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The American Nation: A History — Volume 1: European Background of American History, 1300-1600 By Edward Potts Cheyney Characters: 22627

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


England passed through the crisis of the Reformation without a civil war, yet no country of Europe found greater difficulty in coming to a religious equilibrium after that change. Though actual rebellion was nipped in the bud wherever it appeared, as in the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536 and in the Rising of the North of 1569, yet between those years, and long after the second rising, religious passions were embittered to the very verge of outbreak. In the early period of the Reformation changes were rapid and violent, and during more than a century and a half after Protestantism was established hostile legislation imposed heavy burdens upon all those who differed from the dominant party in religious faith.

When England became a colonizing country at the opening of the seventeenth century, the effect of the religious changes up to that time had been to produce four well-marked religious parties among her people-Churchmen, Catholics, Puritans, and Independents. First in order came the adherents of the established church, a church which was in a very real sense the creation of Queen Elizabeth and of her times- for all that had gone before was unstable and tentative, and might readily have been altered by a ruler of different character or policy. When Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1558 the great body of the people of England, from a religious point of view, was still a fluid mass, a sea accustomed to be drawn, like the tide, by the planet that ruled the sky, whether an Erastian Henry VIII., a Catholic Mary, or a Protestant Protector Somerset.

Elizabeth declared at her accession that she would not allow her people to swerve to the right hand or the left from the religion established by law; and in the main she succeeded in carrying out this policy. The prayer-book, the articles of religion, the supremacy of the queen, the uniformity of service, the practices and doctrines of the official English church during the long reign of Elizabeth, meant something very definite and made the established church an objective reality. Of course she learned, as other sovereigns have learned, that even the will of a king may break against the rock of religious conviction, and large numbers of the people of England during her reign remained, or became, dissatisfied with the established church.

Nevertheless, when Elizabeth died Anglicanism was the national church in a sense in which it had not been before, and in exactly the same sense as that in which the Roman Catholic church was the church of Spain. A generation had grown up which had seen no other religious system in authority, whose beliefs and duties were taught them by its clergy, and whose sentiments and devotion naturally gathered around it as their object. This religious system, therefore, was strongly intrenched: it had all the authoritativeness of law, all the sanction of patriotic feeling in a period of intense patriotism, and the support of much sound learning; besides, the church was fast becoming hallowed by tradition and beautified to the imagination by sentiment. Yet for various reasons the Anglican church failed to obtain the allegiance of the whole English nation.

The second of the four great religious classes, the Catholics, held allegiance to a still older and more imposing organization. However clear the argument of English churchmen that the Anglican body was the church founded by the apostles and enduring continuously in England through all the intervening centuries, the "old church" was still to many the church of which the pope was the earthly head. From the time that Henry VIII. attacked the supremacy of the pope and many of the characteristic doctrines and practices of the mediaeval church, a party separate from the national church came into being, which clung faithfully to that system.

The existence of the English Roman Catholics as a separate body from the established English church may be considered to date from the resignation of Sir Thomas More from the chancellorship in 1532. During the remainder of Henry's reign their position was equivocal and dangerous, a number of conspicuous Catholics accepting martyrdom under the laws against treason, when brought to the test of the acceptance or rejection of the king's claim to the headship of the English church. Under the enlightened rule of Somerset they were not persecuted, but under his successor, and under the personal rule of Edward VI., they fared much worse. [Footnote: Pollard, England Under Protector Somerset, 110-120, 258-264, 322] The time of consolation came under Queen Mary, when for a space of five years (1553-1558) the English church and English Catholicism again became identical.

Elizabeth on her accession had no antagonism to the Roman Catholics as such. Neither in doctrine nor in ceremonial was there any essential breach between Elizabeth and the Catholic church; and for a moment the world watched to see what her decision would be. [Footnote: Maitland, "Defender of the Faith" (Eng Hist Review, XV.,120).] Yet the nature of her position dictated to her a return to the ecclesiastical position of her father, and an acquiescence in the main results of the Protestant development under Edward VI. She accepted the requirements of the policy readily enough, and by the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity of 1559 [Footnote: I Eliz., chaps, i., ii. ] the English Catholics again became a proscribed body, living in disobedience to the law, subject to severe pains and penalties for any speech or action against the established church, and even for the negative offence of absence from its religious services.

The disabilities of the Catholics according to the laws passed at the opening of the reign of Elizabeth were as follows: 1. No Catholic could hold any office or employment under the crown, or any ecclesiastical office in England, or receive any university degree: for all such persons were required to take an oath renouncing the authority of the pope, and acknowledging the headship of the queen in ecclesiastical matters. [Footnote: Ibid., chap, ii., sub-section 19-25.] 2. No Catholic could attend mass: the service of the prayer-book being required at all meetings for worship in England. [Footnote: Ibid., chap, ii., sub-section 3-8.] 3. No Catholic could remain away from the regular services of the established church: as the law required that "all and every person and persons inhabiting within the realm or any other the queen's majesty's dominions shall diligently and faithfully, having no lawful or reasonable excuse to be absent, endeavor themselves to resort to their parish church or chapel accustomed … upon every Sunday and other days ordained and used to be kept as holy days, and then and there to abide orderly and soberly during the time of the common prayer, preachings, or other service of God there to be used and ministered." [Footnote: I Eliz., chap, ii., Section 14.] 4. No Catholic could speak, write, or circulate any arguments or appeals in favor of the ecclesiastical claims of the Catholic church or in derogation of the royal supremacy or of the prayer-book.

The penalties for violation of these laws varied from a fine of one shilling for absence from church on a Sunday or holy day to the terrible customary punishment for treason in the case of repeated conviction for supporting the claims of the pope. These fundamental disabilities remained in existence during the whole of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They were added to from time to time as the religious conflict in England, and in Europe at large, became more embittered; although, on the other hand, there were occasional periods when the exigencies of policy or the sympathies of the sovereign temporarily suspended their enforcement. They remained the fundamental law long after the Act of Toleration of 1689 made easy the burdens of other Nonconformists, and until the gradual progress of enlightenment in the eighteenth century led to a willing neglect to enforce them; and they disappeared only in 1829.

The tendency during the reign of Elizabeth was constantly towards an increase in the severity of the laws against "popish recusants," as those who refused to conform to the established church were called, and to greater rigor in their application. At four successive periods during that reign additions were made to the disabilities and sufferings imposed by law upon Roman Catholics.

1. An act of 1563 extended the lines of restriction so that the oath of supremacy must be taken by a much greater number of officials-by all school-masters, lawyers, and petty officers of court, and by all members of the House of Commons; and so that the first refusal of any person to take it, as well as the first occasion on which any one should in writing or speech support the claims of the pope, should be punished by confiscation and outlawry, the second offence by the penalties of treason. [Footnote: Eliz., chap. i.] 2. The difficulties of the Catholics were increased by the coming, in 1568, of Mary Queen of Scots to England, where she became a permanent centre of Catholic disaffection and hopes; by the Rebellion of the North in 1569; and by the papal bull of deposition of the queen in 1570. The laws at once reflected the anger and alarm of Parliament and ministers, and their care "for the surety and preservation of the queen's most royal person, in whom consisteth all the happiness and comfort of the whole state and subjects of the realm." [Footnote: 13 Eliz., chap, i., Section I.] From 1571 to 1575 four new treason laws, [Footnote: Ibid., chaps, i, ii.; 14 Eliz., chaps, i., ii.] directed against sympathizers with Mary and bringers of bulls from Rome, recall the savage legislation of Henry VIII. under somewhat similar circumstances.

3. A third series of additions to the anti-Catholic code was called out by the efforts of the Jesuits, from 1579 onward, to reconquer the heretical nations and especially England, for the church. Hence, in 1581, the mere attempt to convert any subject of the queen to Roman Catholicism, as well as the acceptance of such reconciliation with the church, was made treason; the saying or hearing of the mass was forbidden under penalty of heavy fine and long imprisonment; recusants who were absent from church a month at a time were fined 20 pounds a month for the length of time for which they stayed away; [Footnote: 23 Eliz., chap. i.] and by a later law the crown was allowed, in case of recusancy, instead of the fine, to seize two-thirds of the property of the offender. [Footnote: Ibid., chap. ii.]

Certain offences which Catholics might be especially expected to commit, such as "by setting or erecting any figure or by casting of nativities or by calculations or by any prophesying, witchcraft, conjuration, or other like unlawful means whatsoever, seek to know, and shall set forth by express words, deeds, or writings how long her majesty shall live, or who shall reign king or queen of this realm of England after her highness's decease," were made punishable by death and confiscation of goods. In 1585 all Jesuits and Catholic priests trained abroad were banished on pain of death, and all English subjects studying abroad in one of those Jesuit schools, which had already beco

me famous as the best schools in Christendom, were required to return to England immediately and take the oath of supremacy or suffer the penalties of treason.

4. Within the next few years came the execution of Mary, the war with Spain, the defeat of the Armada, and the definite passing of the crisis of Elizabeth's reign. Nevertheless, the year 1593 was marked by an "act against popish recusants," which required all English Catholics to remain within five miles of their homes, and provided for a still closer search for Jesuits and priests. [Footnote: 35 Eliz., chap. ii.]

Thus an augmenting body of oppressive law, in addition to their fundamental disabilities, burdened the English Catholics at the accession of James I. in 1603. That event they may well have looked forward to and welcomed with joy. James was the son of Mary of Scotland, for whom many of them had made such deep personal sacrifices and on whose account all had been made to suffer. He was known to be a man of moderate spirit, easy good-nature, and philosophic breadth of mind. Circumstances, by relieving England from the fear of invasion from Spain, and by establishing the Protestant succession, might be considered to have left the way open for the admission of a more generous and tolerant treatment of the Catholic minority. The king controlled the enforcement or the non-enforcement of the law; his word could put the machinery of the courts, high and low, into motion for purposes of persecution; or, on the other hand, could open the prison doors to those already incarcerated, and restrain the indictment of those amenable to the law. James might fairly be expected to have the will, as he undoubtedly had the power, to treat the Catholics with greater leniency.

On the other hand, parliamentary and popular antagonism to the Roman Catholics had to be contended with. Notwithstanding the legal supremacy and complete predominance of the Anglican church, there was still a wide-spread fear of the "usurped power and jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome"; and much patriotic hatred of the Catholic enemies of England and of their sympathizers within the realm. This national sentiment was strongly reinforced by the fanatical Puritan fervor of opposition to "the devilish positions and doctrines whereon popery is built and taught." The Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in which Catesby, Guy Fawkes, and other Catholic conspirators showed themselves ready to sacrifice the king, his family, his ministers, and members of Parliament, filled James for a while with fears for his own safety. If James, therefore, should favor the Catholics he must do so in opposition to the overwhelming public opinion of the people of England and to his own timidity. What would be his policy? Would the persecuted minority be taken under the protection of the crown? Or would their position remain as it had been for half a century, or even be made worse?

Upon the answer to this question depended the happiness or unhappiness of the Catholics in England and the likelihood or unlikelihood that many of them would emigrate. Should their position become intolerable, those who could would either take refuge in one of the Catholic states of the continent or find an asylum in those boundless lands claimed by England across the sea. The minds of men through all Europe were turning towards America, not only as a sphere for trade and a base for the fighting out of Old-World quarrels, [Footnote: Zuniga to the king of Spain, December 24, 1606, and September 22,1607, in Brown, Genesis of the United States, I., 88-90, 116-118.] but as a place of settlement for men who could not conform to their Old-World religious surroundings.

Before the reign of James was over Sir George Calvert obtained a charter for Avalon, in Newfoundland, the ambiguity of whose terms made it possible to take Catholic priests and settlers there; and in 1632 he received in exchange for this a charter for Maryland, under which Catholics held all official positions and Jesuit missionaries carried on their work. The British island of Montserrat, in the West Indies, appears to have been settled in 1634 by Catholic refugees from Virginia; [Footnote: Eggleston, Beginners of a Nation, 261, n. 9.] and there were other floating proposals to colonize English and Irish Catholics in America. [Footnote: Cal. of State Pap., 1628, p. 95.] It was evidently quite within the bounds of possibility that Catholic colonies should be established in those "other your highness's dominions," from which the House of Commons in 1623 especially petitioned that Romanists should be excluded. [Footnote: Rushworth, Historical Collections, I., 141.]

As a matter of fact, the policy of James and of his son and successor Charles towards the Catholics had little consistency, and shows an alternation of leniency and increased severity, reflecting the varying inclinations of the king and the changing exigencies of external and internal politics. During the first two years of his reign James lightened their burdens, in accordance with the promises of his first speech in Parliament, "so much as time, occasion, or law should permit." [Footnote: Prothero, Statutes and Constitutional Documents, 284.] The Gunpowder Plot then thoroughly frightened and angered the king and justified the House of Commons in its protests against leniency to the Catholics. In 1606 two long detailed statutes [Footnote: 3 and 4 James I., chaps. iv., v.] were enacted, carrying much further in principle the persecuting provisions of the law under Elizabeth, increasing the burdens upon the conscience, the purse, and the liberty of Catholics, and specifying the most minute arrangements for the enforcement of the law and the discovery of those who were secretly Romanists.

Before many years a change came, due principally to the interest of James in the scheme of obtaining a Spanish bride for his son, and to his increasing subserviency to Gondomar, the shrewd Spanish minister. The king of Spain would not listen to any negotiations for the hand of his sister, unless the persecution of his co-religionists in England was stopped; and James, in order to carry out his foreign policy, blinded by his admiration for the Spaniard, and always prone to follow the line of least resistance, promised what he certainly could not perform, the parliamentary repeal of the anti-Catholic laws.

Nevertheless, he performed what he could, and ordered the suspension of their enforcement. In 1622 the lord keeper of the privy seal wrote to the judges that "it is his majesty's pleasure that they make no niceness or difficulty to extend the princely favor to all such as they shall find prisoners in the jails of their circuits for any church recusancy or refusing the oath of supremacy or dispensing of popish books, or any other point of recusancy that shall concern religion only and not matters of state." [Footnote: Rushworth, Historical Collections, I., 63.] A vast number of Catholics were, in this year, released on bail or freed completely from prosecution. When the Spanish marriage negotiations failed, just before the close of the reign of James, Parliament again petitioned the king to enforce the old penal laws, at last with success; and a momentary wave of severity towards the Catholics spread over England.

Spain was not the only Catholic country with which England was in negotiation. The marriage of Charles with Henrietta Maria of France followed close upon his accession to the throne. The conditions of the marriage treaty called for greater leniency to the Catholics, and the influence of the queen secured it, though not in the degree promised. Yet on the whole the attitude of the crown and of the judges during the period from 1625 to 1640 was favorable to the Catholics; and although Laud was not plotting to hand over the English church to Rome, as was the popular belief, he was too sympathetic with the spirit of Roman Catholicism to put into force the savage laws against it which were upon the statute-book.

In 1640 Laud fell, the hand of the king was removed from the helm, and the domination of the Long Parliament and the protectorate for the next twenty years meant the bitter persecution of the Catholics; while the Restoration, in 1660, saw a partial toleration of them, preparatory to the Declaration of Indulgence and the active efforts of James II. in their favor twenty-five years later.

Through all this succession of alternately rigorous and lenient applications of the harsh laws of the statute-book, as a matter of fact few Catholics left England, and no American colony remained for any considerable length of time a Catholic community. The reasons for this result are not hard to find. In the first place, it may well be questioned whether the position of the Catholics in England was ever so bad as one would expect to find it from reading the laws and parliamentary proceedings. In all Tudor and Stuart legislation there was a wide chasm between the passage of the law and its enforcement; the statute-book is loaded with laws that were never carried out, or were put into force only to the most limited extent. The laws against the Catholics certainly remained largely unenforced.

Secondly, the English Catholics were never without hope of an amelioration of their state at home. The most natural time for a great Catholic exodus was in the later years of the reign of James I. and the early years of Charles I., when the foundations alike of Virginia and New England were being laid, and when Maryland was offering a basis on which either a Catholic or a Protestant community might presumably have been built up; but this was just the period when the influence of the crown was most consistently used in favor of the Catholics at home. They might fairly hope that a better day was dawning for them, when the powerful interposition of Spain and France was willingly accepted by James and Charles in their favor. The special time when emigration seemed most practicable was also the time when the occasion for it was least.

Again, it is to be noted that no American colony ever reached the position in which it could provide a positively secure refuge to Catholics. Maryland wavered from toleration to Catholicism, then to Anglicanism and to Puritanism, and then back to toleration; but never at any time was it a Catholic settlement in the sense in which Massachusetts belonged to the Puritans or Pennsylvania was the special home of the Quakers. English Catholics, hesitating between emigration and the further endurance of their ills at home, would feel no irresistible attraction in the dubious toleration of any of the colonies. [Footnote: Tyler, England in America, chaps, vii., viii.]

Lastly, it is to be noticed that the great proportion of the English Catholics were not of the emigrating classes. Many of them were of the nobility and gentry, and therefore not of the ordinary stuff of which colonists were made. It is quite possible that the same conservative tendencies which held them to the old church held them to their old homes. If they had been as easily detached from their native soil as the Puritans and Quakers, one cannot doubt that some great migration comparable to that of those two bodies would have taken place.

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