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Increased Catholic Threat to Elizabeth I (GCSE Example Answer)


Last updated 11 Apr 2020

Here is an example answer to the following 16-mark question on the reasons for the increased Catholic threat to Elizabeth I after 1566.

‘The main reason why the Catholic threat to Elizabeth I increased after 1566 was due to the Dutch Revolt’. How far do you agree?

Marks: 16 marks + 4 marks SPAG

Stimulus = Mary Queen of Scots’ arrival in England / The sea beggars

[Examiner commentary following each paragraph and at the end is provided in italics]


Elizabeth had been in power for eight years by 1566 and it was at this time that the Catholic threat began to increase. There are many reasons for this, including interference in English affairs from the Pope, Elizabeth’s role in the Dutch revolt (which angered Catholic Spain), Mary Queen of Scots’ arrival in England in 1568 and the rebellion in 1569 that was led by the Catholic Earls Northumberland and Westmoreland. The most important reason however was a combination of Mary’s arrival and the Pope’s interference. Mary served as a permanent reminder at home and abroad that there was a legitimate Catholic heir to the throne and, with the Pope’s blessing, willing Catholic rebels could convince themselves they were doing God’s work.

[This is a confident answer because it selects two reasons and links them together, showing a clear conceptual focus as well as wide-ranging knowledge]

Fearful of the wrath of Catholic powerhouses, France and Spain, Elizabeth did not want to be perceived as Europe’s leading Protestant. However, she was fearful of the presence of Spain in the Netherlands, who were busy putting down the Dutch Revolt from 1566 under the command of the Duke of Alba. Elizabeth therefore committed actions that helped undermine the Spanish whilst ensuring England did not become fully embroiled in the conflict. For example, from 1567, Elizabeth allowed the Dutch sea beggars to shelter in English harbours (from where they then attacked Spanish ships in the English Channel who were making their way with men and materiel to support Alba’s mission). In 1568 Elizabeth also controversially stole gold from Spanish ships (which was loaned from Genoese banks to fund the Spanish army, against the Dutch rebels) that were staying at English ports. This interference greatly angered the Spanish and provoked the ire of many Catholics, who now no longer saw Elizabeth as a mediator of the status quo, but as an interfering, troublesome monarch.

[Referencing this date is very good, because it demonstrates to the examiner awareness of WHY the question includes this date in the first place. Good explanation and link back to the question here at the end of the paragraph.]

Importantly though, the arrival of Mary Queen of Scots in England did more to embolden the threat of Catholicism. Her arrival and ultimate house arrest were the result of her having to flee Scotland. Mary’s permanent presence in England meant that she was a rallying point for many Catholics, who believed she had a stronger claim to the English throne than Elizabeth. This helps to explain why Elizabeth had to deal with so many plots, the intention of which was to replace Elizabeth with Mary. The Ridolfi Plot of 1571 and later the Throckmorton and Babington Plots, of 1583 and 1586 respectively, all involved the aim of placing Mary on the throne. Importantly too, at different points these plots were orchestrated or sponsored by the Pope and Spain and were dependent on the support of English Catholics to work, demonstrating the increasing Catholic threat to Elizabeth, internationally and domestically.

[The importance of dates and chronology help demonstrate the long- term impact of Mary’s presence, which helps support the initial judgement.]

It was the arrival of Mary which also partly contributed to the revolt of the Northern Earls in 1569, which had brief success. Led by two powerful Catholic landowners, Thomas Percy, Earl of Northumberland, and Charles Neville, Earl of Westmorland, this rebellion’s principal aims included the restoration of Catholicism to England, as well as the installation of Mary as Queen of England. The rebellion involved a force of approximately 5500 men and, for approximately a month, the north of England (from Alnwick to Pontefract, east of the Pennines) was in the control of the northern earls. For two weeks of the second half of November, Catholic mass was heard at Durham Cathedral too (with all evidence of Protestantism destroyed). This was important because it demonstrated the strength of Catholic feeling within England and highlighted how Elizabeth, after 11 years, was still vulnerable to English Catholics. This partly explained why harsher treatment of Catholics occurred soon after, led by the Council of the North. However, it should be noted that one reason for the eventual crushing of the revolt is because the vast majority of Catholics in the north stayed loyal to Elizabeth and did not revolt, suggesting that Elizabeth did not face a threat from all Catholics within England, but enough of a threat to be permanently suspicious.

[This last point is important and often students don’t embrace the anomalies for fear that it will undermine their argument. Level 4 is about analysis supported by a detailed line of reasoning, so embracing counter-arguments like this are encouraged (so long as they can be explained).]

One fact that should not be ignored from 1566 was the increasing role of the Pope and his determination to undermine Elizabeth. From 1566 the Pope had instructed English Catholics to take part in recusancy, and by 1570 a Papal Bull had been issued excommunicating Elizabeth and stating that English Catholics had no need to have loyalty towards their Queen and instead should help overthrow her. Indeed, the Ridolfi Plot of 1571 was even led by one of the Pope’s spies, Roberto Ridolfi. From 1574, with the help of the Pope, Catholic priests were also being smuggled into England to continue the spread of the Catholic faith. As the closest person to God in the eyes of the Catholics, obeying the Pope was of paramount importance and this meant Elizabeth had to be suspicious of other Catholic threats at home.

In all, whilst the Catholic threat was increased through Elizabeth’s interference with the Dutch revolt, as it incurred the anger of the Spanish, it was Mary Queen of Scots’ presence that emboldened the Catholic threat. Mary became the inspiration for frequent revolts and rebellions, as it suddenly appeared possible that Elizabeth could be realistically replaced by a legitimate Catholic heir. Moreover, the brazenness of these revolts was further helped by the blessing of the Pope, whose directives on recusancy and overthrowing Elizabeth were obeyed by many Catholics both domestically and internationally. Therefore, I disagree with the statement.

[A clear summary of the arguments, once more making the link between Mary, the Pope and Catholic interference.]

Overall Examiner Comments:

Level 4, 13-16 (+3-4 marks SPAG)

A very detailed response which demonstrates excellent subject knowledge and reaches a clear judgement based on justifiable criteria. The answer does touch upon the issue of religion but this could be extended further to acknowledge the extensive divisions within society given the preceding tumultuous changes (a brief mention of the role of the puritans for example could help). Nevertheless, the answer has sustained conceptual focus and is wide-ranging in its analysis.

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