Before attempting to ask how typical were the Gunpowder plotters of English Catholics at the start of the 17th century one must first be clear who was a Catholic at that time; for by the time that James I, and VI, had become king in 1603 it had become impossible to talk about a single English Catholic community. The divisions that had grown within English Catholicism between the traditionalist, Catholic communities of the North and West of the country and the 'Manor House' Catholicism of the recusant gentry of the South and East who were influenced by the more intransigent and aggressive ideology of counter reformation European Catholicism were as great, if not greater than those which had divided the 'godly' and the mainstream of the, protestant, Church of England. Indeed the gulf within English Catholicism was so great that, apart their common exclusion from the national church, the differing factions would be hard pressed to recognise each other as common religionists.
The Gunpowder plotters were both the expression of the desperate extremity that the Gentry Catholics in their isolation, believed themselves driven to, and, for many of the traditionalist Catholics, a final straw that broke them from their residual loyalty to the old church and into conformity with the Church of England.
By the end of Elizabeth's reign the bulk of English Catholicism had been confined to the Northern and Western counties of the country here popular religion was Catholic and in most ways had been untouched by the reforms of Elizabeth, her father, Henry VIII, and brother, Edward IV. Queen Mary's reign had replenished the, somewhat meagre, reserve of Catholic minded clergy that served the region; the underdevelopment of the parish system in the North (which had been, before the reformation, largely religiously catered for by the great monastic communities) had impeded the penetration of these areas by more modern, and Protestant, ministers and preaching. Instead much of traditionalist practise in the North and West depended on the continuance of a 'seasonal nonconformity'; adhering to the calendar of Saints Days, feasts and fasts which were such a significant feature of the pre reformation church.
The treatment that these traditionalist minded Catholics received from the Elizabethan and Jacobean state was rather different from the image of constant and unremitting persecution promoted by the Jesuit propagandists. Instead, the persecutions of Recusants remained largely financial in nature (although these did become very onerous at times), and could be avoided by the conformity of the recusant to a very formal and minimal level of attendance. Neither Elizabeth nor James were as much interested in religious uniformity as they were concerned with ensuring as level of loyalty which could be measured through formal attendance. Radical Protestant preachers regularly complained about the toleration extended to these 'church papists' .
Elizabeth wished to avoid the reaction which accompanied Edward and Mary's reformist and counter-reformist zeal, and was content to 'outlive' the Marian Priesthood rather than risk a backlash to their wholesale replacement. Instead, far less overt pressures than Mary's bonfires were applied, whether through recusant taxes and the application of the oath of loyalty, in order to prevent Catholics being appointed to office, or the 'fudging' of elements of the Official religion, especially in the Book of Common Prayer of 1559 which allowed for a certain elasticity over crucial elements of the Eucharist, and in the wording of the question of Justification, which could allow more traditionalist and Catholic congregations to coexist with the rest within the National Church. These measures encouraged and allowed the incorporation of many Catholics into Church of England, if only in meeting the formal requirements of membership to avoid recusancy or qualify for office.In many Catholic homes the male head of the household would publicly conform whilst his wife, and other family members, remained Catholic; the reluctance of the authorities to prosecute women for recusancy was well appreciated. Both Elizabethan and Jacobean courts tended to use their anti Catholic Statutes in a very "prudential" manner; designed to be applied only when necessary against real threats, rather than against 'ordinary' recusants. The main aim of the repression, when it was intensified, was always to frustrate attempts to introduce the new, and more aggressive, Tridentine Catholicism which was being smuggled in from the seminary schools and missions of European counter- reformation. Even seasonal nonconformity was treated benignly by a state which discriminated between the imported and the indigenous.
The Reforms in Catholic theology made at the Council of Trent were designed to remove the weaknesses within Catholicism which made it vulnerable to the criticism of protestant reformers and in their construction and application they clearly show the shift in power and influence within Catholicism as the humanist philosophy of Renaissance Italy was supplanted by the aggressive determinism of Conquistador Spain, embodied in the militarist religious of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.
In England, the first priority was to attempt to stem the drift of Catholics into conformity, the Papal Bull, Regnan in Excelsis was an opening shot of this more aggressive and confident Catholicism ; in excommunicating Elizabeth and relieving all her subjects from the responsibility of fealty toward her, the Papacy wished to support those who had risen against Elizabeth in 1569 during the 'Rising of the Earls', but it severely misread the reality of the rising's causes which, although couched in religious terms, were far more a response to the Tudor states centralising impulses threatening the local power bases of the Northern aristocracy. The Bull, which was over a year late for any effect intended for the support of the rebels, had the effect, as protestant propagandists were not slow to point out, of declaring that all Catholics who wished to remain loyal to the Pope could only be so as traitors to the Queen. The St. Bartholomew's Day massacre provided for English Protestants a clear warning of allowing a Catholic return to power would entail.
Traditional 'survivalist' English Catholics tried to square the necessity of conforming to the demands of the Elizabethan and Jacobean state and their loyalty to Catholicism by arguing that such a confrontational course would destroy the catholic community's ability to sustain their priesthood thus condemning the church to death. The emphasis on the spiritual importance of suffering and Martyrdom as a price necessary for salvation which rested at the heart of the new muscular interpretation of Catholicism made the attempts at conciliation by the traditionalist communities incomprehensible to the Jesuits. Jesuit teaching transformed membership of the Catholic Church from a Universalist church to an exclusivist one. The idea of a 'Universal and Catholic Church' within which all were accommodated was abandoned and in its place an exclusive identification of true Catholicism, outside of which the majority were damned and only the true believers saved. Where the protestant reformers replaced the pre reformation doctrine of justification by faith and works with one of faith alone and their trust in being counted among Gods Elect, the Jesuits effectively developed a new justification, where belief and absolute obedience to the Church's tenets would alone bring salvation. The insistence of the seminarians and the Jesuits in the total separation of Catholics from compliance with the Church of England brought them into sharp disagreement with the traditionalist Catholics.
The small number of Jesuit missionaries' active in England in the late Elizabethan /early Jacobean did not diminish the influence that they had upon the manorial Catholics; the seminaries, such as that at Douai and the English school in Rome, which trained priests for the Manorial Catholics, imbibed in them Jesuitical principles. Thus it is not unreasonable to treat both, secular, seminary trained, priests and regular, Jesuit, missionaries as having generally the same theological/ideological position.
At the heart of the disputes between the different Catholic communities was a fundamental difference over the nature of Catholicism and of how England was expected to return to the 'True Faith'. The 'survivalists' remained universal in their conception of the Church; England may have strayed, yet it may still be returned to the bosom of the church. Just as their fortunes had changed when Edward was succeeded by Mary, a new change of monarch perhaps with a tolerant, or even Catholic, Stuart King, would see England's return to Rome under the principle 'cuius regio, eius religio'. In the meantime, whatever compromises have to be made in order to keep their faith alive are justifiable; as the worst thing that could happen was for Catholics to become associated in the populace's mind with treason and servility to foreign courts.
For the Jesuits, England was lost; it had gone far too long outside of the Church to ever voluntarily return to the rule of Rome, only force, a new crusade, could bring the heretical English back to Catholicism; thus it was a true Catholic's duty to assist in any and all acts which would aid and assist the invasion and overthrow of the Protestant State. It would be mistaken to suppose that either approach had reconciled itself to the continued existence of English Catholicism as a Minority sect, both expected England to eventually to be reconciled with Rome.
Haigh has considered that the role of the Jesuits was an entirely pastoral one, a view which has been strongly challenged . Whilst it is true that the Jesuits were catering exclusively to an already Catholic audience, rather than actively seeking out converts from among the Protestant the nature of the Jesuit mission makes claims of a passive, or pastoral, intent untenable. It is not necessary to accept that all Jesuits and covert priests were actively involved in plotting insurrection and regicide to note that the intransigence of counter- reformation theology inevitably, and deliberately, brought themselves and their flock into conflict with the Protestant state.
Whilst in the North and west of England Catholicism retained its pre-reformation popular character closer to the heart of royal power in London in the South and East it became largely confined to the homes and manors of the older aristocracy, who had gained their power and influence before the dissolution of the monasteries and thus did not owe their wealth to Tudor largesse. Here proximity to the continent allowed for a more ready access to the new ideas that were being developed in response to the European wide threat of Protestantism. Independent in wealth and with considerable local power bases, these gentry Catholics could afford to pay for their own personal priests and had the space and influence to hide them from the purview of the authorities. From being used to having a prominent say in the running of the state, they now found themselves shut out of the corridors of power in favour of more 'politically reliable' parvenu gentry, merchants and foreign schismatics. With avenues to education and advancement closed to them the sons of the old gentry journeyed to the continent; to serve in the armies of the counter- reformation or to study in the seminarian and Jesuit schools.
Without wishing to overstretch modern parallels, there are certain comparisons observable in the development of modern Western Jihadiism; a small and self isolated minority within a larger minority community replacing a universalist theology with an exclusivist one, in which violence and Martyrdom are sanctioned and extolled as religious duties, sending its sons to foreign schools to train to become the ideologues and fighters in an international Holy War.
The prospect of the end of Elizabeth's reign concentrated the minds of both Catholics and Protestants. Many of the traditionalists began to expect a more sympathetic treatment from James. Alongside attempts to gain James' support for official toleration, they made protestations of loyalty to a Jacobean monarchy (with the inference that their protestant adversaries would be less loyal) For the gentry Catholics, the thawing of relations between the papacy and Elizabeth in the last years of her reign and the reestablishment of a less confrontational diplomacy with the Spain crown, threatened the rationale of enforced conciliation which had justified for the recusants their repression and isolation. Without a prospective invasion and with a new Protestant monarch with new policies which further encouraged conformity, a section the Catholic Gentry began to adopt an extreme version of 'cuius regio, eius religio', believing that the violent removal of James, and his replacement with his more pliant, and Catholic, daughter, the 9 year old Elizabeth could return England to the Catholic faith, or possibly more preferable, that the resultant civil war would force a Spanish intervention.
James disappointed the hopes placed upon him that he would grant full toleration for Catholics, but those hopes were always over optimistic, as ruler of Calvinist Scotland as well as new king of Protestant England, the granting of legal toleration for English Catholics would have created problems throughout his unified realms. However his informal tolerance toward Catholicism, through non enforcement of recusancy, and later benign tolerance of Early Arminian thought created a more conducive environment within the Church of England for the traditionalist minded old Catholics alienated by the dogmatism and exclusivity of the Jesuits, and repelled by the Identification of Catholicism with treason and regicide. Sir Henry James' rejection of Catholicism whilst in Rome in 1606 in shock at the revelations of the Gunpowder plot showed how the association of recusancy with treason widened the gulf between the Jesuits and the 'survivalist' laity. In the period after the plots exposure there was a massive increase of conformities, as erstwhile recusants reacted to the revelations, or to the accompanied repression.
The policies of the Elizabethan and Jacobean monarchies permitted traditional Catholics to adopt a formal conformity without demanding much more than loyalty to the state in return. In itself this did inevitably mean that the majority of traditionalists would adopt the Church of England and not remain a level of loyalty toward the Papacy- it was the refusal of the Jesuits and seminary priests to allow for any form of cooperation with the state no matter what the cost, that broke the possibility of the development of a network of sympathisers of Tridentine Catholicism amongst the traditionalist community. Instead the Plot, and its failure, revealed the isolation and weakness of the Gentry Catholics. The threat that they constituted to Protestantism in England was effectively negated and from then on concerns about 'Popish Plots' would be directed not at the schemes of Catholics but instead of developments within the Church of England.
Fawkes and his co conspirators were certain that they were representative of their Catholic community; however that community was one which, through its ideological intransigence and theological purity, had broken its ties with wider English popular Catholicism and had become an isolated aristocratic cult, as exclusive as any Calvinist Brethren. It is an irony that the counter- reformation, which rearmed and revitalised European Catholicism on the continent, in England had the effect of alienating the mass of existing English Catholics and assisting in their reconciliation with the National Church.
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