It really is a fairly simple thing. Those Englishmen who were devoted to the Papacy fled England after the accession of Elizabeth I and founded schools for the training of priests on the continent. Their purpose was the reconversion of England to the Roman faith.1 After their ordination they would sneak back into England to help maintain the faith of English recusants 2 but also to provide intelligence for the King of Spain and other European powers who might aid in returning the English to the papal faith by force of arms. They frequently ended up in conspiracies to murder Elizabeth and put her cousin, Mary of Scotland, on the English throne. There were a couple of occasions when some authorities believe they betrayed one or more of their own to the English authorities for the purpose of being able to portray those caught in a plot against the throne and the state as religious martyrs, when from a purely secular point of view they were no more than traitors and potential murderers. Many of those so executed are buried in the churchyard of St Giles in the Fields in London. Frequently they were very attractive people as individuals, but their activity can hardly be squared with the teaching of St Paul or the behaviour of Christians under Pagan Rome.
Elizabeth, on the other hand, employed some of the greatest of those of the Roman faith, Tallis and Tavener among them to say nothing of the duke of Norfolk, only requiring them to obey the laws of the kingdom for the safety of all Englishmen. After all it was not her intention to break with the papacy but merely to reform the Church in England. Instead it was a very ill advised pope who excommunicated Elizabeth when even French cardinals were convinced that it was the example of the English Church which should be followed. But as one of the writers at the time noted of the Council of Trent, the Holy Spirit had a practice of arriving in the diplomatic boxes of the Spanish ambassador. And it was the interests of the Kingdom and Empire of Spain that were ultimately being served, not those of the Kingdom of God.
Certain things that went on in the 16th century provide fuel for modern people who choose to honor their martyrs as if making an argument in the process. In fact, the whole question of martyrs, as such, under Henry and Elizabeth, and of martyrs under Mary, is fairly complicated. But, under Elizabeth no one was executed as a heretic for loyalty to Rome. Under Mary, Protestants had been executed strictly for their religious beliefs.
In the previous generation Thomas More was executed for his belief that Henry had wrongly taken to himself power that belonged rightly to the papacy. Rome canonized Sir Thomas More, and to this day calls him a martyr. Maybe he was a saint and martyr by the time of his death; but if so, a martyr of conscience only; that is, he died for a cause that was not true beyond his conscience. And, if he was judicially murdered his death may have been half martyrdom, and half (to use the words of John Lennon) "instant karma." Thomas More was executed by a judicial murder, for the sake of his conscience; and so he suffered the same fate he had helped to inflict on another man for the sake of that man's conscience; and that was every bit as much of a judicial murder. For, only a few years earlier More had hounded William Tyndale to his death, the first man to translate the Bible into English directly from Hebrew and Greek. Tyndale said, "I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, I will cause the boy that drives the plow in England to know more of the Scriptures than the Pope himself!" Perhaps, and so we may hope, Thomas More really had become a saint by the time of his death, and perhaps, if so, aided by the prayers of the martyred Tyndale himself.
We may honor the courage and faith of those who died for the sake of conscience, including the papists who thought it their duty to overthrow Queen Elizabeth (which would have meant her death) without giving undue weight to their erroneous opinions. In all charity, we hope that their faith in Christ guided them Home through all the darkness and confusion of that era. We hope this equally for all who were killed for conscience sake, whether they were Papist or Protestant, and in consideration of the partial blindness that often disables men who have only the best of intentions.
However, about that troubled century, these facts are often forgotten, or rather, glossed over.
1. The Papacy had been subjugated to the Spanish crown during the reign of Charles V, and years later while Phillip II ruled, the lesson of a pope jailed by a king of Spain (however briefly and symbolically) was not forgotten.
2. Spain saw England as its most serious rival.
3. Spain even sent the Armada to attack England during the reign of Elizabeth.
4. If we have any indication as to whose prayer was heard, and to whom God granted deliverance, it may be contained in words from the Bible: "Even the winds and the sea obey Him."
The one time we see in that history an indisputable Act of God, at least in legal terms that even insurers would recognize, it was an act that defeated the Spanish side, and with it sunk the prospects of forcibly subjecting the religion of England to Rome. "He blew with His winds, and they were scattered." So runs the famous quotation on the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, a joyful expression of thanksgiving that was minted on English coins. This kind of deliverance, when the people did not need to fight, reminds of us of very important battles recorded in Scripture, especially when Judah was attacked by the children of Ammon and Moab and mount Seir. The prophet said, "Ye shall not need to fight in this battle: set yourselves, stand ye still, and see the salvation of the LORD with you, O Judah and Jerusalem: fear not, nor be dismayed." (II Chron. 20)
1. "The Roman Faith" was the expression used by Queen Mary as she was dying.
2. Recusancy was a term used to describe the statutory offense of not complying with and conforming to the established Church of England.