Voices of the English Reformation: A Sourcebook

By John N. King | Go to book overview

2.6. William Cecil, from
The Execution of Justice in England (1583)

Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1520–98) wrote the official governmental response to the Roman Catholic Mission to England that began in 1580 under the leadership of Robert Parsons (see 1.2.C, 2.5, 6.9). English Protestants feared that missionaries trained at seminaries on the Continent and their lay adherents were engaged in plots to overthrow Elizabeth I. The Jesuit endorsement of equivocation and mental reservation as methods of argument heightened this anxiety. Royal proclamations declaring that Jesuits and seminarians were guilty of treason led to the hanging, drawing, and quartering of scores of missionary priests.

Although it was published anonymously, Cecil wrote The Execution of Justice in England for Maintenance of Public and Christian Peace, Without Any Persecution for Questions of Religion (1583) in his capacity as Queen Elizabeth’s chief minister. Asserting that the queen possesses divinely ordained authority to counter rebellion, it declares that execution represents just punishment of Catholic missionaries for treason rather than religious belief. It rejects dual allegiance to both the queen and the pope. This defense of the Elizabethan regime against charges of torture and persecution underwent translation into Latin, French, Dutch, and Italian for a continental readership. William Allen countered Cecil’s arguments in A True, Sincere, and Modest Defense of English Catholics (see 2.7).

SOURCE: STC 4902, A2r–v, A3r–A4r, E2v–E3r, E4r–v.

EDITION: Kingdon

REFERENCE: Conyers Read, Lord Burghley and Queen Elizabeth (London: Jonathan Cape, 1960).

It hath been in all ages and in all countries a common usage of all offenders for the most part, both great and small, to make defense of their lewd and unlawful facts by untruths and by coloring and covering their deeds (were they never so vile) with pretenses of some other causes of contrary operations or effects: to the intent not only to avoid punishment or shame but to continue, uphold, and prosecute their wicked attempts to the full satisfaction of their disordered and malicious appetites. And though such hath been the use of all offenders, yet of none with more danger than of rebels and traitors to their lawful princes, kings, and countries. Of which sort of late years are specially to be noted certain persons, naturally born subjects in the realm of England and Ireland, who, having for some good time professed outwardly their obedience to their sovereign lady Queen Elizabeth, have nevertheless afterward been stirred up and seduced by wicked spirits, first in England sundry years past, and secondly and of later time in Ireland, to enter into open rebellion, taking arms and coming into the field against Her Majesty and her lieutenants, with their forces under banners displayed, inducing by

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