The papal attack on Elizabeth coincided with another plot to overthrow her. Within days of the Duke of Norfolk’s release in August 1570 from the Tower into house arrest at his London townhouse at the former Carthusian monastery in Charterhouse Square, he was reluctantly embroiled in a plot involving the Florentine double agent Roberto Ridolphi, who begged him to write to the Duke of Alba, to seek assistance for Mary Queen of Scots. She was still outwardly keen to wed Norfolk, encouraging him to escape on 31 January 1571 – ‘as she would do [herself], notwithstanding any danger’ – so that they could be swiftly married.

On 12 April, Charles Bailly, a young Fleming in her service, was arrested in the Channel port of Dover and found to be carrying seditious books from Catholic exiles. Two letters, ‘hid behind his back secretly’, were addressed to one of Mary’s agents, John Leslie, Bishop of Ross, and sent from Ridolphi, now safely living in Brussels. Under torture, Bailly admitted that the Italian had departed England on 25 March carrying Mary’s appeals to Alba, Philip and the Pope urging a Spanish invasion of England. A copy of the invasion plan had been lodged with Norfolk, together with a damning list of forty nobles, identified as Mary’s secret supporters. Alongside each name was a number, to be used in coded correspondence by the duke.

Ridolphi’s loquacious efforts to convince Alba to invade England fell on stony ground. During a somewhat one-sided conversation, he talked enthusiastically of how Spain should supply six thousand men equipped with twenty-five cannon to reinforce an English Catholic army (led by Norfolk) which would free Mary and seize Elizabeth. Alba was singularly unimpressed, reporting to Philip that Ridolphi was a ‘great babbler’ and had learned his lessons ‘parrot fashion’. A better strategy, he suggested, would be that Spanish military assistance should be provided only after the English Catholics had risen and when Elizabeth was already ‘dead . . . or else a prisoner’. He added: ‘We may tell [Norfolk] that these conditions being fulfilled, he shall have what he wants.’

Agents working for Cecil, now raised to the peerage as Lord Burghley, scoured Norfolk’s London home, Howard House, for evidence of his guilt, watched haughtily by a silent but fretful duke. Their search was soon successful: his codebook was discovered hidden under some roof tiles, and deciphered documents were found beneath a rug outside the duke’s bedchamber. Sir Ralph Sadler warned a ‘submissive’ Norfolk that for ‘his obstinate dealing and denial of his great faults, her majesty was sore offended . . . and had determined to use him more severely’.

The duke was duly returned to the Tower. As Norfolk sat desolately considering his fate, his retainers were questioned in less salubrious accommodation within the grim fortress. Old William Barker, one of the duke’s secretaries, was ‘three or four times examined but hitherto showed [himself] obstinate and a fool’, Sadler reported. Threatened with the terrors of the rack, Barker’s resistance and loyalty disappeared like snow melting in the sunshine. This hellish contraption was the first choice of torture in the sixteenth century to persuade obdurate prisoners to cooperate. It had two windlasses or capstans positioned at each end of a long wooden table, attached to chains and shackles for the victim’s arms and legs. Turning them agonisingly stretched and dislocated the limbs of those undergoing interrogation. The first Elizabethan rackmaster was Thomas Norton, a lawyer turned playwright and poet, nicknamed with Tudor black humour, ‘the pincher with pains’. He enjoyed his work and was later accused of leaving the Jesuit priest Alexander Briant ‘one good foot longer than ever God made him’ after a sess ion on the rack. The Spanish ambassador in London reported that it was also common practice to drive iron spikes between the fingernails and the quick – a torture that his countrymen imagined ‘would be employed by the Anti-Christ, as the most dreadfully cruel of all’.

No wonder that Barker talked, his words tumbling out in his anxiety to please his questioners. The old man revealed Ridolphi’s pie-in-the-sky plans for invasion: Spanish troops would land at Dumbarton in Scotland, at Leith, near Edinburgh, and at the Essex port of Harwich. Perhaps Scottish Protestants were going to taste Spanish Toledo steel as well as their English cousins.

Norfolk was doomed. Only the grim formalities of legal process stood between him and the scaffold. He was found guilty of treason by his peers at Westminster Hall on 16 January 1572, despite his claims of perjured evidence by his servants, and he was executed on Tower Hill on 2 June that year – mercifully with just one blow of the headsman’s axe. He had told the crowd around the scaffold:

I take God to witness, I am not, nor never was a Papist, since I knew what religion meant. I have never been addicted to Popery . . . but have always been averse from Popish doctrines . . . Yet, I cannot deny but that I have had amongst my servants and familiars some that have been addicted to Popish religion.

De Spes, the Spanish ambassador, was expelled from England after Elizabeth admonished him angrily that he was ‘secretly seek[ing] to inflame our realm with firebrands’.

Notwithstanding the vehemence of Pius V’s rhetoric, Elizabeth and her council were opposed to persecuting her Catholic subjects on the basis of their religion alone. Their policies drew a sharp distinction between the fanatical papist who worked assiduously to return England to Rome’s jurisdiction and those who secretly professed the Catholic faith and did not acknowledge the queen’s spiritual supremacy but remained passive, or at best neutral, about papal authority.

Despite this relatively moderate stance, by 1572, the substantial number of Catholics imprisoned in London was beginning to trouble Elizabeth’s Privy Council, which feared that hotbeds of Catholic disaffection were being created within the capital’s many gaols.45 Banishing obstinate recusants overseas would only provide unfettered opportunity for them to plot against queen and state. The solution was to establish what today we would recognise as internment camps to hold potential troublemakers at times of especial danger to the state. This plan, first tabled in March 1572, suggested the dilapidated Wisbech Castle, in the Isle of Ely, as a suitable prison. There Catholics could be confined under guard, and as Elizabeth was always reluctant to dip into her exchequer, they would have to pay for their own accommodation and food.

Internationally, England had now become a beleaguered Protestant bulwark off the coast of Europe. The Spanish reign of terror against Protestants in the Low Countries increased forebodings within Elizabeth’s government, which felt isolated and under constant threat from the Catholic powers. Her spies in the Netherlands reported that Alba was determined to assist English Catholics, and de la Mothe Fénelon, the French ambassador in London, believed Alba’s agent in the city was in constant touch with prominent Catholic families. More than fifty people within the royal court were said to be in his pay.

Catholic exiles were also actively working against Elizabeth, supported and encouraged by the governments that sheltered them. A Treatise of Treasons, published at Louvain (in modern-day Belgium) in 1572, declared that heresy alone was creating disorder in England and would eventually lead to the destruction of all civilisation there. As a riposte, Burghley’s proclamation of 1573 was the first to employ a palpable national threat as a means of appealing to the patriotism of Elizabeth’s subjects:

Certain obstinate and irrepentent traitors, after their notorious rebellion made against their native country, have fled out of the same and remained in foreign parts with the continual and wilful determination . . . to contrive all the mischief that they can imagine, to impeach and subvert the universal quietness and peace of this realm . . .

Some exiles were baffled why Spain had not yet attacked England to restore their faith. The Welshman Maurice Clenock, one of the colony in Louvain, explained their willingness to accept foreign invasion:

They are not to be listened to who would persuade us that the English cannot be forced under the yoke of foreign domination.

The oppression is so severe and grows still more severe daily that the confessors of the true faith hope for freedom from foreigners alone.

Better to attain eternal blessedness under a foreign lord than to be cast into the nethermost hell by an enemy at home.

His eagerness for an invasion was probably atypical among English Catholics. Although they sought foreign assistance in their cause, most remained suspicious of the motives in providing such help. Niccolò Ormanteo, Papal Nuncio to Spain, acknowledged that they ‘refuse all aid from abroad which might bring them under subjection, but desire only just sufficient for the overthrow of their selfstyled queen and for replacing her by the other one from Scotland’.

An embittered memorandum in the Vatican archives, written in September 1570, probably by an exile living in Brussels, illustrates graphically both their consuming hatred for Elizabeth and the resentful frustration of a lost existence amongst strangers in a lonely foreign land:

Verily, she is the whore depicted in the Apocalypse with the wine of whose prostitution the kings of the earth are drunk.

Seeing that meanwhile she is drunk with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus, significant indeed is the figure of that whore and yet more confirmed in that belief would they be who knew that in the time of Queen Mary of happy memory, she would have lost her life for complicity of treason, but that one of the chief nobles of the land intervened to save it.

Therefore, seeing that Elizabeth is now of evil odour – not only with God but also with men – we demand . . . that Catholic princes cease to accord her regal honour.

How shameful it is that princes so great should be afraid of a heretical and excommunicated woman . . .

Sometimes, the long arm of Elizabeth’s intelligence network could reach out and strike at these Catholic fugitives. An easy target was Dr John Story, Regius Professor of Canon Law at Oxford, who had used his home in Greyfriars, London, to interrogate Protestant suspects during Mary’s short reign. According to the evangelical polemicist John Foxe, Story boasted in 1555 that ‘there has been yet never one burnt but I have spoken with and have been a cause of his dispatch’. He escaped from the Marshalsea gaol and fled to Flanders in 1563, renounced his allegiance to Elizabeth and served as a customs officer in the Spanish Netherlands, receiving a pension from Philip. In 1570, he was lured by English agents on to a ship in Antwerp harbour and was landed at the Norfolk port of Great Yarmouth. At his trial in May 1571 he faced charges of high treason for supporting the 1569 rebellion and encouraging a Spanish invasion. Story claimed he was now a Spanish subject, citing the Biblical precedent: ‘God commanded Abraham to go forth from the land and country where he was born, from his friends and kinfolks into another country.’ He had followed the prophet’s example to allay his conscience and ‘so forsake his country and the laws of this realm . . .’ ‘Every man is born free,’ Story declared, ‘and he has the whole face of the earth before him to dwell and abide in where he likes best.’56 Vengeance was not to be denied. His plea was rejected and he was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 1 June 1571.

Burghley also tried to discourage those considering fleeing the country by introducing legislation to confiscate their property. The Fugitives Act of 1571 declared that any subject who departed England without licence and did not return within six months would forfeit the profits from their property, as well as losing their goods and chattels. But no legislation can quench the fire of religious faith. By 1575, there was a two-hundred-strong company of exiles, commanded by an English captain, in the Spanish army in the Netherlands, all of whom had sworn allegiance to Philip. Their ranks were later swelled by Irish and Scottish Catholics.

Another, more single-minded opponent of the Catholic cause in England now began to manipulate events. On 20 December 1573, Sir Francis Walsingham was appointed joint principal secretary of state with Burghley, who was also lord treasurer. As a devout and radical Protestant he, like around a thousand others, had fled England after Mary’s accession to the throne, fearing persecution. Elizabeth, whose own Protestant beliefs were insipid by comparison, believed him a ‘rank puritan’ and sometimes unfairly castigated him for caring more for his fellow evangelicals than he did for England. The queen nicknamed him her ‘dark Moor’ because of his swarthy, brooding appearance.

She had little grasp of what febrile nightmares haunted him. As English ambassador to the French court, he had been a horrified witness to the terrors of the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of Huguenots in Paris on Sunday 24 August 1572. More than three thousand Protestants were shot or hacked to death by a Catholic mob and disciplined troops of soldiers in a carefully planned pogrom that began at dawn. The carnage continued into October with seventy thousand killed in Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lyons, Rouen and Orléans. So many corpses floated in the Rhône at Lyons that the river water was not drunk for three months.

Walsingham, together with a number of terrified fugitives, was besieged in his residency in the quai des Bernardins in Faubourg St Germain. The Huguenot general François de Beauvais was dragged out of the building and lynched by the Parisians. Eventually the ambassador was granted protection by soldiers sent by the French king Charles IX and he managed to smuggle his wife and four-year-old daughter safely out of the city.

In Rome, a new Pope, Gregory XIII, triumphantly called for public rejoicing and had a Te Deum sung to celebrate this famous victory over the heretics. He struck a medal to commemorate the event with an image on its reverse of an avenging angel, armed with a cross and drawn sword, slaying the Huguenots. Giorgio Vasari was commissioned to paint three frescoes portraying the destruction of the Protestants on the south wall of the Vatican’s Sala Regia state reception room, an antechamber to the Sistine Chapel.

Given Walsingham’s harrowing experience, it was predictable that after his appointment there would be strenuous efforts by Elizabeth’s government to punish Catholic recusants. Their arrests and punishments increased by leaps and bounds.

In addition to his role as secretary of state, Walsingham served as the queen’s spymaster. He created an astonishing organisation for covert action against enemies of the state, as well as for counter-intelligence and espionage. He also established a network of informers to defeat domestic threats.

But all these efforts failed to suppress recusancy in England, now bolstered and succoured by a succession of singularly brave seminary priests, smuggled into the realm to shore up the harassed faithful.

The first to be captured was Father Cuthbert Mayne, arrested on 8 June 1577 in Probus, Cornwall.68 Papers found on him declared that if

any Catholic prince took in hand to invade any realm to reform the same to the authority of the See of Rome that the Catholics in that realm should be ready to assist and help them.

Many more priests followed him to the traitor’s scaffold after being betrayed by Walsingham’s agents or hunted down by his questing pursuivants in the narrow, stinking streets of London or in cramped, cunningly disguised hiding places in country houses.

That same month, the new Bishop of London, John Aylmer, wrote to the secretary, warning that Catholicism was enjoying a worrying resurgence; he and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edmund Grindal, had received complaints from their brother bishops that ‘the Papists do marvellously increase, both in number and in [the] obstinate withdrawing of themselves from the Church and service of God’.

Perhaps religious indoctrination would stem this Romish tide flooding across England? A group of recusants were taken to York Cathedral in August 1580 where they were exhorted to ‘forsake your vain and erroneous opinions of Popery and conform yourself with all dutiful obedience to [the] true religion now established’. This appeal was rudely ignored and the prisoners tried to avoid listening by holding their hands over their ears and coughing loudly. After refusing to recite the Lord’s Prayer in English, they were packed off to York Castle.

It was increasingly apparent that measures to counter Catholicism were failing signally. On 18 March 1581, an Act to ‘retain the Queen’s Majesty’s subjects in their due Obedience’ was passed that imposed punitive fines of £20 per month on those not attending divine service, limits on their travel and on communicating with other Catholics. Stunned and traumatised Catholics offered Elizabeth the gigantic bribe of 150,000 crowns (£37,500, or more than £95 million in 2013 spending power) to drop the legislation. She refused. The new Spanish ambassador in London, Bernardino de Mendoza, warned that ‘it was evident to them that God is about to punish them with greater calamities and persecutions than ever’. He feared the legislation would ‘root out the Catholic religion in this country’ and passed on their pleas to Philip ‘as buttress and defender of the Catholic Church, humbly beseeching you to turn your eyes upon their affliction and to succour them until God should complete their liberation’. Specifically, they wanted the Spanish king to use his good offices to ensure the appointment of an English Cardinal in Rome:

They seek the notification to his Holiness of the great importance in order to prevent the vile weed of heresy from quite choking the good seed sown here by the seminarists), that an English cardinal should be appointed.

In the spring of 1582, Walsingham considered a novel plan to transport recusants to a new colony in North America, thousands of miles away from the dangers they posed to England or the welcoming arms of a Catholic Europe. In our terms, this seems almost as outlandish as sending Catholics to the moon, given just how little known the American continent was then. But for Walsingham, the plan was the ideal solution to many of Elizabethan England’s domestic and international ills. Doubtless, he cynically believed that if they did not drown during the perilous transatlantic voyage, it would be only a matter of time before native Americans, disease or starvation would kill them all off.

Paradoxically, this proposal for a Catholic homeland in Florida seemingly emanated from Sir George Peckham, a Buckinghamshire squire who had been imprisoned in the winter of 1580–1 for distributing alms to jailed Catholics in London, and Sir Thomas Gerard, a notorious papist who had been an unhappy guest of her majesty for a botched attempt to free Mary Queen of Scots. However, Walsingham undoubtedly masterminded the plan. It can surely be no coincidence that Sir Philip Sidney, who sought to marry Walsingham’s sixteen-year-old daughter Frances, had valuable rights to lands in America and Sidney sold these to Peckham in July 1583, providing the cash to pay off some of his debts and allow the marriage to go ahead that September. The acceptable face of the expedition was supplied by the forty-four-year-old adventurer Sir Humphrey Gilbert (half-brother to Sir Walter Raleigh), who had earlier requested a royal licence for a voyage of discovery to the other side of the Atlantic.

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