Robert Scully’s 400-plus page story of the Jesuit mission in Elizabethan England and Wales offers a detailed and extensively footnoted account of the lives, imprisonment, banishment and sometimes gruesome execution of Catholics from the arrival of the first Jesuits in England in 1580 until the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603. It is difficult to understand, living as we do in a pluralistic and relatively secular society, the worldview that led to the religious persecutions of Reformation-era Europe and even more difficult to understand the worldview that led someone like St. Edmund Campion, who arrived as one of those first Jesuits in 1580, to return to his homeland facing nearly certain death.
Why did Campion and 186 other Catholics sacrifice their lives during the reign of Elizabeth while others conformed to government decrees? Stephen Greenblatt, in his popular biography of Shakespeare, Will in the World, has suggested that the teenage Shakespeare may have once met the soon-to-be martyred Edmund Campion. Greenblatt’s Shakespeare recognizes that the charismatic Jesuit is “filled with a sense that he knew the one eternal truth.” Greenblatt argues that the “ideological heroism” of a “fanatic” like Campion is foreign to Shakespeare’s works. For Greenblatt, Shakespeare’s plays helped give birth to modernity, a world that rejects claims of eternal or ideological truth.
In Scully’s account, we find heroic martyrs, like Campion, but also and perhaps just as important, a much larger number of Catholics who were conflicted about how to live a life loyal to a church and a state in strife. Shakespeare’s own father lived a life of just this inner conflict, sometimes conforming to the church of England by attending services, but also leaving a spiritual testament affirming his Catholic faith.
Catholics varied widely in their willingness to accept sacrifices in order to remain faithful. A significant minority of the English, especially in the north, had remained Catholic in 1580, and a minority within this minority Catholic population undertook real hardships for their faith. Catholics faced ruinous fines for not attending the established church. Some Catholics were imprisoned for 10 or 15 years, sometimes dying in prison, because they owned rosaries and other Catholic devotional items or because they harbored priests. Others avoided execution by professing loyalty to the crown but faced imprisonment and exile.
Time and again, Scully describes regretful Catholics who conformed to the state church temporarily or denied their Catholic faith under torture. During a government interrogation in 1582, for example, the officers asked their prisoners, nine priests and a layman, a series of questions intended to assess their loyalty: If a foreign power were to invade England with the blessing of the pope, whose side would you take? Two said they would take the side of the queen, while seven tried to answer indirectly, saying they would do what the church taught or that they did not know what they would do until the situation arose. The two were spared; the seven were executed.
The 10th prisoner was John Hart, a priest who was originally supposed to be executed on the same day as Edmund Campion, but he apostatized after being tortured and offered to spy for the regime. The government gave him a reprieve but kept him in prison, where he returned to the Catholic faith. He was eventually banished, joined the Jesuits and lived out his life serving the church in Poland. Considering the barbaric forms of torture, like the rack and the sticking of pins under prisoners’ fingernails, and the gruesome form of execution reserved for traitors—which included evisceration and dismemberment while still alive—John Hart’s loss of nerve is quite understandable.
The vast majority of English and Welsh Catholics, like these 10 prisoners, were trying to be loyal to both the Catholic faith and the English state by answering the government’s questions as their consciences allowed. But the queen and her council could not tolerate the uncertainty about whether the Catholic minority would be loyal in the face of an invasion, like that attempted by the Spanish Armada in 1588. Despite the increasing number of executions of Catholics during England’s war with Spain, most Catholics remained loyal to the Queen. Even though the popes had by now excommunicated and deposed Elizabeth, English Catholics professed their loyalty to Queen and country.
Greenblatt wrote that fanatics think they know the one eternal truth and so they will die for it. But it is those who kill in the name of the truth who are the fanatics, not those willing to die for it. The fanaticism of the Elizabethan regime was not primarily religious, as was the execution of Protestants by the Catholic Queen Mary in the 1550s. It was the fanatical defense of a nation state. Scully demonstrates that English Catholics, caught between the state and the dictates of conscience, did not seek out martyrdom—far from it—but did believe that some truths are worth dying for.