A while ago I did a piece on the Pendle Witch Trials, in which modern research suggests they were covering up for Catholic priests. This is a piece from the book gunpowder plots by Antonia Fraser which shines some light on this:
“the Catholic recusant population – the word comes from refusal, the refusal of Catholics to attend Protestant services – had largely gone underground by the time Elizabeth I died. The head of the family and his male heir might profess the Protestant faith, to avoid fines and loss of properties, while the rest of the family, especially the mother, remained Catholic, carrying the torch forward to future generations in secret. In general, the Catholic women took advantage of their presumed weakness and virtually non-existent status at law, to protect priests and generally preserve the network of the faithful. People turned Catholic on their deathbeds when it could no longer damage them materially, having probably been Catholic in their hearts all along.
It was therefore especially significant in terms of the Gunpowder Plot (and its possible success) that no one really knew for sure, nor could know, how many Catholics there were in England in 1603 and whether their numbers would remain static in the months that followed. The Anglican bishops assured their new king [JamesI/VI] at his accession that there were only 8,000 recussant adults, whereas it has been suggested that the true figure was more like 35,000. Three years later this figure was said to have risen to 100,000 under the comparatively mild regime with which James started – something which fatally aroused Catholic hopes before dashing them again with severer penalties. (As a contemporary percipiently observed of the Gunpowder Plot, ‘hope deferred maketh the heart sick.)