Critics dig and speculate on a religious sub-text to Shakespeare's works because he so wisely avoided outright mention of religious themes in them. In fact, it were impossible not to do so and remain free. The religious issues that swirled through his age informed his work, however. An excellent resource for gaining a familiarity with the issues of the times is The Emergence of Modern Britain 1485 - 1660 by J. P. Sommerville at the University of Wisconsin. The site is a helpful outline for students taking his History 361 class. Today we will take a look at the materials on English Catholics during Elizabeth's reign.
"Initially, Elizabeth's government took few measures against Catholic gentry. But every Member of Parliament had to swear the Oath of Supremacy (recognizing Elizabeth as Governor of the Church of England and denying papal jurisdiction), and this excluded scrupulous Catholics from influence."
Here, reproduced from the web site, is the Oath of Supremacy required of every member of Parliament:
I, A. B., do utterly testify and declare in my conscience that the queen's highness is the only supreme governor of this realm and of all other her highness's dominions and countries, as well in all spiritual or ecclesiastical things or causes as temporal, and that no foreign prince, person, prelate, state, or potentate hath or ought to have any jurisdiction, power, superiority, pre-eminence, or authority, ecclesiastical or spiritual, within this realm; and therefore I do utterly renounce and forsake all foreign jurisdictions, powers, superiorities, and authorities, and do promise that from henceforth I shall bear faith and true allegiance to the queen's highness, her heirs, and lawful successors, and to my power shall assist and defend all jurisdictions, pre-eminences, privileges, and authorities granted or belonging to the queen's highness, her heirs, and successors, or united or annexed to the imperial crown of this realm: so help me God and by the contents of this Book.
"During the 1560s, most Catholics began to drift into conformity." Certainly, but in the 1570s European events began to harden anti-catholic sentiment in England. There was the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre (1572) where French Catholics slaughtered thousands of protestant Huguenots; the deposition of Elizabeth by Pope Pius V; Spanish attempts on Elizabeth's life, and a general deterioration of relations with Spain.
The Catholic church sent Jesuit missionary priests into England, and by the end of Elizabeth's reign there were 300 in country. Two of the most notable were Edmund Campion and Robert Parsons. Campion, later tortured and martyred, was the more charismatic, but Parsons, in the end, more effective in turning ordinary Englishmen back to the Church. Most Englishmen were wary, however. They well knew the Church was plotting with Spain to place Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne and restore Catholicism in England. This is the background to the Armada years, culminating in 1588 with the defeat of the Armada, but remained a background concern for most thoughtful Englishmen through the "shadow Armada" year of 1599 and beyond.
"Between 1581 and 1588 at least sixty-four priests were executed...The persecution of English Catholics was as cruel as it was necessary in the government's eyes." There are many examples of the horrible tortures suffered by missionary priests during the middle and latter years of Elizabeth's reign.
Towards the end of Elizabeth's reign the succession became the vexed question, with Jesuits promoting the right of Englishmen to name their own monarch, advancing the idea that Phillip II's daughter ought to be the next ruler rather than the protestant James VI of Scotland. James, of course, was the only choice Elizabeth could make.