Elizabethan England - The Age of Treason
History is alive in each one of us. The aggregation of all that we collectively, and individually
have been, is our History.
In the flow of time there are moments when individuality is enhanced. Those moments throw
up the remarkable, the defining moments, the very course by which we define our cultural
development. Often they are moments when the flow of time seems to enter a narrow gorge,
before opening out into a torrent of change. England in the 1590’s and early 1600’s is just
such a moment.
It is a time that has given us stability, and chaos in one. A time that has given us great
advances in physics, chemistry, medicine and the very physical definition of the world in which
we live. It is a time that has given us the words of Shakespeare and Marlowe, and a time that
has given us personalities who have long since been woven into the tapestry of who we are - Ralegh, Essex,
Drake, Donne and Bacon. But it was also a time that brought conflict and violent religious turmoil. It was
a time when Elizabeth and James I succeeded in galvanizing the very faith of a nation, against
a backlash of insurgency, recusancy and calls for religious freedom. It was thus a time that
not only nurtured treason, but provoked it, fueled it, and all too often manufactured it.
The seeds of discontent at the treatment of Catholics in England, which ultimately led to the
failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605, were first sown in the late 1520s during the reign of Henry VIII. Henry
had been declared Defender of the Faith by the pope and had written tracts against Protestantism.
However, dissatisfied with the Pope's refusal to grant him a divorce from his first wife Catherine of
Aragon, Henry broke away from the See of Rome, extinguished all papal power in England, and executed
his investiture as the head of the Church of England. This was followed by the methodical Dissolution
of the Monasteries, under the supervision of Thomas Cromwell, which aided the English war chest and
was instrumental in eroding the English power of the Catholic Church. Henry's Church of England was
initially not Protestant, but remained closer to his traditional belief of Catholicism.
In the turbulent years that followed Henry’s death, England swayed back and forth on a theological
pendulum. Henry's successor, his son Edward VI, steered the Anglican Church down the path of
Protestantism, whereas his sister "Bloody" Mary I attempted to violently restore England to
Catholicism through severe Protestant persecution, until Elizabeth I ascended the throne in 1558,
when the tide was again reversed.
Fearful of a now encroaching Catholic Europe, Elizabeth embarked upon a systematic course of
repression and persecution of Catholics within her own country, in an attempt to ensure that there was
no discontented populace which could assist a foreign invasion, or which could be seen as a beacon if
a foreign invasion occurred. When the Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588, Elizabeth had all but
extinguished the hopes for an end to persecution of those Catholics in England who saw Spain as their
great ally. The previous year she had had her rival, the deposed and imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots,
executed in order to prevent underground Catholic cells rallying to Mary’s cause and attempting to
depose Elizabeth. Such activities as this had been only too evident in the Babington Plot of 1586
which uncovered Mary's coveting of the English crown and which was subsequently a main reason for her
eventual execution. Mary's claim to the English throne came through her grandmother Margaret Tudor,
Henry VIII's eldest sister, who had married James IV of Scotland.
When Elizabeth succeeded to the throne, there was disagreement about her right to follow Mary I.
Elizabeth's mother Anne Boleyn, was according to some, not legally married, because Henry's divorce
from Catherine of Aragon was not legal as it would not be ratified by the Pope (the reason Henry broke
away from the Catholic Church). So, upon Anne Boleyn's execution for treason, Elizabeth was separately
declared a bastard, then removed from the succession by an act of the Privy Council. However, Henry
placed her back in the succession, but never legitimized her.
Towards the end of Elizabeth's reign, the Catholic strongholds in the north of England, who had
been instrumental in the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536/37 and the Norfolk and Northern Uprising of 1569,
began sending envoys to both Phillip II of Spain and James VI of Scotland (the son of Mary Queen of
Scots). It had become illegal to talk of the succession, yet James was commonly seen as Elizabeth's
heir by both Protestants and Catholics, by virtue of closeness of blood to Henry VIII.
The Essex Rebellion of 1601 brought the names of many of those who were at the forefront of the
Catholic cause to the attention of the Government, including that of Robert Catesby, who was later to
become the leader of the Gunpowder Plot. The Catholics, relieved at the prospect that the son of a
Catholic monarch had seemingly been guranteed the throne after Elizabeth's death, had acquired from
James the promise of toleration in the event that he did succeed Elizabeth. However, their embassies
to Spain, dubbed the Spanish Treason, had been met with a lukewarm response by the Spanish Government,
and in fact England and Spain signed a peace treaty soon after the last of these embassies had
When James eventually succeeded Elizabeth in 1603 as James I, there was initial celebration by the
Catholic leaders, who under Elizabeth had been persecuted to such an extreme that any sign of Catholic
sympathy risked the severest of penalties, including death. James, however, was not to be their
saviour. No sooner had the Hampton Court Conference ended -- with no compromise being given to either
the Puritan faction or the Catholics -- than James re-introduced the harsh penalties for recusancy.
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The individual biographies of the conspirators provide detailed accounts of the formulation and failure
of the Gunpowder Plot. Please also resd through the Archives section
to read transcripts of letters, interrogations and confessions.