Catholic standards, Elizabeth had no right to the throne; her mother had not been legally married to Henry (who'd been excommunicated anyway, which made him an illegitimate ruler himself). Elizabeth herself, as a Protestant heretic, could not in the eyes of Rome be a legitimate ruler anyway.
*The Pope had explicitly made it the duty of good Catholics to depose Elizabeth by any means, and while infiltration by trained agents was constantly being attempted, it was the duty of Catholics to support these.
Nonetheless, not only did the vast majority of Catholics accept (however grumpily) the status quo, but when the crown passed to James - brought up in a far more radical form of Protestantism than Elizabeth - as Fraser notes, most English Catholics were concerned to display their loyalty right from the start. They did perhaps believe, from James's reluctance to make any unambiguous statement on the subject, that he intended to bring in freedom of religion; although this was not what had happened in Scotland and, while his mother was a Catholic, James was, like his predecessor Elizabeth, a monarch whose chief concern was to stay on the throne.
Fraser is quite good, and subtle, on why the Catholics had such high hopes for James, and it is here that we must look for the roots of rebellion, not in conditions under Elizabeth. Elizabeth's "persecution" had one aim; to prevent a Catholic party becoming wealthy, influential and fanatical enough to depose her in favour of a Spanish substitute. To this end she imprisoned those found to be too close to foreign sympathies, executed anyone implicated in actual plots against her, banned the entry of those who were likely to be instigating plots, and fined those Catholics devout enough to baulk at outward conformity, in order to reduce their wealth and influence. This was miserable for those who wished only to practise their religion loyally, but distinguishing between the truly loyal and those maneouvering to bring in foreign troops with the inquisition on their heels was just too close to call even for a man like Walsingham. History shows us that extreeme, violent action is rarely a response to long low-level oppression, but often a reaction to hopes suddenly dashed.