Elizabeth I and the Church of England

When Elizabeth I came to the throne, the English church was under the authority of the Pope. Elizabeth transferred that authority to herself, as supreme governor, in 1559. To what extent was she acting from political need, and to what extent from religious conviction?

Queen Elizabeth was practical when it came to religion. She wanted 1 church that would embrace all Englishmen. That is why the Elizabethan Settlement allowed Anglicans to hold both Catholic and Protestant beliefs as long as they conformed to the Book of Common Prayer.

Politically, there was no way she could keep England “under the authority of the Pope.” First off, under Catholic canon law she was illegitimate since the Pope never recognized the annulment of her father’s marriage to his first wife. Why would she become Catholic only to lose her right to the Crown?

Second, English Catholics had become associated with foreign plots to de-throne Elizabeth. Why would any patriotic Englishmen support a religion that was actively seeking the overthrow of the nation’s government?

The Pope did not help matters. He declared her to be a heretic and excommunicated her. Then he purported to release all of her subjects from their allegiance to her. Any Catholics who obeyed her were threatened with excommunication.

I mean, the Catholic Church essentially made it impossible for there to be any reconciliation or even for the chance that the government would just leave English Catholics alone. You cant show toleration to a religious minority whose ecclesiastical hierarchy is on record as urging revolt.

OK, so it was, you believe, largely political. But the Act of Supremacy was passed as soon as she came to the throne, whereas the Catholic plots got steam up much later, didn’t they? And Regnans in Excelsis,which I agree stoked the fires, didn’t come until 1570.

Her actions would have been entirely political.

The real break between the English government and the Catholic Church happened under Henry VIII, before Elizabeth.

The Book of Common Prayer (as it may have already been pointed out below, I haven’t read the entire thread yet) was not introduced under Elizabeth, but under Edward VI.

The immediate consequence of introducing the Book of Common Prayer was a rebellion, called the Prayer Book Rebellion, in which the peasantry revolted as they regarded it as a Protestant book. That may seem surprising, but out in the countryside where people were not well educated the separation from the Catholic Church was not well appreciated, but it was obvious to them that the Book of Common Prayer was Protestant. It nearly succeeded in overthrowing the Crown.

As far as the Settlement goes, it was basically an effort by Elizabeth 1 towards an accommodation that would result in the end of the ongoing religious strife in the England. It recognized that the country retained strong Catholic sympathies but that there Protestant elements, rather obviously, in the country. Elizabeth was nothing if she wasn’t fairly practical and ruthless, and it would be an open question where her own religious beliefs were to be found. As an accommodation, it can’t be regarded as wholly successful as strife continued on for a very long time, and indeed debate in a declining Anglican Communion over the nature of the church goes on today. It did create the basic concept of the Church of England however, even if the members of the Anglican Communion do not agree as to exactly what the church is.

On this history as a whole, keep in mind that much of our history of the “Reformation” was written from an English prospective, and isn’t wholly accurate really.

The English Crown was fluid in the extreme and had been back into antiquity, when there had been numerous kings in regions of England. Protestant elements, and shear political elements, in England were likely as bit of threat to her crown as the Papacy, which I suspect would have accommodated her had resumed the relationship between the church in England and Rome.

There remained, and remained well after Elizabeth, numerous English Catholics in spite of severe repression, and the following Prayer Book Rebellion in later years showed that the bulk of the people retained not only strong Catholic sympathies, but a belief that they actually were Catholic (something that some branches of Anglicanism maintain today). Reuniting with Rome wouldn’t have posed hte slightest problem to English patriots.

It would have posed a problem to English aristocracy that had participated in looting the property of the Church under Henry VIII, however, as they were essentially participants in a species of theft and they would have had to been worried about returning the property. Additionally, those who surrounded Elizabeth I were in the Protestant camp and she needed their support.

Elizabeth I has gotten a lot more of a pass from history than she should have, which has a lot to do with propaganda surrounding her reign. Her predecessor was tagged as “Bloody Mary” by Elizabeth’s supporters, but Elizabeth wasn’t afraid to use the axe herself. She’s credited, properly, with the Settlement, but there’s something even a bit odd with that, in that a monarch essentially indicating that she’s opting for schism as it’ll bring peace is a bit odd. The concept that it actually did bring peace is incorrect as the Church of England itself would find itself oppressed on odd occasion in later years. She was a very adept politician, however, and that’s how she should probably be properly recalled, if not wholly admired.

The “Catholic” plots, weren’t much in the way of plots.

The real threat to the Church of England and the Crown would prove to come from Protestant quarters. Oliver Cromwell was a Calvinist who took down the Anglican King and installed himself as a dictator, until the Restoration. In that period England saw competing branches of Protestantism contesting with each other, while at the same time all suppressed Catholicism.

Three good posts, looking at the complexity of history, and not waving (as it is all too often done) cardboard cutouts and cartoon images. You and Picky are fun to read, as I have noted before.

interesting thread. however, I thought when Henry created the Church of England and he became the head of the church, the break from Rome was immediate.

So it was. But the English church was handed back to Rome by Mary I. Then taken back again by Elizabeth. Which is one of the problems with the argument that at every change it became a new church.

Of course I think it was political. You can’t be the king or queen of a country (not for long anyway) without thinking of things in political terms.

However, I don’t think she was a raving Papist who just succumbed to political realities. She was raised and educated in the Protestant faith, unlike her sister Mary who was a devoted Catholic.

What most people seem to believe is that she had Protestant tendencies, but was certainly no Puritan. She believed in many traditional forms of worship and prized uniformity in worship that was elastic enough to allow both more Catholic and Protestant elements to remain in one church. For the time, she was probably the closest thing to a religious moderate that existed in England.


To expand on my remarks above, I think its important to consider the entire situation that Elizabeth and England found themselves in.

Lets remember that Elizabeth succeeded her half-sister Mary. Mary achieved an amazing though short lived thing: the recovery of England to the Catholic Church. However, she did make mistakes. One of the bigger ones was her tying England to the Habsburg dynasty and to Catholic Spain.

One can understand why Mary did this. Historian Diarmaid MacCulloch writes that one of the reasons Mary was so bent on marrying a Catholic and producing a Catholic heir was that it was widely known that Elizabeth was Protestant. If Mary died without children, England would once again be lost to the Catholic Church. But her choice of a husband, the Habsburg Philip of Spain, was a bad move in the long run. It was not popular in England since the English did not like thinking that they might be swallowed into the Habsburg Empire (and the Protestants certainly did not want to think of the prospect of their kingdom being tied to the very Catholic Spain). But she got her marriage, with some restrictions (such as Philip not getting to inherit the kingdom if Mary died without an heir).

She also got reunion with Rome in 1554, but the nobility and the gentry were not particularly excited about it. After being free of papal legal authority and enjoying the wealth generated by confiscated church lands, they didn’t really get any advantages out of the bargain. It was only when these landowners were secured in their acquired property that reconciliation could occur.

These were two important victories, but then she made mistakes. One was the decision to try Archbishop Cranmer for heresy. She could have just executed him for treason due to his involvement in the plot to make Jane Grey queen. Instead, Mary was embarrassed when Cranmer recanted his recantations! and died a dramatic death as a Protestant martyr.

She made matters worse with the reintroduction of medieval heresy laws after 1555. In only 4 years, 300 people died, burned for heresy. And of course, these Protestants became martyrs, which only gave the Protestant cause moral credibility and made the Catholic restoration turn sour for a lot of Englishmen. It also gave Protestants propaganda, such as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs which set the Catholic cause back.

All of this, by the way, was made worse by papal politics. Pope Julius III had sent Cardinal Pole to England in November 1554 with legatine powers to reconstruct Catholicism, and he was doing a pretty good job before he died in 1558. But only 6 months after England reconciled with Rome, Paul IV became pope. He removed Pole as his legate and summoned him back to Rome to be tried for heresy. The very Catholic Queen Mary :rolleyes: protected Pole and allowed him to continue his efforts at restoring Catholicism.

Paul IV, along with France, declared war on Mary’s husband. This war led to England’s loss of Calais, its last French possession. In the last year of Mary’s life, she had to face stomach cancer, humiliation over losing Calais, and had to defy the Pope in order to keep her Archbishop of Canterbury.

In any event, Mary died. Elizabeth was raised Protestant. Everyone knew she was a Protestant (though she was smart enough to keep her head down and out of trouble during Mary’s reign). The fact that she was a convinced Protestant is obvious in that she went trough the trouble of undoing all of Mary’s work. While there was Protestant sentiment in England, the truth is that England was horribly polarized between Catholics and Protestants.

If she were truly a Catholic, she could have fought for a Catholic regime. She did not, which obviously indicates that she truly held Protestant beliefs.

That being said, she was lucky. At the time of her accession, elections to the House of Commons produced a majority prepared to back Protestantism. So, there was at least enough support in England at the time to make a Protestant regime a viable option. That viability and Elizabeth’s natural sympathy toward the Reformed faith informed her political decisions.

Yep. And she was shrewd enough to strike a balance between what was seen at the time as the two opposite threats, from a sectarian point, to a stable English regime: Roman Catholicism, and Puritanism. She choose a central path, the original via media., to limit her fractious realm.

oh that is right. I forgot when Mary 1 appeared. The 16th century was a fascinating one in English history.
did most of the Catholics remain in the north?
the English Catholics must have been saddened when Mary 1 failed to keep the church under Papal authority. Was it still called the Church of England under Mary 1 or no? I see why she was called Bloody Mary if that many people lost their life while she was queen. Too bad she did not have better advisers. Can anyone recommend a good biography on Mary 1? She and Elizabeth both saw their mothers horribly mistreated and tossed aside by Henry VIII.
How long did Mary 1 reign?
Did protestants revert to Catholicism under her reign and Catholics had to become protestants under Elizabeth?
When were Catholics allowed to practice their faith freely once again inEngland?

Diarmaid MacCulloch writes this about Elizabeth’s settlement, her treatment of Catholics, and even her own experience under Mary’s reign.

The revival of Edwardian forms was completed in 1563, when Archbishop Cranmer’s forty-two doctrinal Articles of autumn 1552 were reissued as thirty-nine Articles, with only minor alterations. The 1559 legislation made a number of small modifications in Cranmer’s 1552 Book of Common Prayer and its associated liturgical provisions: some traditional vestments were allowed (noticeably, however, not those associated with the Eucharist), and those who wished to might see the liturgy affirming a real presence of Christ in the eucharistic elements of bread and wine. It is nevertheless absurd to suppose that these concessions were intended to mollify Catholic-minded clergy and laity, whom the Settlement simultaneously deprived of the Latin Mass, monasteries, chantries, shrines, gilds and a compulsory celibate priesthood. They were probably aimed at conciliating Lutheran Protestants either at home – Elizabeth had no way of knowing the theological temperature of her Protestant subjects in 1559 – or abroad: the Lutheran princes of northern Europe were watching anxiously to see whether the new English regime would be as offensively Reformed as the government of Edward VI had been, and it was worthwhile for Elizabeth’s new government to throw the Lutherans a few theological scraps.

The new Church of England was still different in tone and style from the Edwardian Church. Edward’s regime was characterized by its commitment to (and even its bid to lead) militant international Protestantism in a forward revolution. [Snip] Her own brand of Protestantism was peculiarly conservative, including a liking for some church imagery and elaborate choral music in worship, a lack of appreciation for frequent preaching and a suspicion of married clergy – perhaps she had remained with the cautious Henrician evangelicalism of her stepmother Catherine Parr . . . Few other Protestants shared her outlook by 1559, either at home or overseas.

In one respect, the new Queen did gather like-minded people as she planned the religious future. She and all her leading advisers (including her new Archbishop, Matthew Parker) had conformed outwardly to the traditional Catholic Church under Queen Mary . . . It meant that the Queen sympathized with traditionalist Catholics who kept similarly quiet in her own Church – towards the end of her reign, Sir Nicholas Bacon’s philosopher-son Francis said admiringly that she did not seek to make windows into men’s souls. Elizabeth, a subtle and reflective woman, who learned about politics the hard way, showed no enthusiasm for high-temperature religion, despite the private depth and quiet intensity of her own devotional life.

In The Reformation: A History, pages 289-291.


I suspect we have different editions of MacCulloch. That’s from pp. 280-282 in mine.

  1. No moral civilized person would look at the actions of Henry VIII and come to the conclusion that any of his martial affairs were conducted properly. Had he not been a monarch he very well would have paid for his life for his crimes. Why would any Englishman support such a King except for fear or greed.

  2. Due to the crimes of her father Elizabeth was not a legitament heir. In today’s society her father would have been forced to advocate and would be tried and the throne would have passed to another.

  3. Elizabeth committed crimes against the Catholic Church, it’s followers and promoted a schism within the Church. There really was no other option than excommunication.

The Catholic Church is not the villain in this story and history has been greatly distorted. The logic that makes people believe that Jessie James was a cool western character instead of a vole blooded killing thief is the same logic that makes Elizabeth an admired figure.

You may well find folk here who will agree with you.

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