The Tudor guide to winning a culture war
Hint: it involves chopping off heads
In 1577 two Essex tailors by the names of George and William Binkers were hauled before magistrates for claiming that the Host became ‘the very body, flesh and blood of Christ.
That same year one John Howard was brought before the beak for stating his belief that ‘it was never merry in England since the scriptures were so commonly preached and talked upon such persons as they are’.
These are two of the many examples of Englishmen persecuted and harassed by the authorities just for voicing their opinions, offending the new establishment by daring to adhere to the old beliefs.
Poor Howard and the Binkers were on the wrong side of history. Most likely any descendants they had would in the centuries that followed come to believe in the idea of the Elizabethan Golden Age, of England as a naturally Protestant country heroically freeing itself of papist tyranny; that the Catholic religion was foreign and associated with absolutist tyranny in the shape of Spain and France. This idea became central to English identity as the 16th century culture war was waged and won by Protestants.
The persecution of Catholics is just one theme of many in Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England, the second of a now four-part series that runs from the medieval period to the Regency. It’s hugely successful, and deservedly so for being such fun popular history; but the parallels between the Tudor period and today always stick with me. And it’s hard not to empathise with the losers.
Compared to her zealous brother Edward, Elizabeth I self-consciously saw herself as a moderate on religious affairs; it was the pesky Catholics, after all, who were starting a culture war by resisting every new innovation and putting their conscience above the law of the land.
At the start of her reign Catholics may have still constituted a majority in England, something indicated by the fact that in 1564 half of all JPs hesitated to swear the Oath of Supremacy, recognising Elizabeth as supreme governor of the English Church.
Among these was one John Shakespeare of Stratford. Shakespeare’s parish was also one of many taking longer than necessary to whitewash the church walls, another indicator of being not entirely on board with the new way of thinking. Not until January 1564 does he pay a workman to obliterate the images of the Day of Judgment in the local church.
Shakespeare’s possible support for the old faith have influenced debate about his son’s own religious beliefs, a subject of great discussion down the years. Like most people, the younger Shakespeare perhaps had some sympathy with the old religion, just not enough to want to ruin his life for it, and went along with the side that was clearly winning. And win they did, transforming a predominantly Catholic country into one in which Catholicism was seen as toxic and subversive — and in just a few decades. Having enjoyed five years of hegemony under her late half-sister, Mary, Catholics were to see their country become ever more alien and hostile to them under the new queen, a situation made worse by an increasingly hostile papacy.
In 1571 Parliament passed a new act making it high treason to claim the Queen is ‘a heretic, schismatic, tyrant, infidel or usurper’. It was now illegal to import papal bulls, crucifixes and rosary beads, while another law confiscated the property of anyone who went abroad for six months or more without the Queen’s permission.