Elizabethan Religious Settlement

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The Elizabethan Religious Settlement, which was made during the reign of Elizabeth I, was a response to the religious divisions in England during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey, and Mary I. This response, described as "The Revolution of 1559",[1] was set out in two acts of parliament. The Act of Supremacy of 1558 re-established the Church of England's independence from Rome, with parliament conferring on Elizabeth the title Supreme Governor of the Church of England, while the Act of Uniformity of 1559 outlined what form the English Church should take, including the re-introduction of the 1552 Book of Common Prayer (BCP) which contained the liturgical services of the church (modified in 1559 in a more Catholic direction regarding the doctrine of the Real Presence.[2] The BCP became the yardstick of Anglicanism, which came to see its identity mainly in liturgy and institutional continuity rather than in a systematic school or confessional theology; and also to a lesser extent in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Faith which sought to navigate a middle way (via media) between Roman Catholicism, Continental Protestantism and radical sects.[3]

As for the governance of the church the Queen was determined to maintain control for her benefit and strengthen the monarchy as the supreme arbiter over a fractious society and nobility. All but one of the Marian bishops refused to consecrate a new Archbishop of Canterbury (canon law from the 4th century required a minimum of three for consecration). Intent upon maintaining the three-fold ministry of deacon, priest and bishop in the apostolic succession, she chose Matthew Parker, a Cambridge University don (lecturer), priest and former vice-chancellor of the university, who was consecrated in December 1559 by four bishops. Two had been ordained using the 1550 Ordinal and two in the mid-1530s using the Roman Pontifical. All four had been consecrated by men in Roman Catholic orders. The church might be "reformed" in theology but there would be no break with the ancient institutional church in governance.

The papal bull Regnans in Excelsis, issued on 25 February 1570 by Pope Pius V, declared "Elizabeth, the pretended Queen of England and the servant of crime" to be a heretic, released all of her subjects from any allegiance to her, and excommunicated any who obeyed her orders. The bull, written in Latin, is named from its incipit, the first three words of its text, which mean "ruling from on high" (a reference to God). Among the queen's alleged offences, it lists that "she has removed the royal Council, composed of the nobility of England, and has filled it with obscure men, being heretics."

Reign of Elizabeth[edit]

Act of Supremacy[edit]

When Mary I died in 1558, Elizabeth I succeeded to the throne. One of the most important concerns during Elizabeth's early reign was the question of which form the state religion would take. Communion with the Roman Catholic Church had been reinstated under Mary using the instrument of Royal Supremacy. Elizabeth relied primarily on her chief advisors, Sir William Cecil as her Secretary of State and Sir Nicholas Bacon as Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, for direction on the matter. Many historians believe that William Cecil himself wrote the Church Settlement because it was simply the 1551–1552 version watered down.

Parliament was summoned in 1559 to consider a Reformation Bill and to recreate an independent Church of England. The drafted Reformation Bill defined Holy Communion in terms of Reformed Protestant theology, as opposed to the transubstantiation of the Roman Catholic Mass, included abuse of the Pope in the litany,[4][5] and ordered that ministers should wear the surplice only and not other Roman Catholic vestments. It allowed priests to marry, banned images from churches, and confirmed Elizabeth as Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

The bill met heavy resistance in the House of Lords, as Roman Catholic bishops and lay peers opposed and voted against it. They reworked much of the bill, changed the proposed liturgy to allow for belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Communion, made allowance for the wearing of liturgical vestments, the celebration of Communion in the customary place (altar or table against the east wall), and refused to grant Elizabeth the title of Head of the Church. Parliament was prorogued over Easter and, when it resumed, the government entered two new bills into the Houses of Parliament; the Act of Supremacy and the Act of Uniformity. The Black Rubric of 1552 which permitted kneeling to receive communion out of reverence and not to suggest that the "real and essential" presence implied his body was in his natural flesh and blood, was repealed at the express order of the Queen. Henceforth kneeling continued as before as customary and the Real Presence implied without defining it with a doctrine such as transubstantiation. In 1662 the rubric was restored. The word "bodily" was left in and "corporal" added in order to exclude the meaning that Christ was present in his natural flesh and blood, but the words from the 1552 Book Black Rubric, "real and essential presence", were left out, thereby suggesting the real and essential presence by silence, and after a spiritual manner, without explicitly taking a position on the matter.

Under Elizabeth, factionalism in the council and conflicts at court greatly diminished. The Act of Supremacy 1558 revived ten acts of Henry VIII that Mary had repealed and confirmed Elizabeth as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and passed without difficulty. Use of the term "Supreme Governor" instead of "Supreme Head" pacified many who were concerned about a female leader of the church. All but one of the bishops (the octogenarian Anthony Kitchin of Llandaff) lost their posts,[6] and a hundred fellows of Oxford colleges were deprived. Many dignitaries resigned rather than take the oath, and the bishops who were removed from the ecclesiastical bench were replaced by appointees who agreed to the reforms.

On the question of images, Elizabeth's initial reaction was to allow crucifixes and candlesticks and the restoration of roods, but some of the new bishops whom she had elevated protested. In 1560 Edmund Grindal, one of the Marian exiles now made Bishop of London, was allowed to enforce the demolition of rood lofts in London, and in 1561 the Queen herself ordered the demolition of all lofts, although she sometimes displayed a cross and candlesticks in her own chapel.[7] Thereafter, the determination to prevent any further restoration of "popery" was evidenced by the more thoroughgoing destruction of roods, vestments, stone altars, dooms, statues and other ornaments.

The queen also appointed a new Privy Council, removing many Roman Catholic counsellors by doing so. Amidst all the politics and danger (her accession was not wildly popular) it is not so easy to parse out what she wanted initially: an unmarried clergy; the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist without a theory of definition; Mass vestments; a holy table against the wall with candlesticks, a fair linen and candlesticks, "The Prayer Book communion would not be a mass, but at least it would look like a mass",[8] With the exception of the real presence, she did not succeed.

Act of Uniformity[edit]

The Act of Uniformity of 1559 required the people to attend religious services on Sunday in Church of England parishes in which new religious services had to be celebrated as set forth a new version of the Book of Common Prayer.

Queen Elizabeth I of England reached a moderate religious settlement which became controversial after her death.


The settlement is often seen as a terminal point of the English Reformation and the Victorian tractarians introduced the idea that it provided what came to be called a "via media", a concept central to Anglicanism which was the refusal to adopt any one theology as official as this would lead to over-defining and the proliferation of doctrinal details characteristic of Continental Protestantism and Catholicism. However, the notion of the via media shows up very early in the reign of Charles I 1625-1649: it would be better to see her reign as a period without a "brand name". The base line adopted was conformity to the teachings of the Church Fathers and Catholic bishops as stated in the Injunctions of 1571, i.e. the first five centuries of the Christian Church would be the litmus test of catholicity in the reformed Church of England which would not celebrate a Reformation but emphasize continuity with the Pre-Reformation Church. This focus would bear first fruit during the reign of the early Stuarts as significant sections of the Church of England veered towards Arminianism and working and thinking the whole time in terms of patristic thought, especially of the Greek fathers.[9] The Stuart Divines rejected Roman doctrines and superstitions as they saw them and the disciplines of the Calvinists who were thought bent on destroying what the Anglicans cherished[10] The period marks the full emergence of the Anglican Via Media but its roots lay in the Settlement of 1559. The Catholic heritage which the Puritans and Radicals wanted to get rid of - in doctrine, in practice and institutionally as in the three-fold apostolic ministry and canon law - was the "cuckoo in the nest" that the Queen and the conservative reformers had refused to let go of and which eventually prevailed[11] Richard Hooker in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity defended this settlement (although he is called the father of the via media, he actually provided the basis for it in a formal way). The via media would be characterized by a belief in reason, an "esteem for continuity over the Reformation divide, and a hospitality towards sacramental modes of thought." It was not so much a statement of what it was rather than what it was not. It was characterized by a stout refusal to speculate. Almost nothing original in doctrinal formulation came out Anglicanism [12] because the reforms were about liturgy and the institution. At the time the melange was believed to have established a Protestant church.[13] The Church of England would in time refuse to commit itself as either Protestant or Catholic or else say it was both.

Although Elizabeth "cannot be credited with a prophetic latitudinarian policy which foresaw the rich diversity of Anglicanism", her preferences made it possible.[14]. To some it can be said to represent a compromise in wording and practice between the first Book of Common Prayer of Edward VI (1549) and the Second Prayer Book (1552). For example, when Thomas Cranmer wrote the 1549 Prayer Book, it contained the words "The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life." The 1552 edition, which was never implemented, replaces these words with "Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving." The 1559 Prayer Book combines the two. However, some liturgical scholars such as Gregory Dix, Ratcliff, and Couratin would say that both prayer books taught the same eucharistic doctrine, albeit more cautiously in the first book.[nb 1] The Act which authorised the second book spoke of it as explaining and making "fully perfect" the first book.[15] Finally, the 1559 book, published under Matthew Parker during the reign of Elizabeth, includes both phrases.[16]

J. E. Neale's "Puritan Choir" thesis claimed that a small bloc of radical Protestant representatives struggled for a more aggressive reform, and had a major influence on Elizabethan politics. This theory has been challenged, however, by Christopher Haigh and others. The prevailing view amongst historians today is that Elizabeth accepted from the Lords a more Catholic settlement than she desired as the Lords only passed the changes by a vote of 21 to 18 after threats and bribes. The Queen could push, but only so far. The perceived alternative was having Puritan reforms forced on her by Marian exiles.

By the time of Elizabeth's death, there had emerged a new party, "perfectly hostile" to Puritans, but not adherent to Rome. The Anglicans, as they came to be called later in the century,[17] preferred the revised Book of Common Prayer of 1559, from which had been removed some of the matters offensive to Catholics.[18] A new dispute was between the Puritans, who wished to see an end of the prayer book and episcopacy and the Anglicans, the considerable body of people who looked kindly on the Elizabethan Settlement, who rejected "prophesyings", whose spirituality had been nourished by the Prayer Book and who preferred the governance of bishops.[19] It was between these two groups that, after Elizabeth's death in 1603, a new, more savage episode of the English Reformation was in the process of gestation.

Road to the Civil War[edit]

During the reigns of the first two Stuart kings of England, James I and Charles I, the battle lines were to become more defined, leading ultimately to the English Civil War, the first on English soil to engulf parts of the civilian population. The war was only partly about religion, but the abolition of prayer book and episcopacy by a Puritan Parliament was an element in the causes of the conflict. As Diarmaid MacCulloch has noted, the legacy of these tumultuous events can be recognised, throughout the Commonwealth (1649–1660) and the Restoration which followed it and beyond. Anglicans were to become the core of the restored Church of England, but at the price of further division. At the Restoration in 1660, the congregations of the Church of England were no longer to be the only Protestant congregations in England.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ For an extended treatment, see Ratcliff, E. C. (1980). "Reflections on Liturgical Revision". Grove Books: 12–17. discussing The Communion Service of the Prayer Book: Its intention, Interpretation and Revision, and also Dix, Gregory (1948). Dixit Cranmer Et Non Timuit. Dacre.
  1. ^ Dickens 1967, p. 401
  2. ^ Diarmid MacCullough, The Later English Reformation, 1547-1603, 1990 pp. 26-27, 55-57, 78-79, 141-142 ISBN 0-333-69331-0
  3. ^ MacCullough. pp. 78-79, 141-142
  4. ^ Moynahan, Brian (2003-10-21). "chapter 19". The Faith. Random House of Canada. p. 816. ISBN 9780385491150.
  5. ^ England, Church of; William Keeling (B.D.) (1842). Liturgiae Britannicae. William Pickering. p. 426.
  6. ^ Doran, Susan (1994). Elizabeth 1 and Religion. Routledge. p. 13.
  7. ^ Haigh 1993, p. 244
  8. ^ Haigh 1993, p. 241
  9. ^ John R.H. Moorman, The Anglican Spiritual Tradition, 1983, pp. 104-106 ISBN 0-87243-25-8
  10. ^ Moorman, p. 105
  11. ^ Diarmid MacCullough, The Later English Reformation, 1547-1603, 1990 pp. 29, 38, 78-86 ISBN 0-333-69331-0
  12. ^ MacCulloch, Diarmid, The Later Reformation in England, 1547-1603 p. 55
  13. ^ MacCulloch, Diarmaid (2005). "Putting the English Reformation on the Map". Trans. RHistS. CUP. XV: 75–95.
  14. ^ Dickens 1967, p. 403
  15. ^ Tanner, J. R. (1948). Tudor Constitutional Documents. CUP. p. 19.
  16. ^ Chadwick, Owen (1964). "The Reformation". Harmondsworth: Penguin: 121.
  17. ^ Maltby 1998, p. 235
  18. ^ Procter F. and Frere W. H., A New History of the Book of Common Prayer (Macmillan 1965) p. 91ff.
  19. ^ Maltby 1998
  • Dickens, A. G. (1967). "The English Reformation". Fontana.
  • Haigh, Cristopher (1993). "English Reformations: Religion, Politics and Society under the Tudors". Oxford University Press.
  • Maltby, Judith (1998). "Prayer book and People in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England". Cambridge.

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