Some Catholic scholars, exiled on the continent, had been working on ways to bring England back to the old religion. These beliefs reached York in the 1570s, circulated by the master of Archbishop Holgate’s School, John Fletcher, among others.
At a time when the nation was drifting towards war with Catholic Spain, York’s hard-line Catholic community was considered a big problem even though it was small in size: perhaps a hundred all told.
In 1577 the High Commission reprimanded the Mayor and other civic leaders for being too lenient towards Catholic recusants – the name given to those who refused to attend Church of England services.
Two years later and a new Mayor, Robert Cripling, who was married to a Catholic, refused to take any action against the city’s Catholics. In response the Council in the North imprisoned a serving Lord Mayor for the first time. After 1580 no councillors expressed support for the Catholic religion and from then on the corporation cooperated with the official church and state policies.
Other Catholics in the city continued to flout the law and, being unable to pay punitive fines, were thrown into prison. Most were women, with 30 recusant wives or widows sent to jail in York Castle or elsewhere. More than a third died from disease while inside.
The regime became even more harsh in 1581 when an Act made celebrating Catholic mass punishable by death. From 1585 Jesuit and seminary priests were banished from the nation on pain of death. In 1586 the most famous sacrifice was made, not by a priest, but by Margaret Clitherow.
In the 13 years up to 1595 30 priests were tried and executed in the north, most at York’s Knavesmire. During these years in the city a Protestant schoolboy in the city was converted to Catholicism, his name: Guy Fawkes.