Monday, September 8, 2014
What if the first American colonists had been Catholics seeking refuge from Elizabethan persecution? A new book from Oxford ("God's Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England") tells the story:
Over the summer of 1582 a group of English Catholic gentlemen met to hammer out their plans for a colony in North America — not Roanoke Island, Sir Walter Raleigh’s settlement of 1585, but Norumbega in present-day New England.
The scheme was promoted by two knights of the realm, Sir George Peckham and Sir Thomas Gerard, and it attracted several wealthy backers, including a gentleman from the midlands called Sir William Catesby. In the list of articles drafted in June 1582, Catesby agreed to be an Associate. In return for putting up £100 and ten men for the first voyage (forty for the next), he was promised a seignory of 10,000 acres and election to one of “the chief offices in government”. Special privileges would be extended to “encourage women to go on the voyage” and according to Bernardino de Mendoza, the Spanish ambassador in London, the settlers would “live in those parts with freedom of conscience.”
Religious liberty was important for these English Catholics because they didn’t have it at home. The Mass was banned, their priests were outlawed and, since 1571, even the possession of personal devotional items, like rosaries, was considered suspect. . . .
Sir William Catesby did not sail the seas or have a role in the plantation of what — had it succeeded — would have been the first English colony in North America. He remained in England and continued to strive for a peaceful solution. “Suffer us not to be the only outcasts and refuse of the world,” he and his friends begged Elizabeth I in 1585, just before an act was passed making it a capital offense to be, or even to harbor, a seminary priest in England. Three years later, as the Spanish Armada beat menacingly towards England’s shore, Sir William and other prominent Catholics were clapped up as suspected fifth columnists. In 1593 those Catholics who refused to go to church were forbidden by law from traveling beyond five miles of their homes without a license. And so it went on until William’s death in 1598.
Seven years later, in the reign of the next monarch James I (James VI of Scotland), William’s son Robert became what we would today call a terrorist. Frustrated, angry and “beside himself with mindless fanaticism,” he contrived to blow up the king and the House of Lords at the state opening of Parliament on 5 November 1605.