Attitudes to Catholicism in Webster's time

Papal rule

At the start of the sixteenth century England was a Christian country following the practices of the Catholic Church. As today, this was governed by the Pope whose headquarters were in Rome. The Catholic Church saw itself as having been established by the Apostle Peter, a disciple of Jesus, and all Popes since then have been viewed by Catholics as following in an unbroken line from Peter.

Although the kings of England were supreme rulers within the country in all earthly (or temporal), matters, the Pope had supreme power in England, and in all other Christian states, over matters of the Christian religion. 

More on Christendom: Because of its link with Rome, services in the Catholic Church world-wide (an area known as Christendom) were always held in Latin, the language of the Romans. A Christian traveller could go anywhere within Christendom and hear the same service. Latin had become the international language:

  • The language of religion in Europe, and therefore,
  • The language of scholarship.

The transition from Catholicism to Protestantism in England

The split with Rome

Katherine AragonAnti-Catholicism began with the English Reformation under Henry VIII. Henry wanted to divorce his first wife Katharine, as she had not produced a male heir, and to marry Anne Boleyn. In order to achieve this he removed England from the control of the Pope and set up the Church of England.

The Act of Supremacy of 1534 declared the English crown to be 'the only supreme head on earth of the Church in England' in place of the Pope. Any act of allegiance to the latter was considered treasonous because the papacy claimed both spiritual and political power over its followers. It was under this act that Thomas More and John Fisher were executed and became martyrs to the Catholic faith.

Return to Catholicism

Mary IHenry's daughter, Mary, had been brought up as a Catholic by her mother Katharine of Aragon. During the five years of her reign, from 1553 to 1558, Mary I reversed the movement to Protestantism in England. Those who refused to declare loyalty to the Pope and to Catholicism (including Archbishop Cranmer) were burnt at the stake – giving Mary her nickname of ‘Bloody Mary'.

Elizabeth's reign

Mary died in November 1558 without an heir so the throne passed to her half sister Elizabeth, who set about re-introducing Protestantism to England. Given recent history, there continued to be suspicion of Catholic activities, especially as plots to kill the Queen were later uncovered.

Pope Pius VAnti-Catholicism among many of the English was grounded in the fear that the Pope would seek to re-impose not just spiritual authority over England but also secular power over the country; this was seemingly confirmed by various actions of the Vatican. In 1570, Pope Pius V sought to depose Elizabeth I with the papal bull Regnans in Excelsis, which declared her a heretic and absolved Elizabeth's subjects of their duty of allegiance to her. This meant that Elizabeth's subjects who persisted in their allegiance to the Catholic Church were politically suspect.

James I's reign

In the early years of the seventeenth century several events caused strong anti-Catholicism in England. Most famous was the Gunpowder Plot, in which Guy Fawkes and other Catholic conspirators were arrested whilst planning to blow up the English Parliament while it was in session.

Catholic stereotypes in The White Devil

The White Devil is set in Italy, a Catholic country. This setting was frequently used in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama as the audience was happy to believe that evil and corruption were common in such places. It fitted in with the anti-Catholic sentiment that increased after 1605, as well as ideas commonly held about Italy inspired by the reputation of Machiavelli and the Borgias (see Social / political context > Renaissance Italy).

In The White Devil we see evidence of this:

  • The Catholic Cardinal Monticelso, who later becomes Pope, takes an active role in the plotting. In Act 3 sc 1 Monticelso admits to Francisco that there is no evidence of murder against Vittoria, yet he is (unjustly) determined to have her convicted
  • The poisonings of Isabella and later Brachiano are a reminder of the reputation of the Borgias, who had such an influence on the Church and state.

James I's assertion of English Protestantism

Translation  of the Bible into English

As part of the growing movement against the Catholic Church and the power of the Pope, reformers had begun translating the Bible into their own languages for the previous 300 years. However, the translation of the Bible into English, by John Wycliffe (1330-84) for example, was seen as an attack upon the authority of the Catholic Church, whose copies of the Bible, prayer books and services were all in Latin.

Using only Latin gave the priests considerable control over the beliefs of the uneducated people who could not read or understand these texts themselves. In The White Devil Latin is frequently used to assert authority, because it excludes those who do not comprehend it. Webster's audience would have sympathised with Vittoria's demand to be tried in English so that what was being said was easy to comprehend.

English translations

During the sixteenth century, as England under Henry VIII, Edward VI and then Elizabeth I became a Protestant country (see also World of Shakespeare > Key events > Protestant versus Catholic), various translations of the Bible into English (from its original Hebrew and Greek) had been produced. One of the most significant was by William Tyndale, a Protestant scholar, which was published in 1526.

The King James Bible

James I of England (who was also James VI of Scotland) had been brought up as a Protestant even though his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, was a Catholic. (See also World of Shakespeare > Key events > The Stuart monarchy.) He was persuaded that one of the ways in which English Protestantism could be reinforced was to produce an authoritative translation of the Bible in the English language:

  • At the Hampton Court Conference on religious matters held in 1604, it was suggested to James I that a new translation of the Bible should be made
  • James was very keen on the idea, and commissioned various committees to undertake the work and to look at existing translations. A large proportion of their final material was based on Tyndale's work
  • The result of their collaborations, published in 1611, was the version now known (since it had been authorised by King James) as the Authorised Version – or sometimes the King James - Bible. It is still used in many English churches today, though there have been many more recent translations.

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