The Howards, like the Nevilles and the Percies in the North, were part of an old Catholic nobility that was opposed to Elizabeth's Protestant religious settlement and resented the influence of 'new men' at court, such as William Cecil. These men saw hope for their cause with the arrival of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots in England.

Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk was involved in two attempts to marry Mary and overthrow Elizabeth. These were the Rising of the Northern Earls (1569), and the Ridolfi Plot (1571), in which the assassination of Elizabeth would trigger a Spanish invasion. The first was defeated and the second discovered before it could do any harm. Howard was executed in 1572 for his part in these events.