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We (poor wretches) . . . are reported . . . to be evilly affected towards your royal person . . . and that upon the vile action . . . of every lewd person, we all must be condemned to bear traitorous minds . . . We are most odiously termed ‘bloodsuckers’ . . . and it is published that your majesty is to fear so many deaths as there be papists in the land.

An appeal to the queen from her loyal Catholic subjects, March 1585.

At seven o’clock on the evening of Sunday 16 May 1568, Elizabeth I’s personal nemesis entered her uncertain realm, stepping wearily ashore on a remote windswept beach in north-west England.

Her Catholic cousin Mary Queen of Scots landed from a small fishing boat near Workington in Cumbria after fleeing Scotland across the treacherously shoaled waters of the Solway Firth. She was dirty, penniless, and like other benighted refugees from civil war, possessed only the grubby clothes she stood up in. But despite her many hardships, the thrice-married, twenty-five-year-old auburn-haired woman – at 5 feet 11 inches (1.80 metres) tall, towering over her handful of exhausted, dispirited attendants – still exuded the dignity and deportment of a queen. Only the vivacity of her hazel-brown eyes was diminished, sapped by months of fear, heartbreak and privation.

Three days before, it had taken just forty-five minutes for her army of six thousand men to be roundly defeated at Langside (now in south Glasgow),3 by a smaller force fighting for the Scottish Protestant nobility led by her illegitimate half-brother, James Stewart, Earl of Moray. She had earlier been forced to abdicate so that her baby son could ascend the Scottish throne as King James VI, with Moray as all-powerful regent. Now, as dawn broke the following morning, Mary wrote plaintively to Elizabeth, craving an immediate private audience to seek English military assistance both to recover her crown and wreak bloody vengeance on those who had rebelled against her.

She was hardly a welcome visitor. Her personal heraldry proudly quartered the arms of England with those of France and Scotland, symbolising her claims to be the strongest heir presumptive to the English throne through her direct descent from Henry VIII’s eldest sister, Margaret, one-time Queen of Scotland.

Even though Elizabeth enjoyed less than harmonious relations with Mary and had resolutely rejected her as her successor, she sympathised with her sister queen’s unhappy fate, believing that her Scottish neighbours had wickedly deposed a monarch anointed by God Himself. But she knew full well that her own Catholic subjects believed her a heretic, the bastard daughter of Anne Boleyn who had bigamously married Henry before the death of his saintly wife, Katherine of Aragon. She was also conscious that many prayed earnestly that ere long, Mary would wear the crown of England rather than her.

Her chief minister, William Cecil, did not share Elizabeth’s regal sympathy or her constitutional concerns about the inviolable divine right of monarchs. To him, Mary Queen of Scots’ presence on English soil posed a grave threat to his mistress’s throne and his own political and personal survival. In his view, her Catholic loyalties also imperilled England’s fledgling Protestant faith that had been forged in the cruel fires of martyrdom of Mary I’s reign. No surprise then, that within hours the Scottish queen found herself in comfortable quarters in the south-east tower of Carlisle Castle – but under strict twenty-four-hour guard. Even in her worst nightmares, she could not have dreamt that she was to be sequestered from the outside world for the next eighteen years as Elizabeth’s unwanted guest. Mary might be allowed to enjoy the title and a few trappings of a queen, but the cruel reality was that she was to remain a closely guarded prisoner in five-star captivity in a succession of fortified houses in northern England and the Midlands.

Cecil’s uneasiness stemmed from his uncomfortable knowledge that large swathes of England remained staunchly Catholic, with perhaps more than half of Elizabeth’s three million subjects still clinging stubbornly to that faith. Lancashire, for example, was to retain a Catholic majority until very late into the sixteenth century. In the strategically important maritime counties of Sussex and Hampshire, bordering the English Channel, the heart of the old religion was yet beating strongly, nurtured by conservative gentry and fugitive priests. Many rood screens stood in Sussex chancels in defiance of government order; and where they had been dismantled, ‘the wood lies still . . . ready to be set up again’, according to a disquieting official report of 1568. Holy images were hidden, not destroyed, and ‘other popish ornaments [were concealed] to set up the Mass again within twenty-four hours’. Chalices were secreted to await the happy return of the ancient ritual. Parishioners still brought their Latin missals with them to Protestant services and women and the elderly openly said their rosary beads, ignoring the benefits of both God’s Word and those of the dark-clad ministers wearing sober Geneva bands at their throats. In Hampshire, Bishop Robert Horne had great difficulty in finding ministers who would preach ‘sound doctrine’ and complained indignantly that some priests even in Winchester Cathedral were still stubbornly ‘inculcating popery and superstition’.

Events were to justify Cecil’s hard-nosed assessment of the ramifications of Mary Queen of Scots’ ill-omened arrival in England. By the middle of the following year, 1569, Thomas Howard, Fourth Duke of Norfolk, the egotistical premier peer of England, was up to his innocent eyes in plans to marry the imprisoned Scottish queen, motivated by fevered dreams of becoming king consort of Scotland one day, if not of England the next. Mary herself also proved a compulsive conspirator. Not content with pledging her love for the naïve duke as a possible means of escaping Elizabeth’s unwelcome and unwilling hospitality, she had written secretly to the Catholic earls of Northumberland and Westmorland seeking their assistance in freeing her, by force of arms if necessary.

Generations of sixteenth-century Howards had been flawed by a fatal arrogance and Norfolk’s pride inescapably became his downfall. Describing his fabulous wealth and his opulent palace at Norwich, he bragged shamelessly that his annual revenues were ‘not much less than those of Scotland . . . and when he was in his tennis court at Norwich, he thought himself equal with some kings’. If he had hopes of reassuring the mistrustful and always penny-pinching Elizabeth, these were hardly appropriate blandishments. Peremptory royal summonses to Norfolk to attend court were seemingly wilfully disobeyed and the queen suspected that the duke’s suspicious absence was a curtain-raiser to rebellion by her Catholic subjects, with him as their noble figurehead. Inevitably, that October Norfolk was arrested en route to Windsor and carted off to the Tower of London, where so many of his family had been incarcerated before him and where his father had been executed in January 1547 for conceitedly (and treasonably) including the royal arms of Edward the Confessor in his heraldry.

As in many rural counties, the Elizabethan religious settlement of 1559 had made little difference to the beliefs of the traditionalist populations of those immediately south of the Scottish border. Northumberland, Durham and Yorkshire were a world way from London and the carefully contrived splendour of the royal court. The much-loved pre-Reformation rituals continued habitually as if Mary I was still occupying the throne, with holy water, rosaries, images and devotional candles being used in defiance of official Protestant doctrine. It was only a matter of time before the cauldron that was the Catholic north, containing a heady, seething mix of religion, resentment and reaction, finally boiled over.

On 9 November 1569, Thomas Percy, Seventh Earl of Northumberland and Charles Neville, Sixth Earl of Westmorland, rose in revolt – church bells being rung backwards to warn their tenantry to muster. They intended to head south to free Mary Queen of Scots from her new prison at Tutbury Castle, Staffordshire, ‘as next heir, failing issue of Her Majesty’ and return England to Catholicism. On 14 November they arrived in Durham, marching, with heavy symbolism, behind the banner of the Five Wounds of Christ, last carried by rebels in the Pilgrimage of Grace against Elizabeth’s father thirty-two years before. They swept through the eleventh-century cathedral, tearing down any emblem of Protestantism they could find and triumphantly burnt the English prayer books and Bible in an iconoclastic pyre. They then joyfully celebrated Mass.

The Lord President of the North, Thomas Radcliffe, Third Earl of Sussex, had only four hundred badly armed cavalry with him at York and was fearful of facing the rebels on the battlefield with such a small force of perhaps doubtful loyalty. For Elizabeth, 265 miles (425 km) away in firmly Protestant London, the insurrection was a startling recurrence of the perilous threats that had persistently haunted her Tudor forebears and siblings. Her grandfather, Henry VII, whose claim to the crown was in reality of only paper-thin legality, had faced a series of uprisings after his victory over Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485. Her father Henry VIII put down rebellions against the dissolution of the monasteries in the north in 1536–7, but only with the greatest difficulty. Her teenage half-brother, Edward VI, was forced to hide in Windsor Castle during the dangerous revolts in the West Country, the south, midlands and in Yorkshire in 1549 over the introduction of the English prayer book, and also had to counter Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk that same year. Further insurrections followed in Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Rutland in 1551, involving ‘light knaves, horse-coursers and craftsmen’. Finally, Mary I had defeated rebel forces in London in 1554 over her planned marriage with Philip of Spain. Now it was Elizabeth’s turn to face the anger and rude weapons of the commons and, with characteristic Tudor truculence, she raged at delays in confronting and crushing them on the field of battle.

In York, Sir Ralph Sadler, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, explained patiently to Cecil why Sussex could not risk fighting the rebel forces immediately. ‘The ancient faith’, he counselled, ‘still lies like lees at the bottom of men’s hearts and if the vessel is ever so little stirred, comes to the top.’

There are not ten gentlemen in all this country that favour her [Elizabeth’s] proceedings in the cause of religion.

The common people are ignorant, superstitious and altogether blinded with the old popish doctrine, and therefore so favour the cause which the rebels make the colour of their rebellion that, although their persons be here with us, their hearts are with them . . .

If we should go to the field with this northern force only, they would fight faintly.

For if the father be on this side, the son is on the other and one brother with us and the other with the rebels.

The earls paused on their way south on 16 November at Darlington, County Durham, to issue a proclamation seeking popular support to safeguard England’s ancient customs and Catholic religion. It contained a compelling message, resonant both of patriotism and religious faith, designed to appeal to the region’s sullen conservative masses. Declaring themselves ‘the Queen’s most true and lawful subjects’, they railed against the arriviste upstarts surrounding Elizabeth who, they claimed, daily sought the overthrow ‘of the ancient nobility’ and had for ten years ‘maintained a new-found religion and heresy, contrary to God’s word’. Foreign powers, they warned darkly, would force England to return to Catholicism at the point of the sword and intended ‘shortly to invade this realm, which will be to our utter destruction, if we do not ourselves speedily [achieve] the same’.

We are now constrained at this time . . . to . . . redress it ourselves, which if we should not do so and foreigners enter upon us, we should be all made slaves and bondsmen to them.

[We] therefore will and require . . . every one of you . . . above the age of sixteen years and not [yet] sixty, as your duty towards God binds you, for the setting forth of his true and catholic religion and as you tender [value] the common wealth of your country, to come . . . to us with all speed with all such armour and furniture [weapons] as you . . . have.

This fail you not . . . as you will answer to the contrary at your peril.

The proclamation ended, somewhat ambiguously, with the traditional words: ‘God save the Queen’.

However, beyond the two earls’ tenantry, there was little enthusiasm for rebellion – perhaps painful memories of Henry VIII’s vicious retribution against the Pilgrimage of Grace three decades before lingered on amongst the yeomen’s grandsires. So when the insurgents concentrated at Bramham Moor, west of Tadcaster, north Yorkshire, on 16 November, only 3,800 ill-armed infantry and 1,600 better equipped cavalry could be mustered. The raggle-taggle foot soldiers hardly resembled an all-conquering army and Northumberland and Westmorland began to be assailed by doubts. Discretion being the better part of valour, they decided to head home with barely a shot fired.

Meanwhile, the new Spanish ambassador in London, the wily Don Guerau de Spes, was aghast that the rebels had not marched on the capital, as he sensed something approaching panic in Elizabeth’s government’s reaction to the uprising. The City of London had raised two thousand men ‘of mean sort’ for the royalist army now gathering in Leicestershire; there was a shortage of horses and the queen was trying desperately to borrow money from foreign merchants to pay for her hastily recruited army. There were whispers that Elizabeth planned to establish a last-ditch redoubt at Windsor Castle and had ordered infantry there as her bodyguard. Frustrated at the slow progress in restoring her rule in the north, the queen could only order the removal of Northumberland’s banner as a traitor from his stall as a Garter Knight in St George’s Chapel, Windsor.

Would the uprising spread? ‘The Catholics in Wales and the west have not yet followed the example of those in the north, although it is said they are about to do so,’ de Spes reported to Philip in Spain. The Spanish king pondered over the ambassador’s dispatch as he sat in his austerely furnished study within the palace of San Lorenzo de El Escorial in the Sierra de Guadarrama, 28 miles (45 km) northwest of Madrid. He had regarded English Catholics as special kindred since his marriage to Mary I, so he was cautiously pleased by news of the uprising. Philip wrote immediately to his captain-general, Fernando Alvárez de Toledo, Duke of Alba, busy suppressing Protestantism in the Spanish Netherlands, musing that force might now be needed to drag Elizabeth back to the Catholic faith:

We are beginning to lose [our] reputation by deferring so long to provide a remedy for the great grievance done by this woman to my subjects, friends and allies.

[God’s] holy religion may be restored . . . and the Catholics and good Christians thus rescued from the oppression in which they live.

In case her obstinacy and hardness of heart may continue, you will take into your consideration the best direction to be given to this.

We think here that the best course will be to encourage, with money and secret favour, the Catholics of the north and to help those in Ireland to take up arms against the heretics and deliver the crown to the Queen of Scotland, to whom it belongs by succession.

Philip was hardly delighted that Mary Queen of Scots, with her close ties to the French monarchy, could now become Queen of England – but his unqualified fidelity to Holy Mother Church overrode such diplomatic misgivings. Her accession, he declared, ‘would be very agreeable to the Pope and all Christendom and would encounter no opposition from anyone’.

Back in England, despite their retreat, the northern rebellion was still alive and kicking. In the first week of December, more than 4,500 rebels besieged Sir George Bowes, a grizzled veteran of the Scottish border wars, in Barnard Castle where he suffered a mass desertion by troops of his garrison who jumped over the low walls of his defensive outworks, some killing themselves in the process. Others treacherously opened his gates to the insurgents and he was forced to surrender on generous terms that permitted him to take four hundred of his men unmolested into Yorkshire. Another rebel victory came with the easy capture of the port of Hartlepool, where the ruinous defensive walls had collapsed in places. The rebels hoped that Spanish troops would soon land there as reinforcements. These were forlorn hopes indeed.

Elizabeth’s revenge was drawing ever nearer.

Advance elements of her ten-thousand-strong army reached the freezing banks of the River Tees on 16 December and the demoralised earls stood down their infantry and fled first to Hexham, then across the Scottish border, seeking sanctuary from their queen’s retribution. Cecil wrote to Sadler on Christmas Day, employing a contrived hunting analogy to describe the royalist forces’ pursuit of the fugitives:

The vermin flee into a foreign covert where I fear thieves and murderers will be their hosts and maintainers of our rebels until the hunters be gone and then they will pass [overseas].

Even now, there was optimism amongst England’s enemies that this flight was merely a timely strategic withdrawal. The Venetian ambassador in France, Alvise Contarini, reported as late as mid-January 1570 that the insurgents were marching on the border town of Berwick to establish a winter base there ‘and seeing that every day their forces continue to augment, they expect to be stronger . . . by the spring’.23 De Spes in London soon realised the bleak truth: ‘The Catholics are . . . ashamed that their enterprises should have turned out so vain . . . [They] are lost by bad guidance and although they are undertaken with impetus, they are not carried through with constancy,’ he admitted ruefully.

The brutal aftermath was that Northumberland was betrayed to the Earl of Moray and ignominiously handed over to the English authorities in return for £2,000 in coin. He was beheaded at York in 1572. Westmorland fled to the Spanish Netherlands and, his estates forfeited, survived only on hand-outs from Spain. Elizabeth jubilantly informed the French ambassador that she had completely defeated the rebels and pardoned the population in Yorkshire and Durham, claiming to ‘have always been of our own nature inclined to mercy’. But behind the polite language of diplomacy, she had demanded bloodshed and urged her generals to put to death, under martial law, any captured rebels. More than eight hundred were executed, mainly those ‘of the meanest sort’.

Sussex feared it was taking too long to hang the miscreants and dreaded that ‘the queen’s majesty will find cause [for] offence’. He told Bowes on 19 January that ‘the queen does much marvel . . . that she does not hear from me that the executions [are] not ended. Therefore I heartily pray you to expedition for I feel this lingering will breed [her] displeasure to us both.’ The scale of vengeance was such that Sir Thomas Gargrave suspected that these judicial killings ‘will leave many places naked and without inhabitants’. The fearful destruction visited upon the homes and property of the insurgents ensured that the economy of this part of England would not recover for almost two centuries.

The danger to the crown posed by Mary Queen of Scots may have been averted but Cecil knew it remained dormant and ever-present. Elizabeth’s cousin, Lord Hunsdon, lived up to his reputation for plain-speaking by warning her bluntly on 30 January 1570:

Assure yourself that if you do not take heed of that Scottish queen, she will put you in peril . . . for there are many practices [conspiracies] abroad.

As in much of the Vatican’s dealings with the Tudor monarchy, Pope Pius V acted too slowly to assist the abortive Catholic uprising. On 25 February 1570 he signed the papal bull Regnans in Excelsis, which excommunicated Elizabeth – ‘that servant of all iniquity’ – and deprived her of any ‘pretended right’ to the English throne that she had so ‘monstrously usurped’. This was not only a religious sanction but also a very personal attack. Pius carefully catalogued Elizabeth’s every sin in a veritable litany of heresy and cruelty. By ‘main force’ she had destroyed the true religion; oppressed ‘the professors of the Catholic faith’; compelled her subjects ‘to submit to her accursed laws to abhor the authority of the Roman pontiff and to acknowledge herself alone as mistress in both temporal and spiritual matters’. She had ‘cast many bishops and prelates into prison, where after many sufferings they had miserably perished’. Furthermore, Pius declared:

We command and interdict all and every one of her barons, subjects, people and others that they shall not dare to obey either her, or her laws and commandments, and he who shall do otherwise shall incur the same sentence of malediction.

So, in wielding his sword of anathema, the Pope had instructed Elizabeth’s Catholic subjects that to obey her or her laws would automatically invoke their own excommunication – ‘utter separation from the unity of the body of Christ’. With this admonition, the Holy Father had sown sedition in the green fields of England and made every English Catholic a potential traitor in the eyes of the queen’s ministers. Some, they reasoned, could become her assassins.

Publication of the bull was naturally prohibited in England but a few months later, a copy was cheekily nailed on to the garden gate of the Bishop of London’s home in St Paul’s churchyard in the small hours of the morning. The perpetrator was John Felton of Southwark, a prosperous Catholic gentleman whose wife had been a maid of honour to Mary I. Felton, a ‘man of little stature and of a black complexion’, was arrested within twenty-four hours, tortured, and executed near where he pinned up the felonious document. He reportedly cried out Jesus’ name when the public hangman held aloft his still beating heart, as the grim sentence meted out to traitors – hanging, drawing and quartering – was bloodily carried out.

New penal laws were passed in April 1570 to isolate and prosecute the religious zealots. The Second Treasons Act of Elizabeth’s reign broadened the crime of treason to encompass the ‘imagining, inventing, devising, or intending the death or destruction, or any bodily harm’ to the queen ‘or to deprive or depose her’ from the ‘style, honour or kingly name of the imperial crown of this realm’. It also became treasonous to claim that Elizabeth was ‘a heretic, schismatic, tyrant, infidel or a usurper of the crown’. A second Act of the same Parliamentary session criminalised the importation of papal bulls or ‘writings, instruments and other superstitious things from the See of Rome’. Non-attendance at church services was now viewed in more sinister light and regular worship according to Protestant rites became a test of loyalty.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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