From the Jesuit infiltration of 1580 through the mid-1590s, the Elizabethan Crown turned to traditional common law and innovative statute law to enforce its religious supremacy against both Catholic and Puritan challenges. "Trials of Conscience" examines three criminal trials of late Elizabethan England, situating each one in its literary, religious, and political milieu in order to highlight the role legal discourse had in the articulation of spiritual inwardness. Through criminal trials like these that evaluated the religious allegiances of Elizabethans, a legal conception of the conscience emerged in the secular courtroom at odds with any notion of its being private or sacrosanct. These trials, and the innovative criminal law behind them, reveal the dichotomy between the mandated religion of England and various subjects' obedience to a higher spiritual authority that would put the concept of conscience on trial from the beginning of the English Reformation through the English Civil War. This dissertation argues, more particularly, that the trials for treason and sedition incriminating religious dissidence informed and interpenetrated both literary and dramatic production. For the Elizabethan Crown, the prosecution of dissident religious belief as treasonous or seditious, rather than heretical, would be the means by which the religiously divisive would be silenced and wavering subjects would be convinced of the necessity of submitting to authority. At the same time, however, these religious defendants discovered new avenues to publicize their reasons for challenging the orthodoxy of Elizabeth's via media religious settlement. Their burgeoning literature of opposition and polemic put enormous pressure on the supposed impartiality of English law. In larger terms, then, this dissertation shows how the publicized contingencies of prosecution actually destabilized and undermined the Crown's attempts to produce a society of obedient subjects. As defendants faced charges of treason for their religious beliefs, their cases contributed to the representational, polemical, and volitional modes of discourse that were soon adopted in dramatic and literary production. In short, the trials undergone by defendants due to the dictates of their consciences would have a profound impact on the ways the term "conscience" signified in print and in culture during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Thesis (Ph.D. in English) -- University of Pennsylvania, 2003. Source: Dissertation Abstracts International, Volume: 64-04, Section: A, page: 1268. Supervisor: Rebecca Bushnell.