Following up the theme of recusancy in the 'Sacred Music' programme 'Tallis, Byrd and the Tudors'.
Following the death of Henry VIII, then his son Edward VI, England reverted to Catholicism under Mary, but returned to Protestantism after the accession of Queen Elizabeth I. This religious upheaval meant that Tallis, then Byrd, had to adapt to changes or face dire consequences. Quite how Byrd managed to keep out of trouble remains a mystery, Outwardly though he supported his Queen: privately he was a Catholic writing music for an underground movement.
Under Elizabeth, Priests had to swear an “oath of supremacy” acknowledging the Queen as “Supreme Governor” of both church and state. Attendance at church was compulsory. Those who refused to attend – called recusants – were taken to the Ecclesiastical Court.
The Queen made a number of orders including the removal of rood screens, defacing stained glass and breaking up of idolatrous images. Today this would be called vandalism, but then it was considered progress. It seems that Blackmore willingly complied with the dictates. Unlike a number of other churches, the 1565 visitation merely records “Oui bon” [ERO D/AE/V1]. (“Omma bene”, clearly written against other entries, Latin for “everything correct”).
Roman Catholic religious services were illegal in England and Wales between 1559 and 1778. The fear of revolution and invasion from Catholic Spain caused the law to be strengthened, in 1581 and 1585, whereupon the saying of Mass, even in a private home, was illegal; priests so doing faced the death penalty.
Locally, John Payne, priest to the Petre family at Ingatestone Hall was found guilty and hung, drawn and quartered at Chelmsford in 1582. “The manuscripts of the Custos Rotulorum preserved at Chelmsford yield up the information that in April, 1582, one John Gaye, of Blackmore, was examined as to his knowledge of ‘Payne the traytour’, recently executed and of his accomplices. He confessed to having said at Writtle that Payne was reported to have ‘belonged to one Master [William] Shelley [of Stondon Massey]’” [Reeve. p184].
If William Byrd had thought that Stondon Massey in 1593 was a quiet Essex backwater to pursue his religion, he surely must have considered this against the backdrop of Shelley’s indictment for treason and Payne’s martyrdom for being a Catholic priest to his patron, the Petre family, at Ingatestone Hall.
Reeve. History of Stondon. Supplementary Notes (1914)