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Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 7.1 (2004) 117-133

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Bloody Bess
The Persecution of Catholics in Elizabethan England

Rafael E. Tarragó


QUEEN MARY I of England is called Bloody Mary because she persecuted Protestants during her short reign (1554-58). Her sister, Elizabeth Tudor, persecuted Catholics during her long reign (1558-1603) and she is called Good Queen Bess. Mary is criticized because she burned Protestants whom she considered heretics, but Elizabeth is praised as shrewd for persecuting Catholics, who did not accept laws passed during her reign making her both secular and spiritual ruler. Violations of these laws were considered an act of treason punishable by hanging, drawing, and quartering. 1 Mary's love of England has been questioned because she believed in a universal Christian church united under the Bishop of Rome, and because she married a Spaniard. Elizabeth has been called a nationalist because of her assumption of spiritual authority over Christians in England, because of her protection of English pirates who raided towns and cities in the Americas under the sovereignty of the Spanish [End Page 117] Crown, and because of her support of those who revolted against the Spanish Crown in Europe. The year 2003 marked the 400th anniversary of the death of Elizabeth Tudor, and most likely there will be many books, documentaries, and academic conferences singing her praises. But, as Richard Harrison has written in the 3 January 2003 issue of theLondon Times, the fact is that she persecuted minorities, encouraged the systematic pillaging of foreigners' property, and suppressed dissent. 2

In this article I revisit religious persecution in sixteenth-century England under Elizabeth Tudor. In addition to those Catholics condemned to death, I discuss the persecution of Catholics by fining and imprisonment in Elizabethan England. Furthermore, I analyze the identification of Protestantism and patriotism in a supposed struggle for survival of a peace-loving England against an aggressive Spanish "Evil Empire," and then examine the meaning of the word "reformation" in the context of the religious policies of the English state during the reign of Elizabeth Tudor

Religious Martyrs or Traitors? The Execution of Catholics under Queen Elizabeth Tudor

On 29 April 1559, the English House of Lords by 33 votes to 12 passed a bill abolishing papal supremacy over the Christian church in England, and establishing the supremacy of the English monarchs over it. Also in April 1559, a bill abolishing the Mass and imposing an English language Book of Common Prayer liturgy passed in the House of Lords by a majority of three and was implemented on 24 June of that year. To refuse to take an oath of belief in royal supremacy over the church became a crime punishable by removal from public office and inability to hold any office. To defend papal authority over the church became punishable in the first offense by loss of goods; the second by imprisonment for life; the third offence was considered treason punishable by death. [End Page 118]

The 1559 bills made English Catholics guilty of high treason—a crime English law punished by hanging, drawing, and quartering offending men, and by burning offending women. The bills made a political offense out of a matter of conscience—belief in a universal church under God. As in the Roman Empire in which early Christians who refused to burn incense before statues of the emperor were condemned to death for sedition, in Elizabethan England, Catholics were killed because they did not believe an act of Parliament changed what a fifteen-century-old Christian tradition told them: that the Church was a universal institution and the Bishop of Rome was its spiritual leader. To say or attend the Catholic Mass became a criminal act punishable by fines and imprisonment. All parishioners had to attend church on Sundays and holy days under penalty of a shilling for each absence.

Historia Particular de la Persecución en Inglaterra by Diego de Yepes contains a long list of English Catholics martyred between 1570 and...


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