One of Elizabeth’s first priorities having ascended the throne of England in 1558, was to reach a suitable religious settlement and thus end the religious divisions and confusions that had defined England since the Reformation. It was likely to be a Protestant settlement; both on a personal and political level. Firstly because Elizabeth herself had been raised as a protestant and secondly because she could see immense power and advantage in being head of the Church. Therefore, though the general direction of the settlement was easy to define, the exact form it was to take and why it took the form it did was much more complex.
Elizabeth had retained her divided Privy Council and this was intentionally maintained throughout the drawing up of the settlement. Cecil and Dudley in common with many of the other Councillors were convinced Protestants, but others were deeply conservative. Elizabeth’s own inclination therefore, as the head of this council was not to push religious conformity to extremes, as Mary and Edward had done before her. Provided the gentry acknowledged the establishment of the Church of England she did not wish to “make windows into men’s souls”.
Matters of religion were at the heart of the state and Elizabeth was well aware that she needed to minimise the possibilities of widespread discontent and revolt. She had known from an early age that her position of power was always volatile. She was female, single, regarded by many European Catholic noblemen as the illegitimate offspring of her father’s mistress, Anne Boleyn, and significantly England was still technically at war with France. Furthermore she had inherited a kingdom which was a second-rate power, strongly overshadowed by Spain and France.
It was therefore obvious that in order to survive in such a hostile environment she would need to create and maintain a strong and effective government with strong uniform religious policies. As a result Elizabeth worked to maintain the Church hierarchy to ensure further measures of conformity and control. These arguments and motives for such a “middle ground” were heavily discussed in a anonymous document entitled “Device for the Alteration of Religion (1558)”. The author warned Elizabeth not to make the assumption that the dominance of Protestants in the South-East represented the views of the whole country.
He said “better it were that they did not suffer than her highness or commonwealth shake or be in danger”. Many were not sympathetic. Radical Protestantism and an adherence to Catholic rites of worship and doctrine was still strong. The writer also advised caution until Parliament had settled the Common Book of Prayer. In the writer’s opinion no unlicensed doctrine should be permitted and a close eye should be kept on the Marian bishops in case of deviance from this law. The author concluded that a “middle course of moderate Protestantism” would give satisfaction to the majority.
Order and control therefore seemed to be the main emphasis and Elizabeth proceeded with great caution as noted by the imperial ambassador in March 1559: “she has treated all religious questions with so much caution and incredible prudence that she seems to protect the Catholic religion and at the same time not entirely condemn or reject the new Reformation”. In order to satisfy the majority the settlement worked to retain elements of Catholic ceremonies and rituals while incorporating Protest beliefs in order to encourage widespread support.
Also, improvements in the quality and sincerity of many Protestant preachers and vicars established creditability of the protestant religion. Concessions and compromises were still made particularly as Parliament had a strong Catholic power base. Protestant Puritan resistance was still strong with Protestants destroying statues , ornaments and even vestments and removing altars from churches. Elizabeth also attempted to maintain a balance between Marian bishops and new Protestant ones but in the end only one accepted.
Elizabeth chose a moderate archbishop however, Matthew Parker who recognised and supported her sensible view of order through religion. Elizabeth could not persuade Catholics to accept the Settlement but by leaving much of the doctrine up to interpretation (e. g. the wording of the communion service “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving”) at least she offered tolerance and an outward show of their religion in the Church of England services.
In the early years of her reign, Catholics were rarely prosecuted for non-attendance to Church. If anyone failed to take the Oath of Supremacy the first time, they were not pressed again to take it as refusal could lead to execution. By insisting that the clergy continue to wear ceremonial robes Elizabeth was also giving the sign that she was not conforming to the hard line of the Puritans. As long as her Church was acknowledged, or at least not openly opposed Elizabeth had no wish to press the Catholics further.
Elizabeth was a Protestant but if there were no Catholic martyrs there would be no cause around which they could rally. Perhaps instinctively by retaining many of these measures as part of the settlement she was also working to satisfy what ordinary people cared about rather than the finer points of theological dispute. Elizabeth also worked to combat the more moderate Puritan complaints, particularly weakness in administration . Yet she also recognised that the Puritan emphasis on individual salvation was a direct challenge to her status as Supreme Governor of the Church.
Even though she placed strong Puritans at the heart of her government such as Leicester, the Earl of Warwick and the Earls of Huntingdon and Bedford. This blunted attacks against Elizabeth as she was seen to represent the Puritans within her government. Thus Elizabeth’s motive to achieve a well balance moderate Church, with a strong focus on her concentrated power through which she could control order and promote uniformity was achieved. Though extremists continued to battle over the finer points of liturgy, the moderate majority were satisfied.
By appearing to represent both sides of the argument Elizabeth received minimal repercussions, her future was secure and thus she had satisfied the strongest aim of her religious settlement. In conclusion Elizabeth’s religious settlement of 1559 lasted without fundamental change until the end of her reign, spanning almost two generations. Catholics had been clearly opposed to the settlement from the outset but because Elizabeth did not enforce conformity amongst them, conspiracies against her regime were few and supported by only a handful of disaffected gentry.
This was despite the attacks against her from critics as well as physical assaults from Spain. This did not mean the fear of a Catholic uprising passed away. Eighty eight, mostly lay Catholics were executed for opposition to the government between 1590 and 1604 but by 1588, the threat of a Catholic uprising had grown faint. Puritans, on the other hand, thought of the Settlement merely as a introduction to greater reform. Elizabeth’s long reign enabled the continuity of the Protestant religion and the Settlement to be sustained.
Puritans did fight back in the Parliament of 1586-8 with a bill aiming to completely restructure the church. Yet those involved were imprisoned showing that whilst many MPs were sympathetic to moderate Puritan views they had no intention of implementing them if it meant sacrificing the national church with Elizabeth as its figure head. Thus Elizabeth achieved the moderate “middle-ground” she originally intended that satisfied the broad public religious spectrum and in return secured her place as a dominate Tudor monarch.