Today, this is just an expression.  But in Elizabethan England, it was literally true. In the Summer 2019 issue of Renaissance Quarterly, Mark Rankin, Professor of English at James Madison University, explains.


Niccolo Circignani, Ecclasiae Anglicanae Trophaea (1584), Plate 31. Folger Shakespeare Library (CC BY-SA 4.0).

In 16th century England, religion was a matter of life and death in this world as well as the next. When Elizabeth I ascended the throne in 1558, she rejected the Catholicism of her predecessor and half-sister, Mary I, and returned the country to the Protestant faith of her father, Henry VIII.

Catholics violently opposed this change. A rebellion against Elizabeth’s rule broke out in the North in 1569. The following year, Pope Pius V excommunicated the queen and absolved subjects of their loyalty to her.  Many Catholics saw fellow Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots as the English throne’s rightful occupant, and were prepared to put her there in Elizabeth’s place.

Elizabeth took action against this threat. A royal proclamation in 1573 banned ownership of Catholic books, and a similar edict in 1582 declared Catholic priests to be traitors.

Nor was Parliament idle. The Treasons Act of 1571 declared it to be High Treason to utter or declare, aloud or in writing, that the Queen should be harmed, that any person should succeed her, or that a foreign power should invade England. The Statute Against Seditious Words and Rumors of 1581 made it a felony to write, print, or distribute any false, seditious, or slanderous matter with malicious intent against the Queen, and the 1585 Act Against Jesuits and Seminarists prescribed the death penalty for anyone harboring a priest.

The government enforced these laws with vigor.  Mary Queen of Scots was executed in 1586 for involvement in a plot against Elizabeth’s life.  During Elizabeth’s reign, the government imprisoned at least 285 Catholics, and executed about 116 of them.

One of the chief enforcers was Richard Topcliffe, who seems to have been almost universally despised. He was reputedly guilty of rape, and was reported to have groped the Queen herself. According to one writer, he possessed “as mean a disposition and as bloodthirsty a vindictiveness as the byepaths of history have ever brought to light.”  Some said he tortured priests in his own home. He was, however, good at his job.

Topcliffe’s usual method was to raid his targets’ lodgings, confiscate the books he found there, annotate allegedly treasonous passages, and pass the books on to prosecutors. He also participated in interrogating and torturing the books’ owners, and sometimes even gave speeches at the victims’ executions.  His payment sometimes included property the traitors had forfeited to the crown.

Copies of Catholic books with his marginal notes can still be found in English libraries. Scholars can use them to shed light on the activities of both sides of this 16th century religious struggle.

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Article: Mark Rankin, “Richard Topcliffe and the Book Culture of the Elizabethan Catholic Underground,” Renaissance Quarterly, 72:2 (Summer 2019), pp. 492-536.

Further Reading: Stephen Alford, The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I. (Bloomsbury Press 2012); Jessie Childs, God’s Traitors: Terror & Faith in Elizabethan England. (Oxford University Press 2014);