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By What Authority? By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 13736

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

The conflict between the Old Faith and the lusty young Nation went steadily forward after the Jesuit invasion; more and more priests poured into England; more and more were banished, imprisoned and put to death. The advent of Father Holt, the Jesuit, to Scotland in 1583 was a signal for a new outburst of Catholic feeling, which manifested itself not only in greater devotion to Religion, but, among the ill-instructed and impatient, in very questionable proceedings. In fact, from this time onward the Catholic cause suffered greatly from the division of its supporters into two groups; the religious and the political, as they may be named. The former entirely repudiated any desire or willingness to meddle with civil matters; its members desired to be both Catholics and Englishmen; serving the Pope in matters of Faith and Elizabeth in matters of civil life; but they suffered greatly from the indiscretions and fanaticism of the political group. The members of that party frankly regarded themselves as at war with an usurper and an heretic; and used warlike methods to gain their ends; plots against the Queen's life were set on foot; and their promoters were willing enough to die in defence of the cause. But the civil Government made the fatal mistake of not distinguishing between the two groups; again and again loyal Englishmen were tortured and hanged as traitors, because they shared their faith with conspirators.

There was one question, however, that was indeed on the borderline, exceedingly difficult to answer in words, especially for scrupulous consciences; and that was whether they believed in the Pope's deposing power; and this question was adroitly and deliberately used by the Government in doubtful cases to ensure a conviction. But whether or not it was possible to frame a satisfactory answer in words, yet the accused were plain enough in their deeds; and when the Armada at length was launched in '88, there were no more loyal defenders of England than the persecuted Catholics. Even before this, however, there had appeared signs of reaction among the Protestants, especially against the torture and death of Campion and his fellows; and Lord Burghley in '83 attempted to quiet the people's resentment by his anonymous pamphlet, "Execution of Justice in England," to which Cardinal Allen presently replied.

Ireland, which had been profoundly stirred by the military expedition from the continent in '80, at length was beaten and slashed into submission again; and the torture and execution of Hurley by martial law, which Elizabeth directed on account of his appointment to the See of Cashel, when the judges had pronounced there to be no case against him; and a massacre on the banks of the Moy in '86 of Scots who had come across as reinforcements to the Irish;-these were incidents in the black list of barbarities by which at last a sort of temporary quiet was brought to Ireland.

In Scottish affairs, the tangle, unravelled even still, of which Mary Stuart was the centre, led at last to her death. Walsingham, with extraordinary skill, managed to tempt her into a dangerous correspondence, all of which he tapped on the way: he supplied to her in fact the very instrument-an ingeniously made beer-barrel-through which the correspondence was made possible, and, after reading all the letters, forwarded them to their several destinations. When all was ripe he brought his hand down on a group of zealots, to whose designs Mary was supposed to be privy; and after their execution, finally succeeded, in '87, in obtaining Elizabeth's signature to her cousin's death-warrant. The storm already raging against Elizabeth on the Continent, but fanned to fury by this execution, ultimately broke in the Spanish Armada in the following year.

Meanwhile, at home, the affairs of the Church of England were far from prosperous. Puritanism was rampant; and a wail of dismay was evoked by the new demands of a Commission under Whitgift's guidance, in '82, whereby the Puritan divines were now called upon to assent to the Queen's Supremacy, the Thirty-nine Articles and the Prayer Book. In spite of the opposition, however, of Burghley and the Commons, Whitgift, who had by this time succeeded to Canterbury upon Grindal's death, remained firm; and a long and dreary dispute began, embittered further by the execution of Mr. Copping and Mr. Thacker in '83 for issuing seditious books in the Puritan cause. A characteristic action in this campaign was the issuing of a Puritan manifesto in '84, consisting of a brief, well-written pamphlet of a hundred and fifty pages under the title "A Learned Discourse of Ecclesiastical Government," making the inconsistent claim of desiring a return to the Primitive and Scriptural model, and at the same time of advocating an original scheme, "one not yet handled." It was practically a demand for the Presbyterian system of pastorate and government. To this Dr. Bridges replies with a tremendous tome of over fourteen hundred pages, discharged after three years of laborious toil; and dealing, as the custom then was, line by line, with the Puritan attack. To this in the following year an anonymous Puritan, under the name of Martin Marprelate, retorts with a brilliant and sparkling riposte addressed to "The right puissant and terrible priests, my clergy-masters of the Convocation-house," in which he mocks bitterly at the prelates, accusing them of Sabbath-breaking, time-serving, and popery,-calling one "dumb and duncetical," another "the veriest coxcomb that ever wore velvet cap," and summing them up generally as "wainscot-faced bishops," "proud, popish, presumptuous, profane paltry, pestilent, and pernicious prelates."

The Archbishop had indeed a difficult team to drive; especially as his coadjutors were not wholly proof against Martin's jibes. In '84 his brother of York had been mixed up in a shocking scandal; in '85 the Bishop of Lichfield was accused of simony; Bishop Aylmer was continually under suspicion of avarice, dishonesty, vanity and swearing; and the Bench as a whole was universally reprobated as covetous, stingy and weak.

* * *

In civil matters, England's relation with Spain was her most important concern. Bitter feeling had been growing steadily between the two countries ever since Drake's piracies in the Spanish dominions in America; and a gradually increasing fleet at Cadiz was the outward sign of it. Now the bitterness was deepened by the arrest of English ships in the Spanish ports in the early summer of '85, and the swift reprisals of Drake in the autumn; who intimidated and robbed important towns on the coast, such as Vigo, where his men behaved with revolting irreverence in the churches, and Santiago; and then proceeded to visit and spoil S. Domingo and Carthagena in the Indies.

Again in '87 Drake obtained the leave of the Q

ueen to harass Spain once more, and after robbing and burning all the vessels in Cadiz harbour, he stormed the forts at Faro, destroyed Armada stores at Corunna, and captured the great treasure-ship San Felipe.

Elizabeth was no doubt encouraged in her apparent recklessness by the belief that with the Netherlands, which she had been compelled at last to assist, in a state of revolt, Spain would have little energy for reprisals upon England; but she grew more and more uneasy when news continued to arrive in England of the growing preparations for the Armada; France, too, was now so much involved with internal struggles, as the Protestant Henry of Navarre was now the heir to her Catholic throne, that efficacious intervention could no longer be looked for from that quarter, and it seemed at last as if the gigantic Southern power was about to inflict punishment upon the little northern kingdom which had insulted her with impunity so long.

In the October of '87 certain news arrived in England of the gigantic preparations being made in Spain and elsewhere: and hearts began to beat, and tongues to clack, and couriers to gallop. Then as the months went by, and tidings sifted in, there was something very like consternation in the country. Men told one another of the huge armament that was on its way, the vast ships and guns-all bearing down on tiny England, like a bull on a terrier. They spoke of the religious fervour, like that of a crusade, that inspired the invasion, and was bringing the flower of the Spanish nobility against them: the superstitious contrasted their own Lion, Revenge, and Elizabeth Jonas with the Spanish San Felipe, San Matteo, and Our Lady of the Rosary: the more practical thought with even deeper gloom of the dismal parsimony of the Queen, who dribbled out stores and powder so reluctantly, and dismissed her seamen at the least hint of delay.

Yet, little by little, as midsummer came and went, beacons were gathering on every hill, ships were approaching efficiency, and troops assembling at Tilbury under the supremely incompetent command of Lord Leicester.

Among the smaller seaports on the south coast, Rye was one of the most active and enthusiastic; the broad shallow bay was alive with fishing-boats, and the steep cobbled streets of the town were filled all day with a chattering exultant crowd, cheering every group of seamen that passed, and that spent long hours at the quay watching the busy life of the ships, and predicting the great things that should fall when the Spaniards encountered the townsfolk, should the Armada survive Drake's onslaught further west.

About July the twentieth more definite news began to arrive. At least once a day a courier dashed in through the south-west gate, with news that all must hold themselves ready to meet the enemy by the end of the month; labour grew more incessant and excitement more feverish.

About six o'clock on the evening of the twenty-ninth, as a long row of powder barrels was in process of shipping down on the quay, the men who were rolling them suddenly stopped and listened; the line of onlookers paused in their comments, and turned round. From the town above came an outburst of cries, followed by the crash of the alarm from the church-tower. In two minutes the quay was empty. Out of every passage that gave on to the main street poured excited men and women, some hysterically laughing, some swearing, some silent and white as they ran. For across the bay westwards, on a point beyond Winchelsea, in the still evening air rose up a stream of smoke shaped like a pine-tree, with a red smouldering root; and immediately afterwards in answer the Ypres tower behind the town was pouring out a thick drifting cloud that told to the watchers on Folkestone cliffs that the dreaded and longed-for foe was in sight of England.

Then the solemn hours of waiting began to pass. Every day and night there were watchers, straining their eyes westwards in case the Armada should attempt to coast along England to force a landing anywhere, and southwards in case they should pass nearer the French coast on their way to join the Prince of Parma; but there was little to be seen over that wide ring of blue sea except single vessels, or now and again half-a-dozen in company, appearing and fading again on some unknown quest. The couriers that came in daily could not tell them much; only that there had been indecisive engagements; that the Spaniards had not yet attempted a landing anywhere; and that it was supposed that they would not do so until a union with the force in Flanders had been effected.

And so four days of the following week passed; then on Thursday, August the fourth, within an hour or two after sunrise, the solemn booming of guns began far away to the south-west; but the hours passed; and before nightfall all was silent again.

The suspense was terrible; all night long there were groups parading the streets, anxiously conjecturing, now despondently, now cheerfully.

Then once again on the Friday morning a sudden clamour broke out in the town, and almost simultaneously a pinnace slipped out, spreading her wings and making for the open sea. A squadron of English ships had been sighted flying eastwards; and the pinnace was gone to get news. The ships were watched anxiously by thousands of eyes, and boats put out all along the coast to inquire; and within two or three hours the pinnace was back again in Rye harbour, with news that set bells ringing and men shouting. On Wednesday, the skipper reported, there had been an indecisive engagement during the dead calm that had prevailed in the Channel; a couple of Spanish store-vessels had been taken on the following morning, and a general action had followed, which again had been indecisive; but in which the English had hardly suffered at all, while it was supposed that great havoc had been wrought upon the enemy.

But the best of the news was that the Rye contingent was to set sail at once, and unite with the English fleet westward of Calais by mid-day on Saturday. The squadron that had passed was under the command of the Admiral himself, who was going to Dover for provisions and ammunition, and would return to his fleet before evening.

Before many hours were passed, Rye harbour was almost empty, and hundreds of eyes were watching the ships that carried their husbands and sons and lovers out into the pale summer haze that hung over the coast of France; while a few sharp-eyed old mariners on points of vantage muttered to one another that in the haze there was a patch of white specks to be seen which betokened the presence of some vast fleet.

That night the sun set yellow and stormy, and by morning the cobble-stones of Rye were wet and dripping with storm-showers, and a swell was beginning to lap and sob against the harbour walls.

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