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Queen Elizabeth the First

  • Category(s): Modern Historical Essays
  • Created on : 03 February 2014
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  • Author: Richard Michael Lamb


Tudor Elizabethan England’s Queen seen through the eyes of an English 21st Century Roman Catholic.

1. Background

Elizabeth Tudor defended her faith and country from all comers including Philip of Spain and the Papacy. She was well served by her Admirals and Sea Captains. Her reign was marked by the emergence of English sea power and its raids on the Spanish Galleons laden with gold and the Spanish Main (Central America). The foundations of the American Colonies were laid by the late 16th Century Pilgrim Fathers’ voyages across the Atlantic from the English ports such as Plymouth during her rule. There was another more bitter side to her regime namely the suppression of Roman Catholicism: the religion of birth and early life of her father Henry VIII. Her father had repressed the Catholic Monasteries and put many Catholic priests to death including the Bishop of Rochester St John Fisher. Sir Thomas More no priest the great confidant of her father met the same fate as Fisher – the executioner’s block. Elizabeth must have learned of these deaths and her father’s determination to break with Rome finally and utterly. He left no stone unturned in that endeavour.

2. The Psychology of Elizabeth Tudor

As an intelligent and discerning woman who wielded power single handedly in England for several decades she was well aware of her father’s spiritual legacy of the Church of England in place of Rome on English lands. She sought to defend that legacy not despoil it and she amply demonstrated that intention. She knew there had been some bloodshed under Thomas Cromwell her father’s infamous Lieutenant. She had better judgement and taste than her father Henry VIII who acquired several wives and despatched too many for his own good. He took on the Pope at his own game of matrimony and Canon Law. He stopped at nothing. Elizabeth learned from her father’s mistakes and she was not aggressive as he was in religious terms and took no husband. She also learned from her older sister Bloody Mary that you do not make your subjects discontented. Under her father England achieved a power base in terms of diplomacy and its religious independence. Elizabeth clearly wished to build on these steps of the Henrician reign. England would not tolerate Catholic Spain in her midst as Elizabeth well knew. Her sister Mary had made the error of encouraging maybe imposing Catholicism. e.g. The Protestant Martyrs including Cranmer burnt at the stake. He was the lead Protestant and most prominent Anglican Martyr. For Elizabeth she would not go against her father’s legacy but very much with it. She towed the line intelligently.

3. The matter of the penal laws against the practice of Roman Catholicism in Elizabeth’s reign.

This cannot be denied but enforcement was by no means universally imposed. The true position on the ground was a little sporadic. The Courts were unsophisticated and Catholic landowners could evade these laws by transferring titles to Anglicans and then having their lands restored to them when the coast was clear. There was a strict clampdown on practising Roman Catholic priests and the saying of Masses in England and Wales. The thinking here was these Catholic Priests represented the Pope and the feared enemy of Catholic Continental Europe. These priests took their orders from Rome and had not been invited in to Britain. Some had been trained in Rome and Spain. Rome excommunicated Elizabeth and that was a distinctly unfriendly act to a Queen who did not condemn Catholicism as her sister Mary had repudiated Protestantism and those Bishops and Anglicans burned at the stake. There were no Catholic Bishops in Elizabethan England. England was under threat of invasion from the Catholic Continent and one very powerful Armada was repelled decisively but the danger was imminent and immediate from the Spanish throne egged on by the Papacy. The Penal laws were based on the dire need to defend English shores and her liberty. Spain and Rome should not be allowed in the back door by these underground proselytising Roman Catholic priests. Of course I believe in religious conscience and freedom of worship. England under Elizabeth did not have the security and structure to support and allow such freedoms. They are a luxury of the modern era and even now they are hard won and difficult to retain in some circumstances. In Elizabethan England Catholicism and her powerful recusant landowners (Catholic) were the enemy within and had to be snuffed out. This was largely achieved under Elizabeth and James the First her successor.

4. Sir Francis Walsingham

I therefore think it a little unrealistic for modern historians to condemn the penal laws. They served a purpose and eventually fell into disuse. What about the architect and builder of the suffering and persecution of Roman Catholic Laymen and Priests under Elizabeth: Walsingham himself. I believe the total number of Catholic Martyrs under Henry VIII, Elizabeth and James I does not exceed two hundred. The numbers do not matter it is the terrible torture that does count. Walsingham was in charge of the torture chamber to extract incriminating information with which to catch more Catholic Priests and laymen, then convict and execute the Catholics who had been on the rack. It really was a rack and the poor soul on that rack did blab and suffer the death of martyrs in those days. Others confessed to resiling from Catholicism and were let go. Some were spared torture and went to their deaths direct.

5. Elizabeth’s complicity

Sir Francis had been knighted for good conduct or at any rate given his position and power by Elizabeth who was well aware of the political background I have described. She knew the salient features of the matter in so far as Roman Catholics in England were concerned. She was under no illusion as to the position on the ground and Sir Francis himself would have reported to her. She was conversant with his character and ways and she was prepared to not only tolerate him but positively encourage if not direct his activities. He was defending the interests of Tudor Elizabethan England from infiltrators namely Catholic priests subverting the stability of her kingdom. She gave him her wholehearted support. She knew the rack was one of the tools of his trade and had been in use for decades. Elizabeth was implicated as Queen and Head of State but not as Head of the Anglican Church founded by her father. Anglicanism may not be indicted for the actions of Sir Francis Walsingham and the repression of Roman Catholicism in Elizabethan England and Wales.


Don’t forget women were also subjected to inhumane treatment and oppression for their Roman Catholicism usually on the rack. E.g. Margaret Clitheroe (no priestess). The justification for the rack was to gather evidence to catch traitors and condemn the captured to death by show trials. By modern standards it was totally unacceptable. Christ died on the Cross fifteen hundred years before Elizabeth’s reign and His passion was affirmed by all in Tudor England. There can be no justification then or now for the extraction of replies through the manipulation of the rack to cause pain and fear upon the poor person on that rack. The phrase “racked with pain” comes to mind meaning nowadays not just physical pain but intangible pain. Sir Francis was notorious for his methods – may we never again permit such interrogations in whichever jurisdiction we reside – real or imagined. Queen Elizabeth was a great Queen but she was not well served by her servant Sir Francis Walsingham.