«I Elizabeth I (r.1558-1603) came to the throne during a time of religious uncertainty. Her father, Henry VIII, had removed the English Church from ...»
Elizabeth I (r.1558-1603) came to the throne during a time of religious
uncertainty. Her father, Henry VIII, had removed the English Church from papal
authority during his rule. Edward VI, her brother, had taken that one step further and
created a Calvinist State church in England. Then, Mary I, who was Elizabeth and
Edward’s older sister, had returned the English church to Catholicism. These drastic
changes had left England in a state of religious instability, which Elizabeth needed to fix.
In order to do this the queen would have to walk a fine line, what has been called the via media, or middle road. In this she was attempting to follow in the footsteps of her father, but one must ask, how successful was she really? Did Elizabeth I successfully walk the same tightrope her father had? It may seem that way on initial inspection, but when examined closely one discovers that the Elizabethan Church was in reality a Protestant Church dressed up in bishops’ robes. This paper will argue that the doctrinal base of the Elizabethan Church, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, provides ample support to this authors contention that the Elizabethan Church Settlement was not really a via media, the middle road, but one that was distinctly Protestant.
II Historians have examined the Reformation of the English Church in a number of ways, which can be divided into four major schools of thought: rapid reform from the top-down, rapid reform from the bottom-up, slow reform from the top-down and slow reform from the bottom-up. While none of these schools fit all of the available 2 information, all give a different perspective of the progress of the Protestant movement in England.
Scholars who find rapid Protestant reform originating from the top argue that the monarchy was forcibly implicating the religious changes from the top, and then the reform movement quickly flowed down to the common parishioners. They state that Protestantism was quickly forced down through the levels of society to the common people by the priests, by the order of the queen, and that it was quickly accepted. The leading scholar who supports this idea is Geoffrey Elton who bases his argument on the idea that the Reformation was started by Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell carefully controlled the Reformation’s political aspects in order to emphasize a “nationalized” church that supported the king and was free of magic and superstition. Cromwell used both printed propaganda and preaching to persuade the people to follow the new “nationalist” religion. This idea is supported by the findings from Peter Clark’s study of Kent, which shows that Cromwell used the power of patronage to place the archbishop under enough pressure that the archbishop felt he had no choice but to convert to Protestantism. This in turn lead to a breakthrough of Protestantism in the 1540s. 1 Another school of thought concerning the cause of Protestant reform in England is the concept of rapid reform from the bottom up. This grassroots reform movement has support from A.G. Dickens, as well as Claire Cross. Professor Dickens stresses the religious roots of this movement, rather than the political, as in the top-down reform. He
argues that Lollard evangelists 2 and their practice of Bible-reading conventicles laid the foundations for a grassroots expansion of Protestantism because these movements had very similar motivations. The bottom-up reform movement was further aided by the neglect of the Catholic clergy; the higher clergy were too involved with politics to pay attention to the movement and the lower were too poor and uneducated to effectively stop it. There is one significant problem with this school of thought, however. The heretics this concept is based upon are few and far between, and there could be a tendency of losing perspective if scholars focus in on this minority too much.
The third school of thought is one of slow reform from the top, that is, that the religious reforms started with the authority from the monarch and the bishops, but was slow to take hold in the parishes. Penry Williams argues that while the early Reformation movements may have affected the statute books, it was not until the Elizabethan movement, when official preaching and punishment were used effectively, that Catholicism was finally removed. A. L. Rowse views the Reformation in Cornwall, specifically, as a power struggle between the two religions, with the Protestant winners controlling the religious beliefs of a “mentally passive people.” 3 Slow reform from the bottom up is a concept embraced by recent historians of Puritanism, including Patrick Collinson and Margaret Spufford. Collinson views the Elizabethan Reformation as more of the evangelical end of a political movement started
under the reign of her father. He states that this was the phase where preachers carried the new beliefs to the parishes and developed communities of strongly committed Protestants. Spufford argues that while little opposition may be found in the early Reformation, there is little or no sign of Protestants in the parishes themselves until the 1590s. 4 All of these reform concepts have flaws. Those that focus on rapid reform assume that the absence of documented Catholic rebellion under Protestant reign is a sign of acceptance, at the least, and perhaps even approval. Those that focus on slow reform make a similar mistake in assuming that the lack of significant Protestant rebellion during the reign of Mary I is a sign of the failure of early reforms to take proper hold of the countryside. The most likely sequence of events is one of a mixed occurrence of both reform from above and below, starting slowly in the countryside, and more quickly in urban areas, and all depending on the socio-political climate of the area being discussed.
A via media of top-down and bottom-up schools of thought.
In 1558, the English nobles were uncertain what would become of their church system. It had gone from Roman Catholic to semi-Lutheran under Henry VIII. Henry had separated the English Church from the Pope and yet Henry was unwilling to change the doctrine and ritual of his church very much. Under Henry’s son, Edward VI, the English Church became strongly Calvinist. Edward’s reforms started off slowly, following his father’s reforms, but rumors of further reform flew about the country and Edward lost
some of his control of the Reform movement. The pace at which changes occurred had to accelerate to keep up with the changes that ministers were calling their people to from their pulpits. 5 While Edward believed that statues and paintings of a religious nature were wrong, he was not yet pushing for complete iconoclasm, yet paintings and statues of both religious and non-religious natures were being destroyed across the nation. Legislation could not keep up with the desired changes; while new legislation concerning the mass and chantries 6 was being decided upon, the changes suggested in that legislation were being implemented.
However, while under Mary I’s rule, the English Church swung back to an extremely conservative Catholicism. Initially she did not desire to force anyone to go to mass, only to give her citizens the option to go. However, it soon became obvious that a complete return to Catholicism was her intent. Mary’s intentions were met with strong resistance, however, in the form of both outright acts of rebellion and in subversive activities. When Mary’s chaplain, Gilbert Bourne, spoke out strongly against the activities of the former Bishop of London, Nicholas Ridley, and touted the new Bishop, Edmund Bonner, “the assembled crowd was so infuriated with his remarks that they broke into ‘great uproar and shouting, like mad people,’ and were on the point of rioting.” 7 Bourne was almost killed in this incident, and it took a protestant preacher to calm the crowd, because they would not listen to the Catholics anymore.
While this was the most violent, and most obvious, form of rebellion there were other more subtle ways as well. While the Protestant movement was in the minority, it was an active one. They had underground churches, with small groups of like-minded people meeting in secret, in cellars and attics. Protestants also committed acts of sabotage against the Catholic Church. One case in particular occurred during the spring of 1554. In London, Easter was being observed as Catholic tradition required, and the Host was left in a sepulchre on the altar on Good Friday, according to the tradition, and would remain there until Easter Sunday. However, when it came time to remove the Host from the tomb on Easter, it was not there. Someone had stolen it. The priest was forced to replace it with another, which lead to a Protestant ballad relating this story, including how the papist’s God had been stolen and replaced with a new one. 8 In response to these signs of resistance, Mary increased the strictures and the strength of the punishment of heretics, effectively bringing the Inquisition of the Continent to England. She had heretics tortured into confession and burned at the stake, all of which has been documented in John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, also known as The Book of Martyrs. Unfortunately Acts and Monuments has been proven incredibly biased, since Foxe was a radical Protestant who would have loved to see what was done to the Protestants done to the Catholics. 9 It must be taken into account, however, that Mary only saw this as a temporary measure. She did not desire to punish heretics in these
manners permanently, only until the heretics understood what they were doing, and were willing to repent and return to the “one true church.” Elizabeth had always carefully, and publicly, followed the religious requirements of the country, regardless of whether they were Catholic or Protestant. No one was sure what Elizabeth would do, because no one was quite positive about her personal beliefs.
Under Edward she had followed the Protestant practices as required by law, but she had also followed the Catholic practices under Mary as well, and had worked hard to keep her personal beliefs private for her entire adult life. She had the daunting task of attempting to satisfy all of the religious stances in her country, which ranged from extreme Catholicism on the far right to radical Puritanism on the far left.
The Elizabethan Religious settlement was a necessary part of Elizabeth’s success as a monarch. Because of the religious beliefs of her siblings, the realm was a very religiously unstable place, and Elizabeth had to find ways to appease both the Edwardian Protestants and the Marian Catholics. Elizabeth could have done one of three things to solve this dilemma. The first was by maintaining the Marian policy of Catholicism. This had some benefits, but also some drawbacks. By maintaining Catholicism Elizabeth knew she would have Spain as an ally. She would not have had to worry about any of the Catholic countries attacking England strictly because she was no longer under the pope’s protection, which she would have had to worry about if she chose to return England to being a Protestant state as it had been under Edward.
another sovereign authority, that of the pope, into her realm. She would also have had to pay him taxes, in the form of tithes, out of the money that she could have for herself otherwise.
Elizabeth’s second option was to return England to the Protestantism it had known during the reign of Edward VI. As mentioned above, with this option she would have had to worry about Catholic uprising in her country and attacks from France and Spain, the two Catholic superpowers of the day. She would not have had to worry about another sovereign within England trying to usurp power, but would also have lost some of the divinely given sovereignty acknowledged by the pope that all monarchs relied upon so heavily during her lifetime and before.
Her third option was not one most people thought of. Elizabeth decided to take the Church of England back to the Church her father, Henry VIII, had started, or at least a church resembling one from the Henrician period. This is what historians have called the via media, or the middle road. Instead of choosing a side in this religious argument Elizabeth chose to walk right down the middle of the two. She took the hierarchy and structure of the Catholic Church and combined it with the milder of Protestant ideas, and had them preached in English In order to achieve this, Elizabeth went through Parliament. This was in order to ensure that her church settlement was lawful and legitimate in the eyes of the English
Church from papal authority, undoing Mary’s work. The obdurate and remonstrating bishops were imprisoned to prevent them from casting their opposing votes. 10 Elizabeth also assumed the title of “Supreme Governor of the Church,” as opposed to “Supreme Head,” which had been the title her father and brother had taken, as a concession to the more conservative members of Parliament. This was necessary because she was a woman, and thus she could not be the leader of the Church, even though she was the monarch. Parliament would not have allowed Elizabeth to become the Supreme Head for this reason, and Elizabeth needed that control over the Church in order to exact the changes she wanted to. She also did not force the laity to take an oath of allegiance to the Supreme Governor, only the Church and Government officials, because she did not want to force her people to choose between their Queen and their religion.
The next act she passed was the Act of Uniformity, which required that all Englishmen attended church on Sundays and all holy days. These church services were to follow a revised version of the Book of Common Prayer that had been used during the reign of Edward VI, Elizabeth’s brother, and was written by the same man who had written the Forty-two Articles, Thomas Cranmer. The revised prayer book was an amalgamation of the Prayer Books of 1549 and 1552. It altered the words spoken during the mass to emphasize the act of remembering Christ’s sacrifices as opposed the superstition of transubstantiation, 11 and stated that one could “feed on him in thy heart by