Elizabeth’s England was awash with expectation – from Mary’s bishops demanding that no change be made to Mary’s church, to a wave of Protestant Marian exiles returning with visions of Geneva. How to avoid a religious warlike that soon to engulf France?
This is Rycote Chapel in Oxfordshire. It was restored in the early 20th century, but what you see would have been recognised in Elizabeth’s reign;the altar is there, but not the centre of the church, and is surrounded by the biblical texts. The focus of the church is instead the pulpit. Elizabeth herself would have sat in one of the two central pews, since she was held captive here for a while during Mary’s reign.
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All this talk of churches is of course most appropriate given that we are about to talk about the Elizabethan Religious settlement. Now every famous person has quotes wrongly applied to them; one of these in Elizabeth’s world is the much used ‘I shall not make windows into men’s souls’. Of course, Elizabeth did not say this, it was Francis Bacon, famous son of Nicholas Bacon, Elizabeth’s Lord Keeper, who said it of herreligious policy. And it is a phrase which has been furiously kicked against – one comment I saw recently said caustically that she made windows into men’s entrails instead. So, was Elizabeth really anxious to bring religious peace to her people – or was this just the latest swing of the dial from persecution of Protestants to persecution of Catholics.
There has been plenty of speculation about Elizabeth’s own beliefs. It has been noted that she had largely conformed during Mary’s reign, with a bit of kicking and screaming, huffing and on occasion, puffing. After she came to the throne, she continued to celebrate the mass in her chapel – though she withdrew at a specific point to avoid seeing the elevation of the host, a moment of particular disgust for Protestants. It seemed clear that she liked a bit of ceremonial – she was keen to decorate the altar in her chapel with grand candlesticks. She liked complex church music, patronising and protecting Catholic composer Thomas Tallis, and William Byrd who actually became Catholic in the 1570s. She was later to show a reluctance to agree to clerical marriage, one of the great steps forward as far as protestants were concerned. Now, in the 1950s, the historian J E Neale also made the case that Elizabeth never planned for the religious settlement that occurred – she aimed to return to the situation at the end of her father’s reign, a relatively lightly modified religion without purgatory, and with the removal of the Pope. And that what happened was that she was pushed into a protestant settlement by returning fervent Marian exiles in parliament.
And in 1558 while some of the Marian exiles were confident that Elizabeth would be a protestant champion, packed their bags and came home, others were much more cautious and stayed put in places like Geneva and Strasbourg to wait and see what unfolded. And between November 1558 and her first parliament in February 1559 Elizabeth kept her cards very close to her chest; enthusiasts on both sides were required to obey the law and the law, as re-established by Mary, was catholic practice. It may also have sneaked out that Elizabeth deeply resented Knox’s blasts against monstrous women, and wasn’t keen on Calvin either. So when Jean Calvin sent Elizabeth a copy of his latest publication, she showed little interest. The attitude of both men to women was one important factor in this, but the other, just as important, was the attitude of Calvinists to royal authority. On many occasions over the next 45 years, Elizabeth will prioritise dynastic concerns over matters of religion – and Elizabeth seriously doubted the commitment of Calvinists to royal authority – indeed a doctrine of rebellion against Catholic rulers was seen as justified. Elizabeth was her father’s daughter, and firmly believed that the only possible response to a royal command was ‘yessir, 3 bags full sir’.
Jean also sent a note to Cecil at the same time by the way, saying
‘if hitherto you have been timid, you may now make up for your deficiency by the ardour of your zeal’.
This is a snide reference to Cecils failure to declare himself publicly as a Protestant and jump onto one of Pole and Mary’s bonfires in Smithfield. Thee appropriate response, I would have thought, if I were William Cecil, would have involved 4 letters and 2 fingers but these are different times; and Calvin was maybe expressing the concern of many protestants – what was going to happen now?
Well, Cecil had not been idle as it happens. His aim was to bring a coherent strategy to the Queen, and his style was to consult and investigate. He commissioned a paper from a colleague, who worried about the dangers and complications. Return to the situation at the end of Henry VIII’s reign he advised, be cautious; anything else is too difficult and too dangerous.
There is no doubt that Cecil’s Protestantism was much more radical than his mistresses, wherever on the spectrum you place Elizabeth. For Cecil, true religion was that as achieved by the Edwardian Church; so this advice was way too cautious for him. Another paper was then produced, very probably by Cecil himself – it’s called the Device for the Alteration of Religion. It’s a useful paper to start from not only because it may well be the key to Elizabeth’s real intentions when parliament was finally convened, but because it puts religion in the wider context. Because the religious settlement, while primarily in a sense about conscience, was also about politics and diplomacy.
There are a few things of which we should remind ourselves to start with. First of all. England was still at war with France; and Elizabeth made it pretty clear that she wanted Calais back or she did initially at least. By 1559 negotiations for peace had started and Elizabeth helpfully set clear parameters for her delegates by telling them that they could on the one hand conclude a treaty which saw Calais returned to England or on the other hand they could have their heads removed. It is always handy to know where you stand.
The other thing to remember is that Elizabeth might have been the rightful monarch as far as the English was concerned, but she was not as far as the Catholic church was concerned, because Elizabeth was the daughter of the Great Whore, Anne Boleyn. So, when Mary died childless, the next in line was the descendant of Henry VIII’s eldest sister, Margaret Tudor who had married James IV of Scotland, and whose granddaughter was Mary, whose surname, of course, is queen of Scots. Mary was around 16 in 1559, and married to Francis, the Dauphin of France. Lest you think this is a small thing two more items should be of interest. In 1558 Mary signed a clause which ran counter to the original marriage agreement, which had been that Scotland and France would remain separate, and if there were no children from the marriage then they’d go their separate ways. But Mary now compliantly signed a new agreement giving over her inheritance to her husband whatever happened. It’s a really rather remarkable thing – an agreement that Scotland should become part of France. The second thing to note is that this was not the matter of delicate diplomacy, of the odd suggestion or threat in meetings between French and English diplomats in wood panelled rooms. Nope, the young couple publicaly quartered the English royal arms with those of France, which is the diplomatic equivalent of a tazer.
So the Device for the Alteration of Religion presented the case and associated scenarios for a return to Protestantism in England, and it held nothing back. Cecil was clear about what could be expected from the Pope, which would be uncompromising – Cecil predicted excommunication, interdict, and that the Pope would make England ‘prey to all princes that will enter upon it’. There wasn’t much to be done about that the paper figured.
Spain was still England’s ally – but with negotiations happening now that would be unlikely to continue, but it was France Cecil focussed on; in his view Henry II would fight England both as heretics and natural enemies, and it would use Scotland to do so. Meanwhile, Ireland would also be difficult to control ‘by reason of the clergy with is so addicted to Rome’.
So quite scary then, for England, and lots of threats. But there was more, baggy, much more; because internally also a protestant settlement would face opposition he wrote. The Marian Bishops and Clergy he believed would fight tooth and nail; but then on the other side there would be the more zealous protestants, fired up from their experiences in cities like Strasbourg and Geneva keen to see the Edwardian reformation re-instated and then enhanced completed to make England like Geneva. In fact one of Cecil’s friends was the Countess of Suffolk Catherine Willoughby, who now returned from the rather grand form of Marian exile she’d enjoyed, and had written telling Cecil to get on with it.
Cecil’s mitigation then was peace with France as soon as possible, whatever the cost – and it was quickly clear that the cost would be Calais. Nothing good would come from the Pope but in Scotland was hope. Because in Scotland there was a movement which was already struggling for the return of what Cecil defied as good religion. What Cecil envisaged was an alliance with those protestants, ‘to augment the hope of those who incline to good religion’. Now Cecil had served with his then master Somerset during the war in Scotland in the 1540s. He had seen the good and the bad of that; the offer of a pan British protestant alliance had been an exciting concept. It had been an exciting concept arousing come contempt from the Scots when offered at the end of a gun. Here was a lesson Cecil had learned then – at one level, that intervention in Scotland ‘may be practised to help forward their divisions’, and keep England secure from French inspired invasion. But to keep England secure for ever, a pan British Protestant alliance was the thing; but to succeed it could not again be at the end of a gun. If England intervened in Scotland, it must leave as soon as possible.
Ok, so it strikes me this isn’t really helping you very much as far as the process of the Elizabeth religious settlement is concerned, but you know, the context is important. And in terms of Elizabeth’s personal religion well, after being given a doom-laden prediction of the international threats like that, would you have gone ahead unless you had a personal commitment to it? There’s no doubt that Elizabeth liked some ceremony, and as we’ll see she was not one for zealotry; but she was a fair dinkum protestant without much doubt. Her beliefs focussed on justification by faith alone, but suspicion of the Calvinistic extreme of predestination; a preference for a set of readings over preaching; her providential right to rule and the obligation of her subjects to reverence. For her, uniformity and removal of division was essential, including conformity to the BCP.
We are now in a situation of course where parliament had been made the route to legitimise religious change, and it is to Elizabeth’s first parliament therefore that we should go. While all the prep was going on a small group was set to work to develop a plan for the new Church of England, to be put to the queen before being used to create legislation for said parliament. Which was then opened by Mr Bacon on 25th January 1559. Meanwhile Cecil had speaker’s slots at St Pauls Cross booked out for protestant preachers – it couldn’t hinder, surely, to get folks in the mood! Although some of preachers reflected protestant concerns that everything was going too slowly – let’s get on with it, more, quicker, higher! Il Schifanoya the Ambassador was there and figured there were 5,000 with him. But for a good Catholic, it did not make happy listening, with
‘so much evil of the Pope, of the bishops, of the prelates, of the regulars, of the Church, of the mass, and finally of our entire faith’ 
Now, it was traditional that at the same time as parliament met, the Convocation of the Church of England would also meet – and so they did. This was not to prove helpful to Elizabeth’s plans. Anyway, Elizabeth came down to parliament and sat in majesty while Bacon told them all what was required. His instructions may well have come from Elizabeth herself; because alongside the main task
The well-making of laws for the according and uniting of the people of the realm into a uniform order of religion
There was a demand for moderation; to not get hung up on the finer details of theology. There’s little doubt Elizabeth had the brain for academic stuff, but equally clear she was reasonably weary of anyone who went overboard. She told them to make sure they didn’t chuck words like ‘heretic’ or ‘schismatic’ or Papist about. It is impossible to avoid two allusions there – to her Dad and his mumpsimus and sumpsimus speech for one, and to um, the vitriol of the Brexit language as a more modern one. There I have mentioned Brexit in one of my podcasts – are you not impressed I have resisted this long? Go me, I’m too sexy for my shirt and all that.
On the 21st February then, after making sure parliament had granted a subsidy, a bill of Supremacy and Uniformity was introduced to the Commons, combining both the matters of theology and the royal supremacy. William Cecil himself sat as a member of Parliament, and you have to imagine he was a constant presence. As far as we can know, there were no great problems, though there were objections. One John Story seems to have missed the memo about keeping it real when he reportedly said that it was a pity Elizabeth had not been executed, as he had recommended to Queen Mary. Which even in the Brexit debate would probably raise an eyebrow or two. Now look, you can’t stop me. I’ll stop, promise.
Anyway, Story seems to have been an exception and through its 3 readings and committee stage in the HoC it went. Smashing, super great, they think it’s all over.
However, in Convocation, things were a-cookin’. It is reasonably clear that the Bishops and their clergy were determined that this would not be a re-run of 1534. So Convocation drew up some articles from which they would not budge, their core beliefs, which included the papal supremacy, the real presence of Christ’s natural body in the eucharist, transubstantiation and the mass as a sacrificial offering. Oh dear.
The maths in the Lords, which is where the Bishops sat and where bill now went, looked like this – it’s very small by the way, or it is in terms of number of people. There were 27 English and Welsh dioceses. Of these 7 were vacant, and 3 bishops died after Elizabeth’ succession. The final vote when we come to it will total 39, so a further 22 secular lords also voted – some, like Arundel and Derby just found themselves something else to do so they didn’t fall foul of Queen or Pope. The Catholics lords were prepared; and this time also of course they were dealing with a new monarch rather than Henry in his intimidating prime, and also a woman so ha, should be a cake walk. First of all they played for time, and delayed the debate as long as possible. When finally they could avoid it no longer, the Catholic members went on the attack. Lord Montagu reminded Elizabeth that she had asked for real counsel so you know here it comes. And that real counsel was that the bill would repeal
All that ever was made for the defence of the faith against the malignity of wicked heresies
At this point, presumably he was referring to the fact that the heresy laws would be repealed so, shock horror no burning. Archbishop of York Heath was even more blunt, and even more personal, attacking the royal supremacy
To preach or minister the holy sacraments a woman may not, neither may she be supreme Head of the Church of Christ.
It is interesting that Catholic thinking had shifted; once upon a time leaders as august as Gardiner had accepted the idea of throwing the pope out of the boat; but in the following theological arguments of Henry and Edwards’ reigns, they had found that Catholicism without the Pope made no sense. And so not even the royal supremacy could be accepted. Despite all the arguments of the protestant lords, the House of Lords eviscerated the Act amending it out of all recognition, with the odd concession – so the mass could be offered in two kinds. There was high fiving going on because this took some cojones, and also the Catholics were confident that they’d played a blinder; they were nearly at Easter; the eviscerated Bill was sent back to the Commons on 18th March, the queen was expected to come to parliament to give assent to all the Bills on 24th March and parliament would be dissolved. No time to rescue that horrid bill. And Cecil and Elizabeth appear to have accepted defeat. A proclamation was prepared to re-assure protestants that they could celebrate communion in two kinds, which assumed that parliament would be dissolved, and of course since the heresy laws would now still be in place people needed to know they would not be prosecuted for heresy if they took communion in two kinds. Count Feria was over the moon, Jim,
The heretics are very downcast over the last few days
A protestant bishop in waiting lamented that
The bishops were as sole monarchs in the midst of ignorant and weak men, and easily overreach our little party, either by their numbers or by their reputation for learning
But wait what’s this – the proclamation was pulled at the last moment. And on the 24th of March there was no monarch in parliament, simply an instruction to prorogue parliament until 3rd April. Elizabeth had decided that there would be no easy surrender.
On Easter Sunday Elizabeth let the world know that this was personal. Instead of the Latin mass, she used the English communion, on a simple wooden communion table rather than a grand altar. Instead of the chalice being reserved for the priest, the laity were given communion, in both kinds, including Elizabeth. If any further evidence is needed of Elizabeth’s personal religion, here it was. There’s another indication as it ‘appens. Philip II had very graciously offered to marry Elizabeth, and Elizabeth had delayed and delayed and Feria had complained he’d been received as though he came with bulls from dead popes, which I assume is not an exciting thing to bring with you. Elizabeth gave him another interview in March, and I am ashamed to say ladies and gentlemen of the jury, that she played with him. Feria wrote with outrage that she
‘kept repeating to me that she was heretical and so consequently could not marry your majesty’
As you can imagine declaring yourself a heretic was not the normal route, but presumably since she was set on a path to eternal damnation anyway, Elizabeth felt yelling Jehovah a few times could hardly do her any more harm.
So, how to get things back on track? Well, the way to get things back of track cannot, it must be said, be described as either reputable or honourable. The route suggested was a good old traditional debate between the Catholic Bishops and Protestant divines, presided over by Nicholas Bacon. It was of course a trap. John White, Bishop of Winchester, freed from house arrest, read out the Catholic prepared statement on the first topic, and received in return a whopping reply from the Protestant side. When White rose to answer, Bacon said no no, that’s sorted move on, move on! He who speaks last of course, speaks loudest. So next time around the Bishops point blank refused to read out their statements as ordered, two of them. John White and the Bishop of Lincoln were carted off to jail for refusing their queen’s command, and it all broke up. The numbers, then, were subtly changed because 2 bishops were now in the cooler. Would it be enough was the question?
Revised bills were now introduced into parliament; split into two with an act of Supremacy and an Act of Uniformity. The Supremacy Bill had a small but significant change – no longer Supreme Head, Elizabeth would be supreme Governor, with the implied promise that she would not mess with doctrinal matters, that would be for the church. This was a concession as much to the more extreme protestants, who were extremely unhappy about the idea of a female head of the church. It’s unlikely it would have been enough to satisfy any of the Catholic side. For them, however a number of concessions were made in the form of the 1552 prayer books, small but significant, and I’ll give you a flavour of those in a minute.
Once again, the bills moved easily enough through the Commons and once again in the Lords the debate was fierce. The fight in parliament was reflected in the fight in the streets of London; the Privy Council was forced to launch an investigation into ‘the pulling down of images and the sacrament, and defacing the vestments and books’; while a diarist noted processions that ‘went with their banners abroad in their parish, singing in Latin Kyrie Eleison after the old fashion’. It was, in the technical term of the time, something of a bun fight.
Once more the bishops, argued hard and passionately; Bishop Scott lamented the religion by
‘which our fathers were born, brought up and lived in, and have professed here in this realm without any alteration and change by the space of ten hundred years and more’.
Abbot Feckenham of Westminster thundered against a society turned upside down
The subject disobedient unto God and all superior powers
Which rather echoes Gardiner’s displeasure at what he saw as the empowerment of bible reading to encourage the great unwashed to get above themselves.
Finally, it came to the division; 2 Bishops were still absent at her majesty’s pleasure, and for some reason Feckenham decided not to turn up, which is odd. The 15 remaining Bishops all took the no lobby, and 3 secular lords joined them. Against them 21 secular lords voted yes. Both acts had been passed, by the narrowest of margins. Elizabeth had won.
Now you might imagine that the protestants would have been cook a hoop. And yet, curiously enough, they were not. One wrote despairingly
Those very things which you and I have often laughed at are now seriously and solemnly entertained
So what had happened, what was the Elizabethan Settlement? Well, in many ways, it was very traditional, in the sense that the search for uniformity of religion was very much at the heart of the settlement. Everyone now had to go to church, and if you didn’t there would be fines to pay. No burning, but fines. Nowhere in Europe was the idea of toleration happily accepted; the Netherlands after 1576 is one exception; Bohemia had a period toleration until the defeat of the protestants at White Mountain in 1620; and France had about 80 years of toleration from the edit of Nantes from the end of the 16th century until Louis XIV rubbed that out. In England, legal toleration would only come in 1688, and when it did was seen as a sign of abject failure, not celebrated as a fine progression to the sunlit uplands of toleration, and anyway the test acts made it far from complete. Uniformity of worship was seen as the natural state of affairs. So, the religious settlement of 1559 was therefore simply another swing of the pendulum back to forcing everyone into the same pint pot.
And yes that’s true in terms of the search for uniformity. But it was also an attempt in its own way, to achieve a kind of toleration. We might define compromise for the moment as something that satisfies nobody but which everybody could live with; and maybe it’s a bit like the BBC, as long as everyone from the left is telling them they are horrendously biased and right wing, and the right wingers write furious letters about trendy lefty Londoners dominating BBC output – they know they are getting it pretty much right. The same applies to the religious settlement, It was categorically not Catholicism, and only 2 of Mary’s Bishops would accept it, and they were both the type of Bishop who rarely allowed the role to get in the way of their lifestyle choices, so maybe don’t really count. Nor, though, was it the settlement the retuning Marian exiles expected as we have seen. Together this was a settlement that in just a few year’s time in 1563 a group of Elizabeth’s own Bishops, replacing Mary’s Bishops, were to try and fail to amend in a push further towards Protestantism. As far as Elizabeth was concerned this was it, no more messing about – but it took some time for the penny to drop with more extreme protestants.
Without wanting to bore you with the detail, let me bore you with a bit of detail. For the protestant, there’s no denying there was a lot of progress in the settlement. Theologically, this is now a protestant church, no real presence, no transubstantiation; visually, no images, relics, pilgrimages, candles, rosary. Basically 39 of Cranmer’s 42 articles would be accepted in 1563, as the new Church of England tried to make sense of it all.
But there were also quite a few alterations which would have had Calvin and Knox losing their supper.
You might remember that in 1549 Cranmer produced his first BCP which Gardiner gleefully claimed a true Catholic could interpret in a way as to celebrate the mass. In 1559, the revised BCP was based on the 1552 version but with some modifications that reached back to 1549. So, the critical passage in communion added the phrase ‘the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life’ was added to the 1552 text ‘take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee…’ etc. You can probably see that this slightly fudges the idea of the real presence. If you looked at it at an angle with one eye closed in a dim light it could just suggest it…now its not the real Presence – the curate was still told to take any overs home and eat them, suggesting no real transformation had occurred. But to the communicant saying the words…well. And traditional wafers were used rather than the ordinary bread specified in 1552.
And then quite a few of the outward forms had crept back in. Everyone kneeled for prayers, to bow and doff their hats at the name of Jesus; although the church was organised round the pulpit and a low communion table used, they were to stand altar-wise, at the east end of the church. Ministers would wear copes during communion, which was anathema to the protestants.
For its time, there is something therefore very humane about the Elizabethan settlement, maybe to do with Elizabeth herself, maybe because it feels more like a settlement of maturity something to last and bring together, than a settlement of protest, of reaction against what some have seen as ancient iniquities. So, the line in the 1552 prayer book about the detestable tyranny of Rome and all that was taken out, because no one with a love of the traditional religion, even if very willing to comply with royal orders, could read that without being angered. Now also was included the instruction that the clergy should combat the vice ‘damnable despair’. This was the feeling that look, I’m doomed, the conviction that I am irretrievably damned, much a feature of the extreme forms of Catholicism and Protestantism. Ministers were to point out to their parishioners
Such comfortable places and sentences of scripture as so set forth the mercy, benefits and goodness of the Almighty God towards all penitent and believing persons
There were other ways in which the settlement sought to create unity. Eamon Duffy in Voices of Morebath, his famous study of the impact of the reformation on a parish reflected that
in her reign some of the deep rhythms of pre-Reformation religion, outlawed or suspect under Edward, were allowed to re-assert themselves. Women were churched, parish ales were drunk, rogation-tide processions visited the old boundaries.
Elizabeth’s settlement was therefore a humane and genuine attempt to find a middle way which would bring her people together as they had once been. To argue that it was itself an act of toleration, rather than compromise I realise is pushing it, but I think there is an argument that this was what was attempted, when you consider the way in which it was implemented. The Marian heresy laws were swept away again, to the despair of the Marian Bishops who lamented that there was no way of enforcing proper religion. Bacon’s famous phrase about windows and souls was correct – it that all Elizabeth asked for was outward conformity, going to church. What you did in the privacy of our own home was up to you; you might be referred to by the locals as a ‘church papist’ but that would be that. If you could not live even with going to church, you would be identified as a recusant, and the authorities might well come after you. They would however, come after you to fine you, not to burn you; in the first 10 years of Elizabeth’s reign nobody was executed for religion. And until the Catholic church decided to make it war from the 1570s it is entirely possible that this is the way things would have stayed. That it did not, that as a result of events later in the reign Catholicism came to be associated in the minds of Englishmen with foreign tyranny and with treason is one of the tragedies of English history.
But for the moment let us leave the settlement for a peace of a kind. I mean, don’t get me wrong – it’s not peaceful, the first reaction of the disappointed radical Protestants and even Bishops of the church was to rage against the moderation of the settlement and try to see it as just a first step. But one of the ironies of the study of Elizabethan religion is that it’s the extremists and fanatics that get studied because the leave a record – the fanatic catholic priests like Campion and Preston who flood into England later in the century to revive their religion and support the recusant community; the fanatical puritans, who raged against the survival of what they saw as catholic practices. What is far less well covered is the response of the vast majority of ordinary parishioners – who by and large just got on with it, how ever much they did or did not like the changes.
 Marshall, P. Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation (Kindle Locations 9835-9837). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Marshall, Peter. Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation (Kindle Locations 9880-9884). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.