309 Godly, Godlier and Godliest


Elizabeth set her face against further reform, against pressures from within the church and without; in her view, hers was a Godly church. How far did her church resist Puritanism and embed itself in the life of ordinary people?

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Now it feels as though we been away for a while from the core business of this podcast, if there be a core business of this podcast. Is there I wonder? Answers on a postcard, though I must admit it’s a question I should really be able to answer myself. Before I kick off though I have a stream of apologies to make from the previous episodes. Number 1 – Valparaiso is not in Argentina of course, it’s in Chile. I grovel with apology before any Chileans listening. Secondly, Cartagena is not of course in Venezuela, it’s in Columbia. I povel with Agrology. And thirdly Sara tells me that Cupids was the first settlement in Canada, in 1610. Once again I admit my fault, though I was kind of aware that Humph did only settle at St Johns in the sense of putting a plaque up. But every English person knows the way to heaven is paved with apologies, so, sorry and all.

Now I remember when I did real work a publisher returning after maternity leave and saying that her boss had advised her to ‘read herself back in’. I’ve always thought that a nice concept, so I am going to start this episode with the podcasting equivalent of reading ourselves back in before we get into the cut and thrust, the blood and misery of religious conflict – and of course you all know what’s round the corner do you not? Yes the one bit of Tudor history I remember from my school days the Slovak Armada. Or was that Spanish? Ok weak joke of the year award.

We stand on the threshold of the 1580s which is a super turbulent decade – though to be honest if you were an ordinary person the 90’s will be worse – given that plague and famine would have been of far more interest to you than the goings on in parliament and court. But whatever. Just to give you an overview, the 80’s is when religious conflict really gets going again – and while your thoughts will immediately turn, I suspect to Catholic persecution, priest holes and all that sort of thing well there’s plenty of conflict in the Elizabethan church too I’ll have you know. One of the reasons this conflict gets going good and proper is the increasing feeling of threat; I’ve tried to keep this in your minds with things like the massacre of St Bartholomew’s day, Regnans in Excelsis, the Ridolphi plot and all that – but in the words of Baloo there’s more baggy, there’s much more, with open  war with Spain and the critical question of whether or not el Draque did or did not play bowls, the wars of religion in France, and the wave of priests coming from the continent to save Catholicism in England, and indeed save the souls of the English. And then there’s the state of the protestant rebellion in the low countries – and the impact of a bone fide military genius in the Duke of Parma. So these are the sorts of things we’ll be talking about before we get to the end of Elizabeth’s reign in the nineties of nightmares – where we’ll talk more about social stuff I deem – plague and famine, poor laws, literacy, witchcraft all that sort of thing before welcoming the Stuarts into our hearts. How does that sound gentle listeners? Like a plan? Or as though we are crawling along the abrasive vegetable skin of history towards the rough end of the pineapple of life? Anyway, that’s what you are getting.

So let us return to Elizabeth’s court for a while. In her Privy Council there is both continuity and change; Burghley, Sussex, Leicester, Knollys, Mildmay served throughout the decade; but equally some famous names like Pembroke, Bacon, Arundel either died or disappeared from court due to some pecadillo. New faces joined in the late seventies like Christopher Hatton and Francis Walsingham. In brief, the PC become slightly smaller, slightly less aristocratic – but also more protestant. And as we discuss the progress of the Elizabethan church and the struggle between conformism and puritanism, it is significant that in the 80s the puritans were secure in the knowledge that they had supporters at the top table – Leicester, Walsingham, Knollys.

On a lighter and more gossipy note, I should mention the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, my link being that he was Lord Great Chamberlain all the way through to 1604, but politically a bit part player though well known at court and well known to the queen.  My intentions for introducing Edward de Vere are not honourable I have to say – I have two reasons, one that Edward de Vere is one of those quite extraordinary Elizabethan aristocrats who, just like the Elizabethan adventurers we heard about in Ireland and on the oceans, live thoroughly outrageous and generally disreputable lives; and secondly because a listener mentioned an anecdote which I now feel constrained to tell you. The outrageous life first; Edward de Vere was very popular with the queen for a while, a bit of a looker I think – and despite his various peccadillos never quite lost it; though when he hopped out of the country without permission he felt the sharp edge of her tongue. He was a protégé of Burghley in his young days, who rather looked out for him. So in July 1567, while practising the art of fencing with a Westminster tailor in the garden of Cecil House, he killed an unarmed and possibly inebriated undercook called Thomas Brincknell. Well, de Vere called his posh pals, and the coroner’s jury was spiked by Cecil and gave out the finding that Brincknell had committed suicide by ‘running upon a point of a fence-sword of the said earl’. I’m just doing a few episodes on the glories of the common law for members at the moment, and if you are a member you might want to remember this tale if I get too carried away with patriotic fervour about common law and the liberty of the individual. Money and status mattered in Elizabethan England.

De Vere married Cecil’s daughter Anne as it happens – and the marriage was an absolute disaster; de Vere spent all the dowry in short order, as well as digging deep into his own inheritance; even the Queen had a go at him for his lack of thrift. He was estranged from Anne for years, and went on a long European tour from 1575. De Vere very probably went to indulge himself and spend his money cutting a dash, and probably to flirt with Catholicism. But a later 17th century writer called Aubrey, who wrote a thoroughly gossipy book on 16th and 17th century notable figures called Brief Lives, has an alternative explanation of why de Vere left court

This Earle of Oxford, making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to Travell, 7 yeares. On his returne the Queen welcomed him home, and sayd, My Lord, I had forgott the Fart.”

De Vere appears to have been bi sexual, appearing back home in the company of a choirboy, which didn’t win many favours in Elizabethan days. When he returned he had a falling out with Philip Sydney and retired from court where he was rumoured to have plotted Sidney’s murder. He wrote poetry which I am told is very good, and of course is rumoured in some circles to have written some of Shakespeare’s plays. He died in 1604. It is rightly said, can’t remember by whom, that if you want to have fun being an aristocrat really helps, and being middle class does not. I hope you also managed to spot which bit of that story I was reminded off by a listener, Jeff I think, which I think gives a good indication of the quality of the History of England community.

Maybe there’s some serious content in there, though, in that it is a pretty classic example of Elizabeth’s style of bant. Elizabeth was of course faced by a phalanx of men at court and in the PC who rather assumed they could do a better job than a woman; and Elizabeth maintained to the end of her days her strategy of keeping her counsellors informed and involved – but off balance. The longevity and length of service of her counsellors was in stark contrast to the vicious fickleness of her father, very few councillors indeed faced the Elizabethan chop; but it gave her a further problem that while the PC often split into factions on key issues, the relationship between them was often strong. Burghley clearly ruled the roost, but took trouble to establish friendly relationships with the likes of Christopher Hatton in particular; and the correspondence between Burghley and Walsingham was voluminous. So Elizabeth had to make sure this phalanx of men did not take over; and she jealously protected her royal prerogative as a result. When Burghley stepped over a line in 1575 he wrote to Sussex

My doings have been interpreted as deminuations of her majestye’s prerogative which your lordship knoweth is so grateful to princes to maintain, as in no thing more may a prince’s displeasure be displayed[1]

This is one good reason why Elizabeth flew into rages and tantrums, was unpredictable, prevaricated; she was dealing with a bunch of power hungry blokes, and needed to keep them uncomfortable at times; and needed to retain her freedom of action; what she really hated was when everyone agreed with each other on a course of action leaving her without options; in the disagreement of her counsellors lay her ability to rule.

In Elizabeth’s privy chamber, there was similar longevity; although Kat Ashley had died in 1565, her place as chief gentlewoman was taken by Blanche Parry a companion of the Queen’s youth; Elizabeth Fitzgerald was also a longstanding companion until her death in 1590, Katherine Hastings and Lady Anne Dudley. People like Blanche and Elizabeth gave the queen often genuine affection; but her ladies of the chamber also hooked her into the network at court, and Elizabeth listened carefully to what they said about the goings on and rumours at court. Although Elizabeth had tried to banish political influence from her privy chamber, this was beyond her; not only did she need the information her gentlewomen provided, but courtiers did their very best to hook into these networks. Walter Ralegh described them as witches because

they were ‘capable of doing great harm, but no good’.[2]

A definition my wife would argue with, since she’s declared herself a white witch and certainly her ability to find stuff is pure wizardry. Another courtier remarked

‘We worshipped no saints, but we prayed to ladies in the Queen’s time.’

OK then, that’s the reading in; now, let us turn to religion; and although the most famous and discussed topic is generally the position of Catholics, to the vast majority of English people the state of protestant religion was far more important to their daily lives. There are a couple of major themes really, although I am sure a proper historian would throw their slipper at me and mutter ‘dolt’ for being so reductionist; how far did the Elizabethan church embed itself into the national psyche and life? I mean, at the end of Elizabeth’s reign will I be repeating again that Catholicism remained firmly embedded in many people’s hearts? And then also how had the search for uniformity gone by the end of the reign? As I believe I have mentioned, religious uniformity was not just an English desire, it was a Christian one, all over Europe nations sought to rescue this great treasure from the fire lit by Martin Luther in 1517.

When last we spoke of the Elizabethan settlement, the confident expectation of many reformers was that this was the start of a process; many were quite sure that the Book of Common Prayer would need to be substantially changed. As one commentator remarked

‘That was but the first show of the light … we must grow to further perfection.’[3]

Many also took issue with the management of the church, thinking particularly of the position of Bishops; many felt that bishops were simply not scriptural and therefore should be banished to the outer darkness; they favoured instead presbyterianism, the management of church congregrations at a local level, while also maintaining a national church through some kind of national assembly. But Bishops and all their fancy clothing – that was basically Catholicism as far as they could see, unneeded ceremony. The term puritan appears from the 1560s as a Catholic sneer; the term spread like wild fire, and as so often an insult led to the adoption of a long standing label. But Few puritans would have described themselves thus; they called themselves the Godly, though one article I have read makes the point that there are degrees of godliness – the godly, the godlier and the Goldliest if you like. The Godliest could be unpopular in parishes, and frankly they often liked it that way, they liked to stand apart from the ‘carnal multitude’ and courted their own unpopularity as a sign of their own election to the chosen. The Godly were deeply unconvinced that the church structure of bishops, archdeacons and church courts could provide the kind of discipline that continental Calvinist movements demanded, and which were becoming such a feature of the Scottish kirk, with deep and effective control of both religious and social behaviour.

The question for the Godly of whatever level was whether to stay and work within the Elizabethan church or leave it and establish their own conventicles. The Godly themselves then were split. George Gifford, a puritan preacher from Essex for example, while bitterly criticising the ‘papist pretensions’ of the established church, none the less fought hard against the separatist impulse; describing that it as ‘mad furie’ to argue that English churches were anything other than ‘reputed Godlie churches’

Early in Elizabeth’s reign, the response from the church hierarchy to the demands of puritans was uncertain, and differences existed between the Queen and some of her bishops, and between the Queen and her parliament; through both of these channels, the Godly tried to effect change. Before any kind of firm uniformity could be established the response of the queen and her hierarchy needed to be worked through. A good example was Edmund Grindal, promoted to become archbishop of Canterbury in 1575; Grindal had himself been described by the Godly at one stage by a preacher called Patterson as an anti christ in 1566. It must be said that the accusation of anti christ, which sounds really nasty now, must surely have become devalued by the end of the Elizabeth’s reign, it was scattered around like confetti as far as I can see. I imagine just leaving the toilet seat up might land you with the accusation as anti christ of the smallest room. But despite this evidence of a moderate position, Grindal still fell foul of the queen. Grindal was a fan of the preaching of sermons, which was core to most of protestant practice; and Elizabeth was not agin the practice. But for her it must be controlled and licenced. So when the practice of ‘prophesying’ grew within England she was alarmed; ‘prophesying’ was the practice of well known preachers coming to town, everyone sitting around and taking notes – and then a wide variety of folks all going off and trying it out for themselves. Elizabeth ordered Grindal to rein all this in and enforce licencing of preachers – Grindal wrote a 6,000 word essay explaining why to do so was against his conscience. So Elizabeth said, hmm, sorry to hear that, and suspended him from his office, and would ideally have completely deprived him of his office – a very radical step, from which Burghley talked her down.

When Grindal died, his replacement as ABC, John Whitgift, was much more Elizabeth’s cup of tea. He was strongly conformist, and set his face against the demands of the godly to make theological and liturgical changes. The Godly focussed on the bishops, setting their abolition as a precondition for the revival of ‘personal zeal in the parishes’. Whitgift faced challenges also to his authority from privy councillors, notably from Leicester; but in 1586 Elizabeth promoted Whitgift to the PC, the only ecclesiastical member of her council through her reign, and Whitgift always retained her confidence. Through this partnership, the drive to embed the Elizabethan settlement in the hearts and daily lives of the English grew apace.

The other aspect of resistance to the puritan desire for permanent revolution came from Elizabeth in parliament; she consistently made the point that she was supreme governor of the church, and that the business of church reform, should any be needed, lay with her and the Convocation of the church. Despite many attempts to debate religion in parliament, Elizabeth consistently held that line; after criticising parliament for conducting a debate on religion in 1585, Elizabeth made her views quite clear

her resolute pleasure [that] she will receive no motion of alteration or change of any law whereby the religion or Church of England stands established at this day. … For as she found it at her first coming in, and so hath maintained it these twenty-seven years, she meant in like state, by God’s grace, to continue it and leave it behind her.[i]

As far as Elizabeth was concerned, her church was perfect and the job done, sorted, move along, nothing to see here. The last attempt despite the queen’s unequivocal rage at parliamentary interference in her settlement, came in 1586 when two MPs, Cope and Wentworth brought reforms to parliament both in practice and the BCP; both found themselves in the Tower. But in the ensuing debate various governmental heavyweights were rolled out to condemn the bill, among them being Christopher Hatton. Hatton’s speech summarised why the establishment were so keen to bring the puritans into line and stop making changes to the Elizabethan settlement. People said Hatton, were becoming used to the perfect form of service established by the settlement; by making further changes ‘you shall drive them by thousands either to become atheists or papists’. But Hatton’s greater charge was to equate presbyterians and godly Puritans with subversion of the state. With this, the last failure of the puritans to use parliament to implement their agenda, Elizabeth demonstrated her essential success at keeping church and state separate once the original stllement had been made.

Still, puritan reformers tried again through extra parliamentary means; one of these were the publications attributed to the fictional Martin Marprelate. The publications tapped into well established reformist traditions, poking fun at Bishops and the pomposity of the establishment, mocking their grandeur and expense. Their satire and humour won them some support. But their timing sucked with superior level of suckiness, because it came at the same time as the Armada, and so they rather re-inforced Whitgift and Hatton’s bid to equate presbyterianism, and puritanism as seditious and anti state.

By the 1590s, puritanism had been discredited and stripped of its leadership; there was little need for extensive persecution, though 3 men, Penry, Barrow and Greenwood who’d been involved in the Marin Prelate affair were tried and executed for attending separatist congregations. By the 1590s, puritanism had gone underground.



How far, then, had the Elizabethan church been accepted in the parishes? John Guy remarks that the Elizabethan reformation was different in many ways to the reformation of Edward VI and Henry VIII in that once the religious settlement had been passed through parliament, there was far less top down reform from Government – and in fact as we have heard Elizabeth stifled it – and far more evangelising came from the bottom up. As far as Elizabeth was concerned, the core responsibility of her subjects was conformity – to go to church, to follow the Book of Common Prayer. As far as what was going on in their souls or in private – well, that was a matter for them as long as they turned up to church and did the necessary.  As far as the church evangelical movement itself was concerned, Preaching was central and formed the basis of their attempts to bring congregations into the path of righteousness. They identified 4 stages; the ‘apostolic’ stage where preachers travelled the countryside; the formative stage where people came to see the preachers at market days; the intermediate stage when preachers and the ministry were fully established in a locality and the fully developed stage when preachers were common in an area. Needless to say, different regions moved through this process at different speeds. Much of this evangelical effort owed its success to a minority of enthusiasts, sometimes operating unlicensed by the church itself.

The story in Wales, by the way, has similarities and differences. The key difference of course was language; and initially in the 1540s it had been established that religion was to be conducted in English – and if that had remained the case, the history of religion in Wales, and possibly the history of the united kingdom would have been very different. But as would happen in Ireland, evangelicals, who were worryingly rare initially it must be said, quickly realised that conversion to Protestantism was quite impossible unless conducted in Welsh, and the policy changed, and changed much more effectively than would happen in Ireland. From 1567, the BCP and New Testament had been created in Welsh, and from 1588 the full bible became available from a translation by William Morgan. Morgan came from a family near Caernarvon, and progressed through the Anglican church from Parish priest to Bishop of Llandaff to Bishop of St Asaph. It is probably there that he completed the work that made him, in the words of one historian ‘the single most important figure in the history of the Reformation in Wales’, his bible described by another historian as ‘a great literary and linguistic triumph’.

This was by no means the end of the affair; the Reformation in Wales went through similar stresses and stages as in England. The church was poor, and suffered from a lack of trained people to embed Protestantism; the Welsh bible was expensive until the 17th century, and of course literacy rates were low. A network remained of those dedicated to the Catholic faith, and meanwhile others wanted to go further than the Elizabethan church had taken them, and the long history of nonconformism in Wales starts here.

At parish level, there is some debate about the engagement of the mass of individuals, outside of the issues we’ve talked about with Puritans, and will talk about with Catholics. There’s a tradition which claims that without all the ceremony and mystery the Anglican service was a dull affair, and a litany of complaints about bad behaviour and talking in church rolled out in defence of the argument. Others point out that clerical complaints about bad behaviour predate the Reformation by a long time, and anyway the recording of such incidents may simply point equally to the unusualness and unacceptability of such behaviour – hence its noteworthiness. Others point to the greater interaction through the theatre of response required in the BCP, and to the growth of the singling of psalms by congregations.

Wherever you stand on this, it seems pretty evident that by the time Elizabeth lay in her grave, the Protestant Church of England was embedded into the daily life of the vast majority of England’s population; and just the passage of time alone if nothing else meant that memories of the old religion had faded away except where specifically kept alive by recusant families. Elizabethan clergy were central to daily life – officiating at Christening, churching of mothers, catechising of children, celebration of the Eucharist, weddings, services for the dead. It’s probable that the relationship between clergy and laity changed somewhat; Protestantism stripped away much of the mystery from the clergy, as did clerical marriage. So the incidence of adultery or complaints of sexual misdemeanors among the clergy, always a problem pre reformation became less of a problem; and Parish priests, often poorer than they had been were probably more embedded in everyday life in things like farming their glebe land, making their literacy services available to their parishioners. Furthermore the tradition of preaching could lead to disputes between vicars and lecturers, and between congregations and their priests. The organisation of the parish ran throughout the society, as I believe we covered in a previous episode on the Parish, number 282 I believe, so just to say that the network of churchwardens and clerks provided another bridge between parishes and the church hierarchy.

I should at this point then mention one further character of the Elizabethan church, which I really suspect I should have heard of much more than I have. Richard Hooker was born in 1554 in Exeter to a not very well off family, although with connections. He went to Exeter grammar school, and there his career might have ended had it not been for the sponsorship of Bishop John Jewel, who helped Hooker make it to Oxford University. Why, I hear you ask, do I mention Richard Hooker. Well, Hooker produced the works of theology called Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie; it was not a brief introduction to his subject – 8 books were published, several posthumously and therefore open to come debate about their authorship. Hooker’s work formed the intellectual and theoretical backbone to the Elizabethan settlement, and he became the intellectual father of What became known as Anglicanism; he was described by two historians as ‘par excellence the apologist of the Elizabethan Settlement of 1559 and perhaps the most accomplished advocate that Anglicanism has ever had’[4]. In assessing his work he seems to have found both favour and disapprobation from pretty much everyone, though by Victorian days he had become enthroned as unchallengable; obviously nobody remained unchallengable in the 20th century, but none the less he remains at the heart of the doctrine of Anglicanism.

In the 17th century his works drew fire from both sides, puritan and Catholic, and also support; and possibly the reason for that is that like the church he defended itself, he steered a path between the extremes. But he argued for a positive spiritual value in ceremonies and rituals, and for an unbroken line of succession from the medieval Church to the latter day Church of England, which made him less unacceptable to Catholics, and quite popular later with Laudians. He accused Puritans of attempting the impossible – of protesting loyalty to the queen, while on the other hand undermining the structural arrangements of her church, particularly the existence of Bishops. And yet scriptural authority lay at the heart of the principle underpinning the Elizabethan church in his view – Bible, church, and reason for him provided the 3 underpinning principles of the Church of England. His writings attracted the attention of thinkers such as John Locke, who referred to him several times in his writing, particularly on Hooker’s views on consent as the basis of political authority and law as supreme in its exercise. Hooker’s legacy is maybe a little uncertain, but a bit like magna carta maybe a strength is the myriad ways in which he could be interpreted; but he provided strength to the intellection justification of the church of England, and in his view that placing an undue emphasis on antagonism with Roman Catholicism was a distraction from the proper tasks of Christian life, lay seeds of reconciliation. Though that takes a while it must be said. I confess myself to be utterly inexpert on such a complex man, so if you happen to feel strongly, do get in touch to enlighten me.

Almost at the end then; the super summary is that by Elizabeth’s death – I assume that’s not a plot spoiler – Whitgift and the Elizabethan church seemed to have fought off its detractors; we’ll discuss Catholicism next time, but certainly the idea of a significant number of puritans leaving the church was for the moment dead, and leadership of the puritans was divided and cowed. The Elizabethan church had established itself in the daily life and rhythm of the Parishes, and education of its clergy was gathering apace, and would be a major achievement of the church. However, the search for uniformity which looked for a while to have been achieved was really anything but. There is a theory that the civil wars of the 17th century are in fact England and Wales’ wars of religion, that Elizabeth simply suppressed differences rather than resolving them. Well, the current debate seems to have rejected such a single minded causation of the civil wars, but there is no doubt that once the civil wars had started a staggering plethora of different protestant ideas and sects emerged into the light; and once the lid was off, there would be no squeezing England and Wales back into the bottle of conformity.

[1] Loades, D Elizabeth I p183

[2] Borman, Tracy. The Private Lives of the Tudors: Uncovering the Secrets of Britain’s Greatest Dynasty . Hodder & Stoughton. Kindle Edition.

[3] Marshall, Peter. Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation (Kindle Location 10971). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

[4] MacGrade, A ODNB

[i] Marshall, Peter. Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation (Kindle Locations 12615-12617). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.



6 thoughts on “309 Godly, Godlier and Godliest

  1. Major historical blunder today David…”that’s all folks” is in the words of that famous pig, not rabbit 😉

  2. I downloaded Episode 309 directly from the website and cuts off at the 18:04 mark. I also tried playing it on the website player and my podcaster. Same thing happened.
    The last line is: “Grindal wrote a 6,000 word essay explaining why to do so was against his conscience,” then a snipit of music plays and it stops.

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