Smugglers, Patronesses and Scribes: Archival Remnants of Disorder and Activism among Elizabethan Catholic Women


This paper explored a wide range of inherently interdisciplinary literary and historical archival sources that, taken collectively, reveal much about a dissident religious community that was essentially not supposed to exist: the persecuted Roman Catholic "recusant" minority in Elizabethan and early Stuart England. The practical focus here was upon a range of recently uncovered and unpublished manuscripts that together shed considerable new light on the active"though as yet generally unacknowledged"participation of recusant women in the smuggling, circulation, collection and reading of contemporary, illicit Catholic books and scribal manuscripts during this period of intense press censorship.

In particular, I explored three separate sets of archival resources: (1) an official inventory implicating several leading gentry Catholic women in a book smuggling operation organized through the Marshalsea prison in 1587; (2) separate inventories of the personal libraries of male and female occupants of a gentry country house that was raided and searched by officials amid revelations surrounding the Babington Plot to murder and replace the Queen with a Catholic successor; and (3) various manuscript materials documenting a small coterie of aristocratic and gentry Catholic women in East Anglia who patronized a local Catholic scribe responsible for producing and circulating Catholic religious texts in scribal formats.

The first two archival sources derive from generally random inventories of official information and testimony supplied to Queen Elizabeth"s chief minister, Lord Burleigh, thereby representing unsympathetic sources of "hostile witness" that are, nonetheless, useful in reconstructing acts of religious disorder and confessional defiance. The third set of archival sources derive, collectively, from the extant manuscript commonplace book of the Catholic scribe in question, a surviving presentation copy of a scribal publication delivered by the scribe to a Catholic peeress, as well as local record office documents (probate documents, official pursuivant testimony, recusant returns, etc.) illustrative of the identities and activities of the various women active within this regional Catholic coterie.