Elizabeth I and the English Reformation.
Mary Tudor died 17 November 1558 and Elizabeth, her half sister, succeeded to the throne – a protestant queen replacing a Catholic tyrant. But Elizabeth`s reign was not all sweetness and light for the re established Church of England. Elizabeth was aware of considerable difficulties including the risk of war with Catholic countries, especially France and Spain; potential civil war in England; and even doubts about her succession.
In 1569 there was a Romanist rebellion in the North of England in support of
Mary Queen of Scots that was put down. Roman Catholics remained against her and plotted for her downfall on the orders of the pope
who excommunicated Elizabeth in 1570. Against this background her restoration of the Church of England was sure and steady
process with compromise with the Catholic point of view – not an overnight
declaration of all change. Thus she restored the church Articles; the Common
Book of Prayer of Edward VI; and, took the title of Supreme Governor of the
Church of England – each with some slight amendments on controversial
The church was maintained in an episcopal form with a liturgy which was an anathema to returning religious refugees imbibed with Calvinism.
Their disagreements were a continuation of the debates at Frankfort where
disputes concerned church order and discipline, not of doctrine. These
`Puritans` as they became known, later separated from both the Church of England
and the one time very similar Presbyterians. Episcopacy was the cause
of ongoing dissent between protestant groups in both Ellizabeth`s reign and
that of the House of Stuart from 1603-1688.
Following her coronation 15 January 1559, Elizabeth brought together a group of leaned clergy and professors to debate religion. The first meeting of the group took place on 31 March with a remit to dispute on three propositions:
1. It is against the word of God, and the custom of the ancient church, to use a tongue unknown to the people, in common prayer, and the administration of the sacraments.
2. Every church hath authority to appoint, take away, and change ceremonies and ecclesiastical rites, so the same be to edification.
3. It cannot be proved by the word of God, that there is, in the mass, offered up a sacrifice propitiatory for the quick and the dead.
Possibly sensing that prevarication might arise, Elizabeth ordered that the disputations should be in writing. When the lords and nobles heard of the meeting they pressed that the reports should be in English so that they might comprehend the arguments. This was so ordered. In the event the representatives of the church of Rome did not ( and deliberately can be the only reason) bring their written response to the final meeting. Whether it was to gain time or they realised that their responses did not hold water, we can only guess, But they were given short shrift. In the light of their disorder, stubbornness and self will, the bishops of Lincoln and Winchester were sent to the Tower, and the rest ordered not to leave London pending the Queen`s will. About the same time Bonner, bishop of London, was committed to the Marshalsea prison.
Parliament subsequently consolidated the proceedings of King Edward VI ; the supremacy of the pope was again abolished; the articles and statutes of Queen Mary concerning religion were repealed. Finally the old bishops were deposed for refusing to take an oath of allegiance to Elizabeth, and new ones appointed. Two acts of significance were:
An Act restoring to the Crown the ancient jurisdiction
over the State ecclesiastical and spiritual, and abolishing all foreign power repugnant to the same.
(I Eliz. Cap.I.) and
An Act for the Uniformity of Common Prayer and Divine Service in the Church, and Administration of the Sacraments. (I Eliz. Cap.II)
Both are long and pedantic laws (in long sentences of legalese), driven by the need to specify which previous acts had been repealed by Queen Mary, and also some that in fact remained on the statute book from Edward VI`s time that had been missed. Parliament did not confer any religious toleration, and indeed, in 1573 Elizabeth made a Declaration against Nonconformists emphasising uniformity with the Common Prayer book. Toleration of other faiths
in law would not come until the Toleration Act of 1689.
The Uniformity Act and its
Oath of allegiance caused all but one of the Catholic bishops to resign
and an entirely new episcopate had to be found. Mathew Parker, an old friend
of Elizabeth, was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury on 17 December 1559
by four former bishops ( Barlow, Scorey Coverdale and Hodgkin) for whom it
was argued that they had held their former sees by the laws of the
Church even though deprived of them by the state. There followed in a
short space the appointments to the remaining vacancies after which
the ordination of ministers and deacons commenced. The latter was a slow
process and `readers` were approved as a stop gap measure, Many parishes
went without a regular preacher for very long periods – in Canterbury
diocese fourteen years after the accession of Elizabeth, there were thirty
four parishes were without resident clergy. Preaching was in some instances
a rarity with only three or less, services in a year.
Elizabeth throughout her reign took the matter of religion very seriously, as did other European princes, who saw the risk of civil war in any widespread dissention within their kingdoms. The device adopted for the maintenance of the ecclesiastical laws, especially the Supremacy Act and the Uniformity Act, was the
Court of High Commission. This was a direction, usually to the Archbishop of Canterbury , that he and others named to a stated number, should take action for correcting errors, including ” seditious books, heretical opinions, contempts, conspiracies, false rumours, tales, misbehaviours, slanderous words or shewings published, invented or set forth…” The High Commission was in fact a carte blanche to pursue anyone for just about any thing that might be alleged to be against the word, spirit or intent of the prime legislation. Such Commissions were ordered by Elizabeth in 1559, 1562, 1572, 1576, 1601, and an Ecclesiastical Commission specifically for Wales in 1579. These became vehicles for oppression when the likes of
Archbishop James Sharp in Scotland used them to persecute the Covenanters. In England Archbishop Laud used the power to have dissenters whipped, and to slice off their ears and noses.
So far as doctrine was
concerned the English Reformation was not the result of any one dominant
theologian like Luther in Germany, Calvin in Geneva and Knox in Scotland.
Had Wyckcliffe lived some one hundred and thirty years later he might have
been such a personality to stamp his authority on events. The migration
through varied views and beliefs afforded opportunity to correct earlier
errors and misconstructions, and resulted in reform based on the Scriptures.
Patient and earnest application was perhaps the key that eventually
produced the Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England. Even here
Elizabeth resisted any revision of the original articles ( produced by
Archbishop Parker in 1562) for nine years and when they were produced she
diligently went through and made her own amendments. Bishop Jewel who had
overseen the revision later wrote to Peter Martyr “As to matters of
doctrine, we do not differ from you [the Protestant Churches on the
Continent] by a nail`s breadth.”
The long reign of Elizabeth and her strict management of religion consolidated the Church of England, and England as a
The dissent and separation of the Puritans was probably inevitable given the
chequered history of the Reformation, and their resistance to some
modifications in such matters as dress and minor decoration of churches and
altars. It should not be forgotten that in the roundabouts of persecution
there were many Catholics who also died for their faith and may in equity be
entitled to be called martyrs. There was the distinction both of cause and
scale between the earlier executions under Mary`s five year rule of terror
which were all for religious nonconformity – mainly the transubstantiation
issue. The Catholic executions during the forty five years of Elizabeth`s
reign were mainly for treason because of the Catholic commitment to the Pope
– they could not nor would not, serve two masters and refused the oath of
loyalty. Reportedly 260 people were put to death for saying and hearing
Mass; of these seventy three were laymen and three were women. Priests were
hung drawn and quartered , and those who harboured them, gave shelter etc
were hanged as common felons. Many more who did not have the means to pay
fines imposed on them were publicly whipped through the streets where they