The following article was written for a revived online version of The Cornish Banner back in 2019. I was drawn to the life of Cuthbert Mayne due to his connection to Cornwall during the Tudor period. His end was brutal and the methods employed by the Tudor state raise many questions regarding the morality of Elizabethan society.

The execution of the Catholic priest Cuthbert Mayne in Launceston in 1577 has long been portrayed as bloody and barbaric. Robert Hutchinson is one such historian who provides an overview of the death:

In being cut down from the gallows, still alive, he fell against the upright beam and horrifically knocked one of his eyes out of its socket. His head was placed above the town’s castle gate and his body quarters were sent to Barnstaple, Bodmin, Wadebridge and Tregony, near Tregian’s house, as a deterrent to further Catholic recusancy.[1]

The gruesome details are chosen by many writers to illuminate the savagery of the act, however, sometimes this execution scene overshadows the more vital aspects of the entire incident. Mayne’s death is illuminating for several reasons: he was the first Catholic missionary to be executed by Queen Elizabeth’s government and both the circumstances and consequences had an impact on religion in the English kingdom. This article sets out to provide an overview of religion during the Elizabethan period of the late-16th Century, before establishing a narrative of Mayne’s involvement in Cornwall in the 1570s which led to his eventual execution in 1577. It will conclude with an assessment of many key areas of debate surrounding the entire episode: how successful were the Catholic missions, what was the importance of local politics in Mayne’s capture and execution, as well as how are we to position Mayne in terms of our understanding of this period of Cornish – and wider national – history.

By 1577 the English Reformation had endured for almost half-a-century, changing and adapting to suit the whims and tastes of different English monarchs. Henry VIII (r: 1509-1547) broke with Rome in the 1530s, which provided him with great powers, but yet the final decade of his reign saw religious retrenchment rather than further Protestant reform. The reign of his son, Edward VI (r: 1547-1553), saw drastic Protestant reform, with the new prayer book of 1549 providing the impetus to the Western Rebellion (otherwise known as the Great Prayer Book Rebellion) that heavily featured the Cornish region. Then, a  further change occurred within the short reign of Queen Mary I (r: 1553-1558), when Catholicism was officially restored, before the accession of Elizabeth (r: 1558-1603). Elizabeth’s religious settlement of 1559, comprising of the Act of Uniformity and the Act of Supremacy, appeared to find a solution to the constant flux of the English Reformation: a Church that attempted to be a mixture of both Protestant and Catholic. Elizabeth’s Church was essentially one that was Protestant in doctrine but yet one that retained many Catholic traditions, fixtures and fittings.

The early period of the Elizabethan Settlement was characterised by the government being desperate to make friends and allies rather than provoke enemies. Much is read into Queen Elizabeth’s own comment on not wanting to ‘open windows into men’s souls’, highlighting that to her it mattered little on a person’s religious tastes just as long as they were obedient to her. However, the Settlement laid down fines for those who did not attend Anglican services. Many Catholics conformed, however, some refused to obey and became recusants, thereby provoking the wrath of the law. But yet in the early years many of the fines went uncollected and Catholics were largely overlooked, perhaps because Elizabeth was cautious in introducing draconian anti-Catholic measures in order to avoid antagonising the foreign powers, principally Spain and France. There is an alternative view which suggests that Elizabeth was simply playing the long-game, with Warren noting how the government believed that ‘Catholicism would wither away with the passing of time’.[2]

However, the honeymoon period of relative peace and stability of Elizabeth’s early years would not hold. In 1568, Mary Queen of Scots fled to England, which in turn destabilised politics and religion in the kingdom; it was a factor in the rise of the 1569 Northern Rebellion, which subsequently coaxed the Pope in 1570 – Pius V – to excommunicate Elizabeth. This was achieved in the form of a Papal Bull – Regnans in Excelsis – which declared Elizabeth to be ‘the pretended Queen of England and the servant of crime’.[3] Furthermore, the foiled plan to assassinate Elizabeth (the Ridolfi Plot of 1571) led to the execution of the Duke of Norfolk, England’s most prominent and last duke who was the most high-profile Catholic in the kingdom. The quick succession of these events in a handful of years changed the position of Catholics in England: no longer was it possible to remain politically neutral. The 1570 Papal Bull forced Catholics to pick a side: either they chose their Pope and their religion, or instead they chose their Queen. As Tillbrook notes, ‘this placed English Catholics in an impossible position’.[4]

The period from the 1570s-1580s saw an escalation in anti-Catholic legislation. An act of 1571 made the publication and possession of a Papal Bull in England treasonable, whilst the 1580s – with the looming threat of an all-out war with Catholic Spain – saw the introduction of new acts that made it treasonable to withdraw a subject’s allegiance to the Queen.

It is clear, then, that English Catholicism was under attack by the Elizabethan state, and with many Catholic figureheads having chosen exile this meant that English Catholics were bereft of leadership. However, in 1568 – the same year that Mary Queen of Scots arrived in England – a new strategy was created in continental Europe: the foundation of the college of Douai in the Spanish Netherlands under the watchful eye of influential priest William Allen. A plan was formulated: train Catholic priests so that they could be sent to England on missions in order to keep the flame of Catholicism alive. In many ways it was a crucial turning-point for English Catholicism; as John Bossy notes, it was ‘the ‘the first step towards the outward traffic of emigres into an inward traffic of priests’.[5]

Christopher Haigh believes that the missions were ‘an instant educational success’.[6] This has much to do with their belief and commitment:

The priests trained at Douai were particularly well equipped for the English mission. They were left in no doubt as to the alleged evils of the heretics, but they were also taught to recognise the sinfulness of Catholics past and present which had encouraged the temporary triumph of Protestantism. The priests were able to meet the Protestants on their own ground through in-depth study of the Bible and training in effective preaching.[7]

However, with ‘little or no infrastructural framework’ to assist them, the task for these priests was daunting.[8] Furthermore, as soon as they were in the country they were essentially on their own. Tillbrook highlights the jeopardy of this situation:

This was dangerous work as they had to operate, in secretive circumstances, from the country houses of Catholic gentry and aristocracy. Merely being a Catholic priest was sufficient, from 1585, to incur the death penalty.[9]

Yet despite these complications, the growth of missionary numbers highlights the advancement of the Douai strategy: by 1575 eleven of these priests were active in England, by 1577 Hutchinson estimates that this had risen to more than fifty, and by 1580 the figure reached one hundred.[10] Furthermore, it is estimated that a further 179 priests arrived in England between 1580 and 1585.[11] Despite the obstacles in reaching recusants and secret Catholics, it appears that when contact was made the missionary priest could make a deep impression, as Warren explains:

It is not difficult to imagine the response of an English Catholic who might not have been able to confess for some years. Faced by a priest whose personal holiness was as impressive as his learning, the moment of confession could easily arouse a sense of reborn faith and a commitment to proclaim, rather than to hide, one’s faith.[12]

It would be wise to consider these Catholic missionaries as incredibly brave and effective whenever they reached the right areas of the population, and one of their number was that of Cuthbert Mayne. Mayne was born in north Devon in 1543/44, where he had the advantage of engaging in an education at the local grammar school. By 1561, three years into the new Elizabethan regime, he was serving as the rector of Huntshaw parish in the north Devon region, which appears to indicate that he had accommodated himself to the Settlement of 1559. However, this was to change in the 1560s when Mayne attended Oxford University, where he obtained a B.A. in 1566 and then his M.A. by 1570. Whilst at Oxford he became acquainted with other later prominent names in the Catholic fold, notably Edmund Campion (who would later share the same fate as Mayne in being executed in 1581). The influence of this circle was immense enough to see him convert to Catholicism, although the specific date when this happened is not known. Evidence exists of a letter addressed to Mayne written by another Catholic convert – Gregory Martin – urging Mayne to come to Douai. Unfortunately, the letter fell into the hands of the Bishop of London, who called for Mayne’s arrest; luckily this time, Mayne was forewarned and was able to flee, first to Cornwall and then to the continent where he ended up at Douai.[13]

Mayne was trained at Douai and became an ordinated priest in 1575; within a year he entered England alongside another priest (John Payne) and ultimately ended up at the far-side of the kingdom in Cornwall. As with the other missionaries, Mayne required the protection of someone who could both shield him and feed him; this was an area that mainly fell to aristocrats and members of the gentry (as noted above by Tillbrook). In Cornwall he found one such man in the form of Francis Tregian, who was one of the most influential landowners in the region at that time, as one of the leading local Catholic recusants.

Tregian is an interesting character. His family had risen in stature throughout the Tudor period, with A.L. Rowse calling his grandfather – Thomas Tregian – ‘a very prosperous tin-merchant and shipper’.[14] In 1512 he bought land, becoming a substantial landowner in the region, particularly in obtaining the estate of Wolveden through marriage, which led to the construction of a large estate at the manor of Golden (near Probus). Thomas Tregian’s son, John, has been noted as a ‘man of energy and affairs’, who continued to expand the portfolio through his marriage to Catherine Arundell.[15]

Tregian was not alone in continuing his affinity with Catholicism in the Cornish region. Although the 1549 Great Prayer Book Rebellion proved to be a substantial defeat for Cornish Catholicism, it continued to survive into the Elizabethan period. The notable and influential Arundell family were ‘the chief mainstay of Catholicism’, with the head of the family – Sir John Arundell (1527-1590) – refusing to abide by the Elizabethan Settlement.[16] As noted, the Arundells were connected to Tregian through marriage, but Catholic support was not confirmed to just a handful of families. Rowse notes how there were many gentry, yeomen, and townsmen Catholics in the county, stating that there were more recusants in Cornwall than other west-country counties: ‘as many as Devon, Dorset and Somerset together’.[17]

On inheriting vast estates in 1575, one of Francis Tregian’s first – and, as it turned out, most significant – acts was in providing shelter to Mayne. The collection of Tregian estates provided a great opportunity for Mayne to conduct his affairs – posing as one of his stewards whilst also serving as his private chaplain; however, it appears that his presence in Cornwall was not a complete secret. Rowse notes how ‘it could not but have been known about the county: it was courting disaster’.[18] In his biography on Sir Richard Grenville, Rowse further discusses this open-secret:

The authorities in Cornwall could not be unaware of the fact that there was a priest at work in the Tregian household, for his ministrations went beyond to a wider circle. Catholic recusants had not yet learned the technique of secrecy, of hiding-places, and of keeping strict watch…[19]

The moment of disaster came in the summer of 1577. In the June of that year the Bishop of Exeter was in the county just miles from Golden, just at the very moment when the High Sheriff of Cornwall – Richard Grenville – gathered together ten Justices of the Peace and a hundred men to search Tregian’s manor. Ostensibly, Grenville had arrived to search for a fugitive (Anthony Bourne), and would not back down to Tregian’s response that searching his home was – in the words of a possible eye-witness at the scene – ‘a great discourtesy, for that he was a gentleman as he was, for that he did account his house as his castle’.[20] The eye-witness provided a snap-shot of the quarrel:

The Sheriff being very bold, because he had a great company with him, swore by all the oaths he could devise, that he would search his house or else eh would kill or be killed, holding his hand upon his dagger as though he would have stabbed it into the gentleman. This violence being used he had leave to search the house.[21]

The stand-off has been further dramatised in D.C. Peck’s novel Castle-Come-Down:

Tregian stepped halfway out into the light. Before him, astride an enormous black mare, sat Sir Richard Grenville, his ferocious buccaneer’s features bedecked with a full gray beard, his hand resting upon the hilt of his sword.

“Mr. Tregian, come forth of your house,” Grenville shouted.

Tregian stepped down and gazed round at the courtyard filled with armed men. His face was ashen, and he failed at first to find his voice.

“We pursue a fugitive, Mr. Tregian, and we must search your house for him.”

“What fugitive?” asked the master of the house. “We keep no fugitives here.”

“One Bourne, who has escaped from St. Austell jail. Come, sir, we must search your house for him.”

“We have no Bourne here, Sir Richard, and you will not search this house.” Tregian was finding a courage to dispute the man that many Spanish seamen lacked.

Sir Richard motioned to his party and dismounted. As he approached the steps, his rough face drawn in contempt for the man who barred his way, Tregian shrank back but stood his ground in the door.

“You do forget yourself, Sir Richard. I must see your warrant ere you will search this house,” he said.

“Warrant!” Grenville bellowed. “I am the sheriff, man, I need no warrant.”

“You must excuse me, sir, sheriff or no I must see your warrant before you enter this house which is mine. So says the law, and so I say, too.”

“Stand aside, Tregian,” Sir Richard snarled, picking the man up and setting him out on the steps. He strode into the hall. Mary Tregian and Mrs. Truro ducked into their parlor and shut the door, the servants fled to the kitchens. Grenville’s men trooped into the house after him, their boots thundering upon the boards.

“Search,” he commanded them, and they fanned out to the wings, peeking into every doorway, some ascending to the floors above, banging on the panelling in hopes of finding a hiding place behind the walls.[22]

Mayne was discovered, alongside a cache of evidence that was used to convict him, including ‘writings, an agnus dei [a Catholic devotional neck-lace], articles in use for mass, and – what was fatal – a papal bull of 1575’.[23] Mayne was sent to Launceston gaol, alongside a host of others who had aided him, including the lord of the manor himself Tregian (who, as Rowse notes, was ‘lodged in the filthy dungeon of which so many have recorded their experience’).[24]

The case became heavily politicised and known throughout the kingdom: what was Elizabeth and the Council to do regarding Mayne? To execute him would potentially antagonise foreign monarchs as well as English Catholics, thereby provoking a renewal of religious turmoil. However, to avoid firm punishment could be interpreted as a sign of weakness, thereby inviting other challenges to the Elizabethan Settlement.[25] The context of the climate of fear of the late 1570s is important: Pope Gregory XIII urged a more aggressive anti-English foreign policy, whilst William Allen was actively lobbying in Rome to discuss an invasion of England. All of this stirred up the fear of invasion and internal rebellion, with Rowse noting: ‘It was precisely this fifth-column doctrine over-riding national sovereignty in the interest of Rome which justified the government in its repressive measures’.[26] The case of Mayne was seen as a test for the Council, and in the end they ‘decided to make an example’ of him.[27]

The crux of the eventual conviction appears to have boiled down to the validity and strength of the Papal Bull that Mayne had in his possession. After the Pope’s excommunication of Elizabeth in 1570, Parliament changed the law to state that it was illegal to bring a Papal Bull into the kingdom; however, the one in Mayne’s possession was not the infamous one relating to the 1570 excommunication but rather ‘a mere piece of waste paper, of no practical use to any one’.[28] Mayne argued that he had bought it in a printer’s shop in Douai out of curiosity, and such was its lack of significance that ‘he had forgotten and packed up with his things’.[29] All of this provoked disagreement between the judges, although ultimately the view was taken to stick to a literal interpretation of the 1571. Therefore, a sentence was given: death by hanging, drawing and quartering, to be carried out in Launceston marketplace in November 1577. A supposed reprieve – if only Mayne would acknowledge Elizabeth as head of an Anglican Church – was rejected, with the priest stating: ‘The Queen neither ever was, nor is, nor ever shall be head of the Church of England’.[30]

The execution of Mayne was bloody and brutal. He was dragged through the streets of Launceston ‘on a hurdle on the gibbet erected in the market-place’.[31] Mayne was not even afforded the dignity of speaking his last words, with the officials interrupting him in order to command ‘the hangman to put the rope about his neck’.[32] Mayne began reciting the verse In Manus Tuas:

In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum.

Redemisti me Domine, Deus Veritatis.[33]

The English translation:

Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.

You have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth.

However, before Mayne could finish the verse the ladder was thrown from beneath him. The subsequent scene was brutal, as Hutchinson himself describes: ‘In being cut down from the gallows, still alive, he fell against the upright beam and horrifically knocked one of his eyes out of its socket’.[34] Rowse notes that Mayne was then ‘stripped of his clothes, his members were severed, his body ripped open and the quivering heart held up to the people’.[35] After the execution, Mayne’s head was placed above Launceston’s castle gate, whilst the quarters of his body were sent to the nearby settlements of Barnstaple, Bodmin, Wadebridge, and Tregony, all as a bloody reminder and ‘deterrent to further Catholic recusancy’.[36]

And what of Tregian? Rather than submit to the Council in terms of ending his recusancy, Rowse notes that he ‘remained obdurate, as he did for the rest of his life: a confessor of the faith’.[37] Rowse goes as far as to believe that Tregian could have submitted in order to save the life of Mayne, but yet Tregian would not yield. All of this led Rowse to declare that Tregian was ‘obviously a self-complacent, fanatic fool of the first water’.[38] Ultimately, Tregian avoided a death sentence, but did see the confiscation of his property; furthermore, he was kept in various prisons for the following three decades, before receiving a pardon by James I. He died 1608 in Spain, living under a pension of King Philip III. Despite his eventful life, his own deeds have been eclipsed by the life of his son Francis Tregian the Younger, who also was closely associated with Douai and English Catholics abroad, but who also established a career as a notable composer of music.

It was also a sad end for many other Cornish Catholics, including for the biggest name arrested in the wake of the Mayne revelation: Sir John Arundell. Arundell spent years in the Tower of London, only becoming released shortly before his death. However, even with his absence the Arundells of Cornwall continued with their recusancy, with his wife (and later widow) hosting a Catholic priest, John Cornelius (although Cornelius was himself later tried and executed). Despite such set-backs of losing significant figures, the heart of Cornish Catholicism continued to beat; in his book Tudor Cornwall, Rowse outlines a raft of names of Cornishmen who went to Douai to study. Some were imprisoned and others became forgotten figures, all the while their faith become worn down with each passing year.

In many ways, this mirrors a wider narrative across the kingdom: with more missionary priests coming into the country in an attempt to continue fanning the flame of Catholicism. The more notable – and celebrated – incidents involve the efforts of Jesuit priests Robert Parsons and Edmund Campion. However, the Elizabethan government met fire with fire, escalating their own measures in order to tackle this rising threat: there were increased persecution of recusants and more stringent laws to punish missionary priests, notably in the form of the 1585 Act Against Jesuits and Seminary Priests, which made it treasonable for priests to enter the English kingdom. Ultimately, 123 priests were convicted and executed under this act from 1586 to the year of Elizabeth’s death in 1603.[39]

The entire episode of Mayne’s capture and execution provoke points of debate: just how successful were the Catholic missions; what was the importance of the Cornish dimension in Mayne’s capture; and how are we to place the incident within our understanding of Cornish history, as well as wider study of the Tudor period. Firstly, just how successful were these Catholic missions? Historians are not in agreement with an answer, and this is due to the difficulty in gauging the level of success or failure. As Warren states, it depends on the position that the historian takes:

Were the missionary priests rescuing the dying embers of a church, or simply fanning the flame of a slow-burning but still strong faith?[40]

This area of debate has been contested by historians for decades, with some advocating the ‘Discontinuity thesis’ and others the ‘Continuity thesis’. The first, as argued by A.G. Dickens in The English Reformation (1964), suggests that Catholicism was in danger of dying out during Elizabeth’s reign, but was revived due to the efforts of the missionary priests. However, Christopher Haigh believes that Catholicism continued during the Elizabethan reign, and points to the priests in their inability to take advantage of this strength of faith.[41] It is clear that the college of Douai was successful in training priests and in infiltrating the kingdom, as shown in the rise in numbers from the 1570s into the 1580s. However, many of these missions failed, with priests becoming targeted and executed, as was the case with Mayne in 1577 and, more prominently, with Edmund Campion in 1581.

Ultimately, the missions only provided a limited success due to three key factors: firstly, the priests were largely confined to the manors of the affluent aristocracy and gentry and could not reach out to the wider, more numerous public. As such, it is possible to call the survival of Catholicism in England a ‘country-house religion’ rather than a wide-spread popular faith. Secondly – a point that also relates to the first one – the vast majority of priests were confined to the south-eastern region of England due to its proximity to the continent in case the need of an escape emerged. But again, this stunted their ability to reach the other corners of the kingdom – the North, Wales, the west-country – where Catholicism had burned more strongly in the earlier decades of the 16th Century. Mayne himself, being active in Cornwall, was the exception; his death highlights the danger of missionaries moving beyond the safer confines of the south-east of England. Thirdly, the priests became incredibly divided on how best to proceed with the aim of the missions, all of which became magnified after the failure of the Spanish Armada of 1588. English Catholics disagreed with other orders, notably those of the Jesuits, mainly concerning tactics on how best to proceed. Although the Jesuits wanted to incite an outright rebellion to topple Elizabeth, the reality was that the majority of remaining English Catholics wanted to both practice their faith and remain loyal to the Tudor queen.

Christopher Haigh is confident in his judgement of the withering away of the Catholic faith:

At the end of Mary’s reign, Catholicism had been the religion of a large majority of English people; by the end of Elizabeth’s it was the faith of a small sect. In 1603 the bishops reported to their new king that there were 2,250,765 Church of England communicants and only 8596 adult recusants…. [this] indicates the scale of the Catholic community. Within two generations the Catholics had dwindled to numerical insignificance.[42]

Other historians are in agreement with the decline of Catholicism, with Warren highlighting how it would ‘become the preserve of a small minority of the upper class’.[43] This shows that Catholicism was effectively removed as a significant force in the kingdom and that the missions themselves were not powerful enough to overcome this tide.

The Discontinuity v Continuity debate continues to attract adherents, however, the local dimension regarding Mayne’s fate is often overlooked. Rowse was the chief promoter of this argument, stating that the appointment of a new sheriff in Cornwall in November 1576 changed the local political-religious scene. The sheriff was the earlier mentioned Richard Grenville, the later captain of the famous Revenge who died at the Battle of Flores in 1591. As his later actions in the Anglo-Spanish War indicate, Grenville was a sea-dog associated with other influential west-country families such as the Hawkins’, Raleighs, and Champernownes. As Rowse notes, they were a ‘new forward-looking school, anti-Spanish and restless at sea’, who had attached their colours to the Protestant mast of the Elizabethan Church.[44] Therefore, this group found enemies in the Arundell-Tregian grouping in terms of religious grounds, although Rowse believes that the enmity was more due to their geographical positions that dictated their economic interests: the Catholics represented interests of the Cornish inland, whilst Grenville and the sea-dogs were coastal and looked to the sea. Rowse states that Arundell and Tregian: ‘roused the ire of this group by their attitude on a commission of piracy upon which they had served: men of inland interests against those of the sea.[45]

The religious dimension, then, was the occasion rather than the cause of the arrest and execution of Mayne. Grenville was ‘precisely the man to force the issue: hot-tempered, determined, energetic, harsh’; therefore the search of the manor of Golden led to the collapse of this Catholic force.[46] Francis Tregian was confident in determining that the local factional disputes were the key reason for his imprisonment, noting how it stemmed to the ‘envy and malice towards me’ from his Cornish enemies.[47]

Overall, how is the historian to place the whole incident of Mayne involvement in Cornwall? It is clear that the whole event is of interest to historians, with Mayne making an appearance in the general history books of the region. However, the inclusion appears more as the noting of a curiosity – of the first executed Catholic priest – rather than a stronger assessment of why it happened. One historian hints that the Mayne execution was something of a turning point in how the Tudor state dealt with Catholics. Hutchinson writes how ‘the Privy Council in London seemed unaware of the growing danger of their Protestant policies’ until the capture and death of Mayne.[48]

It is clear that Mayne’s death assisted in the escalation of fear within the Elizabethan government. Within a year of his execution the Privy Council was receiving reports from bishops that ‘the papists marvellously increase both in numbers and in obstinate withdrawing of themselves from the church and the service of God’ (as quoted by the Bishop of London to Elizabeth’s so-called spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham).[49] This led to discussions of locking up a mass number of recusants in castles across the kingdom, with Hutchinson going as far to state: ‘in what today would be seen as internment camps’.[50]

This first murder of a Catholic priest set a precedent that was viciously continued (as noted above, over one hundred Catholic priests executed during the reign of Elizabeth). Mayne’s death established the notion that a Catholic could be imprisoned and executed due to the strict defence of their faith. Elizabeth’s earlier position that she did not wish to ‘open windows into men’s souls’ had clearly changed during her reign; the peering into the souls of her subjects was seen as necessary in order to preserve her own control of the English kingdom. Therefore, Mayne himself is not important in terms of what he did, but rather in terms of what his capture and execution led to: an escalation of anti-Catholic measures and fear within the English kingdom. Therefore, it is more appropriate to consider Mayne and his execution as a bellwether of a future trend.

Finally, what of the question of Cuthbert Mayne’s status: martyr or traitor? Rowse summed up this issue clearly when stating that from the missionary perspective they died as martyrs, whereas from the government’s perspective ‘they died as traitors’.[51] The oft-cited quote that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ immediately springs to mind. The Catholic Church has recognised Mayne’s efforts, becoming officially martyred in the 20th Century, whilst one book has hailed the priest as the ‘Proto-Martyr of the English seminaries’.[52] There is little doubt that Mayne himself would have seen his efforts within a heroic prism, such was the strenuous effort and risk of death of the life of a missionary priest during the period. In a biography of Edmund Campion – who also met the same fate as Mayne – Evelyn Waugh asserts:

Martyrdom was in the air of Douai. It was spoken of, and in secret prayed for, as the supreme privilege of which only divine grace could make them worthy.[53]

In a more modern study of the Elizabethans, A.N. Wilson notes how ‘the parallels between the sixteenth-century Jesuits and modern suicide bombers comes unmistakeably to mind’.[54] However, Mayne himself was not a terrorist conducting violent activity, but his very presence in the English kingdom during the period was deemed treasonous by the government; all of which made him an official traitor. However, the law was key here: if Mayne had undertaken such activities in the more placid, accommodating atmosphere of the 1560s rather than the persecuting 1570s he would have avoided execution.

As such, Mayne is both martyr and traitor, and this interesting combination makes his life, his capture, and his death such an interesting era of history. The entire episode helps us to understand the state of the English Reformation during this period in terms of the thinking of Elizabeth’s government, as well as the position of Catholics in Cornwall.


Haigh, Christopher, English Reformations: Religion, Politics and Society under the Tudors, UK, Oxford University Press, 1993.

Hutchinson, Robert, Elizabeth’s Spymaster (Francis Walsingham and the Secret War that Saved England), Croydon, Phoenix, 2006.

Irish Jesuit Province, ‘Blessed Cuthbert Mayne: Proto-Martyr of the English Seminaries by R.A. McElroy’, The Irish Monthly, Vol. 58, No.687, 1930, pp.478-479.

Law, T.G., ‘Cuthbert Mayne and the Bull of Pius V’, The English Historical Review, Vol.1, No.1, 1886, pp.141-144.

Papal Encyclicals Online, ‘Regnans in Excelsis: Excommunicating Elizabeth I of England’, 2017. Available at: (Accessed: 27 July 2019).

Payton, Philip, Cornwall: A History, UK, Cornwall Editions, 2004.

Peck, D.C., Castle-Come-Down: Faith and doubt in the sixteenth century, c.1970s. Available at: (Accessed: 27 July 2019).

Rowse, A.L., Tudor Cornwall, Exeter, Cornish Classics, 2005.

Rowse, A.L., Sir Richard Grenville of the Revenge, 2013. Available at: (Accessed: 28 July 2019).

Tillbrook, Michael, The Triumph of Elizabeth: Britain, 1547-1603, China, Nelson Thornes, 2009.

Tillbrook, Michael, The Tudors: England 1485-1603, Great Britain, Oxford University Press, 2015.

Wainewright, John, ‘Blessed Cuthbert Mayne’ in The Catholic Encyclopaedia, Vol.10, 1911. Available at: (Accessed: 25 July 2019).

Warren, John, Elizabeth I: Meeting the Challenge, England 1541-1603, Malta, Hodder Educational, 2008.

Waugh, Auberon, ‘Hallelujah!’, The Spectator, 1981. Available at: (Accessed: 27 July 2019).

Wilson, A.N., The Elizabethans, Great Britain, Arrow Books, 2012.

Wilson, Derek, A Brief History of the English Reformation, Great Britain, Robinson, 2012.

[1] Robert Hutchinson, Elizabeth’s Spymaster: Francis Walsingham and the Secret War that Saved England, 2006, p.67-68.

[2] John Warren, Elizabeth I: Meeting the Challenge, England 1541-1603, 2008, p.98.

[3] Papal Encyclicals Online, ‘Regnans in Excelsis: Excommunicating Elizabeth I of England’, 2017.

[4] Michael Tillbrook, The Tudors: England 1485-1603, 2015, p.229.

[5] Cited in Tillbrook, The Triumph of Elizabeth: Britain, 1547-1603, 2009, p.115.

[6] Cited in Tillbrook, 2009, p.115.

[7] Warren, 2008, p.98.

[8] Tillbrook, 2009, p.115.

[9] Tillbrook, 2015, p.230.

[10] Hutchinson, 2006, p.67.

[11] Tillbrook, 2015, p.230.

[12] Warren, 2008, p.98.

[13] John Wainewright, ‘Blessed Cuthbert Mayne’, in The Catholic Encyclopaedia, 1911.

[14] A.L. Rowse, Tudor Cornwall, 2005, p.344.

[15] Ibid. p.345.

[16] Ibid. p.342.

[17] Ibid. p.343.

[18] Ibid. p.346.

[19] A.L. Rowse, Sir Richard Grenville of the Revenge, 2013.

[20] Rowse, 2013. Rowse notes that this possible eye-witness was the informant to William Allen, the founder of Douai college.

[21] Rowse, 2013.

[22] D.C. Peck, Castle-Come-Down: Faith and doubt in the sixteenth century, c.1970s, p.37.

[23] Rowse, 2005, p.347.

[24] Ibid.

[25] It should be noted that Puritans were also challenging the 1559 Settlement, utilising influential patrons and attempting to bring about legislation in Parliament.

[26] Rowse, 2005, p.350.

[27] Ibid.

[28] T.G. Law, ‘Cuthbert Mayne and the Bull of Pius V’, The English Historical Review, 1886, p.143.

[29] Ibid. p.348.

[30] Cited in Auberon Waugh, ‘Hallelujah!’, The Spectator, 1981, p.28.

[31] Rowse, 2005, p.350.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Written by 16th Century contemporary John Sheppard.

[34] Hutchinson, 2006, p.67-68.

[35] Rowse, 2005, p.350-351.

[36] Hutchinson, 2006, p.68.

[37] Rowse, 2005, p.348.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Tillbrook, 2015, p.229.

[40] Warren, 2008, p.99.

[41] Christopher Haigh, English Reformations: Religion, Politics and Society under the Tudors, 1993.

[42] Cited in Tillbrook, 2015, p.225.

[43] Warren, 2008, p.107.

[44] Rowse, 2005, p.347.

[45] Ibid. p.347.

[46] Ibid. p.347.

[47] Cited in Rowse, 2005, p.351.

[48] Hutchinson, 2006, p.67.

[49] Cited in Hutchinson, 2006, p.68.

[50] Hutchinson, 2006, p.68.

[51] Rowse, 2005, p.342.

[52] The book in question was R.A. McElroy’s Blessed Cuthbert Mayne: Proto-Martyr of the English Seminaries, published 1930.

[53] Cited in A.N. Wilson, The Elizabethans, 2012, p.200.

[54] Wilson, 2000, p.200.