The Elizabethan Settlement
(1558 - 1570)
At Mary Tudor's funeral the Bishop of Winchester lamented that 'the wolves be coming out of Geneva and other places of Germany and have sent their books before, full of pestilent doctrines, blasphemy and heresy to infect the people.' Indeed Sir Francis Knollys of Greys Court had already returned from Strasbourg to become a member of the new Queen's Privy Council. He and the other returning Protestant exiles put considerable pressure on Elizabeth to set up a national Protestant church, on the lines of the Reformed churches of Switzerland.
In April 1559 a new Act of Supremacy declared the Queen to be Supreme Governor of spiritual matters in England. An Oath of Supremacy could now be demanded of holders of public or church office, and anyone taking a degree. (From 1563 the oath was extended to schoolmasters.) Penalties were introduced for those who supported the Pope's jurisdiction in England. A first offence against the Act of Supremacy could mean loss of all goods and movable possessions. A second offence could result in life imprisonment and loss of all real estate. A third offence was regarded as high treason and could carry the death penalty.
A new Act of Uniformity, also passed in April 1559, introduced heavy penalties for those who refused to conform to Anglicanism. Failure to attend the new Sunday service could attract a fine of one shilling (= £6 today). This was two or three days pay for many of the Queen's lowlier subjects. An alternative punishment was excommunication from the Church of England and a consequent loss of civil rights.
Attending the Catholic Mass could attract colossal fines of 100 marks for the first offence (= £8,250 today). A second offence quadrupled the fine. Offending a third time could mean life imprisonment and the loss of all goods. The same punishments were threatened against those who criticised the Book of Common Prayer. Anyone assisting at Mass was liable to six months imprisonment for the first offence, a year for the second, and life for the third.
Sir Francis Englefield of Englefield House, having been one of Queen Mary's most loyal councillors, found it impossible to reconcile himself to the new religious situation established by the legislation of April 1559. Queen Elizabeth therefore promptly granted him a licence to live abroad for two years, provided that he did not reside in Rome. Leaving his wife Catherine in Berkshire, Sir Francis set out with eight servants, 600 ounces of plate and 100 marks (= £8,250 today). He spent the summer in Louvain, Flanders, then travelled via Paris to Italy. He was never to see England again.
In 1563, four years after the introduction of the new Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity, the Convocation of Clergy issued the Thirty-Nine Articles, summarising the dogmas of the Anglican Church. These included declarations that the 'Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England' and that Masses offered for the souls of the living and dead were 'blasphemous fables, and dangerous deceits.'
Now, once again, the parishes were put to the expense of modifying the interiors of their churches. At Pyrton in the year of the new Act of Uniformity a copy of the Book of Common Prayer was purchased and the altar was again demolished to make way for a Communion table. Within three years the rood loft had been pulled down. At Wantage's parish church the heavy altar stone was placed under the church steps where it stayed until found during nineteenth century renovations. Was it carefully hidden away for the day when Catholicism might return, or was it merely used as a piece of salvaged stonework to help support the church steps?
Shortly after the new religious legislation was passed, Archbishop Nicholas Heath, as acting head of the Catholic Church in England, stated that 'There is nothing to be done, but everything to endure, whatsoever God may will.' Archbishop Heath was not prepared to take any action against the national interest, but neither would he associate himself with the new state church. Nor would the other English Catholic bishops. Some had gone along with Protestantism in the past, but now the issues were clearer. They were no longer prepared to compromise.
Most were old men and were treated reasonably well by the authorities. Some were jailed for a while and almost all were placed under house arrest, or put in the custody of a new Anglican bishop. Before long several were dead, including Bishop James Brooks of Gloucester, the former rector of East Hendred, who died in jail. Three of the bishops eventually escaped to the Continent.
Archbishop Heath spent three years in the Tower of London but was then allowed to retire to his house in Surrey, just three miles from the Berkshire border. This was Chobham Park, bought from Queen Mary in the last summer of her reign for the huge sum of £3,000 (= £400,000 today).
Elizabeth's religious legislation of 1559 did not result in an immediate formal break with Rome. For another two years the Pope continued to send Papal ambassadors (nuncios) to Elizabeth's court, but she refused to receive them.
While Rome adopted a 'softly, softly' approach, and the Catholic bishops steadfastly refused to co-operate with the Anglican Church, the country's 8,000 parish clergy were placed in a difficult position. Most were poorly paid and not particularly well-educated. The new Act of Uniformity put them under immense pressure. If they refused to use the Book of Common Prayer they stood to lose a year's income and be jailed for six months. For a second offence they could lose their jobs and be jailed for a year. A third offence could mean life imprisonment. It seems that only about 300 clergy, less than 4 per cent of the total, were dismissed for refusing to conform. But many continued to celebrate the Catholic Mass in secret.
There was considerable resistance to the new religious legislation at Oxford University and a number of heads of colleges were dismissed for refusing to conform. It was said that fewer than one in twenty Oxford men would take the Oath of Supremacy in the early days of Elizabeth's reign. John Jewel, the Anglican Bishop of Salisbury, advised against sending any Protestant youth to Oxford, so strong was Catholic influence there. And the Mayor of Oxford reported that not three houses in the city were without papists.
However, by the mid 1560s the pressures on Oxford Catholics were considerable. It seems that some may have found the pressures too much to bear. John Hanington, a philosophy graduate, came from the Hampshire village of Tadley (9 miles ESE of Newbury). John Plunkeney, a law student, came from Forest Hill (4 miles ENE of Oxford). Both were Catholics and both were found drowned, Hanington in Italy, Plunkeney at Oxford.
Some Catholic scholars from Oxford, together with others from Cambridge, emigrated to Flanders. Their main base was Louvain, from where the Catholic case was argued by means of pamphlets and books smuggled into England.
Perhaps the most notable of those who emigrated from Oxford at this time was William Allen. A Lancastrian, Allen was Principal and Proctor of St Mary's Hall, Oxford. Shortly after the accession of Elizabeth I, he resigned rather than take the Oath of Supremacy. In 1561 he joined the exiles in Louvain. The following year he returned to England. Using Oxford as his base he spent two and a half years roaming the countryside arguing the Catholic case and boosting Catholic morale before returning to Flanders.
Despite all the legal difficulties placed in their way, some Thames Valley Catholics still managed to achieve or retain high office under Queen Elizabeth. Sir Leonard Chamberlain of Shirburn Castle, himself a former Lieutenant of the Tower, retained his position as Governor of Guernsey. He died about two years into Elizabeth's reign and was succeeded by his eldest son Francis. At about the same time Sir Leonard's second son, George Chamberlain, was granted Alderney. George subsequently went into exile in Ghent, Flanders but his family were allowed to retain their rights over the island. In 1562 John Eyston of East Hendred, who had sought the dispensation to marry from Cardinal Pole, was appointed official land confiscator of Oxfordshire and Berkshire.
Shirburn Castle seen from the churchyard
Part of the parish church is on the left. The grey battlements of the castle are in the centre. The nearer buildings are separated from the castle by the moat.
During Elizabethan times many lawyers were Catholic. In those days landowners often trained as lawyers to gain estate management skills. The Middle Temple, one of the London Inns of Court, was said to be 'pestered with papists', a number of whom were Thames Valley Catholics. The most notable was Edmund Plowden, 'the greatest and most honest lawyer of his age', who was appointed Treasurer of the Inn, despite being a Catholic.
Edmund Plowden had many landed interests in the Thames Valley area and was involved in the running of a number of other people's estates. He was estate manager for his half-brother William Wollascott of Tidmarsh manor (1½ miles NNE of Englefield House) who held the Shalford estate comprising much of the Kennet Valley between Newbury and Reading, including Brimpton, Midgham, Padworth and Woolhampton. Under Elizabeth, Plowden himself acquired the Wokefield estate between Burghfield and Stratfield Mortimer, and neighbouring land at Stratfield Mortimer, Sulhamstead Bannister and Burghfield.
But while Edmund Plowden continued to prosper, his exiled former employer Sir Francis Englefield was now in trouble with the authorities. Sir Francis had failed to return when his travel permit expired. This led to the loss of his lease on the manor of Pangbourne, including Bere Court. He also lost Whitley Park, Reading of which he had been master of game and keeper of the park and lodge. (A remnant of Whitley Park existed until the nineteenth century between the Basingstoke, Christchurch and Shinfield Roads.)
In the spring of 1565 Sir Francis Englefield was named as patron of the new Anglican Vicar of Shiplake (between Reading and Henley) where he held the rectory, Shiplake Court. But that autumn he was outlawed for high treason, allegedly committed by consorting with the Queen's enemies at Namur in the Spanish Netherlands. His vast estates were sequestrated and £300 a year (= £36,000 today) of their revenue diverted to the Treasury. The rest of the estate income was frozen. Sir Francis Englefield subsequently entered the service of the Spanish as adviser to the Duke of Alva, Stadtholder of the Netherlands.
An alabaster monument erected in 1605 in Englefield parish church to John Englefield and family
It is impossible to know how many of the population remained Catholic at this time. The majority of those who had reached their mid-thirties had been brought up as Catholics. But the religious changes of the previous quarter century had left many confused or indifferent about religion. It is certain that committed Catholics were by now a minority. However, there were many people who were sympathetic to Catholicism but deterred from actively supporting it by the threat of fines, imprisonment, confiscations, loss of livelihood and social rejection.
To add to the confusion, most Catholics were uncertain as to the nature of their relationship with the new state church. Many, while continuing as best they could to practise the old faith in private, regularly attended Anglican services, thus avoiding the penalties for non-attendance. Such Catholics were often referred to as 'church papists'. Catholic opinion was divided about attending Anglican services. Some thought it was permissible if done solely in obedience to the Queen. Others, including William Allen, invoked canon law, which stated that attendance was a grave sin.
And what were Catholics to make of the Anglican clergy? Most were the same men who had, until recently, been their Catholic parish priests. Such men were undoubtedly validly ordained in Catholic eyes. Many were to varying degrees reluctant members of the Church of England, and a significant number continued to celebrate the Catholic Mass in private. And there had still been no official papal condemnation of the Anglican Church.
The religious tensions of the time often divided families. For the ambitious it was a great temptation to conform to Anglicanism. The Fortescue family provides an example with local connections.
The eldest son of the martyred Sir Adrian Fortescue of Brightwell Baldwin, Sir John Fortescue, conformed to Anglicanism. On Elizabeth's accession he was appointed Master of the Great Wardrobe. In 1589 he became Chancellor of the Exchequer and Under Treasurer, and joined the Privy Council. He was further rewarded in 1601 when he was made Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Sir John's youngest brother Sir Anthony, who had been Comptroller of Cardinal Pole's household, remained a Catholic. Early in Elizabeth's reign he became involved in a ludicrous plot against her and consequently was imprisoned for seventeen years.
In the spring of 1568 Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, fled from Scotland seeking refuge with her cousin Elizabeth, who had offered her asylum. Sir Francis Knollys of Greys Court was then Elizabeth's Vice-Chamberlain and was sent to Carlisle to take custody of Mary. Knollys described her as 'a notable woman' who 'thirsteth after victory'. She was considered too dangerous to set free in England.
In the autumn of the following year the Rising in the North broke out. The Catholic northern earls intended replacing Elizabeth with Mary Stuart. But even in areas of the North where the majority of people remained Catholic, only a small number actively supported the rebels.
In Oxford all the young men related to the rebels were ordered to be 'stayed'. The Sheriff and magistrates of Berkshire were ordered to meet at Abingdon and sign a document confirming their conformity to Anglicanism. A former justice of the peace, John Yate, failed to appear. Instead he sent a letter of excuse and his bond. This John Yate was probably the lawyer who jointly held Faringdon manor with Sir Francis Englefield, and who had been excommunicated by the Church of England. Five years earlier Bishop Jewel of Salisbury had complained that Yate had 'never yet received Holy Communion since the beginning of the Queen's reign'.
Edmund Plowden was the only one present at the Abingdon meeting who refused to sign the declaration of conformity to Anglicanism. He was given a week to think the matter over. At a second meeting, held at Reading, he declared that, although he had regularly attended Anglican services since they were introduced, he would not sign the document confirming his conformity to Anglicanism. He was therefore bound over to keep the peace for a year and put on notice that he must appear before the Privy Council when summoned.
Two months later the Pope received garbled, out-of-date reports that a large army had risen to support the Catholic cause and that English public opinion favoured rapid reunion with Rome. In February 1570 the Pope therefore issued the Bull 'Regnans in Excelsis'. This edict finally and formally acknowledged that Elizabeth had parted company with Rome. It described her as the 'Servant of Wickedness' and declared her to be a heretic. It excommunicated her and her followers. But most importantly it declared her to be 'deprived of her pretended Title' of Queen and absolved all her subjects from any allegiance to her, commanding them not to obey her or her laws. Any Catholic not obeying this instruction was to be considered excommunicated.
The content, timing and tone of the Bull came as a bombshell. Even Mary Tudor's widower, Philip II of Spain, described the Pope as allowing himself 'to be carried away by his zeal'. Philip forecast that 'this sudden and unexpected step will ... drive the Queen and her friends the more to oppress and persecute the few good Catholics still remaining in England.'
It was an accurate prediction.