The Catholic threat

Many Catholics in England were not happy with Elizabeth’s Settlement. They had enjoyed religious freedom under Queen Mary, Elizabeth’s sister, and they were now being asked to change or deny their beliefs. Many couldn’t make this compromise and left to live in exile abroad. Others grudgingly accepted the new regime.

To strengthen her position, Elizabeth passed laws to minimise the Catholic threat:

ActWhat it was
1559 - Act of Uniformity Those who refused to attend Church of England services (recusants) were forced to pay a fine of a shilling a week for not attending church on Sundays or holy days.
1581 - Act to retain the Queen’s subjects in their due obedienceCatholics who were still refusing to attend services in the Protestant Church were forced to pay an even bigger fine of 20 pounds per month, the equivalent of thousands of pounds in today’s money. In addition, anyone found to have persuaded someone to convert to Catholicism was guilty of treason and could be put to death.

Fear of Catholic plots

Portrait of Mary Queen of Scots
Mary, Queen of Scots

Despite these measures, a fear of Catholic plots was an on-going and serious threat. The rulers of the most powerful countries in Europe - Spain and France - were Catholic, and plots often had foreign backing. In 1570 the Pope issued a Papal Bull of Excommunication against Elizabeth and actively encouraged plots against her.

The Pope also encouraged Catholic priests to undertake secret missionary work in England to convert people back to Roman Catholicism. If these men were discovered by Elizabeth’s agents, they could be sentenced to death for treason. Which is what happened to Edmund Campion, who was executed in 1581.

The main figurehead for such plotters was Mary, Queen of Scots. She had a claim to the English throne, and was seen as a potential replacement for Elizabeth.