Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Northern Rebellion of 1569: A Review

The Northern Rebellion of 1569: Faith, Politics, and Protest in Elizabethan England
by K.J. Kesselring, Associate Professor History at Dalhousie University, Canada
Published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2010; Purchased by the Reviewer

Even some of the early Catholic historians of the English Reformation thought that Elizabeth I demonstrated tolerance toward Catholics until the Pope excommunicated her. Kesselring concurs in part, citing Norman Jones' term "tolerant confusion" to describe the slow progress of the religious settlement of the Church of England in years immediately following Elizabeth's accession and the passage in Parliament of the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity.
But in the mid- to late-1560s, Catholics began to see changes in that policy. As Kesselring details: 1) arrests of those secretly attending Mass increased; 2) fines of those not attending established church services increased; 3) more and more Catholics went into exile and soon William Allen established a seminary in Douai for those who fled England; 4) the Court of High Commission and the bishops' visitations demonstrated increased vigor in detecting and correcting recalcitrant papists; 5) iconoclasm and punishment of those who had protected religious imagery offended and humiliated Catholics; and 6) the Inns of Court expelled Catholics and barred them from commons and court. The period of "tolerant confusion" was over, and Elizabeth's Privy Council had a policy of ensuring religious uniformity in England.
Add to that pattern Elizabeth's policy of bypassing and slighting the established noble families so that Catholic earls like Thomas Percy of Northumberland and Charles Neville of Westmorland and other nobles like Leonard Dacre could not accept those slights and insults any more, Elizabeth's wavering decisions on what to do with Mary Stuart, the former Queen of Scotland, complications in dealing with France, Spain, and Ireland--this is not a simple rebellion driven by either religious zeal or political manuevering. Nevertheless, religion played a crucial role in the recruitment of rebels and the response of Elizabeth's government.
What Kesselring offers in this focused volume is a very clear and balanced examination of what she calls the "multiplicity of motives" behind the Northern Rebellion including the crucial religious element, an excellent narrative of the course of the rebellion in the north of England and in Scotland, and a comprehensive analysis of the outcome of the rebellion. The Northern Rebellion of 1569, led by Northumberland and Westmorland, and the decree of excommunication issued by Pope Pius V in 1570 certainly accelerated and codified the policy of strict religious uniformity, but Elizabethan England was already enforcing that policy before the Catholic Earls recruited 6,000 followers in protest against the changes forced upon them, recalling old causes by marching under the banners of the Five Wounds of Christ and the slogan "God Speed the Plow".
As I read about Northumberland and Westmorland recruiting so many followers and yet not really knowing what their strategy was I thought of David Knowles' analysis of Robert Aske and the Pilgrimage of Grace--the English Catholic rebels did not seem willing to prosecute an uprising that would succeed. In 1569, success would entail widespread Civil War: death, destruction, a coup d'etat, possibly the execution of Elizabeth I--success could mean war in Scotland against those who supported the infant King James VI and his regents. Success meant that they would have to see their cause through all the blood, suffering, and gore. They did not, just as Robert Aske did not, and so they failed.
Once they failed, the Elizabethan propaganda machine ramped up attacks upon English papists, superstitious priests, unnatural women (wives who lusted after priests and thus encouraged their husbands to betray their Queen), and the Pope--it placed the religious dissension of the rebels at the center of their sinful uprising. By doing so, ignoring the political and diplomatic issues, her government was able to demonstrate that no Catholic could be trusted; every English Catholic was a rebel-in-waiting. The Northern Rebellion, on a smaller scale, became part of the sequence of Catholic plots, including the Spanish Armada, that Providence thwarted, thus proving the righteousness of the Protestant Cause--which would continue to be celebrated in the next century with the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot!
On the other hand, some Catholic propagandists protrayed the rebels as martyrs, unable to tolerate Protestant iconoclasm and desecration, suffering and dying under Protestant torture and abuse, upholding the True Faith. They also ignored the political and diplomatic issues that contributed to the rebellion's cause. Other Catholics, as I referenced above, took a different approach. They were the Appellants, who wished to negotiate some kind of leniency; therefore they condemned the disloyalty of the rebels. Nevertheless, after Catholic Emancipation and Restoration of the Catholic Hierarchy in the nineteenth, Thomas Percy (Northumberland) and a few others were beatified as martyrs by Pope Leo XIII.
Fortunately, we now have a dispassionate view of these events in this book, one that neither inflates or ignores religious matters, acknowledging the "genuine and widespread discontent" of the Northern rebels just as honestly as that of the followers of Wyatt's Rebellion during the reign of Mary I, and forthrightly analyzing the Elizabethan government's response (and comparing it to previous Tudor reactions).


  1. Pardon me if I move up to the Bull "Regens.." itself. I've never seen nor read the actual Bull. Did it actually impose an obligation to rebel against Elizabeth?...or did it merely remove the (then very important) obligation for Catholics to support her?
    Wonderful post - I've always been puzzled by people who thought Bess's persecutions only began after her excommunication.

  2. tubbs, here is the pertinent text:

    Therefore, resting upon the authority of Him whose pleasure it was to place us (though unequal to such a burden) upon this supreme justice-seat, we do out of the fullness of our apostolic power declare the foresaid Elizabeth to be a heretic and favourer of heretics, and her adherents in the matters aforesaid to have incurred the sentence of excommunication and to be cut off from the unity of the body of Christ.

    And moreover (we declare) her to be deprived of her pretended title to the aforesaid crown and of all lordship, dignity and privilege whatsoever.

    And also (declare) the nobles, subjects and people of the said realm and all others who have in any way sworn oaths to her, to be forever absolved from such an oath and from any duty arising from lordship, fealty and obedience; and we do, by authority of these presents , so absolve them and so deprive the same Elizabeth of her pretended title to the crown and all other the above said matters. We charge and command all and singular the nobles, subjects, peoples and others aforesaid that they do not dare obey her orders, mandates and laws. Those who shall act to the contrary we include in the like sentence of excommunication.

    So I don't think they were commanded to rebel, exactly, but certainly to disobey.