What were Elizabeth's priorities when creating the religious settlement of 1559?

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What were Elizabeth’s priorities when creating the religious settlement of 1559?

The Elizabethan religious settlement is a phrase used to describe ‘the organisation, ritual and teaching of the Church of England as enforced by Acts of Parliament, as amplified by the pronouncements of the Archbishops of Canterbury and as defended rigorously by the Queen herself.’ (Warren).  According to Meyer, the religious settlement of 1559 is made up of two main foundation stones, the Act of Supremacy of 1559 and the Act of Uniformity of the same year.  Both were fundamentally Protestant in their spirit, and managed by Cecil, himself a Protestant.  The Act of Uniformity dictated that all church services should be conducted according to the 1552 book of prayer with amendments such as the deliberately ambiguous wording of the communion service.  The Act of Supremacy abolished papal authority in England and made Elizabeth ‘supreme governor’ of the Church of England, the phrase ‘supreme head’ was too masculine for Protestants and Catholics alike.

When Mary died in 1558, England was Roman Catholic and Elizabeth had ‘publicly, even ostentatiously, professed the Roman Catholic faith for five years’ (MacCaffrey).  At the same time, she was hailed by many Protestant pamphleteers as ‘the English Deborah’, a woman who would reform the church, taking it back to its original, uncorrupted roots.  At the time of her accession Elizabeth had four main directions in which she could take the church.  She could continue the reforms started by Mary, returning England fully to the Church in Rome, she could keep England fundamentally Catholic, but not Roman Catholic, returning to the Henrican church.  The other two options were more protestant in their nature, she could settle for a conservative version of the Edwardian church, or she could continue the reforms started by her brother, making England a radical protestant country.  Despite the option of continuing as a Roman Catholic country, no-one, including figures like Philip of Spain, believed that she would take this option.  The historical opinions on why this was the case differ, MacCaffrey believes that it was simply due to personal conviction, England could not remain catholic because Elizabeth was not catholic.  On the other hand, MacCulloch believes Elizabeth to be more politically motivated, citing the fact that was Cecil who masterminded the settlement and arguing Elizabeth’s ‘hands-off’ approach ensured she avoided blame for any subsequent failure.

In any discussion on the settlement, it is necessary to assess Elizabeth’s personal beliefs and what she wanted the settlement to achieve.  She was brought up in a Protestant household and educated by leading humanists, translating texts such as those by Erasmus.  Her Privy Council, the members of which she appointed, was predominantly Protestant.  During Edward’s reign she was held up as a figure of piety, in Mary’s as a heretic.  Her right to the throne depended on Henry’s break with Rome, and the rejection of Roman Catholicism, without this rejection she was illegitimate and therefore unable to claim the throne, this would obviously predispose her to Protestantism even if it was only for political reasons.  She obviously did not believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation, walking out at the elevation of the host, along with this, the bread and wine were not consecrated during the ceremony in the Book of Common Prayer.  These facts, individually or shown together would suggest that Elizabeth would want radical Protestant reform when she acceded the throne, her background combined with her education meant that people expected little else.  However, it is necessary to take into account some aspects of Elizabeth's religious beliefs which were not Protestant in their nature.  She had a dislike of long sermons and the theological debates much loved by other Protestant reformers, she had a low opinion of married clergy, preferring that they remained celibate, her barely civil conduct towards the wife of the bishop of Canterbury illustrates this.  She wanted church services to look largely Catholic, insisting on the wearing of vestments by priests, the singing of hymns accompanied by a choir and the presence of candles and crucifixes in her private chapel, despite disagreements by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

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The traditional view of Elizabeth’s priorities in creating the religious settlement was proposed in the 1950s by JE Neale.  Neale stressed the importance of the House of Commons in shaping the settlement.  He argued that Elizabeth actually originally intended a fairly conservative reform but that it was ‘hijacked’ by a ‘puritan choir’.  This ‘puritan choir’ was a well organised and influential group of radical Protestants in the commons.   They increasingly manipulated the rest of the house into making further reforms to a church they felt was too Catholic and not enough like the more radical churches on the ...

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