HIST 251: Early Modern England: Politics, Religion, and Society under the Tudors and Stuarts

Lecture 10

 - The Elizabethan Confessional State: Conformity, Papists and Puritans


Professor Wrightson discusses the Elizabethan settlement of religion and the manner in which it was defended from both “Papist” and “Puritan” opponents. The settlement of religion achieved in 1559 (and enforced through the Act of Uniformity) restored the royal supremacy, but was in some respects deliberately ambiguous, combining moderately Protestant doctrine with traditional forms of worship and church government. It was designed to minimize the danger of religious conflict by appealing to traditionalists as well as convinced Protestants. From the 1570s, however, the settlement came under attack from both Catholics and Puritans (the “hotter sort of Protestants” dissatisfied with the limits of the Elizabethan reformation). Wrightson describes how both threats were countered and defeated, while the Church of England gradually became normalized and accepted by the population as a whole.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

Early Modern England: Politics, Religion, and Society under the Tudors and Stuarts

HIST 251 - Lecture 10 - The Elizabethan Confessional State: Conformity, Papists and Puritans

Chapter 1. Religion and Elizabeth I [00:00:00]

Professor Keith Wrightson: Right. Let’s get started.

Okay. Well, as you know, in 1528 religious change had not been a significant issue in English politics. By 1558, it was in many ways the central issue and it was about to take another turn. On the 17th of November, 1558, Elizabeth I was proclaimed queen, a young woman of twenty-five, highly intelligent, well educated and long schooled in the necessity of caution, discretion and even dissimulation in order to survive the dangers that she had faced. She was of course Anne Boleyn’s daughter, and as Anne Boleyn’s daughter it was in a sense her conception in December of 1532 that had finally precipitated the assertion of Henry VIII’s royal supremacy. So you could say in a sense that Elizabeth’s whole identity, and above all her claims to the throne, were bound up with the rejection by her father of papal authority.

Now the precise nature of her personal beliefs remains uncertain. She didn’t really disclose them, but unquestionably she identified herself with the Protestant cause. Shortly after her accession, at Christmas 1558, she very ostentatiously walked out of mass in the royal chapel at the point at which the host was elevated. A month later in January 1559 she very ostentatiously embraced an English Bible which was offered to her by the citizens of London on her state entry to London prior to her coronation. So Elizabeth was making no secret of the fact that she inclined towards reform, as indeed everyone expected.

But if she inclined towards reform she was neither dogmatically nor straightforwardly Protestant, and the religious settlement of 1559, the first business of her reign, very much reflected that fact. It was in part the product of theological convictions, but it was also very much a settlement that reflected a religious preference that was tempered by sheer political expediency. What actually happened remains rather cloudy — some aspects of the documentation are inadequate — but the most convincing interpretation of the settlement to my mind is that of Norman Jones. In his view Elizabeth and her chief adviser, William Cecil, intended initially to return to the situation of 1552 just before the death of her brother, Edward VI. But they met severe opposition in Parliament particularly in the House of Lords, opposition not only from the Catholic bishops who sat in the Lords but also from some of the leading lay members of the peerage, and so they had to return to Parliament with a distinctly watered-down draft prayer book setting out their desires for religious settlement.

So, for example, in 1559 in the prayer book they brought to Parliament the communion service was in fact a blend of the prayer book of 1552 with its very Protestant statements regarding the communion service being essentially a service of remembrance and thanksgiving. They blended that with the earlier 1549 prayer book which had allowed for the possibility that there was a real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the communion service. And so in 1559 the wording at the administration of the communion was as follows: the bread…”the body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.” That’s 1549, followed immediately by “take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving”; that’s 1552. They blended the two together so that you could read it as you chose. It’s been described by Diarmaid MacCulloch as “a masterpiece of theological engineering,” or fudging the issue you could say.1

Again in 1559 the bill brought before Parliament put forward the title for Elizabeth not as supreme head of the Church of England but only of Supreme Governor. That’s often seen as being a more appropriate title for a woman, governor rather than head, but it also of course left open the possibility that the settlement might be accepted, that the position of supreme governor might be accepted, by people who regarded the supreme head of the church as being elsewhere, in Rome. Even so, despite these compromises, Elizabeth and her counselors were able to get their settlement through Parliament only by purging the House of Lords. They ruthlessly excluded many of the Catholic bishops in the end and they still got a majority of only three votes. They squeezed it through the House of Lords. Support in the commons was much stronger.

So the Church of England was reestablished. English was Protestant again, sort of. It was a confessional state bound by an Act of Uniformity that the prayer book should be used throughout the kingdom, uniformity to the religion set down by the Queen in Parliament, what was often described as ‘the religion by law established’. But that religion was less imposed by simple royal dictate than a reflection of what Elizabeth and her advisers had proved willing to settle for. There was no doubt that England had turned in a broadly Protestant direction again, but there was also a lot of ambiguity about the nature and the extent of that Protestantism.

Okay. Well, maybe Elizabeth and William Cecil and the other counselors got less than they originally intended, but they accepted it, and they could even use it to their advantage. It was perhaps no bad thing in the England of 1559 that the religious settlement contained a lot of ambiguity. Thirty years of religious flux had left the nation profoundly divided in matters of faith. No change during those thirty years had had time to put down deep roots. To some historians like Christopher Haigh most of the people remained, in the main, traditionalists in their religious beliefs. To other historians like Robert Whiting people had grown almost indifferent, acquiescing and conforming to change after change, but essentially guarded and unenthusiastic in their attitudes. But also, as you’ve seen in last week’s reading, there was a third reading of the situation represented by the work of Christopher Marsh. People were now only too aware of the existence of alternatives in religion, alternatives which hadn’t existed back in the 1520s. Some of them hankered after the old ways, some of them were drawn to the attractive features of the new doctrines, but everyone knew the danger of religious conflict. They’d witnessed enough of that under Mary.

As a result, Marsh suggests they “held their peace,” and as you know he uses that term in a double sense: negatively in the sense that they were compliant, they remained silent before the demands of authority; positively in the sense that they preserved the peace of their own communities as best they could. One could say that that was an attitude that had developed as a result of the turmoil of the late 1540s and early 1550s in particular. Even under Mary, the mayor of Exeter in the west, down here in Devon, was a man who although a devout Catholic in his own practice regarded Protestant sympathizers among his neighbors with some discretion and tolerance. It was said of him that he did “friendly and lovingly bear with them and wink at them,” he shut his eyes to their practice. And one could say that Elizabeth was winking at people too. She winked at people in many ways. [Laughter] She was the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. She was the head of a confessional state but she also said early in her reign, “I will not make windows into men’s souls”; a striking metaphor, “I will not make windows into men’s souls.”

What she and her counselors wanted was order, outward conformity, stability, and in pursuit of those objectives the ambiguities of 1559 were in many ways advantageous and they could be developed. Soon after the passage of the settlement through Parliament, a set of injunctions concerning worship were issued. They permitted the images which had survived Protestant iconoclasm to remain in churches so long as they were not superstitiously abused. They said that in future communion tables were to be used for holy communion rather than altars, but nonetheless the communion table could stand where the old altar had stood. At holy communion traditional wafers were used rather than common bread. There were many concessions of this kind. Elizabeth herself would have liked to have kept the rood screens above the chancel with their crucifixes, etc. She kept a crucifix in her own chapel. But her more Protestant bishops really wouldn’t stand for that and many rood screens were gradually dismantled throughout the kingdom in the course of the 1560s.

Or again in dealing with the clergy, she faced in Parliament bishops who put up such a stiff opposition that she was forced to deprive them. She would have liked them to stay. They didn’t, but new appointments to the Episcopal bench were rarely religious extremists. It was significant that she chose as Archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker, a Cambridge academic who was a Protestant certainly, but who had not gone into exile under Mary. He had conformed and kept his head down. She considered Parker a more appropriate choice than some of the more radical Protestants that she could have selected. Amongst the parish clergy too there was no mass purge. Many of the clergy were allowed to keep their positions and even to get away with formally subscribing to the prayer book and the Act of Uniformity but continuing many traditional practices unhindered.

The toleration which was extended to traditional practices allowed them to preserve in many ways the appearance of tradition in the way they conducted services in their parishes. Christopher Haigh has a nice phrase for it. He says many of these people were “liturgical hermaphrodites.” They used the prayer book but they could tweak it their own way. Again fines were laid down for people who failed to attend the Church of England at least once a month but they were set very low. The fine was twelve pence a month if you failed to attend Church of England services, which was about the equivalent of a day’s wages for a London laborer, not a steep fine at all.

So what did it all mean? Clearly, Elizabeth was no Catholic but she refused to persecute, and equally she refused to countenance any further reform. She seems to have learned her lesson in 1559 about the art of the possible and she stuck to it. And that came out very clearly just a few years later in 1563 when at a meeting of the convocation of the Church of England, the assembly of the clergy of the Church of England, there occurred what’s known as the Vestiarian Controversy. Some of the more radical Protestants in convocation wanted to get rid of traditional vestments worn by the priests during services. They described them as the “rags of Rome.” These, however, had been retained in the prayer book of 1559 and Elizabeth insisted upon retaining traditional clerical dress and forced Archbishop Parker to demand it of the clergy.

Chapter 2. Catholics [00:13:43]

So what was England’s religion in the 1560s? Ultimately, one could say it was the Queen’s religion. With regard to the pope’s authority, it was emphatically schismatic. Papal authority had been abrogated once again. With regard to essential doctrines, it was essentially Protestant, but nonetheless it retained a latitude to make of the settlement, to read the prayer book, as you chose provided you conformed in general. The only element of settlement one could say which was totally without ambiguity was the Act of Uniformity; conform and hold your peace.

Well, in an age of religious partisanship, in what was already becoming in Europe an age of religious war, that was not really a bad deal. But of course it couldn’t stand there. Whatever the ambiguities of the settlement, first of all no one could really doubt that it was basically Protestant in orientation, and secondly no one yet knew that Elizabeth would live to be seventy. And those two facts shaped the attitudes of both committed Catholics and the more committed Protestants, and by 1560 of course there were plenty of both. Both groups of zealots were preoccupied with what might happen next. Would there be another turn of the wheel? Would Elizabeth survive? And both sides were determined to do what they could to shape events to their own advantage if such a possibility of future change emerged.

So let’s look at the two groups who opposed in different ways the Elizabethan settlement and how their challenges were met. We can start by looking at the Catholics.

Christopher Haigh argues, persuasively I think, that there was a great deal of what he calls traditionalist “survivalism.” To a considerable degree, the early Elizabethan church was attempting to accommodate that traditionalism amongst the population as a whole. But the more committed, more theologically aware and more politically aware Catholics knew that this was a recipe for the gradual erosion of Catholic principle. There were a lot of people who were described at the time as “church papists” in the 1560s, people whose bodies were in the Church of England, as it were, but whose hearts remained with the old religion. Such people would gradually become hopelessly compromised over time unless something was done to stiffen their resistance to a gradual slide into conformity and acceptance of the new ways. And in the eyes of those who feared this there was, after all, every possibility that the settlement of 1559 would not endure any longer than other changes.

It all hung on the life of one young woman and in 1562 Elizabeth contracted smallpox and almost died. Her counselors were in a panic as she lay on her sick bed. She recovered, but it was a warning of what could happen. We have to remember this, this vital element of uncertainty, whenever we look at the Elizabethan church and indeed at other aspects of her reign. So, you get in these years the gradual emergence of what might be called a kind of shadow church or a church in exile waiting for the possibility of a return to the old ways. And the years 1568 to 1570 proved to be in many ways a turning point for these Catholics.

In 1568, William Allen, a former Oxford don who had fled to the continent, founded a college at Douai in the Netherlands for the purpose of training priests who would be smuggled back into England and who could operate in secrecy to stiffen the faith of English Catholics. In the same year, in May of 1568, Mary Stuart, the Queen of Scotland, a Catholic, was deposed by her own subjects and fled into England. There she was kept under house arrest by Elizabeth, but while she remained she was clearly a claimant to the English throne within reach of those who opposed Elizabeth. She was Elizabeth’s nearest relative, her cousin, and a Catholic. I’ll say more about Mary, Queen of Scots next time, but her presence is a constant factor in the equation.

In 1567 to ‘68, almost simultaneously, came the outbreak of the Dutch revolt, a revolt of the provinces of the Netherlands, just across the narrow seas, against Spanish rule, which led to the establishment in the Netherlands of a powerful Spanish army to put down that revolt sent by King Philip II of Spain, the champion of the Counter Reformation in Europe. Its arrival was followed by a massive repression of Protestants in the Netherlands and the flight of many of them to England. And in the following year, in 1569, came the revolt of the northern earls.

That began with a plot to release Mary, Queen of Scots from captivity, to marry her to the Duke of Norfolk, who was a crypto-Catholic, to restore her to the Scottish throne with the help of the Spanish army, which was just over the seas in the Netherlands, and to depose Elizabeth. When the scheme was discovered by Elizabeth’s intelligence service the earls of Northumberland and of Westmorland, the two dominant nobles of the north, rose in rebellion. They raised about 5,000 men. They captured the city of Durham. They restored the mass in Durham Cathedral. They moved gradually south. The government responded to the rising by securing Mary and moving her south out of their reach. She was placed under the tutelage of the Earl of Shrewsbury down in the Midlands. The northern earls failed to move swiftly. They got bogged down besieging a castle near Durham which was held by the loyal Bowes family for Elizabeth and eventually realizing that their support was eroding they gave up and fled into Scotland. There then followed two years of diplomatic and military bullying before eventually the Earl of Northumberland was surrendered back to the English and was executed.

By then the rebellion was long over. By December 1569, it had proved to be a fiasco and had fizzled out, but in February 1570, rather too late, the Pope, having heard of it, offered his support. He excommunicated Elizabeth and he absolved her subjects from their obedience to the Queen. He was telling her Catholic subjects, in other words, that rebellion against this heretic queen was no sin — a little too late, but nonetheless at last a clarifying decision on the part of the papacy with regard to Elizabeth. For the Catholic subjects of the Queen in 1568 to ‘70 one could say the moment of truth had at last come. At last there had been principled resistance to the Elizabeth settlement, at last there had been a lead from the papacy, but in a sense it was also a disaster for the average traditionalist in religion. Now they were in a position where they had to choose. They had to make a stand, like it or not. Geopolitical realities increasingly demanded it, and for many of them that was an absolutely agonizing situation.

And in the years that followed, in many ways, it got worse. From the mid 1570s missionary priests trained in the Netherlands began arriving to stiffen the faith of the Catholic faithful. There were something like sixty who arrived in the course of the later 1570s. Between then and the end of the reign in 1603, something like 500 Catholic priests were smuggled into England to operate in secret. From the 1580s, they were joined by another group, the Jesuits, the shock troops of the Catholic Counter Reformation in Europe who joined in the mission to England.

Now of course from their perspective these were heroic people, and yet they were fatally compromised by their association with a foreign power, Spain, and they were inevitably associated with the dynamics of religious conflict in Europe — not least because some of the leaders of the Catholic mission subscribed to the view that it was no sin to depose or even murder a heretical monarch. And so began a series of plots which were uncovered throughout the middle and later years of Elizabeth’s reign. In 1571, the Ridolfi plot to depose Elizabeth, place Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne, marry her to the Duke of Norfolk. That ended in 1572 with the execution of Norfolk. In 1572, the news came from France of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Protestants in Paris. This seemed a demonstration from abroad of the risk of Catholic treachery. In 1583, the Throckmorton plot to murder Elizabeth was uncovered. A year later in 1584, the leader of the Dutch Protestants, William the Silent, was murdered in the Netherlands. In 1586, the Babington plot to depose Elizabeth and elevate Mary, Queen of Scots to the throne was uncovered.

The atmosphere then was one of tremendous insecurity and the government’s response was severe. In 1581, it was declared by Parliament treason to be absolved from schism with Rome and to be reconciled to the Catholic church. Recusancy fines for not attending the Church of England were raised from one shillings a month to twenty pounds. That’s a four hundredfold increase in the size of recusancy fines. In 1585, England was at last, after long hesitation, brought to declare open war with Spain and to send troops to the Netherlands to help stiffen the resistance of the Dutch Protestants. And in the same year Parliament made it treason for any ordained priest of the Catholic church even to enter England. For a priest to be found on English soil was treason. In 1586, following the Babington plot, Mary, Queen of Scots was at last brought to trial, sentenced to death, and then, after long hesitation on the part of Elizabeth, finally beheaded in February 1587. And then in 1588 the whole nation was mobilized to resist the threat of invasion by the Spanish Armada — a great fleet sent by Philip II intended to pick up troops in the Netherlands, transport them across the narrow seas, and attack London. A plan which was eventually foiled only by the resistance which was put up by the English fleet in the Channel and then the scattering of Spanish ships as they sailed north and eventually around Scotland and Ireland to return to Spain, many of them being lost on the way. Following the — what was seen as the — divine deliverance in the Armada campaign the war dragged on right through to the end of Elizabeth’s reign.

Well, in such a context any priests who landed in England to do God’s work amongst the Catholic faithful as they saw it, were inevitably regarded by the government as the traitorous servants of a foreign power. Between 1581 and 1603, 131 Catholic priests were arrested and executed together with sixty of the lay people who had hid them, all of them being executed as traitors. These are those who are regarded in the English Catholic tradition as the Catholic [correction: English] Martyrs. And in a nation that was increasingly prone to regard itself as a beleaguered island threatened by mighty enemies, Catholicism almost inevitably became tainted by its association with that threat. Of course, that was mistaken. Many of the Catholic nobility and gentry went out of their way to stress their loyalty to Elizabeth; that they would not support any foreign invasion; that they would indeed sometimes openly declare themselves as sufficiently loyal to oppose it. They were well known. They were often trusted as individuals by their Protestant neighbors. The fines levied upon them for their Catholic recusancy were often very selectively and intermittently enforced. Amongst the Catholic population as a whole there were only a tiny number of zealots who were ever actively involved in treasonable plots, especially against the Queen’s life. Nevertheless, be that as it may, in the situation after 1570, and especially after the outbreak of war in 1585, the Catholic community as an entity lay under the shadow of distrust and it was subject to a developing prejudice which would take centuries to dispel. As Patrick Collinson has written, anti-Catholicism became almost “a sheet anchor of English nationhood” and the Catholic community within England became in a sense aliens within their own land.2

Chapter 3. Protestants [00:28:34]

What about the other threat? — the radical Protestants, those who we think of now as Puritans but that was not a term they used initially. It was a term of insult that was sometimes thrown at them. They were described usually at the time as “the hotter sort of Protestants”; “the hotter sort of Protestants.” To them the accession of Elizabeth in 1558 had been a providential deliverance, a divine intervention in English affairs. November the 17th, the Queen’s accession day, was celebrated with the ringing of bells; it became almost like a Protestant holy day. But though they regarded the Church of England which she established a year later in 1559 as undoubtedly a true church, it seemed to these Protestant radicals that it was a church which was only half reformed, and they too were worried about what might happen next. They could have no certainty that it would last. They were anxious to push ahead, to consolidate the position, to move urgently to what they described as “further reformation.”

Especially they wanted reformation of some of the traditionalist structures of the Church of England and the removal of some of the more traditional aspects of its forms of worship. They wanted to get rid of the “rags of Rome” or the “dregs the popery.” This is the sort of language they used. So there was from the beginning an element of dissidence even amongst those who could be regarded as Elizabeth’s most enthusiastic supporters. And that was especially true amongst the younger clergy who were emerging from the universities, now thoroughly trained in Protestant doctrine, and who were becoming, if anything, more emphatically Protestant even than those who had led the church in the later years of Edward VI.

This younger generation were moving beyond the doctrinal position which had been established by Archbishop Cranmer in the early 1550s and was enshrined in the prayer book. Increasingly, they felt the influence of John Calvin, the great Protestant leader of Geneva, and his successor there, Theodore Beza. In terms of the doctrine of salvation, they increasingly adopted the doctrine of ‘predestination’ championed by Calvin; the notion that only an elect minority would find salvation. Many also adopted the doctrine of double predestination championed by Beza; the view that God had decreed from the beginning of the world who would be elect and who would be damned.

This kind of belief bred amongst them a very anxious spirituality. At the individual level they were deeply anxious about their own spiritual state. Were they or were they not amongst the elect? They tended to indulge in intense spiritual self-searching, rigorous attempts to sanctify their personal lives in a way that would give them a sense of assurance of their own election. It was also a kind of theological position which bred what’s been described as a “piebald mentality.” They saw things in very black and white terms, a piebald mentality. The godly saw themselves as a beleaguered minority in a world that was dominated by the reprobate, the unregenerate. They tended to describe themselves as the “little flock,” the “godly remnant,” and that in turn seems to have bred amongst them a kind of activist mentality. There was a duty to demonstrate their own godliness by standing up for the honor of God, by doing His work in the world, by spreading truth, by combating sin and error. A form of activism which in a sense could give them greater assurance.

For the most part, they did that work in relative obscurity, down in the many parishes of the kingdom. Puritans were amongst the most zealous preachers. They were often chosen as ‘lecturers’, people who would be hired by local authorities to preach extra sermons on market days, for example, or on the weekdays. In some areas they were numerous enough by the 1570s to found regular meetings of sympathizers which were known as “prophesyings.” These were meetings of the local clergy who would get together to hear a sermon, to debate its doctrine. They often opened these meetings to members of the laity. It was thought to be an excellent method of improving clerical knowledge, of passing on theological knowledge to the godly laity, and in areas of — some areas of — the country they were extremely influential in influencing the whole tone of local religious life. East Anglia was a great area of Puritan strength. There were eight of these prophesying meetings in the county of Suffolk in the middle of East Anglia and in the county of Essex, just to the south, there were six of them operating by the early 1570s.

But after 1570 Puritanism also began to acquire something of a political edge. Specifically, that came in the form of a movement to try to formally alter the structures of the Church of England and to purge the prayer book of what they saw as traditional papist survivals. Those who became involved in it were convinced that the New Testament laid down a clear model of church government, that it did not involve bishops, that it should be based upon autonomous congregations who elected their own ministers and elders, who would in turn meet together at the higher level in councils and synods to govern the church as a whole. In other words, a Presbyterian system of church government. This is what they desired, and advocates of such a system were to mount a series of challenges to the Elizabethan settlement between 1570 and 1587. And there were a number of landmarks in that process.

In 1570, for example, the professor of divinity at the University of Cambridge, Thomas Cartwright, gave a series of lectures in the university in which he argued that the English church failed to follow the model of the New Testament and advocated a Presbyterian system. There was a tremendous controversy in the university as a result. Cartwright in fact lost his job. He was quickly picked up by one of Elizabeth’s favorites, the Earl of Leicester, who sympathized with the Puritans, and placed in a living elsewhere. So he survived, but he lost his position at the university. In 1571, in Parliament, one member, William Strickland, introduced a bill to revise the prayer book and purge it. Members of the council sitting in Parliament opposed this move. He was called before the royal Privy Council and warned not to trespass on the Queen’s prerogative in matters of religion. But a year later when Parliament met again John Field and Thomas Wilcox, two leading Puritans, published the “Admonition to Parliament,” an outspoken attack upon the structure of the Church of England as not being a truly reformed church, calling on Parliament to take steps to further reform it. Indeed, it was so extreme in some of its statements that it greatly scandalized moderates amongst Protestants and there was no successful action in Parliament.

In 1576, there came a further attempt to discuss the church in Parliament, and on that occasion Elizabeth had to intervene personally to ban discussion of religion in Parliament. The Queen also became convinced in that year that the prophesying meetings were a destabilizing influence on the church in the localities. She ordered Archbishop Grindal to put a stop to them. The Archbishop protested. He thought they were doing good work; they were beneficial to the clergy. As a result, the Queen simply suspended him and the Archbishop of Canterbury himself was suspended from exercising his duties from 1577 through to his death in 1583.

Well, at that point, Grindal’s death in 1583 could be said in a sense to symbolize the passing away of the first generation of Elizabethan bishops, many of them people who half sympathized with the desire for further reformation within the church, men who had been willing to serve, willing to bear with the Elizabethan compromise for the time being, but in their hearts would have liked to have seen more. The phrase that was often used for people like that was that they were willing to “tarry for the magistrate,” they were willing to wait until such time as the Queen was willing to move further in a Protestant direction. And they were gradually being replaced by people of a different stamp, and the most significant of the new bishops to emerge was the new Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift.

Whitgift was a very different kind of man from Grindal. He was a Calvinist in his doctrine, no Protestant could ask for more in terms of his theological position, but he was also a man who had grown up with the Elizabethan settlement and who was deeply committed to the settlement in itself. In addition to which he was a firm disciplinarian, and in 1583 as a means of preventing further action on the part of Puritans Whitgift introduced what was known as the Three Articles to which each of the clergy was required to subscribe. They included recognition of the royal supremacy, recognition of the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion laying down the doctrine of the Church of England, and taking an oath that there was nothing in the Prayer Book which was contrary to the word of God. He proceeded to use the church courts and particularly his own Court of High Commission to examine suspected dissidents within the church under oath and to administer the Three Articles. He was in fact prevented by members of Elizabeth’s council sympathetic to the Puritan cause from taking this policy as far as he would have liked. Nonetheless, it was a clear statement of his unwillingness to tolerate dissidence from radical Protestants.

Well, the advent of Whitgift perhaps provoked what turned out to be the Presbyterian or Puritans’ final throw. Some of the prophesying meetings which were now forbidden simply went underground. In some areas they developed into what’s known as the “Classis” movement, secret meetings of the clergy who were practicing a kind of underground Presbyterianism. John Field, one of the authors of the “Admonition to Parliament” in 1572, built up quite an extensive network of Presbyterian sympathizers amongst the clergy and the laity throughout the kingdom. And that network was activated in 1584 and 1586 to try to introduce further bills into Parliament calling for a Presbyterian system and the revision of the prayer book. These attempts were again scotched by royal councilors sitting in Parliament. In 1586, for example, Parliament itself sent both the promoter of the bill and those who defended it in Parliament to the Tower of London briefly to cool their heels.

The Presbyterians had failed again. But the exasperation and the frustration that they felt was vividly expressed in 1588 to ‘89 in the secret publication of a number of extremely scurrilous attacks upon the bishops of the Church of England. These were known as the Marprelate Tracts. They were directed against bishops, prelates; the Marprelate Tracts. The Archbishop of Canterbury instigated an investigation to discover the secret press that was producing them, and in the course of that John Field’s Puritan network was uncovered and the movement was essentially smashed.

Meanwhile, as the 1580s drew to a close, some of the leaders of Puritanism were dying away. John Field died in 1588. Some of his sympathizers in the Royal Council, the Duke [correction: Earl] of Leicester, Sir Francis Walsingham, Sir Walter Mildmay all died in 1589 or 1590. Puritanism as a political movement was over for the time being but it left three legacies.

First of all, there were small groups of Puritan extremists who were so disillusioned that they broke from the Church of England altogether and formed separatist congregations meeting in secret. One of their leaders said that they had decided they would have “reformation without tarrying for any.” They wouldn’t tarry for the magistrate; they would have reformation without tarrying for any. Some of them were eventually forced to flee abroad. The group led by Robert Browne based in the city of Norwich removed themselves to the Netherlands to escape potential persecution. Another group led by Henry Barrow in London went underground and some of them eventually also emigrated to the Netherlands where they enjoyed religious freedom in the Protestant areas of the Netherlands. Henry Barrow, returning to England at one point, was arrested and was eventually hanged for sedition. It was from amongst these groups of radical separatists who had broken completely with the Church of England that some of the Mayflower Pilgrims of 1620 were eventually to be drawn.

So one legacy was separatism, a tiny minority who broke away completely. Secondly, there was a much broader legacy of activist evangelism within the Church of England. Many Puritan sympathizers felt that if they could not change the structures of the Church of England then they could at least transform its spirit and thereby leave their own distinctive stamp on the nature of English Protestantism. They advocated a religion heavily based upon the Bible: advocating preaching, practicing the sanctification of the Sabbath, insisting upon strict moral behavior, pursuing moral reformation where they had the power and the opportunity, and they constantly drummed upon the theme of the failure of England to live up to the — to show proper gratitude for God’s deliverance of the kingdom, the need to turn to a more strict religious observation in return for God’s favor. So that was the second legacy.

Thirdly, there was a legacy of a different kind. Some of those who had defended the Elizabethan settlement from Puritan attacks began to develop an altogether more positive view of the Elizabethan settlement. They began to see it not just as a temporary compromise, but as a distinctive and valid alternative, a distinctive middle way between Catholicism on the one hand and radical Protestantism on the other. Theologians like Richard Hooker and Richard Bancroft saw the retention of a traditionalist structure in the Church of England as not simply a matter of convenience, or political expediency, but as a valid Protestant alternative. Indeed, in Bancroft’s view, a divinely ordained form of church government in which England maintained the tradition which descended from Christ’s apostles, purified of the corruptions which had crept in in the Catholic Middle Ages. So a new and more positive notion of Anglicanism as a middle way was also emerging amongst the defenders of the church. Diarmaid MacCulloch said of this that “perhaps the Anglican gift to the Christian story is the ability to make a virtue of necessity.”3 [Laughter]

Chapter 4. Reformation as a Series of Confirming Experiences [00:46:01]

But what finally about those who were neither Catholics nor radical Puritans nor Anglican divines, the mass of the people down in the parishes? It’s been said that for most of them the reformation under Elizabeth was essentially a series of conforming experiences. A slow shift from the visual and ritual and symbolic richness of late medieval religion to a somewhat plainer, more verbal, religion based on the English Bible, based on the Prayer Book of 1559, including such things as more frequent preaching, psalm singing, and other novel practices. That process of gradual shift in religious culture was probably aided by the elements of continuity observable in Church of England services and gradually it did its work. The older generation of both the clergy and the laity who could remember the old days had largely died away by the 1580s. An increasing proportion of the population knew no other church than that of Elizabeth. They faced no serious threat from the Catholic mission. The Catholic missionary priests concentrated their attention on politically significant people. Most of their work was done amongst the gentry, there was no real mission to the common people, and by 1603 the Church of England had something like two and a half million communicants while there were only some 8,000 to 9,000 known Catholic recusants, most of them members of the gentry or their immediate tenants sheltered under their protection.

To this extent one could say that the Catholic threat was actually diminishing. Meanwhile, the Anglican clergy were gradually adapting to their role as pastors and teachers. Initially, there’d been a severe shortage of preachers and of educated clergy, but steady work by the bishops, steady work ordaining young men in the universities, meant that by the death of Elizabeth preaching was commonplace in most areas of the kingdom, the clergy were increasingly university graduates; their level of learning was improving. The more severe and the more demanding of the clergy could be highly critical of the religious attitudes of the common people. Some of them saw the common people as being perhaps de-Catholicized, perhaps hostile to papal authority, but scarcely Protestantized in any deep and meaningful sense. But perhaps that’s too harsh a judgment on people who have been nicely described as ‘parish Anglicans’ or ‘prayer book Anglicans’, building up a loyalty for the form of religion with which they were familiar.

By the 1590s, it’s likely that they certainly thought of themselves as being members of the Protestant family, as it were, even if their theological grasp on exactly what that meant was probably rather shaky. At the same time of course it remained the case that Puritans saw the reformation as essentially unfinished amongst the population at large. And there were a fair number of people who shared that perception — that it remained unfinished — for the audience of the godly preachers was by 1603 significantly larger, significantly more literate, significantly more likely to have a better knowledge of the Bible and of the prayer book, significantly more likely to have read some of the English language religious publications in the Puritan tradition which were pouring from the presses; people more deeply involved in a vernacular religious culture, much of it produced by Puritans who had abandoned their political opposition but who had emerged as the most active evangelicals, the most earnest, the most godly counselors of the Protestant tradition in the parishes.

At this level the later reformation was perhaps mostly un-dramatic except in the private drama of people’s personal conversion. But if the situation of 1600 was one of relative calm it was also storing up the seeds of future drama. Protestantism was gradually working its way into popular culture, the Puritan minority was extending its influence, not as a political movement but as a widespread religious style. Hostility to what was described as ‘popery’ was increasingly widespread, and tensions remained regarding what the nature of English Protestantism should be. And they would give rise, as we will see later, to what have been called England’s wars of religion in the seventeenth century. Disputes not between Catholics and Protestants — that was perhaps largely settled by 1600 — but disputes between different conceptions of what it was to be a Protestant.

Okay. And next time I’ll turn to other aspects of Elizabeth’s reign and in particular the modes of political participation and the queen’s relationship with her counselors.

[end of transcript]


1. D. MacCulloch in The Later Reformation in England (1990).

2. P. Collinson in The Birthpangs of Protestant England (1988).

3. D. MacCulloch in The Later Reformation in England (1990).

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]