Explain the factors which shaped the Elizabethan Religious Settlement reached in 1559
Jane Stiller U6ARD 01/10/01
Explain the factors which shaped the Elizabethan Religious Settlement reached in 1559
When Elizabeth I was proclaimed Queen in 1558 a new era of religious tolerance began. With her religious settlement, Elizabeth had to consider a number of different factors. Without doubt, the most important task following her accession was to resolve the ideological divisions in the country brought about by the religious changes in the past three monarch’s reigns. However, when deciding on her own religious settlement, Elizabeth had a number of influencing factors. She had grown up as a ‘committed and conventionally pious Protestant’ and these views obviously effected the way she ran her household and country, and consequently influenced her decisions over the religious settlement. Another evident influence was the views of the Privy Council and of her chief councillor, William Cecil. It has been argued that their opinions forced Elizabeth into a more protestant settlement that she originally desired. There are also many debates over the role of parliament and how their personal views dictated the outcome of the settlement. In particular, historians argue about whether the Commons or the Lords shaped the religious settlement to a greater degree. It is also important to consider that Elizabeth had to take into account other factors, not just religion, when establishing the settlement. England’s political, financial and international situations all had to be considered. As a new monarch, it was crucial that Elizabeth instigated a religious settlement which appealed to the majority of people, not just in England but in Europe as well.
Having grown up in an evangelical household with the renowned Protestant Queen Katherine Parr, it is not surprising that Elizabeth had strong religious views. Haigh claims that there “can be little doubt of Elizabeth’s personal Protestantism” and historians such as Pollard, who claimed that she was “indifferent” to religion have been largely disregarded. This is likely to be attributed to the strong influence of family, and the education she received from humanists William Grindal and Roger Ascham. It has been argued that she wished to return England to the state in which her father left it – Catholicism without the Pope. It is clear that her brother, Edward VI, also heavily influenced her, as the final religious settlement was in fact very similar to his doctrinal Reformation. However, her personal beliefs are more diverse, and cannot be attributed to so few influences. Her belief in ‘private devotion’ can be illustrated by the fact that she did not want to “make windows into men’s hearts.” It can therefore be argued that Elizabeth was not as radical as some Protestants of the time, for example the returning exiles. Even before exile had faced them some had become influenced by Calvinism, the most extreme of Protestant faiths. Although Elizabeth respected these views, she did not totally conform to them, but just believed in certain aspects. For example she did not practice transubstantiation. However, her more conservative ideas are evident in the final settlement as the extra sentence is added which leaves the right to practice transubstantiation deliberately ambiguous. In her own chapel, however, Elizabeth refused to offer the sacrificial elements as mass and forbade the celebrant to raise the Host. The strength of her views was illustrated at Christmas, when, after she had specifically asked him not to, the Priest elevated the Host. Consequently, Elizabeth walked out. This shows her personal devotion to the Protestant faith. However, many Protestants in England, who had seen Elizabeth as the English version of the Israeli Deborah, were dissatisfied with certain conservatism’s in her religious settlement. Indeed, it is argued by Collinson that the Elizabethan compromise of Protestantism was “a concession not only to the conservative prejudices of Elizabeth’s subjects but to her own feelings.” It is clear, therefore, that Elizabeth had strong views on religion, despite them not being as extreme as other Protestants. There have been many debates whether the religious settlement was actually devised by Elizabeth, or whether it was mainly influenced by Cecils’ religious views. It is argued by Guy that Cecil was a “committed protestant” who had a mission to preserve a protestant England. However, he also considers that it cannot be concluded that Elizabeth “was this sort of protestant.” If the latter is true, and the religious settlement can be attributed more to Cecil than Elizabeth, then her religious convictions were obviously not as strong as is previously believed.
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The influence of Cecil is no doubt evident in the final religious settlement. However, it is important to consider to what extent and how the Privy Council and Cecil had an effect on Elizabeth. The Privy Council were mainly Protestant, and where undoubtedly dominated by Cecil with his Edwardian connections. The main members of the council, Cecil, Leicester and Walsingham were more Protestant than Elizabeth. Their views were close to those of very moderate Calvinism. This was illustrated by Cecil’s actions as privy councillor and parliamentary manager. He held that bills for the advancement of religion could be introduced in the interests of the ‘preservation of the Protestant State’ without the Queen’s permission. Murphy et al argue that Cecil believed strongly that the royal supremacy was properly exercised in Parliament. He even denounced the High Court of Commission. This clearly shows how strong Cecil was as a political figure, something which could have influenced Elizabeth when she decided on the religious plans for England with him. Haigh agrees with this view, as he states that Cecil would not have “headed a regime aiming for anything less than a Protestant settlement.” Considering Cecil saw Protestantism in a partially Calvinist way, it could be concluded that his religious motives were less conservative in comparison to the Queen’s. Guy states that “Elizabeth and Cecil subscribed to discordant philosophies despite their enduring political relationship.” This statement supports the views of most historians. In fact, Guy goes so far as to argue that all stages of the supremacy and uniformity bills were ‘”fixed” by Cecil, and that he enforced the settlement. This idea can be supported by the evidence of Cecil’s dealings with the Catholics in the House of Lords. He made the lay lords aware of the property implications a break with Rome would induce, he organised the 1559 religious disputation and the Lent court sermons of 1559. Guy is therefore arguing, to all intents and purposes, that the Elizabethan religious settlement actually comprised more of Cecil’s views that Elizabeth’s. Although Elizabeth may originally have aimed for revive Henry VIII’s religious legislation, to re-establish her royal supremacy and to permit communion in both kinds, she did not want the legislation to be so obviously Protestant. This therefore shows the influence of the Privy Council. However, historians such as Jones believe that the settlement of 1559 was actually a government settlement, influenced by parliament and not the Privy Council or it’s members. This idea can also be discredited as many believe that the House of Commons did not have that much influence at this time and it was only the political muscle of the Privy Council discrediting the Catholics which allowed the settlement to be pushed through the Lords. It is therefore crucial to consider the influence of the House of Lords and Chambers on the religious settlement at this time.
Within the House of Commons there was a powerful party of influential Protestants. Out of the four hundred and two members of the Commons (in 1559) only two hundred and forty nine were present when the Religious Settlement was passed. There were twenty to twenty five radical Protestants, eight of which had just returned from exile. There were twenty committed Catholics. The concept of the ‘Puritan Choir’ which Neale introduces, would support the idea that it was the radical House of Commons that forced Elizabeth in to a more Protestant settlement that she had previously wished for. Neale argues that the ‘chorist’s’ such as Percival Wilburn who opposed the return to the conservative 1549 Prayer book, pushed Elizabeth into this more revolutionary settlement. This view is supported by Loach who points to the evident of the consequent Injunctions. These were instigated by Elizabeth and Cecil to consolidate the Religious Settlement. They were more conservative than the settlement itself, which suggests that the Queen thought the settlement was too Protestant. However, it is important to consider whether the injunctions were devised by Elizabeth, or by her advisor Cecil. This relates back to the crucial issue of the influence of the Privy Council in parliamentary affairs. Apart from the radicals, most of the members of the House of Commons were prepared to support whatever the Government proposed as their primary concern was to keep their title to the church lands purchased under Henry VIII and Edward VI and regain the lands that Mary I had restored. They therefore passed a bill which allowed people to practice whichever religion they chose without punishment. They repealed the heresy laws, which was intended to restore religious toleration. However, this part of the settlement was lost in the Lords. The influence of the Commons can be gauged by how many changes they managed to make to the settlement. The first change that the Commons made was to change Elizabeth’s name from “Supreme Head” to “Supreme Governor”. This was to appease the Catholics. In a similar way, an extra two sentences were added to Mass which therefore allowed both types of Communion. This indicates Elizabeth’s sympathies to the Catholics, as she personally did not believe in their version of Mass, and walked out when the Priest elevated the Host at Christmas. The heresy laws were also repealed for the Protestants. This clearly shows that the Commons did influence the settlement. However, it is difficult to prove Neale’s concept of the ‘Puritan Choir’. In fact, many historians, such as Elton, has provided resounding evidence to prove that this group did not exist in this form. Instead, they were a group of MPs who were told to stir up trouble by the Privy Council to provoke Elizabeth into making more reactions. This would again suggest the large influence of the Privy Council.
If the Commons was trying to persuade Elizabeth into instigating a more Protestant settlement, then the Lords were trying to do the opposite. There many opponents in the Lords who were extremely influential. Out of seventy seven peers, twenty four lay lords preferred to see the retention of the Mass and seventeen spiritual peers were opposed to the settlement. The Catholics in the Lords are said to have dominated the proceedings. It is clear that Elizabeth’s Government would have to “compromise with conservative and Catholic peers who… sought to defeat the settlement in the House of Lords” (Sheils.) As a result of this opposition, the Uniformity clauses within the settlement had to be removed. Elizabeth also had to change the title “Supreme Head” as the Lords refused to recognise it. In fact, there was so much resistance in the Lords even after the concessions were made, that if two bishops had not been in imprisoned in the Tower of London, the bill would not have been passed. The main indication of how much power the Lords exerted can be seen by the fact that even after the 1559 disputation and reduction of Catholics in the Lords, the settlement still had to be severely amended before it was passed. It can therefore be concluded, that regardless of which House was more influential, they both forced a change in the bill before it was accepted. The changes they made were mainly personal concerns. However, it was important to government to keep Catholics and Protestants satisfied, as England could not afford to enter religious conflict with any neighbouring countries.
The international situation of England therefore needs to be considered as well. Although the country had an extensive militia and considerable naval power, they were not a professional enough army to fight any significant powers abroad. This, accompanied with Elizabeth’s growing financial concerns, led the foreign policy of the time to be primarily defensive. The close relationship with Catholic Spain which had been established under the reign of Mary I had to be continued. At the same time, Elizabeth wanted to keep an allegiance with German Lutheran princes. The attempts to appease both of these groups are shown clearly in the final settlement. She managed to incorporate aspects of both religions by introducing a system of Protestantism with conservative influences. This included enforcing that priests wore vestments, a Catholic feature, but at the same time ensuring that images were removed from Churches to please Protestants. “Elizabeth wanted to be Queen of the English not Queen of the Protestants” Haigue argues, and from this evidence it is clear this is a correct statement. The atmosphere and composition of her government also influenced the final settlement. This was due to the return of William Cecil to the Privy Council and the remaining ten Marians. This ensured that the political situation was one of ambiguity as the two different religions were represented in the most powerful political positions in the country.
It is clear from this evidence that there were a variety of factors which influenced the religious settlement reached in 1559. It has been argued by many historians that Elizabeth had little control over the decisions made regarding religion. However, from her strong religious upbringing, this is unlikely to be the case. There is no doubt that a number of other factors influenced her decisions. However, it is difficult to gauge and decide which had more impact on the final settlement. It cannot be denied that William Cecil made a number of decisions when regarding the settlement. The power of the Lords and Commons obviously had a noticeable effect also. It can be argued, however, that Elizabeth was a “secular minded reformer” (John Guy) and cared more about politics than her own principles of religion. This would explain acts such as the Act of Exchange and the dissolving of the few restored monasteries. However, it is difficult to conclude how concerned with finances Elizabeth actually was, as there were no pressing foreign policy issues to fund. It can therefore be concluded that there were a number of factors which influenced the Elizabethan religious settlement. All of them were as important as each other, and some were repercussions of others. For example, it is difficult to distinguish whether the House of Commons and Lords acted as a result of manners of the Privy Council and Cecil. The issues in question are therefore all inter-related and it is impossible to judge, without further evidence, which influenced the Queen the most.
The Elizabethan Deliverance – Arthur Bryant
Reformation and Revolution 1558-1660 – Robert Ashton
Elizabeth and her Parliaments - J.E. Neales
Elizabeth and her Reign – Richard Salter
Elizabeth I and religion 1558-1603 – Susan Doran
Tudor England – John Guy
Elizabeth I – David Starkey