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

6. The Lives of Ordinary Catholics under Elizabeth

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In this module, we think about the experience of ordinary Catholics in Elizabethan England, focusing in particular on: (i) the attendance of many Catholics at Protestant services, and the ways in which they tried to blot out what was happening, e.g. reading a book, humming to themselves, etc.; (ii) Cardinal William Allen's instruction that Catholic priests should not give absolution to those Catholics who had attended Protestant services, but the extent to which Catholic priests adhered to this instruction; (iii) the practice by Catholics of 'doubling-up' ceremonies, e.g. allowing their baby to be baptised in the Church of England, but then having a Catholic baptism performed in private; (iv) the permission given to Catholic priests to conceal their faith in cases of conscience; (v) the permission given to Catholic priests to offer communion and confession to those attending Protestant services in certain circumstances; (vi) the constant growth of Catholicism in this period, and the reasons for this growth; (vii) the figure of Sir Thomas Tresham (1543-1605), his refusal to have anything to do with the Protestant church, and the innovative ways in which he asserted his Catholic faith; (viii) the figure of Sir Thomas Cornwallis (1518/19-1604), his work with Protestant magistrates to work against extreme Protestants (Puritans), and his ability to live as a Catholic relatively undisturbed.


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 - The Lives of Ordinary Catholics under Elizabeth [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Morrill, John. "The Tudors – Elizabeth I and the Catholic Problem, 1558-1603 – The Lives of Ordinary Catholics under Elizabeth." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 15 Aug 2018,

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