October 1982 Print

Elizabethan Catholics and the Mass


I. The Gathering Storm

Philip Caramon, S.J.

The article which follows (and two subsequent which will follow) originally appeared in 1974. The manuscript was written and put to one side before the changes which came to the Church in the wake of the Council. It is important to note this, for those who read these moving articles will be struck by certain parallels with our own day, which are the more powerful for not having been intended; they should cause us all to pause and think. As an historian of the Elizabethan period, Father Caramon, of course, needs no introduction. It is a privilege to publish his work. Acknowledgments to Christian Order.

Queen Mary died on 17 November 1558 while Mass was being celebrated in her bed-chamber. No day had passed in her adult life without her hearing Mass. When the priest came to the words, Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, she answered distinctly Miserere nobis, dona nobis pacem; then, as he took the Host to consume it, the Queen adored it. Afterwards she closed her eyes for the last time.

Elizabeth proclaimed Queen

Between eleven and twelve o'clock the same morning Mary's half-sister, Elizabeth, was proclaimed Queen by the heralds of arms. In the afternoon the bells of all London churches were rung for joy; that night bonfires were lit and tables set out in the streets; there was plentiful eating, drinking and merry-making. The next day, Friday, being a fast day, there were no public rejoicings, but on Saturday, 19 November, the Te Deum Laudamus was sung in all the churches of the kingdom.

During her last sickness Queen Mary had sent messengers to Princess Elizabeth to examine her on her religious beliefs, for no one was certain exactly where she stood. "Surely the Queen must be persuaded that I am a Catholic, for I have protested this time and again," Elizabeth assured her. Then she swore and vowed that she was a Catholic. She said she believed in the Real Presence and would make no alteration in the principal points of religion.

Today people are free to profess whatever religion they choose; then it was different. Until Henry VIII, the father of Mary and Elizabeth, came to the throne, the only religion of Europe was the Catholic one. It was thought that anyone who did not believe in it was wilfully wrong. If he persisted or tried to propagate his beliefs, he was imprisoned as a heretic and sometimes burnt at the stake. Queen Mary had done this; earlier still the English soldiers in France had burnt Joan of Arc; she was thought to be directed by the devil, though, in fact, she was a saint. It was accepted by all that the State was bound to save the souls of its citizens from contamination by false doctrine, just as much as it was bound to protect their lives and property from murderers and highwaymen.

No one thought it possible for different religions to exist side by side in the same country. So it happened that, when Martin Luther and others started the Protestant religion and converted to it German, Swiss and other rulers, the entire area governed by them became Protestant. If any individual felt in conscience that he could not fall in with the new religion of his country, he left his home and went to another city, which adhered to his own religion.

On Mary's death the question that concerned everybody was whether the new Queen, Elizabeth, (and with her the whole of England) would remain Catholic or turn Protestant. Elizabeth was astute and did not show her hand at once. The truth is that she did not care very much about religion, but wanted to be secure on her throne, and thought she had more chance of this if eventually she declared herself a Protestant.

It so happened that, within twenty-two hours of Queen Mary's death, there died also the Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Reginald Pole. And nearly at the same time, there died no less than thirteen Bishops and a great number of the clergy from Quartan fever, which was then raging like the plague. Thus, by chance, a great barrier to a change in religion was removed.

The first weeks of the new reign passed and the people were still puzzled. Elizabeth delayed at Hatfield in Hertfordshire before taking possession of London. In preparation for her entry all the streets of the city were spread with gravel. Then, finally, she came, riding a horse apparelled in purple velvet. She passed through Cripplegate and along London Wall to Bishopsgate, then up Leadenhall and Fenchurch Street, turning down Mark Lane into Tower Street and so to the Tower. There was great shooting of guns, such as had never been heard before. At certain points along the route children made speeches to her; in other places groups sang songs to the accompaniment of portable organs. However, the uncertainty about her religion continued.


First Signs of Protestantism

On 9 January 1559, just seven weeks after Mary's death, a statue of St. Thomas of Canterbury, patron of England, which had stood for centuries over the door of the chapel attached to the Mercers' Hall in London, was thrown down and broken. The offense went unpunished and some persons took this as an omen for the future.

The coronation was fixed for Sunday, 15 February 1559, in Westminster Abbey, which was decorated for the event with the most precious tapestries ever seen, representing on one side the whole of Genesis and, on the other, the Acts of the Apostles, from designs by Raphael. The rooms off the Church were hung with the history of Caesar and Pompey. On a table at the buffet were laid out a hundred and forty gold and silver drinking cups.

After making her entry into the Church the Queen ascended a lofty tribune erected between the high altar and the choir, in view of all the people, who were asked if they wished her to be crowned. When they shouted, "yes," the organs, fifes, trumpets, and drums played, and it seemed, as an eye-witness reported, that the world had come to an end.

Then the choristers began the Mass which was sung by the Dean of her chapel.

As senior prelate in England, Nicholas Heath, Archbishop of York, had been asked to crown the Queen. He had refused, for he suspected there would be innovations in the service. All the other bishops had refused also, except the Bishop of Carlisle, not because he favored the Protestant religion but for fear that, if the Queen was angered that no one would anoint her, she might be more easily moved to overthrow the Catholic faith. The rest of the bishops were present at the ceremony until the point of the Mass when the host is elevated, for adoration. This was not done, for the Queen had forbidden it.

Other changes ordered in the days following the coronation confirmed that Archbishop Heath had been right. On 25 January Elizabeth was once more at the Abbey, with all the peers of the realm, for the Mass of the Holy Ghost, before the opening of Parliament. The Benedictine Abbot John Feckenham, and all his community, each of them carrying a lighted candle in his hand, met her in procession at the West Door. When the Queen saw them, she said angrily, "Away with those torches, for we can see very well." During the service, Dr. Richard Cox, a married priest, who had been an exile during Mary's reign, preached a sermon in which, after saying many abusive things about the monks, he exhorted the Queen to destroy all the images of the saints, the monasteries and all that went with Catholic worship. He tried to prove that it was a very great impiety to endure such superstitious survivals.

Nevertheless for a time the administration of the sacraments continued in all the churches, though the litanies of the saints were no longer recited and parts of the Mass were said in English. Plays were performed in derision of the Catholic faith, but no one was persecuted: placards were posted at street corners inviting passers-by into taverns to watch them. Churches were broken into, windows shattered and chalices stolen. In March the same year rogues raided St. Mary-le-Bow's, in the middle of Cheapside, burst open the tabernacle and smashed every sacred object on which they could lay their hands.

About the same time the last public Catholic funeral was seen in London. On 12 April the corpse of Sir Rice Mansfield was brought from Clerkenwell for burial from Blackfriars Church; two heralds went behind the coffin and twenty-four priests and clerks before it, singing the Office of the Dead. The church of the friars was draped with black cloth and coats of arms. The next day the Requiem was sung and, after it, the knight's standard, coat, helmet and target were offered up at the high altar as had been done for centuries past. For it was the customary manner of a knight's funeral. London was never to see this ceremony again.


Plea from an Archbishop

Meanwhile, Nicholas Heath, the Archbishop of York (he had opposed the burning of heretics under Queen Mary and was considered the most prudent man in the kingdom), had an audience with the Queen. As soon as he was alone with her, he fell on his knees and invoked with tears the name of Jesus Christ. He begged Elizabeth, being a woman, to refrain from tampering with the sacred mysteries. He said that he had been through the English schools and universities and had attained the highest honors; he had been a bishop under her father Henry VIII, and her brother, Edward VI and Lord Chancellor under Mary, and that from his experience in the course of a long life, to say nothing of his own studies, he had learned that the State suffered great harm from frequent changes, even in the laws relating to the administration of justice. How much greater harm, he argued, would result from alterations in religion, where antiquity was held at such great account.

It was a wise and moderate speech. The Archbishop, recalling all that had recently happened, said that it was now proposed to make changes, not simply in ceremonies, but in the highest mysteries of the Faith, which (as the name implied) should be reverenced in silence rather than made the subject of popular debate. To call in question the sacraments of the Church, after such a length of time and in a kingdom which had only recently recovered from schism, would be disastrous in the extreme.

Finally, asking the Queen's pardon for his freedom of speech, the Archbishop concluded; "But if (which God avert) the Catholic religion should unhappily be overthrown in England, I warn, I proclaim and I declare beforehand that I will not recede a nail's breadth in the least thing from the decrees of the Catholic Church, and in that quarrel I will resist every suggestion from others, and even from your Majesty, by every means in my power, to the last moment of my life."

The Queen bade him rise, comforted him with many words and ended by promising the Archbishop that she would do nothing that was not approved by her Councillors and by the whole nation assembled in Parliament. She gave him to think that in some measure she still wished to profess the Catholic Faith.

On 23 April, St. George's Day, the patronal feast of the Knights of the Garter, the Queen attended the ceremony at Westminster Abbey. During the procession not a single cross was carried. The following day Mass was sung as usual for the souls of the deceased knights, but the Queen, who was to have been present, altered her mind, and the Mass was said without the elevation of the Host.


Returned Exiles Strike

On 25 April, the feast of St. Mark and the last of the three rogation days, there were processions in the London parishes, and the citizens went with their banners through the streets, singing the litanies in Latin in the old fashion. On Ascension Day, while the parish procession of St. Paul's was going round the Cathedral precincts, a servant-lad, an apprentice to a Protestant printer, violently snatched the cross out of the hands of the bearer, struck it on the ground three times, breaking it into many small pieces. Then he took the figure from the cross and went off, saying as he showed it to some women, that he was carrying away the Devil's guts. In another London parish, on the same day, when the procession was about to come out of the church, two scoundrels with drawn swords in their hands placed themselves at the gate, swearing that ecclesiastics should not carry such an abomination, and that, if they left the church, they should never re-enter it.

This was the work of the men who had been in exile in Germany and Switzerland under Queen Mary. Now, one of their number, Richard Cox, boasted in a letter to a friend at Zurich: "We are thundering forth in our pulpits, and especially before our Queen, Elizabeth, that the Roman Pontiff is truly antichrist and that traditions are for the most part blasphemies"; but he went on to admit that none of the clergy had changed their beliefs. "The whole body," he said, "remains unmoved"; that is, loyal to the Old Faith.


Parliament and the Mass

Meanwhile, in Parliament, a Bill laying down a new service of common prayer to replace the old Mass was debated. When it was read in the Lords for the third time all the Bishops, as before, dissented; and among the chief peers, they were supported by the Marquis of Winchester, the Earl of Shrewsbury, Viscount Montagu, and Barons Morley, Stafford, Dudley, Wharton, Rich and North.

True to his undertaking, Archbishop Heath spoke out firmly: "The unity of the Church of Christ doth depend upon the unity of Peter's authority. Therefore, by our leaping out of Peter's ship, we must needs be overwhelmed with the waters of schism, sects and divisions which spring only from this, that men will not be obedient to the Head Bishop of God."

The Archbishop asked the Lords whether they thought the Church of Rome was not of God, but a malignant Church, and then went on: "If you answer yes, then it will follow that we, the inhabitants of this realm, have not as yet received any benefit from Christ, for we have received no other gospel, no other doctrine, no other Faith, no other sacraments than were sent us from the Church of Rome."

Cuthbert Scot, Bishop of Chester, spoke twice. He pointed out that as God had sent one Holy Ghost to rule and govern His people inwardly, so he had appointed one governor to rule and lead them outwardly. And he asserted that no temporal prince had any authority whatsoever in or over the Church, since the keys of the heavenly kingdom had never been given to any of them, but only to Peter. Abbot Feckenham of Westminster, who also sat in the House of Lords, compared Queen Mary's days to the present. Then no churches were spoiled, he said, no altars pulled down, nor was the sacrament ever trodden blasphemously under foot and the knave of clubs hung in its place; there was no defiant eating of meat in Lent and on prohibited days. Now all things were changed and turned upside down.

But these protests were of no avail. Things got worse. At the end of May the Queen's Councillors, who were the men responsible for the alterations in religion, summoned to their presence Edmund Bonner, the Bishop of London, and gave him orders to do away with the Mass and Divine Office at St. Paul's. The Bishop answered intrepidly: "I possess three things: soul, body, and property: of the two last you can dispose at your pleasure, but as to the soul God alone can command me."


Last Public Masses in London

A few days later, on 11 June, St. Barnabas' day, the last Mass was said at St. Paul's. By the end of the month there were no public Masses anywhere in London, except in the houses of the French and Spanish ambassadors. All the friars and monks of every order received their passports to go abroad; the Franciscan friars from Greenwich, the Blackfriars from Smithfield, the monks and nuns from Sion and Westminster. The Carthusians refused to leave until they were compelled by force, which was soon used. Under the Queen's father, Henry VIII, they had resisted the King's attempt to claim headship of the Church, and had suffered death for it, some at Tyburn by hanging, others in Newgate by starvation. John Houghton, their prior, had been the first martyr of the Reformation. His community, re-established under Mary, was proud of its fidelity to the Church, and rather than give up their religion went into exile.


New Bill of Supremacy

Now a new Bill of Supremacy, making the Queen Head of the Church, was passed in Parliament; and in the same session also a Bill of Uniformity that permitted only one form of worship, namely, the new form. Commissioners were sent out from London to visit the universities, the cathedral churches and the city parishes throughout England with the task of enforcing these measures. This was in the summer of 1559, less than a year after Elizabeth had given a solemn undertaking to her half-sister, Mary, that she would make no change in religion. There was great opposition in court to the new services and also among the clergy and people, and had it not been for the persistence of Sir William Cecil, the Queen's Chief Councillor, the reformation, as it was called, would certainly have failed.

The Queen's commissioners first visited the London churches. On their orders the rood screens and altars were pulled down. The Lord Major, returning on St. Bartholomew's Day from the fair at Clerkenwell, where he had been watching sports and wrestling, saw in Cheapside two great bonfires made of statues, missals, crosses, copes, censers, altar-cloths, banners and other ornaments from Catholic times. The same was to be seen in other parts of London.

To show greater contempt for Our Blessed Lady, the official birthday of the Queen was now kept on 7 September, the eve of the nativity of Our Blessed Lady, which was marked in the calendar in small black letters, while that of Elizabeth was in large red capitals. In St. Paul's and elsewhere the praises of Elizabeth were now sung at the end of the public prayers in the place where the antiphon of Our Lady had been sung in former days.


Catholic Bishops Removed

One by one the Catholic bishops were removed from their sees. In a last brave attempt to change the Queen's mind Bishop Tunstall of Durham, who had been excused from attending Parliament because of his great age, came riding on horseback to London to see the Queen. In spite of her prohibition he preached to the people on his way. Everywhere he exhorted them to remain constant in the Catholic Faith. When the old man was brought into the presence of the Queen, he reprimanded her severely, because she had taken on herself to meddle in religion and had removed all the bishops, whose equals, he said, were hardly to be found in the Christian world.

"I confess," the Queen said, "that I grieve for York and Ely."

"But," replied Tunstall, "how can you grieve, when you have the remedy in your hands?"

The Councillors sat with the Queen. They urged Tunstall to change his religion. "Do you think that I, who as a priest and a bishop have taught the Catholic Faith for more than forty years, would be doing right, after so many years of study, after such practice and experience, on the very verge of the grave, to accept a rule of faith from laymen, my juniors?"

The Councillors flushed. They then demanded that he should take the oath acknowledging the supremacy of the Queen over the Church.

The old man refused, and he was deprived of his bishopric and put in charge of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, a married man. After a few weeks of imprisonment Tunstall died at Lambeth.


The Old Priests Removed

Almost all the clergy were on the side of the Catholic hierarchy. For as long as they were permitted, they spoke from the pulpits against the new form of service; they protested that it was iniquitous to do away with the Mass, the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, allegiance to the Pope and all that had been part of the English Church since the time of St. Augustine and before him. One by one, as the Commissioners went their circuits, these old priests were removed: most of them refused to be ministers of the new religion. Many continued to say Mass secretly, hear confessions, and baptize children, either in their own homes or in the houses of gentlemen.


The Country Folk Stay Loyal

For many years still the country people, particularly the shepherds and farmers, remained loyal to the old Faith. In large towns, like Norwich and Bristol, the artisans, weavers and shoemakers for the most part fell in with the new form of worship. But in the remoter parts of the kingdom, the population as a whole stayed Catholic. Hence the reformers, writing to German friends, continued for many years to talk always of their "little flock." One of them, John Jewel, now Bishop of Salisbury, complained: "The papists (as Catholics were now called) oppose us spitefully. Thus it is to have once tasted of the Mass. He who drinks of it is mad."

For the first time in the history of England, indeed of any country, fines were imposed for non-attendance at church. This was the beginning of the persecution. In Winchester, which was strongly Catholic, the poor people who could not pay these fines were sentenced to be dragged through the streets, stripped of their clothes and cruelly whipped.


School & University

The old school there, founded by William of Wykeham, remained Catholic in sympathy. When the headmaster was imprisoned and a Protestant put in his place, the boys refused to attend public prayers and shut themselves in their dormitories. The headmaster was compelled to summon the military commander from Portsmouth, the nearest seaport, to restore order. About twelve boys took to flight; the rest, terrorized by the troops, went most unwillingly to church. As one chronicler wrote: "In this persecution there is no order, or sex or age that has not nobly defended the Catholic Faith."

The universities, which formerly had been the training places of the clergy, did not take to the changes. Nearly all the heads of Colleges and the Fellows gave up their posts rather than subscribe to the oath of supremacy. By comparison with what it had been in the past, Oxford, particularly, was now somnolent. At New College, founded at the same time and by the same Catholic bishop as the school at Winchester, the old customs were slowly destroyed. On holidays after dinner the students no longer gathered around the fire in the hall to sing hymns. Many eminent university men crossed the sea to get a livelihood in foreign universities. Among them was Dr. William Allen, who was to become the chief adversary of the new religion.


First Arrest for Saying Mass

The first arrest of a priest for saying Mass contrary to the Queen's orders occurred in Fetter Lane, London. Treated as a traitor, the poor man was dragged violently through Holborn, Newgate Market, and Cheapside to the Counter Prison, with all his vestments on him, for he had been caught at the altar. A crowd followed him, mocking, cursing and wishing evil to him: some said he should be set in a pillory, others that he should be hanged, or hanged and quartered, or burned. All tried to pluck at him or give him a thump with their feet or spit in his face. Some shouted at him Ora pro nobis, sancta Maria, because it was the feast of Our Lady's Nativity (1562), though the day was not kept holy; they also sang mockingly Dominus vobiscum and such like phrases from the Mass.


Rosaries, Crucifixes, Statues—Out!

So things continued. Every year saw new measures of suppression. No person was permitted to carry beads or use them for prayers, to read the Book of Our Lady's Hours, or to burn candles on the Feast of the Purification. It was forbidden to pray before a crucifix or statue or picture of a saint, and it was thought superstitious to make the sign of the cross on entering a church, or to say the De profundis for the dead, or even to rest at a wayside cross while carrying a corpse to the grave: and to leave little crosses there. All altars were taken down in the churches. The places where they had stood were now paved, and the wall into which they had been set whited over. The altar stones were broken, defaced and turned to common uses.

But the people clung hard to the old customs. In some places, after the Rood had been taken away, they drew a cross in its place with chalk; and when the crosses in the graveyard were uprooted, they painted small crosses on the church walls inside and out, and on the pulpit and the new Communion tables. They still brought their primers to church and used them all the time the lessons were being read. In many churches the chalices were hidden away in readiness for the return of the Mass.

Finally, in 1570, the Pope, acting on his own counsels, issued a Bull, Regnans in Excelsis, declaring Elizabeth an heretic and excommunicate. Many Catholics at home judged this an unwise measure; for they feared it would enrage the Queen and lead her to retaliate with still severer legislation against them. However time proved the Pope correct. Now, for the first time, after eleven years of Elizabeth's reign, it was clear to all that none could practice the religion enforced by law and remain a Catholic. Henceforth if any man went to the state church he was no longer considered a Catholic; to receive communion there was a sign of submission to the new doctrines.

In reply the Queen imposed heavier fines for non-attendance at the services. Division now between Catholics and Protestants became sharper than ever before. Catholics, called Papists until this year, were now known as Recusants, for their refusal to take Communion from Protestant ministers.

In England only one man, Mr. Edward Aglionby, dared to raise his voice against the enforcement of conscience by legal penalties. In April 1571, in the House of Commons, Aglionby made a noble speech. He argued that it was not lawful for the State to compel any man's conscience, for the conscience of the individual did not concern the lawmakers: it did not fall even within the power of the greatest monarchy in the world. And he showed that neither the Jews nor Turks had ever required more than silence from their subjects, when they were unable to accept their people's religion. If the Catholics were wicked, as the law made them out to be, it was strange and against Christian practice to force them to take the new Communion; rather they should be forbidden it.


The Coming of the Sects

Meanwhile, as Archbishop Heath had warned the Queen, a large number of sects sprang up and spread throughout the kingdom. The largest of the many strange congregations was the Anabaptists, who called themselves Puritans, or Unspotted Lambs of God. Some of their adherents made mad assertions. In 1573 one Mr. Bloss was arrested for proclaiming that the Queen's late half-brother, King Edward VI, was still alive, that the Queen was married to the Earl of Leicester in 1564 and had four children by him.

The most curious of all these sects was "the family of the mount." It denied the existence of both heaven and hell, teaching that heaven existed wherever men laughed and made merry, and hell, wherever they were in sorrow, grief or pain.

The "family of essentials," a split or subdivision of the "family of love," believed that there was no such thing as sin. Their adherents used to ask, "Sin? What sin, man? There is no man sinneth at all." Their leader compared the altar to a cook's dresser-board. He had many meetings up and down the country.

To be continued