Elizabeth I And The Stabilization Of English Religion

Recognizing the need to secure religious stability in England, Elizabeth set about crafting a "Settlement of Religion" that would bring at least some degree of unity to a deeply divided nation.29 The basic elements of the Settlement were the Act of Supremacy, which affirmed Elizabeth's sovereignty over the national church and abolished any papal power, and the Act of Uniformity, which aimed to enforce religious uniformity throughout the nation, making church attendance compulsory on Sundays and saints' days. The effect of such measures was that the queen laid down what the church should believe, how it should be governed, and how its services were to be conducted.

Elizabeth's own inclinations were unquestionably Protestant; nevertheless, she had no interest in causing offense to Catholic Spain, which might pose a significant military threat to England. This concern was probably reflected in her chosen title as "Supreme Governor" of the church: her refusal to be called "supreme head" avoided offending both Protestants (who used this title to refer to Jesus Christ) and Catholics (who used it to refer to the pope). The Church of England would be reformed in its theology yet remain Catholic in its institutions, especially its episcopacy.

Elizabeth's Settlement of Religion was always precarious, relying much on veiled promises and hints of future favors that somehow never materialized. A political rather than a theological statement, it was aimed at generating consensus and stability, assisted to no small extent by theological vagueness and evasion.30 Elsewhere, Protestantism might be riven and cleft by theological disputes; England would be undivided, at least publicly.

Although Lutheran influence may indeed be discerned at points within the Settlement of Religion, it is clear that the balance of power had shifted decisively toward Reformed forms of Protestantism.31 The returning Marian exiles, many of whom had spent their exile in cities such as Zurich and Geneva, included many important or soon-to-be-important English Protestant leaders, such as John Aylmer (future bishop of London), John Bale, Miles Coverdale, Richard Cox (future bishop of Ely), Edmund Grindal (future archbishop of York, then Canterbury), John Jewel (future bishop of Salisbury), and Edwin Sandys (future archbishop of York).

On the assumption that the Elizabethan Settlement was an imperfect temporary compromise, many Protestants actively supported and defended it, while waiting for the more radical measures that seemed to be imminent. Particular dissatisfaction was expressed by more radical Protestants over Elizabeth's insistence that priestly vestments revert to what they had been in the second year of the reign of Edward VI. Those who looked to Geneva or Zurich for theological guidance longed to wear black gowns and get rid of vestments altogether. Elizabeth's cryptic hint that she might alter her mind subsequently came to nothing. The Settlement proved to be a seedbed of discontent, catalyzing growing discontent within Protestantism that subsequently led to the emergence of the Puritan party. Although the term "Puritan" is problematic for the historian, it accurately denotes a central theme of the group of Protestants whom it designates—namely, a passionate, occasionally obsessive, quest for further reformation. In the face of what they saw as Elizabeth's compromises and half-measures, they demanded a pure church, along the lines of Calvin's Geneva.32 A turning point was reached in 1576 with the appointment of John Whitgift as archbishop of Canterbury. The Puritans realized they would never achieve their goals under Elizabeth.

One local solution was adopted by Protestant sympathizers in the Channel Islands.33 In 1564 a French diplomatic mission to London suggested that the Channel Islands come under the ecclesiastical control of the Catholic diocese of Coutances in Normandy. After consultation with the islanders, it was ruled that they were part of the English diocese of Winchester, and hence not subject to French ecclesiastical control. However, by 1576 the islanders had established French Reformed beliefs and church practices in their region, claiming that they were exempt from Elizabeth's control because they were following the best practice of the French Reformed churches in the Coutances area. English religious control was not reestablished in Jersey until the reign of James I, and not in Guernsey until the reign of Charles II.

With the passage of time, the Settlement of Religion can be seen to have defined Anglicanism with reference to Catholicism, on the one hand, and to Puritans, on the other.34 In April 1570, Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth, declaring that she was a pretender to the throne of England. The announcement placed Puritans in an impossible position, as they were obliged to defend England's Protestant queen against this act of papal aggression. Yet the papal edict united the Catholic world in the Empresa de Inglaterra ("the Enterprise of England")—the overthrow of the new Protestant regime. And Spain saw itself as having a leading role in this decisive event. The failure of Spain's attempt to invade England in 1588 led to a growing perception within England that it was indeed a Protestant country, facing up to the military and naval might of its Catholic opponents.

Elizabeth's long reign allowed England to emerge as a Protestant nation, its Catholic and more radical Protestant dissenters being of minor importance. Elizabeth's personal prestige enabled her to sideline dissent without undue difficulty. Although the image of Elizabeth as a militant Protestant heroine belongs to a somewhat later age, her defeat of Spain was widely seen as marking a new phase in the consolidation of Protestantism.35 In 1600 England was emerging as a naval power of no small significance, and a powerful defender of the new religion. Under Sir Walter Raleigh, a Protestant colony was established at Roanoke Island, eventually to be known as "Virginia." Protestantism expanded into Ireland, displacing the indigenous Catholic population and laying the foundations of the religious tensions that persist to this day.

Was this article helpful?

0 0


  • ren
    How elizabeth stabalized the english religion?
    8 years ago

Post a comment