Elizabethan Religious Settlement

Elizabethan religious settlement: what was it?

Elizabeth’s religious settlement was introduced via two Parliamentary acts, both passed in 1559—the Act of Supremacy and the Act of Uniformity.

The Act of Supremacy:

  • Aimed to put Elizabeth in charge of the English Church, whilst having the Pope already doing this job
  • Aimed to make all of the English Churchmen obedient to Elizabeth

The Act of Uniformity:

  • Aimed to make people believe in the same form of religion, rather than having a split society

The main aim of Elizabeth’s religious settlement was to unify the religiously divided English society to prevent any internal shakeups. Historians usually refer to her religious settlement as a “via media”, a fancy Latin term which literally means the “middle way”, to signify the middle and unificatory aspect of Elizabeth’s settlement.

Elizabethan religious settlement: the Timeline of key events
  • 1559: Parliament passes the Act of Uniformity and the Act of Supremacy
  • 1559-60: 400 Catholic clergymen who served under Mary I resign
    • Same period: some extreme Protestants were disappointed by the religious settlement because think that the religious changes are not extreme enough. For example, they disliked the traditional priest clothes and declared them to be “too Popish” (i.e. too Catholic)
  • 1563: 39 Articles of Faith become statute law
  • 1565: Vestiarian Controversy—a debate within the English Church about what the clergymen should wear
  • 1569: Rebellion of the Northern Earls. It was led by three prominent English Catholic noblemen—Duke of Northumberland, Duke of Westmoreland and Duke of Norfolk. It aimed to undermine Elizabeth’s religious authority by installing Mary Queen of Scots onto the English throne
  • 1570s: Mary Queen of Scots arrives to England
  • 1570s: Prof. of Divinity Cartwright starts voicing more and more anti-Elizabeth views by arguing that the English Church should be more similar to the one established by Calvin in Geneva
  • 1570: Elizabeth is excommunicated from the Catholic Church
  • 1571: Ridolfi Plot—involved Mary Queen of Scots, Duke of Norfolk (the same one as before) and a Spanish ambassador
    • Same year: new Treasons Act is passed
  • 1576: wave of prophesying in Warwickshire + removal of Archbishop of Canterbury, Grendall, from his post
  • 1580: Jesuit (a branch of Catholicism that focuses on educating people about Christianity) priests start arriving to England
  • 1581: the Parliament passes an Act of Parliament To Retain Queen Majesty’s Subjects in Their Due Obedience
  • 1583: the Throckmorton plot—involved Mary Queen of Scots, and another Spanish ambassador
  • 1585: the Parliament passes an Act Against Jesuits And Seminary Priests And Other Disobedient Persons
  • 1586: the Babington Plot—involved Mary Queen of Scots
    • IMPORTANT PLOT because it “proved” that Mary Queen of Scots was conspiring against Elizabeth. Led to Mary’s execution
  • 1588: circulation of Martin Marpelate Tracts
  • 1593: Act Against Seditions Sectaries is passed
Why was the religious settlement implemented?
  1. Internal stability to prevent a rebellion

Elizabeth I assumed the English throne at a difficult time in terms of religion. Her father, Henry VIII, made England only Protestant in name by 1547 because his main aim was to gain a divorce to produce an heir to the throne and not to impose Protestantism onto his subjects. Consequently, the vast majority of the English people remained Catholic. Henry’s son, Edward VI, however, was much more assertive about the role of Protestantism in the English society and pursued a more direct religious policy which aimed to install Protestantism as the official religion in England. Such policy made a lot of Catholics leave England. Yet, after Edward’s untimely death in 1553, with his sister Mary I assuming the throne the Crown’s religious policy was reversed—now Protestants were prosecuted heavily, and England attempted to rebuild its link with the Papacy, which was broken in 1534. Consequently, when Elizabeth started her reign in 1558, the English society was a big mess. The society was split religiously between the two camps—Protestants and Catholics, with both sides strongly disagreeing with each other on religious matters, such as how the services should be conducted and the role of the church hierarchy. As a result, to keep internal stability and to avoid a potential rebellion Elizabeth had to keep her religious settlement mild without favouring too much either Catholics or Protestants.

2. Internal stability to protect England against other European nations

However, there was a wider reason linked to the contemporary European politics to the implementation of the “via media” religious settlement. This reason was that England had to be prepared to defend herself from any potential threat from other European countries at any moment. An internal religious divide would prevent England from doing so, as less people would be willing to defend their country if they feel that they did not belong to it. The start of Elizabeth’s reign in 1558 coincided with plenty of political shake-ups in Europe. For example, in 1559, France was plunged into an on scale civil war, called the French Wars of Religion, over tensions between the Protestant and the Catholics. In the same year, the Protestants in the Spanish Netherlands started rebelling against the Spanish rule. This rebellion started to spiral out of control fairly soon. Both of these rebellions were dangerous because rebels from either side could easily reach England, thus worsening the English religious divide. Consequently, Elizabeth had to unite her own people to deal with any threats from the outside.

Map of the European powers in 1560s (the arrows are to demonstrate England’s geographical closeness to the Spanish Empire and France)
Was Elizabeth’s religious settlement successful?

Overall, Elizabeth’s religious settlement was successful. This was because she got what she aimed for by 1603—majority of the English population was united religiously.

To understand how she achieved that, you should take a look at different religious groups’ reactions to the Elizabeth’s religious settlement and how the Government dealt with these groups.

Extreme Catholics

Was the settlement successful: yes

Why were dangerous: could instigate a rebellion with Mary Queen of Scots as a figurehead and potentially replace Elizabeth with her.

Evidence of danger: One of such cases was the Northern Earls Rebellion in 1569 as the rebellion clearly demonstrated the disagreement with the religious settlement. This was done by the rebels serving a Catholic mass in Durham Cathedral and aiming to replace Protestant Elizabeth with Catholic Mary Queen of Scots. The Northern Earls were not the only instances when radical Catholics challenged Elizabeth’s religious settlement.

Other cases included, the Ridolfi and Babington plots. During these plots extreme Catholics attempted to replace Elizabeth with Mary Queen of Scots.

What was done by the Government: the 1571 New Treasons Act made a denial of supremacy treason and the appointment for capable men such as Walsingham, allowed the plots to be discovered and neutralised in their embryonic stages.

A documentary about Mary Queen of Scots

More Moderate Catholics

Was the settlement successful: yes

Why were dangerous: the wider the scope of disagreement, the less political stability there is, the higher is the chance of a rebellion occurring. This was dangerous because Elizbeth needed to keep the internal stability in case of an attack from other European nations.

Evidence of danger: More Northern areas, like Durham, had local magistrates refusing to impose recusancy fines, local gentry refusing refuse to attend Anglican services and sometimes going as far as to hide incoming Jesuit priests from the continent in 1570s.

What was done by the Government: The Parliament confirming the 39 Articles of Faith and increasing the recusancy fines, with the effect being that less people were willing to disobey. This policy was very successful long-term as by the end of Elizabeth’s reign about 90% of the English population was Anglican as opposed to Catholic.

Everyone’s favourite Horrible Histories made a clip about very sneaky Jesuit priests

Think like a Historian:

Can absolutely everyone agree on a particular view point, especially if the debate centres around social policies and religion?

More extreme Protestants

Was the settlement successful: yes

Why were dangerous: could start a rebellion because they disagreed with the settlement

Evidence of danger: the Separatists, were a radical branch of Protestants and who rejected Elizabeth’s adoption of the title of ‘Supreme Governor’ due to them wanting to eradicate the Church hierarchy altogether. To them it had very little difference whether the Church was run by the Papacy or by the Supreme Governor, they disagreed with both. This is evident from the content of pamphlets that circulated in England at that time, which attempted to undermine the Elizabethan settlement. For instance, the Marpelate Tracts which circulated in 1588-89 called bishops “that swinish rabble… petty antichrists…proud prelates” and Browne’s A Treatise of Reformation Without Tarrying Any criticised the newly established Anglican Church for being too Catholic given the usage of traditional Catholic hymns and decorations.

What was the result: Elizabeth’s government reacted quickly and efficiently. The government passed the Act Against Seditious Sectaries in 1593, giving itself the power to disband such radical Protestant groups. Furthermore, popular support for such groups was very small.

If you would like to find out more about the Marpelate Tracts, please click onto the links below…

This link has a good short explanation about what these tracts were and why they were important– http://www.luminarium.org/encyclopedia/marprelate.htm
This link has the original text and grammar, which some may find a little bit complicated–http://www.oxford-shakespeare.com/Marprelate/Protestation.pdf

Less extreme Protestants

Was the settlement successful: yes

Why were dangerous: could challenge Elizabeth’s authority as a religious leader

Evidence of danger: 37 clergymen were forced to resign from their positions due to their disagreement over the Elizabethan religious settlement during the Vestments Controversy in 1565. The controversy concerned itself with what clothing the Anglican priests should wear. In the view of the opposition the clerical robes were too papist as they were too decorative, which was distracting and irrelevant to the core values of Protestantism.

What was the result: The government dealt effectively with this issue. Whitgift’s Three Articles made the clergy subscribe to religious conformity in 1583, thus controlling the Protestant opposition.

Think like a Historian:

How else do could any political leader unite their country’s society if religion is not as important to the majority of the population as it had been in Elizabethan England?
Important vocabulary:
  • The Act of Supremacy: aimed to make Elizabeth in charge of the Church in England, whilst having the Pope already doing this job
  • The Act of Uniformity: aimed to make people believe in the same form of religion, rather than having a split society
  • Via Media: a Latin term that means “the middle way”. It’s usually used by academics to show that a certain policy was moderate.
  • Catholic: a branch of Christianity that follows the teachings of the Pope
  • Protestant: a branch of Christianity that was formed during the Reformation. It rejects having an overall figurehead of the Church.
  • Prophesying: the act of preaching which was done by extreme Protestants
  • Jesuit: a member of a Catholic monastic order of the Society of Jesus. Whilst the order played an important role in opposing the Reformation, it was (and still is) an important influence in Catholic theology and education.
  • Recusancy fines: fines that had been installed by the Elizabethan Government to make people go to the Church
  • Anglican: a member of the Church of England. It is a branch of Protestant Christianity that became separate during the Reformation.
  • Separatists: an extreme branch of Protestants
  • Puritans: another extreme branch of Protestants. They differed from Separatists in that they believed any source of entertainment was is sinful.
If you would like to find more about this topic…
  • Read a biography of Elizabeth I’s by John Guy called Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years. In this book the author argues that the existence of the ‘Golden Age’ under Elizabeth I did not mean that everything in Elizabethan Government and foreign policy was in tip-top condition.
  • Read this article from ‘The Historian’ about the letters that were used to prove Mary Queen of Scots’ treachery against the English Crown.