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

3. The Penal Laws

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In this module, we think about the nature of Elizabeth's response to the Catholic rebellion of 1569-70, a suite of measures known as the penal laws. As we move through the module, we consider: (i) the imposition of the death penalty for any foreign-trained Catholic priests who came to England, and the effect of this law on moderate Catholics; (ii) the imposition of the death penalty for those harbouring Catholic priests; (iii) the imposition of fines and imprisonment for the possession of Catholic paraphernalia, e.g. chalices, crucifixes, etc.; (iv) the imposition of fines for not attending Protestant services, known as recusancy fines; (v) the implication of the fact that recusancy fines were applied only to the head of the household, not to his wife, children or servants; (vi) the institution of an Oath of Supremacy, and the punishments imposed on those on those refusing to take the oath; (vii) the expulsion of Catholics from universities, the civil service, and political life more generally; (viii) the exposure of Catholics to having their houses searched for arms, potentially ransacked; and (ix) the impact on ordinary Catholics of being ruled by someone who had always been illegitimate, but was now also a tyrant.


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.

Cite this Lecture

APA style

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

MLA style

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

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