In her ecclesiastical policy Elizabeth trusted mainly to time; and time, as we have seen, justified her trust. Her system of compromise both in faith and worship, of quietly replacing the old priesthood as it died out by Protestant ministers, of wearying recusants into at least outer conformity with the state-religion and attendance on the state-services by fines - a policy aided, no doubt, by the moral influences we have described - was gradually bringing England round to a new religious front But the decay of Catholicism appealed strongly to the new spirit of Catholic zeal which, in its despair of aid from Catholic princes, was now girding itself for its own bitter struggle with heresy. Dr. Allen, a scholar who had been driven from Oxford by the test prescribed by the Act of Uniformity, had foreseen the results of the dying out of the Marian priests, and had set up a seminary at Douay to supply their place. The new college, liberally supported by the Catholic peers, and supplied with pupils by a stream of refugees from Oxford and the English grammar schools, soon landed its "seminary priests" on English shores; and few as they were at first, their presence was at once felt in the check which it gave to the gradual reconciliation of the Catholic gentry to the English Church. No check could have been more galling to Elizabeth, and her resentment was quickened by the sense of danger.
She had accepted the Bull of Deposition as a declaration of war on the part of the Papacy, and she viewed the Douay priests with some justice as its political emissaries. The comparative security of the Catholics from active persecution during the early part of her reign had arisen partly from the sympathy and connivance of the gentry who acted as justices of the peace, but still more from her own religious indifference. But the Test Act placed the magistracy in Protestant hands; and as Elizabeth passed from indifference to suspicion and from suspicion to terror she put less restraint on the bigotry around her. In quitting Euston Hall, which she had visited in one of her pilgrimages, the Queen gave its master, young Rookwood, thanks for his entertainment and her hand to kiss. "But my Lord Chamberlain nobly and gravely understanding that Rookwood was excommunicate" for non-attendance at church, "called him before him, demanded of him how he durst presume to attempt her royal presence, he unfit to accompany any Christian person, forthwith said that he was fitter for a pair of stocks, commanded him out of Court, and yet to attend the Council's pleasure." The Council's pleasure was seen in his committal to the town prison at Norwich, while "seven more gentlemen of worship" were fortunate enough to escape with a simple sentence of arrest at their own homes.
The Queen's terror became a panic in the nation at large. The few priests who landed from Douay were multiplied into an army of Papal emissaries despatched to sow treason and revolt throughout the land. Parliament, which the working of the Test Act had made a wholly Protestant body, save for the presence of a few Catholics among the peers, was summoned to meet the new danger, and declared the landing of these priests and the harbouring of them to be treason.
The Act proved no idle menace; and the execution of Cuthbert Mayne, a young priest who was arrested in Cornwall with the Papal Bull of Deposition hidden about him, gave a terrible indication of the character of the struggle upon which Elizabeth was about to enter. She was far, indeed, from any purpose of religious persecution; she boasted of her abstinence from any interference with men's consciences; and Cecil, in his official defence of her policy, while declaring freedom of worship to be incompatible with religious order, boldly asserted the right of every English subject to perfect freedom of religious opinion. To modern eyes there is something even more revolting than open persecution in the policy which branded every Catholic priest as a traitor, and all Catholic worship as disloyalty; but the first step towards toleration was won when the Queen rested her system of repression on purely political grounds. If Elizabeth was a persecutor, she was the first English ruler who felt the charge of religious persecution to be a stigma on her rule. Nor can it be denied that there was a real political danger in the new missionaries.
Allen was a restless conspirator, and the work of his seminary priests was meant to aid a new plan of the Papacy for the conquest of England. And to the efforts of the seminary priests were now added those of Jesuit missionaries. A select few of the Oxford refugees at Douay joined the order of the Jesuits, whose members were already famous for their blind devotion to the will and judgements of Rome; and the two ablest and most eloquent of these exiles, Campian, once a fellow of St. John's, and Parsons, once a fellow of Balliol, were chosen as the heads of a Jesuit mission in England. For the moment their success was amazing. The eagerness shown to hear Campian was so great that in spite of the denunciations of the Government he was able to preach with hardly a show of concealment to a large audience at Smithfield. From London the missionaries wandered in the disguise of captains or serving-men, sometimes even in the cassock of the English clergy, through many of the counties; and wherever they went the zeal of the Catholic gentry revived.
The list of nobles reconciled to the old faith by these wandering apostles was headed by the name of Lord Oxford, Cecil's own son-in-law and the proudest among English peers.
The success of the Jesuits in undoing Elizabeth's work of compromise was shown in a more public way by the growing withdrawal of the Catholics from attendance at the worship of the English Church. The panic of the Protestants and of the Parliament outran even the real greatness of the danger. The little group of missionaries was magnified by popular fancy into a host of disguised Jesuits; and the invasion of this imaginary host was met by the seizure and torture of as many priests as the Government could lay hands on, the imprisonment of recusants, and the securing of the prominent Catholics throughout the country; and by statutes which prohibited the saying of Mass even in private houses, increased the fine on recusants to twenty pounds a month, and enacted that "all persons pretending to any power of absolving subjects from their allegiance, or practising to withdraw them to the Romish religion, with all persons after the present session willingly so absolved or reconciled to the See of Rome, shall be guilty of High Treason." The way in which the vast powers conferred on the Crown by this statute were used by Elizabeth was not only characteristic in itself, but important as at once defining the policy to which, in theory at least, her successors adhered for more than a hundred years.