10. The Elizabethan Confessional State: Conformity, Papists and Puritans

By | September 3, 2019

Well, as you know,
in 1528 religious change had not been a significant issue in
English politics. By 1558, it was in many ways
the central issue and it was about to take another turn.
On the 17th of November,
1558, Elizabeth I was proclaimed queen,
a young woman of twenty-five, highly intelligent,
well educated and long schooled in the necessity of caution,
discretion and even dissimulation in order to
survive the dangers that she had faced.
She was of course Anne Boleyn’s
daughter, and as Anne Boleyn’s daughter
it was in a sense her conception in December of 1532 that had
finally precipitated the assertion of Henry VIII’s royal
supremacy. So you could say in a sense
that Elizabeth’s whole identity, and above all her claims to the
throne, were bound up with the
rejection by her father of papal authority.
Now the precise nature of her
personal beliefs remains uncertain.
She didn’t really disclose
them, but unquestionably she identified herself with the
Protestant cause. Shortly after her accession,
at Christmas 1558, she very ostentatiously walked
out of mass in the royal chapel at the point at which the host
was elevated. A month later in January 1559
she very ostentatiously embraced an English Bible which was
offered to her by the citizens of London on her state entry to
London prior to her coronation. So Elizabeth was making no
secret of the fact that she inclined towards reform,
as indeed everyone expected. But if she inclined towards
reform she was neither dogmatically nor
straightforwardly Protestant, and the religious settlement of
1559, the first business of her
reign, very much reflected that fact.
It was in part the product of
theological convictions, but it was also very much a
settlement that reflected a religious preference that was
tempered by sheer political expediency.
What actually happened remains
rather cloudy– some aspects of the
documentation are inadequate– but the most convincing
interpretation of the settlement to my mind is that of Norman
Jones. In his view Elizabeth and her
chief adviser, William Cecil,
intended initially to return to the situation of 1552 just
before the death of her brother, Edward VI.
But they met severe opposition
in Parliament particularly in the House of Lords,
opposition not only from the Catholic bishops who sat in the
Lords but also from some of the leading lay members of the
peerage, and so they had to return to
Parliament with a distinctly watered-down draft prayer book
setting out their desires for religious settlement.
So, for example,
in 1559 in the prayer book they brought to Parliament the
communion service was in fact a blend of the prayer book of 1552
with its very Protestant statements regarding the
communion service being essentially a service of
remembrance and thanksgiving. They blended that with the
earlier 1549 prayer book which had allowed for the possibility
that there was a real presence of Christ’s body and blood in
the communion service. And so in 1559 the wording at
the administration of the communion was as follows:
the bread…”the body of our Lord Jesus Christ,
which was given for thee preserve thy body and soul unto
everlasting life.” That’s 1549,
followed immediately by “take and eat this in
remembrance that Christ died for thee and feed on him in thy
heart by faith with thanksgiving”;
that’s 1552. They blended the two together
so that you could read it as you chose.
It’s been described by Diarmaid
MacCulloch as “a masterpiece of theological
engineering,” or fudging the issue you could
say. Again in 1559 the bill brought
before Parliament put forward the title for Elizabeth not as
supreme head of the Church of England but only of Supreme
Governor. That’s often seen as being a
more appropriate title for a woman,
governor rather than head, but it also of course left open
the possibility that the settlement might be accepted,
that the position of supreme governor might be accepted,
by people who regarded the supreme head of the church as
being elsewhere, in Rome.
Even so, despite these
compromises, Elizabeth and her counselors
were able to get their settlement through Parliament
only by purging the House of Lords.
They ruthlessly excluded many
of the Catholic bishops in the end and they still got a
majority of only three votes. They squeezed it through the
House of Lords. Support in the commons was much
stronger. So the Church of England was
reestablished. English was Protestant again,
sort of. It was a confessional state
bound by an Act of Uniformity that the prayer book should be
used throughout the kingdom, uniformity to the religion set
down by the Queen in Parliament, what was often described as
‘the religion by law established’.
But that religion was less
imposed by simple royal dictate than a reflection of what
Elizabeth and her advisers had proved willing to settle for.
There was no doubt that England
had turned in a broadly Protestant direction again,
but there was also a lot of ambiguity about the nature and
the extent of that Protestantism.
Well, maybe Elizabeth and
William Cecil and the other counselors got less than they
originally intended, but they accepted it,
and they could even use it to their advantage.
It was perhaps no bad thing in
the England of 1559 that the religious settlement contained a
lot of ambiguity. Thirty years of religious flux
had left the nation profoundly divided in matters of faith.
No change during those thirty
years had had time to put down deep roots.
To some historians like
Christopher Haigh most of the people remained,
in the main, traditionalists in their
religious beliefs. To other historians like Robert
Whiting people had grown almost indifferent,
acquiescing and conforming to change after change,
but essentially guarded and unenthusiastic in their
attitudes. But also, as you’ve seen in
last week’s reading, there was a third reading of
the situation represented by the work of Christopher Marsh.
People were now only too aware
of the existence of alternatives in religion, alternatives which
hadn’t existed back in the 1520s.
Some of them hankered after the
old ways, some of them were drawn to the
attractive features of the new doctrines,
but everyone knew the danger of religious conflict.
They’d witnessed enough of that
under Mary. As a result,
Marsh suggests they “held their peace,”
and as you know he uses that term in a double sense:
negatively in the sense that they were compliant,
they remained silent before the demands of authority;
positively in the sense that they preserved the peace of
their own communities as best they could.
One could say that that was an
attitude that had developed as a result of the turmoil of the
late 1540s and early 1550s in particular.
Even under Mary,
the mayor of Exeter in the west,
down here in Devon, was a man who although a devout
Catholic in his own practice regarded Protestant sympathizers
among his neighbors with some discretion and tolerance.
It was said of him that he did
“friendly and lovingly bear with them and wink at
them,” he shut his eyes to their practice.
And one could say that
Elizabeth was winking at people too.
She winked at people in many
She was the Supreme Governor of
the Church of England. She was the head of a
confessional state but she also said early in her reign,
“I will not make windows into men’s souls”;
a striking metaphor, “I will not make windows
into men’s souls.” What she and her counselors
wanted was order, outward conformity,
stability, and in pursuit of those objectives the ambiguities
of 1559 were in many ways advantageous and they could be
developed. Soon after the passage of the
settlement through Parliament, a set of injunctions concerning
worship were issued. They permitted the images which
had survived Protestant iconoclasm to remain in churches
so long as they were not superstitiously abused.
They said that in future
communion tables were to be used for holy communion rather than
altars, but nonetheless the communion
table could stand where the old altar had stood.
At holy communion traditional
wafers were used rather than common bread.
There were many concessions of
this kind. Elizabeth herself would have
liked to have kept the rood screens above the chancel with
their crucifixes, etc.
She kept a crucifix in her own
chapel. But her more Protestant bishops
really wouldn’t stand for that and many rood screens were
gradually dismantled throughout the kingdom in the course of the
1560s. Or again in dealing with the
clergy, she faced in Parliament bishops who put up such a stiff
opposition that she was forced to deprive them.
She would have liked them to
stay. They didn’t,
but new appointments to the Episcopal bench were rarely
religious extremists. It was significant that she
chose as Archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker,
a Cambridge academic who was a Protestant certainly,
but who had not gone into exile under Mary.
He had conformed and kept his
head down. She considered Parker a more
appropriate choice than some of the more radical Protestants
that she could have selected. Amongst the parish clergy too
there was no mass purge. Many of the clergy were allowed
to keep their positions and even to get away with formally
subscribing to the prayer book and the Act of Uniformity but
continuing many traditional practices unhindered.
The toleration which was
extended to traditional practices allowed them to
preserve in many ways the appearance of tradition in the
way they conducted services in their parishes.
Christopher Haigh has a nice
phrase for it. He says many of these people
were “liturgical hermaphrodites.”
They used the prayer book but
they could tweak it their own way.
Again fines were laid down for
people who failed to attend the Church of England at least once
a month but they were set very low.
The fine was twelve pence a
month if you failed to attend Church of England services,
which was about the equivalent of a day’s wages for a London
laborer, not a steep fine at all.
So what did it all mean?
Clearly, Elizabeth was no
Catholic but she refused to persecute, and equally she
refused to countenance any further reform.
She seems to have learned her
lesson in 1559 about the art of the possible and she stuck to
it. And that came out very clearly
just a few years later in 1563 when at a meeting of the
convocation of the Church of England,
the assembly of the clergy of the Church of England,
there occurred what’s known as the Vestiarian Controversy.
Some of the more radical
Protestants in convocation wanted to get rid of traditional
vestments worn by the priests during services.
They described them as the
“rags of Rome.” These, however,
had been retained in the prayer book of 1559 and Elizabeth
insisted upon retaining traditional clerical dress and
forced Archbishop Parker to demand it of the clergy.
So what was England’s religion
in the 1560s? Ultimately, one could say it
was the Queen’s religion. With regard to the pope’s
authority, it was emphatically schismatic.
Papal authority had been
abrogated once again. With regard to essential
doctrines, it was essentially Protestant,
but nonetheless it retained a latitude to make of the
settlement, to read the prayer book,
as you chose provided you conformed in general.
The only element of settlement
one could say which was totally without ambiguity was the Act of
Uniformity; conform and hold your peace.
Well, in an age of religious
partisanship, in what was already becoming in
Europe an age of religious war, that was not really a bad deal.
But of course it couldn’t stand
there. Whatever the ambiguities of the
settlement, first of all no one could
really doubt that it was basically Protestant in
orientation, and secondly no one yet knew
that Elizabeth would live to be seventy.
And those two facts shaped the
attitudes of both committed Catholics and the more committed
Protestants, and by 1560 of course there
were plenty of both. Both groups of zealots were
preoccupied with what might happen next.
Would there be another turn of
the wheel? Would Elizabeth survive?
And both sides were determined
to do what they could to shape events to their own advantage if
such a possibility of future change emerged.
So let’s look at the two groups
who opposed in different ways the Elizabethan settlement and
how their challenges were met. We can start by looking at the
Catholics. Christopher Haigh argues,
persuasively I think, that there was a great deal of
what he calls traditionalist “survivalism.”
To a considerable degree,
the early Elizabethan church was attempting to accommodate
that traditionalism amongst the population as a whole.
But the more committed,
more theologically aware and more politically aware Catholics
knew that this was a recipe for the gradual erosion of Catholic
principle. There were a lot of people who
were described at the time as “church papists”
in the 1560s, people whose bodies were in the
Church of England, as it were, but whose hearts
remained with the old religion. Such people would gradually
become hopelessly compromised over time unless something was
done to stiffen their resistance to a gradual slide into
conformity and acceptance of the new ways.
And in the eyes of those who
feared this there was, after all, every possibility
that the settlement of 1559 would not endure any longer than
other changes. It all hung on the life of one
young woman and in 1562 Elizabeth contracted smallpox
and almost died. Her counselors were in a panic
as she lay on her sick bed. She recovered,
but it was a warning of what could happen.
We have to remember this,
this vital element of uncertainty, whenever we look at
the Elizabethan church and indeed at other aspects of her
reign. So, you get in these years the
gradual emergence of what might be called a kind of shadow
church or a church in exile waiting for the possibility of a
return to the old ways. And the years 1568 to 1570
proved to be in many ways a turning point for these
Catholics. In 1568, William Allen,
a former Oxford don who had fled to the continent,
founded a college at Douai in the Netherlands for the purpose
of training priests who would be smuggled back into England and
who could operate in secrecy to stiffen the faith of English
Catholics. In the same year,
in May of 1568, Mary Stuart,
the Queen of Scotland, a Catholic, was deposed by her
own subjects and fled into England.
There she was kept under house
arrest by Elizabeth, but while she remained she was
clearly a claimant to the English throne within reach of
those who opposed Elizabeth. She was Elizabeth’s nearest
relative, her cousin, and a Catholic.
I’ll say more about Mary,
Queen of Scots next time, but her presence is a constant
factor in the equation. In 1567 to ’68,
almost simultaneously, came the outbreak of the Dutch
revolt, a revolt of the provinces of
the Netherlands, just across the narrow seas,
against Spanish rule, which led to the establishment
in the Netherlands of a powerful Spanish army to put down that
revolt sent by King Philip II of Spain,
the champion of the Counter Reformation in Europe.
Its arrival was followed by a
massive repression of Protestants in the Netherlands
and the flight of many of them to England.
And in the following year,
in 1569, came the revolt of the northern earls.
That began with a plot to
release Mary, Queen of Scots from captivity,
to marry her to the Duke of Norfolk,
who was a crypto-Catholic, to restore her to the Scottish
throne with the help of the Spanish army,
which was just over the seas in the Netherlands,
and to depose Elizabeth. When the scheme was discovered
by Elizabeth’s intelligence service the earls of
Northumberland and of Westmorland,
the two dominant nobles of the north,
rose in rebellion. They raised about 5,000 men.
They captured the city of
Durham. They restored the mass in
Durham Cathedral. They moved gradually south.
The government responded to the
rising by securing Mary and moving her south out of their
reach. She was placed under the
tutelage of the Earl of Shrewsbury down in the Midlands.
The northern earls failed to
move swiftly. They got bogged down besieging
a castle near Durham which was held by the loyal Bowes family
for Elizabeth and eventually realizing that their support was
eroding they gave up and fled into Scotland.
There then followed two years
of diplomatic and military bullying before eventually the
Earl of Northumberland was surrendered back to the English
and was executed. By then the rebellion was long
over. By December 1569,
it had proved to be a fiasco and had fizzled out,
but in February 1570, rather too late,
the Pope, having heard of it, offered his support.
He excommunicated Elizabeth and
he absolved her subjects from their obedience to the Queen.
He was telling her Catholic
subjects, in other words,
that rebellion against this heretic queen was no sin–
a little too late, but nonetheless at last a
clarifying decision on the part of the papacy with regard to
Elizabeth. For the Catholic subjects of
the Queen in 1568 to ’70 one could say the moment of truth
had at last come. At last there had been
principled resistance to the Elizabeth settlement,
at last there had been a lead from the papacy,
but in a sense it was also a disaster for the average
traditionalist in religion. Now they were in a position
where they had to choose. They had to make a stand,
like it or not. Geopolitical realities
increasingly demanded it, and for many of them that was
an absolutely agonizing situation.
And in the years that followed,
in many ways, it got worse.
From the mid 1570s missionary
priests trained in the Netherlands began arriving to
stiffen the faith of the Catholic faithful.
There were something like sixty
who arrived in the course of the later 1570s.
Between then and the end of the
reign in 1603, something like 500 Catholic
priests were smuggled into England to operate in secret.
From the 1580s,
they were joined by another group,
the Jesuits, the shock troops of the
Catholic Counter Reformation in Europe who joined in the mission
to England. Now of course from their
perspective these were heroic people,
and yet they were fatally compromised by their association
with a foreign power, Spain, and they were inevitably
associated with the dynamics of religious conflict in Europe–
not least because some of the leaders of the Catholic mission
subscribed to the view that it was no sin to depose or even
murder a heretical monarch. And so began a series of plots
which were uncovered throughout the middle and later years of
Elizabeth’s reign. In 1571, the Ridolfi plot to
depose Elizabeth, place Mary, Queen of Scots on
the throne, marry her to the Duke of Norfolk.
That ended in 1572 with the
execution of Norfolk. In 1572, the news came from
France of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of
Protestants in Paris. This seemed a demonstration
from abroad of the risk of Catholic treachery.
In 1583, the Throckmorton plot
to murder Elizabeth was uncovered.
A year later in 1584,
the leader of the Dutch Protestants, William the Silent,
was murdered in the Netherlands.
In 1586, the Babington plot to
depose Elizabeth and elevate Mary, Queen of Scots to the
throne was uncovered. The atmosphere then was one of
tremendous insecurity and the government’s response was
severe. In 1581, it was declared by
Parliament treason to be absolved from schism with Rome
and to be reconciled to the Catholic church.
Recusancy fines for not
attending the Church of England were raised from one shillings a
month to twenty pounds. That’s a four hundredfold
increase in the size of recusancy fines.
In 1585, England was at last,
after long hesitation, brought to declare open war
with Spain and to send troops to the Netherlands to help stiffen
the resistance of the Dutch Protestants.
And in the same year Parliament
made it treason for any ordained priest of the Catholic church
even to enter England. For a priest to be found on
English soil was treason. In 1586, following the
Babington plot, Mary, Queen of Scots was at
last brought to trial, sentenced to death,
and then, after long hesitation on the part of Elizabeth,
finally beheaded in February 1587.
And then in 1588 the whole
nation was mobilized to resist the threat of invasion by the
Spanish Armada– a great fleet sent by Philip II
intended to pick up troops in the Netherlands,
transport them across the narrow seas,
and attack London. A plan which was eventually
foiled only by the resistance which was put up by the English
fleet in the Channel and then the scattering of Spanish ships
as they sailed north and eventually around Scotland and
Ireland to return to Spain, many of them being lost on the
way. Following the–what was seen as
the–divine deliverance in the Armada campaign the war dragged
on right through to the end of Elizabeth’s reign.
Well, in such a context any
priests who landed in England to do God’s work amongst the
Catholic faithful as they saw it,
were inevitably regarded by the government as the traitorous
servants of a foreign power. Between 1581 and 1603,131
Catholic priests were arrested and executed together with sixty
of the lay people who had hid them,
all of them being executed as traitors.
These are those who are
regarded in the English Catholic tradition as the Catholic
Martyrs. And in a nation that was
increasingly prone to regard itself as a beleaguered island
threatened by mighty enemies, Catholicism almost inevitably
became tainted by its association with that threat.
Of course, that was mistaken.
Many of the Catholic nobility
and gentry went out of their way to stress their loyalty to
Elizabeth; that they would not support any
foreign invasion; that they would indeed
sometimes openly declare themselves as sufficiently loyal
to oppose it. They were well known.
They were often trusted as
individuals by their Protestant neighbors.
The fines levied upon them for
their Catholic recusancy were often very selectively and
intermittently enforced. Amongst the Catholic population
as a whole there were only a tiny number of zealots who were
ever actively involved in treasonable plots,
especially against the Queen’s life.
be that as it may, in the situation after 1570,
and especially after the outbreak of war in 1585,
the Catholic community as an entity lay under the shadow of
distrust and it was subject to a developing prejudice which would
take centuries to dispel. As Patrick Collinson has
written, anti-Catholicism became almost “a sheet anchor of
English nationhood” and the Catholic community
within England became in a sense aliens within their own land.
What about the other
threat?–the radical Protestants, those who we think
of now as Puritans but that was not a term they used initially.
It was a term of insult that
was sometimes thrown at them. They were described usually at
the time as “the hotter sort of Protestants”;
“the hotter sort of Protestants.”
To them the accession of
Elizabeth in 1558 had been a providential deliverance,
a divine intervention in English affairs.
November the 17th,
the Queen’s accession day, was celebrated with the ringing
of bells; it became almost like a
Protestant holy day. But though they regarded the
Church of England which she established a year later in 1559
as undoubtedly a true church, it seemed to these Protestant
radicals that it was a church which was only half reformed,
and they too were worried about what might happen next.
They could have no certainty
that it would last. They were anxious to push
ahead, to consolidate the position,
to move urgently to what they described as “further
reformation.” Especially they wanted
reformation of some of the traditionalist structures of the
Church of England and the removal of some of the more
traditional aspects of its forms of worship.
They wanted to get rid of the
“rags of Rome” or the “dregs the
popery.” This is the sort of language
they used. So there was from the beginning
an element of dissidence even amongst those who could be
regarded as Elizabeth’s most enthusiastic supporters.
And that was especially true
amongst the younger clergy who were emerging from the
universities, now thoroughly trained in
Protestant doctrine, and who were becoming,
if anything, more emphatically Protestant
even than those who had led the church in the later years of
Edward VI. This younger generation were
moving beyond the doctrinal position which had been
established by Archbishop Cranmer in the early 1550s and
was enshrined in the prayer book.
they felt the influence of John Calvin, the great Protestant
leader of Geneva, and his successor there,
Theodore Beza. In terms of the doctrine of
salvation, they increasingly adopted the doctrine of
‘predestination’ championed by Calvin;
the notion that only an elect minority would find salvation.
Many also adopted the doctrine
of double predestination championed by Beza;
the view that God had decreed from the beginning of the world
who would be elect and who would be damned.
This kind of belief bred
amongst them a very anxious spirituality.
At the individual level they
were deeply anxious about their own spiritual state.
Were they or were they not
amongst the elect? They tended to indulge in
intense spiritual self-searching,
rigorous attempts to sanctify their personal lives in a way
that would give them a sense of assurance of their own election.
It was also a kind of
theological position which bred what’s been described as a
“piebald mentality.” They saw things in very black
and white terms, a piebald mentality.
The godly saw themselves as a
beleaguered minority in a world that was dominated by the
reprobate, the unregenerate. They tended to describe
themselves as the “little flock,” the “godly
remnant,” and that in turn seems to have
bred amongst them a kind of activist mentality.
There was a duty to demonstrate
their own godliness by standing up for the honor of God,
by doing His work in the world, by spreading truth,
by combating sin and error. A form of activism which in a
sense could give them greater assurance.
For the most part,
they did that work in relative obscurity, down in the many
parishes of the kingdom. Puritans were amongst the most
zealous preachers. They were often chosen as
‘lecturers’, people who would be hired by
local authorities to preach extra sermons on market days,
for example, or on the weekdays. In some areas they were
numerous enough by the 1570s to found regular meetings of
sympathizers which were known as “prophesyings.”
These were meetings of the
local clergy who would get together to hear a sermon,
to debate its doctrine. They often opened these
meetings to members of the laity.
It was thought to be an
excellent method of improving clerical knowledge,
of passing on theological knowledge to the godly laity,
and in areas of–some areas of–the country they were
extremely influential in influencing the whole tone of
local religious life. East Anglia was a great area of
Puritan strength. There were eight of these
prophesying meetings in the county of Suffolk in the middle
of East Anglia and in the county of Essex,
just to the south, there were six of them
operating by the early 1570s. But after 1570 Puritanism also
began to acquire something of a political edge.
that came in the form of a movement to try to formally
alter the structures of the Church of England and to purge
the prayer book of what they saw as traditional papist survivals.
Those who became involved in it
were convinced that the New Testament laid down a clear
model of church government, that it did not involve
bishops, that it should be based upon autonomous congregations
who elected their own ministers and elders,
who would in turn meet together at the higher level in councils
and synods to govern the church as a whole.
In other words,
a Presbyterian system of church government.
This is what they desired,
and advocates of such a system were to mount a series of
challenges to the Elizabethan settlement between 1570 and
1587. And there were a number of
landmarks in that process. In 1570, for example,
the professor of divinity at the University of Cambridge,
Thomas Cartwright, gave a series of lectures in
the university in which he argued that the English church
failed to follow the model of the New Testament and advocated
a Presbyterian system. There was a tremendous
controversy in the university as a result.
Cartwright in fact lost his job.
He was quickly picked up by one
of Elizabeth’s favorites, the Earl of Leicester,
who sympathized with the Puritans, and placed in a living
elsewhere. So he survived,
but he lost his position at the university.
In 1571, in Parliament,
one member, William Strickland, introduced a bill to revise the
prayer book and purge it. Members of the council sitting
in Parliament opposed this move. He was called before the royal
Privy Council and warned not to trespass on the Queen’s
prerogative in matters of religion.
But a year later when
Parliament met again John Field and Thomas Wilcox,
two leading Puritans, published the “Admonition
to Parliament,” an outspoken attack upon the
structure of the Church of England as not being a truly
reformed church, calling on Parliament to take
steps to further reform it. Indeed, it was so extreme in
some of its statements that it greatly scandalized moderates
amongst Protestants and there was no successful action in
Parliament. In 1576, there came a further
attempt to discuss the church in Parliament,
and on that occasion Elizabeth had to intervene personally to
ban discussion of religion in Parliament.
The Queen also became convinced
in that year that the prophesying meetings were a
destabilizing influence on the church in the localities.
She ordered Archbishop Grindal
to put a stop to them. The Archbishop protested.
He thought they were doing good
work; they were beneficial to the
clergy. As a result,
the Queen simply suspended him and the Archbishop of Canterbury
himself was suspended from exercising his duties from 1577
through to his death in 1583. Well, at that point,
Grindal’s death in 1583 could be said in a sense to symbolize
the passing away of the first generation of Elizabethan
bishops, many of them people who half
sympathized with the desire for further reformation within the
church, men who had been willing to
serve, willing to bear with the Elizabethan compromise for the
time being, but in their hearts would have
liked to have seen more. The phrase that was often used
for people like that was that they were willing to “tarry
for the magistrate,” they were willing to wait until
such time as the Queen was willing to move further in a
Protestant direction. And they were gradually being
replaced by people of a different stamp,
and the most significant of the new bishops to emerge was the
new Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift.
Whitgift was a very different
kind of man from Grindal. He was a Calvinist in his
doctrine, no Protestant could ask for
more in terms of his theological position,
but he was also a man who had grown up with the Elizabethan
settlement and who was deeply committed to the settlement in
itself. In addition to which he was a
firm disciplinarian, and in 1583 as a means of
preventing further action on the part of Puritans Whitgift
introduced what was known as the Three Articles to which each of
the clergy was required to subscribe.
They included recognition of
the royal supremacy, recognition of the Thirty Nine
Articles of Religion laying down the doctrine of the Church of
England, and taking an oath that there
was nothing in the Prayer Book which was contrary to the word
of God. He proceeded to use the church
courts and particularly his own Court of High Commission to
examine suspected dissidents within the church under oath and
to administer the Three Articles.
He was in fact prevented by
members of Elizabeth’s council sympathetic to the Puritan cause
from taking this policy as far as he would have liked.
it was a clear statement of his unwillingness to tolerate
dissidence from radical Protestants.
Well, the advent of Whitgift
perhaps provoked what turned out to be the Presbyterian or
Puritans’ final throw. Some of the prophesying
meetings which were now forbidden simply went
underground. In some areas they developed
into what’s known as the “Classis”
movement, secret meetings of the clergy
who were practicing a kind of underground Presbyterianism.
John Field, one of the authors
of the “Admonition to Parliament”
in 1572, built up quite an extensive
network of Presbyterian sympathizers amongst the clergy
and the laity throughout the kingdom.
And that network was activated
in 1584 and 1586 to try to introduce further bills into
Parliament calling for a Presbyterian system and the
revision of the prayer book. These attempts were again
scotched by royal councilors sitting in Parliament.
In 1586, for example,
Parliament itself sent both the promoter of the bill and those
who defended it in Parliament to the Tower of London briefly to
cool their heels. The Presbyterians had failed
again. But the exasperation and the
frustration that they felt was vividly expressed in 1588 to ’89
in the secret publication of a number of extremely scurrilous
attacks upon the bishops of the Church of England.
These were known as the
Marprelate Tracts. They were directed against
bishops, prelates; the Marprelate Tracts.
The Archbishop of Canterbury instigated an
investigation to discover the secret press that was producing
them, and in the course of that John
Field’s Puritan network was uncovered and the movement was
essentially smashed. Meanwhile, as the 1580s drew to
a close, some of the leaders of Puritanism were dying away.
John Field died in 1588.
Some of his sympathizers in the
Royal Council, the Duke of Leicester,
Sir Francis Walsingham, Sir Walter Mildmay all died in
1589 or 1590. Puritanism as a political
movement was over for the time being but it left three
legacies. First of all,
there were small groups of Puritan extremists who were so
disillusioned that they broke from the Church of England
altogether and formed separatist congregations meeting in secret.
One of their leaders said that
they had decided they would have “reformation without
tarrying for any.” They wouldn’t tarry for the
magistrate; they would have reformation
without tarrying for any. Some of them were eventually
forced to flee abroad. The group led by Robert Browne
based in the city of Norwich removed themselves to the
Netherlands to escape potential persecution.
Another group led by Henry
Barrow in London went underground and some of them
eventually also emigrated to the Netherlands where they enjoyed
religious freedom in the Protestant areas of the
Netherlands. Henry Barrow,
returning to England at one point, was arrested and was
eventually hanged for sedition. It was from amongst these
groups of radical separatists who had broken completely with
the Church of England that some of the Mayflower Pilgrims of
1620 were eventually to be drawn.
So one legacy was separatism,
a tiny minority who broke away completely.
Secondly, there was a much
broader legacy of activist evangelism within the Church of
England. Many Puritan sympathizers felt
that if they could not change the structures of the Church of
England then they could at least transform its spirit and thereby
leave their own distinctive stamp on the nature of English
Protestantism. They advocated a religion
heavily based upon the Bible: advocating preaching,
practicing the sanctification of the Sabbath,
insisting upon strict moral behavior,
pursuing moral reformation where they had the power and the
opportunity, and they constantly drummed
upon the theme of the failure of England to live up to the–
to show proper gratitude for God’s deliverance of the
kingdom, the need to turn to a more
strict religious observation in return for God’s favor.
So that was the second legacy.
Thirdly, there was a legacy of
a different kind. Some of those who had defended
the Elizabethan settlement from Puritan attacks began to develop
an altogether more positive view of the Elizabethan settlement.
They began to see it not just
as a temporary compromise, but as a distinctive and valid
alternative, a distinctive middle way
between Catholicism on the one hand and radical Protestantism
on the other. Theologians like Richard Hooker
and Richard Bancroft saw the retention of a traditionalist
structure in the Church of England as not simply a matter
of convenience, or political expediency,
but as a valid Protestant alternative.
Indeed, in Bancroft’s view,
a divinely ordained form of church government in which
England maintained the tradition which descended from Christ’s
apostles, purified of the corruptions
which had crept in in the Catholic Middle Ages.
So a new and more positive
notion of Anglicanism as a middle way was also emerging
amongst the defenders of the church.
Diarmaid MacCulloch said of
this that “perhaps the Anglican gift to the Christian
story is the ability to make a virtue of necessity.”
But what finally about those
who were neither Catholics nor radical Puritans nor Anglican
divines, the mass of the people down in the parishes?
It’s been said that for most of
them the reformation under Elizabeth was essentially a
series of conforming experiences.
A slow shift from the visual
and ritual and symbolic richness of late medieval religion to a
somewhat plainer, more verbal,
religion based on the English Bible,
based on the Prayer Book of 1559, including such things as
more frequent preaching, psalm singing,
and other novel practices. That process of gradual shift
in religious culture was probably aided by the elements
of continuity observable in Church of England services and
gradually it did its work. The older generation of both
the clergy and the laity who could remember the old days had
largely died away by the 1580s. An increasing proportion of the
population knew no other church than that of Elizabeth.
They faced no serious threat
from the Catholic mission. The Catholic missionary priests
concentrated their attention on politically significant people.
Most of their work was done
amongst the gentry, there was no real mission to
the common people, and by 1603 the Church of
England had something like two and a half million communicants
while there were only some 8,000 to 9,000 known Catholic
recusants, most of them members of the
gentry or their immediate tenants sheltered under their
protection. To this extent one could say
that the Catholic threat was actually diminishing.
Meanwhile, the Anglican clergy
were gradually adapting to their role as pastors and teachers.
Initially, there’d been a
severe shortage of preachers and of educated clergy,
but steady work by the bishops, steady work ordaining young men
in the universities, meant that by the death of
Elizabeth preaching was commonplace in most areas of the
kingdom, the clergy were increasingly
university graduates; their level of learning was
improving. The more severe and the more
demanding of the clergy could be highly critical of the religious
attitudes of the common people. Some of them saw the common
people as being perhaps de-Catholicized,
perhaps hostile to papal authority,
but scarcely Protestantized in any deep and meaningful sense.
But perhaps that’s too harsh a
judgment on people who have been nicely described as ‘parish
Anglicans’ or ‘prayer book Anglicans’,
building up a loyalty for the form of religion with which they
were familiar. By the 1590s,
it’s likely that they certainly thought of themselves as being
members of the Protestant family,
as it were, even if their theological grasp on exactly
what that meant was probably rather shaky.
At the same time of course it
remained the case that Puritans saw the reformation as
essentially unfinished amongst the population at large.
And there were a fair number of
people who shared that perception–
that it remained unfinished–for the audience of
the godly preachers was by 1603 significantly larger,
significantly more literate, significantly more likely to
have a better knowledge of the Bible and of the prayer book,
significantly more likely to have read some of the English
language religious publications in the Puritan tradition which
were pouring from the presses; people more deeply involved in
a vernacular religious culture, much of it produced by Puritans
who had abandoned their political opposition but who had
emerged as the most active evangelicals,
the most earnest, the most godly counselors of
the Protestant tradition in the parishes.
At this level the later
reformation was perhaps mostly un-dramatic except in the
private drama of people’s personal conversion.
But if the situation of 1600
was one of relative calm it was also storing up the seeds of
future drama. Protestantism was gradually
working its way into popular culture,
the Puritan minority was extending its influence,
not as a political movement but as a widespread religious style.
Hostility to what was described
as ‘popery’ was increasingly widespread,
and tensions remained regarding what the nature of English
Protestantism should be. And they would give rise,
as we will see later, to what have been called
England’s wars of religion in the seventeenth century.
Disputes not between Catholics
and Protestants– that was perhaps largely
settled by 1600– but disputes between different
conceptions of what it was to be a Protestant.
And next time I’ll turn to
other aspects of Elizabeth’s reign and in particular the
modes of political participation and the queen’s relationship
with her counselors.

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