Persecution Revived: Enter in Through the Right Gate

After Henry died in 1547, young and reforming Edward succeeded him to the throne. The Popish faction was still powerful. Had Edward VI lived, it is probable that many things in the worship of the Church of England, borrowed from the Roman Church, would have been removed.

It was a great work that was accomplished in England during Edward’s reign, especially when we consider that it was all accomplished in six short years. Before the Reformation was to be firmly established in England, however, it would yet pass through another severe trial and test.

Following the death of Edward, July 17, 1553, Mary daughter of Henry VIII, began to reign at thirty-seven years of age. Her accession was met with satisfaction, if not with enthusiasm, by the great majority of the nation. It was the general belief that the throne was rightfully hers, though an earlier parliament had annulled her right of succession on the grounds of the unlawfulness of Henry’s marriage to Catherine. Later, another parliament had restored it to her, which was in keeping with Henry’s last will and testament. Under this arrangement, she placed next after Edward, Prince of Wales, and heir to the crown. Few indeed anticipated the terrible changes that would soon sweep the nation. Mary’s education had been conducted mainly by her mother, who had taught her little besides a strong attachment to the Roman Catholic faith. No sooner had the way to the throne been cleared for her than she sent a message to the pope to the effect that she was his faithful daughter and England had returned to Rome. The knowledge of the joy of this would bring to the Eternal City enabled the messenger to make the trip in nine days, something that had taken Campeggio three months to accomplish when he came to pronounce Henry’s divorce.

Realizing that these same tidings would be far from welcome in England, Mary hid her true feelings. To the Reformers of Suffolk, who before espousing her cause sought a commitment from her as to the course she intended to pursue, she bade them put their minds at rest; no man would be molested on the grounds of his religion. Upon entering London, she sent the Lord Mayor the message that she meant not to compel other people’s consciences otherwise than God should persuade their hearts of truth. By these words, her right to the throne was confirmed. No sooner, however, was she firmly established than she threw off all disguise and left no one in doubt that it was her settled purpose to suppress the Protestant faith.

All of the circumstances that had made progress of the Reformation so difficult in England worked in Mary’s favor as she sought to restore the Catholic religion. Large numbers of the people were still attached to the ancient beliefs, as there had not been sufficient time for the light to fully dispel the darkness. A large portion of the clergy, though professing the Protestant faith because of the pressure that had been applied to them as a result of the laws passed during Henry’s reign, were still papal at heart.

Throughout all of England, all men who held any position of influence and who were known to be favorable to the Reformation were removed. During the months of August and September, Ridley, Bishop of London; Rogers; Latimer, the most eloquent preacher in all of England; Hooper of Gloucester; Coverdale; Bradford; Saunders; and others were deprived of their liberty. In addition, some noblemen and gentlemen were deprived of their lands which the king had given them. Many churches were changed, altars were set up, and masses said, even before a law had been passed making it legal.

All of the foreign Protestants were given passports, with orders to leave the country. Nearly 1,000 Englishmen under various guises left with them. Providence had arranged that just as the storm was about to break in England, it had begun to abate on the Continent.

Soon after being confirmed to the throne, Mary considered a marriage to the emperor’s son, Philip of Spain. Parliament begged the queen not to marry a stranger; and the queen, not liking to have her matrimonial interests interfered with, dismissed the members and sent them to their homes. Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester and Lord Chancellor of England, learning that a galleon loaded with gold had just returned to Spain from South America, wrote the emperor, suggesting that for the price of a few millions of his wealth he might be able to buy sufficient votes of influential men, thereby assuring that England would be rescued from heresy. At the same time, it was suggested that it would be an opportunity to add another to the many kingdoms that were already under the Spanish scepter. The idea was agreed to and plans for a wedding moved ahead.

With the year 1555, the stake returned to England. Secret informers were appointed in each district to report on all who did not attend the mass or who otherwise failed to conduct themselves as good Catholics. Among the first victims to suffer for their faith were Rogers and Hooper. The men who were burned during Mary’s reign died mainly because of their denial in the belief of transubstantiation—the actual presence of the body of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. The question was direct and there was no reasoning the matter. “What sayest thou?” was the question put to each of them. If in answer they said “flesh,” they were acquitted; if in reply they said “bread,” they were condemned to be burned.

Rogers had been an associate of Tyndale and Coverdale in translating the Scriptures. On the morning of February 4, he was awakened and led to Smithfield. In the crowd he saw his wife with their eleven children, the smallest still an infant. His persecutors thought that his fatherly instincts might prevail where they had failed, but in this they were mistaken. Refusing the pardon that was offered him, he replied; “That which I have preached will I seal with my blood.” Accused of being a heretic, he calmly replied that this would be determined at the last day.

After this beginning, the work moved ahead rapidly. In order to strike terror to the populace as a whole, stakes were raised all over England. The clergy, thinking that seeing their pastors burned would terrorize the flock, arranged to have the Reformers burned in various places throughout England. Little did they realize that the people might be moved to pity by the sight and, admiring their heroism, would come to despise the tyranny that doomed them to such an awful death. A thrill of horror swept the nation.

Hooper, who had been a companion of Rogers at his initial trial, had expected to accompany him to the stake. Instead, however, he was told that he was to be transported back to Gloucester where he had been bishop. Though he welcomed the privilege of dying anywhere for Christ, to seal his testimony before the flock to which had preached filled him with joy. Arriving in Gloucester, he was met by a crowd of tearful people. Three days were allowed him before his execution. On February 9, he was led out. It was market day and not less than 7,000 people assembled to watch. He did not address those assembled, as he had been forced to give his promise to remain silent by the threat of having his tongue cut out. His courage and the serenity of his countenance, however, preached a more eloquent sermon than any words he might have framed.

Men were able to contrast the leniency with which the Romanists had been treated under Edward VI with the fierce cruelty of Mary. When Protestantism was in the ascendancy, not a single papist had died for his religion. A few priests had been deprived of their offices and revenue, but the vast majority had saved their livelihood by conforming. Now that popery had revived, no one could be a Protestant but at the peril of his life. All over England fires raged. From the child, to the elderly, without regard to sex, the victims were brought, sometimes singly, at other times by the dozens. An England that till now had placed a small price on the Reformation, awoke to a better idea of the value what Edward VI and Cranmer had given it.

The gloomiest year in the history of England was the last year of Mary. Drought and tempests had brought about a scarcity of food. Famine brought plague in its wake. Strange maladies attacked the population and a full half of the inhabitants fell sick. Many towns and villages were almost depopulated, and a sufficient number of laborers could not be found to even reap the fields. In many places the grain, instead of being carried to the barn, stood rotting in the fields. The kingdom was rapidly becoming a satrapy of Spain, and its prestige was year by year sinking in the eyes of foreign powers.

Between February 4, 1555, when Rogers was burned at Smithfield, and November 15, 1558, when five martyrs were burned in one fire at Canterbury just two days before Mary died, no less than 288 persons were burned alive at the stake.

Mary breathed her last on the morning of November 17, 1558. On the same day, but a few hours later, Cardinal Pole died. He along with Carranza, the Spanish priest who had been Mary’s confessor, had been chief counselor in carrying out the deeds that were to crown her reign with such infamy in England. The news of Mary’s death spreading rapidly through London caused general rejoicing. Wherever the news was told, it was heralded with great joy. The nation awoke as from a horrible nightmare.

Elizabeth ascended the throne with the sincere purpose of restoring the Protestant religion. She was faced, however, with a work that was as difficult as it was great. The learned and eloquent preachers who had been the strength of Protestantism in the reign of her brother Edward had perished at the stake or been driven into exile, leaving the pulpits in the possession of the Roman Catholic clergy. On all sides she was surrounded by great dangers. The clergy of her realm were mostly of the Catholic faith. As the daughter of one of those wives of Henry that they disputed, in the eyes of these bishops her claim to the throne was more than doubtful. Abroad, the dangers were equally great.

During the first year of Elizabeth’s reign, the qualified Protestant clergy in England were few indeed, but their numbers rapidly increased as the news reached the cities to which they had been driven by persecution. Their arrivals in England greatly strengthened the work of restoring the Reformation.

As long as Scotland was Catholic in faith, it was a threat to Protestant England. The establishment of its Reformation in 1560 under John Knox, however, made it one in policy, as in faith, with England. At the time when Elizabeth was weakest, this sudden conversion of an ancient foe into a firm ally brought her unexpected help.

The Reformer, John Knox, landed in Scotland on May 2, 1559. A messenger immediately set off to bear the unwelcome news to the Scottish queen. A few days later, by royal proclamation, he was declared a rebel and an outlaw. If the proclamation accomplished nothing else, it succeeded in electrifying all of Scotland with the news.

Until the coming of Knox, a close alliance had existed between Scotland and France, a union of the gravest concern to Elizabeth. Francis II, upon ascending the throne of France, had openly assumed the title and arms of England. He made no secret of his purpose to invade the country and place his wife, Mary Stuart, heiress of the Scottish kingdom, upon its throne. The most obvious way to achieve his purpose, as it appeared to him, was to pour his soldiers into his wife’s hereditary kingdom of Scotland and then descend on England from the North. The scheme was proceeding with every promise of success, when the progress of the Reformation in Scotland and the consequent expulsion of the French from that country of France and converted that very country, in which the Papists trusted to be the instrument of Elizabeth’s overthrow, into her firmest ally.

It now became clear to Pope Pius V that the Reformation was centering itself in England, and, from there, influencing all of Europe. In the throne of England, Protestant forces were finding a focus and developing into a more consolidated and effective Protestantism than had ever before existed in Christendom. It was here, therefore, that the great battle must come which would determine whether the Reformation of the sixteenth century was to establish itself or to end in failure.

On May 3, 1570, Pius V issued his bull excommunicating Queen Elizabeth. Nearly three years before, the Jesuits had begun to infiltrate England. Professing themselves to be Protestant clergymen, they worked to widen the differences and create animosities between the various Protestant groups, eventually breaking the union and peace that had so largely prevailed in England during the first ten years of Elizabeth’s reign. The Massacre of St. Bartholomew, which occurred soon after, in 1572, sent a thrill of terror through the nation. The doom of the Huguenots taught Elizabeth and the English Protestants that Roman Catholic pledges and promises of peace were no security whatever against sudden and wholesale destruction.

To counter the influence of the Reformation movement in England, the Catholic Church founded a university at Douay in the northeast of France. To this school a small group of English youth came to be educated as seminary priests and later were employed in undermining the Reformation in their native land. The Pope so completely approved of the entire plan that he created a similar institution in Rome—the English College.

Before these foreign seminaries had had sufficient time to complete the work of training qualified agents, two students of Oxford, Edward Campion and Robert Parsons, traveled to Rome. While there, they arranged with the Jesuits to carry out the execution of the Pope’s bull against Queen Elizabeth. Returning to England in 1580, they began operations. Assuming new names and different dress each day of the week, they began to traverse England. In their travels, they lodged in the houses of Catholic nobles, seeking to arouse Roman Catholic zeal and the spirit of mutiny. At length, Campion addressed a letter to the Privy Council, boldly avowing to revive in England “the faith that was first planted, and must be restored,” and boasting that the Jesuits of all countries were leagued together for this object. He concluded by demanding a disputation at which the queen and members of the Privy Council should be present. A warrant was issued for his arrest, and he was seized while in the disguise of a soldier and taken to the Tower. According to the act already passed, he was found guilty and, along with Sherwin, Kirby, and Briant, his accomplices, was executed for high treason.

Rome recognized that any hope of reestablishing the faith of Rome in England was hopeless as long as Elizabeth reigned. Finding themselves unwilling to wait for natural causes to make vacant her throne, they watched their opportunity to accomplish her removal. The record of England during the years following 1580 is a continuous record of these murderous attempts, all springing out of and justifying themselves by the bull of excommunication. Not a year passed, after the arrival in England of the Jesuits Campion and Parsons, that there was not a plot to insurrection in some part of the queen’s dominions.

In 1586 came the Babington conspiracy. It originated with John Ballard, a priest who had been educated in the seminary at Rheims. Respecting the bull of excommunication as the product of infallibility, he held that as Elizabeth had been excommunicated by the Pope, for him to deprive her of both her life and throne would be the most acceptable service he could do to God and the surest way of earning a crown in Paradise. The affair was to begin with the assassination of Elizabeth. The Catholics in England were then to be summoned to arms; and while the flames of insurrection were raging within the kingdom, a foreign army was to land upon the coast, besiege and sack the cities that opposed them, raise Mary Stuart of Scotland to the throne, and establish the Catholic religion in England.

By means of intercepted letters and the information of spies, Walsingham, one of Elizabeth’s leading secretaries, early learned of the secret. Soon he was in possession of as clear and exact a knowledge of the plot as the conspirators themselves. Quietly he stood by, watching the conspiracy develop until all was ready. He then stepped in and crushed it. The Englishmen who had plotted to extinguish the religion and liberties of their native land in the blood of civil war and the fury of foreign invasion paid for their crimes on the scaffold. The life of Mary, Queen of Scots, ended for her, not on the throne of England but with a headsman’s ax.

An attempt has been made to present the men executed for their share in this, and similar conspiracies, as martyrs for religion. The fact is, however, that it is impossible to show that a single individual was put to death under Elizabeth simply because he believed in or professed the Roman Catholic faith. In every case, the charges were for promoting or practicing treason. Surely had the Protestant government of Elizabeth thought to put to death Catholics for their faith, those others who had acted such prominent parts in the bloody tragedies under Mary would have been the first to fall. But these men who had murdered hundreds were never called to account for the deeds they had done. Instead, they lived out their lives in ease and peace amid the relations and contemporaries of the men they had dragged to the stake.

As the Bible began to freely circulate in Britain, it soon changed the character of the people, putting an end to the barbaric and bloodthirsty methods that had been the tools long employed by the Church of Rome to suppress all who were in opposition to her authority. In some instances it might be argued that Roman Catholics were treated with unnecessary cruelty, but it must be remembered that England was in a period of transition. The nation was just emerging from the Romish school of blood after centuries of training. Britain and North America are today what the Bible made them; Spain and Latin America are what Romanism made them.

The End