One of the frustrating things about a visit to England is the persistence of Protestant propaganda about King Henry VIII and his daughter, Elizabeth I. During our recent pilgrimage with Joseph Pearce our fellow pilgrims noticed time and again how information boards and brochures portrayed Henry and Elizabeth in a positive light. Their splendid portraits shone with a glossy sheen. Henry was “the charismatic young king who brought England into the modern age.” While Elizabeth was the “much loved monarch who united her country against the threat of the Catholic superpower Spain.”
It would seem the researchers of leaflets and tourist information panels adopt the easy establishment line which continues to be pumped out in television series like Wolf Hall or the two Elizabeth fantasies starring Cate Blanchett. Henry VIII is a hearty knee slapping, beef eating, wench slapping no-nonsense Englishman while his daughter is “The Virgin Queen” or “Good Queen Bess.” Never mind the latest historical work of Eamonn Duffy, Jack Scarisbrick, Christopher Haigh and others. The myth must multiply. The propaganda must be propagated.
David Starkey’s biography of Elizabeth’s early years and rise to power portrays a shrewd and careful operator—a cautious and generous woman who did at first, seemed to want a genuinely liberal religious regime. All that changed once she was excommunicated, and the powers of France, Spain and the papacy rallied against her. Threatened on her throne, Elizabeth was surrounded by enemies. The Pope tried to depose her. Philip of Spain tried to invade, and the French were constantly plotting to overthrow her—believing her to be a heretic bastard and usurper.
Elizabeth didn’t make things easier by refusing to marry and establish a dynasty or even name her successor. Even on her deathbed the seventy year old monarch refused to name James of Scotland as her heir. Consequently, internal security was dependent on her survival and that survival was threatened by a string of real and imagined conspiracies and assassination plots. Many of these conspiracies sought to replace Elizabeth with the Catholic Mary Stuart, the Scottish queen who had taken refuge in England after her forced flight and abdication in 1568.
The English Catholics who had taken refuge on the continent were among the chief conspirators. Idealistic young Englishmen trained for the priesthood at newly created seminaries in Douai and Rome. While they professed to a purely pastoral mission their expatriate leader, William Allen loudly supported the Pope’s deposition of Elizabeth and Philip of Spain’s invasion plans.
Confronted by these threats, Elizabeth’s men set up a harsh plan of counter-terrorism. If the pope and the Catholic monarchs were her enemies, then so were all Catholics. Legislation against treason was extended to catch not just those who questioned Elizabeth’s legitimacy, but all missionary priests and those who sheltered them. Torture was not supposed to be permitted, but they devised special laws to justify its use to gather information from captured Catholic priests. After torture, the standard penalty for traitors was to be hanged, cut down when still alive, castrated, disembowelled and dismembered. Over 100 Catholic priests suffered this fate. Their fate was horrible and their heroism was historic.
The gruesome example had been started by Elizabeth’s father. The first to die so terribly was the Carthusian abbot John Houghton. From his own cell in the Tower of London Thomas More saw Houghton and two others being dragged to Tyburn on hurdles and exclaimed to his daughter: “Look, Meg! These blessed Fathers be now as cheerfully going to their deaths as bridegrooms to their marriage!” Still alive when the executioner grasped his still beating heart, Houghton cried out, “Dear Lord Jesus, what will you do with my heart?”
During the persecutions the priests operated under aliases and in disguise—which of course only made them appear that much more guilty when accused of being spies. To counter act their courage Elizabeth’s councillors Burghley and Walsingham created a network of spies, informers and agents provocateurs. Their work was complemented by the private torture chamber of the sadistic rapist Richard Topcliffe.
What I have never understood is why Elizabeth did not avoid all the difficulties and simply maintain the Catholic faith that her half-sister Mary had re-established. She could have legitimized her claim to the throne through a marriage to Philip of Spain or a French Catholic prince. She could have won the hearts of her people who were still much more in favor of the old Catholic faith, and if she had borne children would have established security during her reign and secure dynasty. She chose not to, and the only reason one must assume, is that she did not wish to share her throne with anyone—especially a powerful husband.
Her intransigence brought about continued insecurity in England and division in war-torn Europe. It necessitated the murder of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, and kept her country on a knife edge of religious strife, immanent civil war and the threat of external invasion.
The final irony is that she now lies in the Anglican Westminster Abbey between the two Catholic Marys who were her rivals. She is buried in the same tomb with her half-sister, and her successor James I exhumed the body of his mother, Mary Queen of Scots and re-buried her in a tomb that is even grander than that of Elizabeth.
For indiscriminating fans of popular history she might still be the red-haired, haughty monarch—the proud and popular Protestant queen, “with the heart and stomach of a king” but for many others she remains the true daughter of her father—a stubborn, cruel and heartless tyrant.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.