Everyday sedition: Women and religion

We tend to look at centuries past from a broad perspective. We note that in the sixteenth century religion and politics were intricately intertwined. We know that in the past, nearly everywhere on earth, and even now in the so-called first world, that politics in the broad sense is a game played by men. We have learned how restricted women’s roles were in the sixteenth century; legally, they had almost no standing. They couldn’t hold public office, attend universities, preach, or even just go out and find a job in an office or a shop, except to clean the place.

We look at the published records of political events and conclude that women were powerless victims or manipulated tools, apart from the occasional queen. That conclusion is not entirely correct, at least not in the Elizabethan period.

Religion begins at home

prayers getty2 1

Portrait of Chiara Albini Petrozzani with their children in prayer. Painting attributed to Pietro Facchetti (1535 or 1539-1619). Mantua, Palazzo Ducale. Credit: DEA / G. Cigolini Getty Images

Religious people generally begin to inculcate their children from birth. Certainly fathers have a role in this, often a very strong one. The expectation in the sixteenth century was that male heads of household laid down the law of religion in their homes just as male governors laid down the law of the land. Objection from the wife wasn’t likely, since common religion was a major factor when choosing a mate. Once that law was defined, however, it was the mother who taught the rules and enforced compliance on a daily basis.

Mother managed the household routine from rising to going to bed. Wake, rise, pray, dress, eat breakfast, feed chickens; how is that list ordered under her roof? If she could read, she probably taught her children to read from the family bible. She made sure everyone said their prayers at the appointed times and in the appointed fashion and got everyone dressed appropriately and herded to church at the appointed time.

If she was the wife of a prosperous man — a gentleman or substantial yeoman or merchant — she also had a household full of servants to keep on the straight and narrow, if she was the straight and narrow kind; not everyone was. Individual families varied considerably as to actual practice, even though attendance at church on Sunday was officially mandatory. You could daydream through the services if you wanted, after all, thinking about who you’d meet at the tavern afterwards.

Religious dissidents

The idea of religious tolerance was many long years in the future. Everyone believed that everyone ought to believe the same thing; at least, that was everyone’s public opinion. Privately, people insisted on doing what they wanted, the way people everywhere continually insist on doing. (You’d think the authorities would get a grip on this fundamental concept.) English persons who were mild about religion in the first place, or who genuinely agreed with the queen, shifted easily into the beliefs and practices of the established church. Others dug in their heels.

Catholics were the most notoriously non-compliant. They clung to their old religion — their saints and icons, their incense and masses, their rosaries and counted prayers — in spite of considerable risk to their lives and property. I can’t tell you why, but I can tell you how: the women did it.

Women maintained private chapels or transformed the library into a place of worship twice a day. They purchased and kept in order altar cloths, candles, incense, wine — everything needful. They hired like-minded servants and compelled their loyalty by all the usual means (persuasion, salaries, possibly sometimes threats.) They offered house-room to priests who slipped off to the Continent to be educated and then slipped back to sustain the faithful and make new converts. They passed banned books and pamphlets from household to household.

This is work, ladies and gentleman; this is active sedition on a daily basis. Without these women and these sheltering households, Catholicism would have vanished shortly after Elizabeth ascended to the throne. Men can yak away in their parliaments and council chambers, but the humble home is where the rubber meets the road.

The untouchables

These women were very difficult to prosecute, thanks to their stunted legal status. Married women were almost non-persons. How can you arrest a non-person? “[A]lthough wives could be indicted and convicted, they could not be fined, and forfeiture could not be made nor distraints levied upon them during their husband’s lifetime, since the wife had no property of her own to distrain (Rowlands, p. 152.)”

Their husbands could be prosecuted, and if the husband died, the widow might lose up to 2/3 of her jointure, but that doesn’t seem to have discouraged many Catholic women. But “even if the recusant was indicted, the ultimate penalty for refusing to appear was outlawry, and this could not be imposed in the case of a married woman. She had no property or civil rights and could only be ‘waived’ (Rowlands, p. 152.)”

Widows were impossible, thorns in the sides of the authorities. In 1586, Parliament passed an Act attempting to clarify measures that could be taken against recalcitrant wives, to little avail. The mighty men of Parliament and Privy Council debated the issue again and again between 1591 and 1593. “In the year of the Armada, 1588, the Sheriff of Cambridge begged to know how to proceed against women recusants ‘whom he dare not presume to apprehend without advice’ (Rowlands, p. 153.)”

I envision a haughty, disdainful, righteous middle-aged woman standing in the hall in full regalia — skirts some 60″ in diameter — facing a pair of young constables or even justices of the peace with their hats in their hands, wondering if their mothers have any idea what nonsense they’re perpetrating at this moment. “I hope not, Madam,” they say as they back steadily out the door to make their escapes.

Some women were arrested of course, and prosecuted, and imprisoned, and sometimes even hanged. These would be your honest tradeswomen, not gentlewomen. Only 3 women were executed for harboring priests during this period, however, compared with 27 men.

More thorns on the other side

Catholics, as we have seen, weren’t the only contributors to religious strife in Elizabeth’s time. Many people believed the official church had not gone far enough up the road to Reformation. Churches still had altars; ministers were still called ‘priests’ and still wore Romish costumes. Why would anyone want anything but plain bread served to everyone around a plain table?

The official policy sought to constrain, contain, or even imprison radical Protestants, even though they had sympathizers at the highest levels, like the Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth’s favorite. One of the many things I love about her was her staunch refusal to be pulled out of the middle, religiously speaking.

Here again, women, especially widows, played a sustaining role. Lady Anne Bacon sheltered a changing community of non-conformist preachers who had been expelled from their native parishes for being too radical. I can’t find those notes now, but I think Robert Browne may have spent some weeks at Gorhambury enjoying her hospitality. She thumbed her nose at the authorities, relying on her status as the widow of a Lord Keeper and sister-in-law of the Lord Treasurer.

Punishment that fits the crime

The better sort of religious dissident, if punished at all, might be sent to live with a family known for their staunch and centrist Protestantism. Margaret Throckmorton, Catholic matriarch of a very troublesome family, was put in the care of the Dean of Gloucester. In practice, that meant she was supervised by the Dean’s wife, with whom she doubtless spent many hours sewing in the parlor.

mary scots embroidery 1Aren’t we glad we weren’t there? Although now that I think of it, it could be fun to put my characters into such a household at such a time. You know somebody was thinking about murder, stitch by long-suffering stitch. The picture shows some of Mary, Queen of Scots work, done perhaps during her long years in the custody of the unshakeable Countess of Shrewsbury, aka Bess of Hardwick.


Rowlands, Marie B. 1985. “Recusant women 1560-1640,” in Prior, Mary, ed. Women in English Society 1500-1800. Pp. 149-180. London: Methuen.


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