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The Tudors – Elizabeth I and the Catholic Problem, 1558-1603

5. Enforcement of the Penal Laws

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In this module, we think about the enforcement of the penal laws, focusing in particular on: (i) the number of foreign-trained Catholic priests in England, and the proportion who are arrested and punished versus those who are allowed to get on with their lives; (ii) the extent to which the Elizabethan regime knew about foreign-trained Catholic priests in England; (iii) the attempt by the regime to distinguish those foreign-trained Catholic priests who were politically dangerous from those who were not; (iv) the extent to which ordinary Catholics faced low-level harassment, fines and imprisonment; (v) the extent to which the Oath of Supremacy was imposed; (vi) the tendency of local magistrates to impose the lower level of recusancy fines available to them – twelve pennies a week rather than twenty pounds a month; and (vii) the Elizabethan regime's overall goal with their approach: eliminating the radicals without radicalising the moderates.


In this course, Professor John Morrill (University of Cambridge) thinks about the treatment of Catholics during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603). The course begins by thinking about Elizabeth's own religious beliefs, focusing in particular at the practices in her private chapels as well as her treatment of Catholics who were known personally to her. After that, we turn to the Elizabethan Religious Settlement of 1558-59, before moving on in the third module to look at the Penal Laws that were introduced followed the Catholic rebellions in 1569-70. We continue to explore the Penal Laws in the fourth and fifth modules, focusing first on the Catholic response to the laws – especially on the Continent – and then on the enforcement of the laws, before moving on in the sixth module to think about the lives of ordinary Catholics under Elizabeth's rule.


John Morrill was educated at Altrincham Grammar School (Cheshire) and at Trinity College Oxford (BA 1967, DPhil 1971). He was a Research Fellow there (1970-4) and a Lecturer at Stirling University (1974-5) before moving to Cambridge in 1975 as Lecturer, Reader and now Professor. He has been a Fellow of Selwyn College since 1975 and was Director of Studies in History 1975-92, Tutor 1979-92, Admissions Tutor 1982-7, Senior Tutor 1987-92 and Vice Master 1992-2001. He was elected as a Fellow of the British Academy in 1995 and served as Vice President from 2001-9. He is also an Honorary Member of the Royal Irish Academy and the Academy of Finland, and he holds honorary degrees from several universities and is an Hon. Fellow of Trinity College Oxford and Trinity College Dublin. He is also a permanent deacon in the Roman Catholic Church and holds several senior positions in the Diocese of East Anglia (eg Chair of the Commission for Evangelisation and Assistant Director for Diaconal Formation) and he teaches Church History and pastoral theology one weekend a month at St John's Seminary, Wonersh.

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APA style

Morrill, J. (2018, August 15). The Tudors – Elizabeth I and the Catholic Problem, 1558-1603 - Enforcement of the Penal Laws [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Morrill, J. "The Tudors – Elizabeth I and the Catholic Problem, 1558-1603 – Enforcement of the Penal Laws." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 15 Aug 2018,

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