The Elizabethan Religious Settlement

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Mark Cartwright
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published on 02 June 2020
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The Elizabethan Religious Settlement was a collection of laws and decisions concerning religious practices introduced between 1558-63 CE by Elizabeth I of England (r. 1558-1603 CE). The settlement continued the English Reformation which had begun during the reign of her father, Henry VIII of England (r. 1509-1547 CE) whereby the Protestant Church of England split from the Catholic Church led by the Pope in Rome. There was opposition to the moderate features of the Settlement from both radical Catholics and radical Protestants. In addition, the Pope excommunicated Elizabeth for heresy in 1570 CE. Nevertheless, many of the features of the Settlement such as replacing altars with communion tables, using English in services, and banning traditional mass services, remained in place over the following centuries and their effects can still be seen on today’s Anglican Church. 

The Elizabethan Religious Settlement was composed of the following principal elements: 

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  • The Act of Supremacy - established Elizabeth as head of the Church of England.
  • The Act of Uniformity - set out the appearance of churches and services, banned mass services.
  • The Royal Injunctions - 57 regulations on Church matters, e.g.: preachers required a license and pilgrimages were banned.
  • The Book of Common Prayer - a new moderate blend of earlier prayer books to be used in church services. 
  • The Thirty-Nine Articles - an attempt to define English Protestantism.

Pre-Reformation Church Altar
Pre-Reformation Church Altar
by David Hawgood (CC BY-SA)

Attitudes to Religion

Henry VIII had started the English Reformation which split the Church in England from Catholic Rome. The Church of England was then moved even closer towards full Protestantism under Henry’s successor, his son Edward VI of England (r. 1547-1553 CE). The next sovereign was Catholic Mary I of England (r. 1553-1558 CE), and she reversed the Reformation. ‘Bloody Mary’s’ brief reign was ended by cancer, and her half-sister Elizabeth took the throne in 1558 CE. Elizabeth then set about returning the Church of England to its reformed state as it had been under Edward VI or, if possible, not quite as radical. Elizabeth was seemingly a moderate in religious views and she wished above all to avoid the bloody scenes of executed martyrs that her predecessor had presided over. As the queen put it, she would "open windows into no man’s soul" (Woodward, 171).

Elizabeth’s cautious reforms resulted in ‘a Church that was Protestant in doctrine, Catholic in appearance’.  

The queen’s precise personal views on religion were difficult to determine. Elizabeth’s coronation gives a clue to her middle-of-the-road position when, in Westminster Abbey, the mass was permitted but the newly crowned queen left before the elevation of the host (when the communion bread, now transformed into the body of Jesus Christ, is held up by the priest). It seemed that out of sight was out of mind, and this principle would apply to practising Christians of both sides in the debate. While many people were either pro-Catholic or pro-Protestant, it is likely that many more were attracted to elements from both sides such as, for example, admiring the beautiful ornamentation of a gold crucifix yet favouring the use of English in services. Elizabeth herself was happy enough to have such quintessential Catholic elements as candles and a crucifix in her own private chapel.

One thing Elizabeth did insist upon was to reinstate herself as head of the Church. This would help secure her throne in political terms, too. Divisions in religion could so easily lead to a damaging civil war. There were obstacles, notably the presence of many Catholic bishops who had been appointed by Mary and many catholic-minded nobles in the government. The north of England remained conservative in religious matters and England’s three closest neighbours (Scotland, France, and Spain) were all Catholic states. Consequently, Elizabeth’s reforms would have to be introduced with care.  

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Elizabeth I Sieve Portrait
Elizabeth I Sieve Portrait
by Quentin Metsys the Younger (Public Domain)

The Act of Supremacy

The queen’s reassertion of control over religious matters was achieved via the April 1559 CE Act of Supremacy, once more closing the door on the Pope. Elizabeth had taken the decision to arrest any Catholic bishops that did not accept her authority as sovereign over them. Two bishops were sent to the Tower of London as a consequence. This pressure meant that the Act was passed by Parliament but only by the slightest of majorities. The queen had compromised a little on the wording of the Supremacy Act, calling herself the ‘Supreme Governor’ of the Church instead of the ‘Supreme Head’, thus making her more acceptable to Protestants who disliked the idea of a woman in that position. The queen was determined to see the act enforced and sent inspectors around the parishes for that purpose. Anyone suspected of not recognising Elizabeth as head of the Church would now find themselves before a new court, the Court of High Commission. Unlike in other Protestant states, the old Catholic structure of the Church below the sovereign was maintained with the bishops organised in a hierarchy. The Archbishop of Canterbury remained at the top, the Archbishop of York was number two, and the monarch appointed the bishops and archbishops. It was a good start but finding the balance between radicals on either side of the religious debate was going to be more difficult than mere wordplay. 

The Act of Uniformity

The next step followed quick on the heels of the first and was the May 1559 CE Act of Uniformity. This act stipulated what the interior of churches should look like. Essentially, the act returned churches to their appearance in 1549 CE. One of the most visible differences from traditional Catholic churches was the replacement of the altar with a communion table. Symbolic of the general compromises going on, priests could place a crucifix and candles on the table. Other Catholic traditions which were maintained included making the sign of the cross during a baptism and priests wearing traditional vestments. As the historian D. Starkey notes, Elizabeth’s cautious reforms resulted in "a Church that was Protestant in doctrine, Catholic in appearance" (314). A French ambassador, writing in 1597 CE, confirms this view in his description of a typical English Church service: 

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As for the manner of their service in church and their prayers, except that they say them in the English tongue, one can still recognise a great part of the Mass, which they have limited only in what concerns individual communion. They sing the psalms in English, and at certain hours of the day they use organs and music. The priests wear the hood and surplice. it seems, apart from the absence of images, that there is little difference between their ceremonies and those of the Church of Rome.

(Ferriby, 158)

Rycote Chapel, Oxfordshire
Rycote Chapel, Oxfordshire
by Peter Reed (CC BY-NC)
Two other important features of the Act of Uniformity were, first, church attendance was made compulsory. Failure to attend service resulted in a small fine (which was then given to the poor). The fine was one shilling, then about one day’s labour for a skilled worker, but few were collected in practice. Secondly, attendance of a Catholic mass was forbidden, those found guilty of this offence received a large fine. A priest found guilty of performing a mass could face the death penalty.    

The Royal Injunctions

The Royal Injunctions of July 1559 CE set out a further 57 regulations for the Church of England to follow. Many of these instructions concerned preachers who now had to have a license issued by a bishop and who were obliged to hold at least one service each month or lose that license. Every church had to have a Bible in English available to its congregation, no further altars were to be destroyed, and pilgrimages were banned.   

1559 CE Book of Common Prayer

Elizabeth had to also concede to the radical Protestants and so she introduced a new Book of Common Prayer in 1559 CE which was not quite as radical as Thomas Cranmer’s 1552 CE version but more so than the more moderate 1549 CE version. This new amalgamated version, like its predecessors, set out how church services should be conducted and was itself to be used in those services. Crucially, the Prayer Book dealt with the bread and wine of the communion service. Instead of treating these objects as being transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ when blessed by a Catholic priest, the Protestant preacher merely encouraged the believer to take them as a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice. The specific words were:

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The body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life, and take, and eat this, in remembrance that Christ died for thee, feed on him in thine heart by faith and thanksgiving.

(Ferriby, 160)

Rycote Chapel Interior
Rycote Chapel Interior
by Peter Reed (CC BY-NC)

The 39 Articles 

The Thirty-nine Articles of 1563 CE (made law in 1571 CE) were the final part of the Elizabethan Religious Settlement. Essentially, they covered all the matters not yet set out in previous legislation and aimed to definitively establish what was meant by the English version of Protestantism, otherwise known as Anglicism. This was by no means a simple task as, in these early stages, nobody quite knew what Anglicism precisely was except that it was not Catholicism or extreme Protestantism but somewhere in-between. Article 34, for example, stated the following:

It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, or utterly alike; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversities of countries, times and men’s manners, so [provided] that nothing be ordained against God’s Word…Every particular or national church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish ceremonies or rites of the Church…

(Miller, 122).  

Reception

The reforms may have been mild but they were enough for the Pope to eventually excommunicate the queen for heresy in February 1570 CE. Neither France nor Spain reacted to the changes, perhaps believing that they were as temporary as they hoped Elizabeth’s reign would be. Hard-line Protestants and Catholics in England were both dissatisfied with Elizabeth’s pragmatic stance as she went for a more middle-of-the-road approach which appealed to the largely indifferent majority of her subjects. There was a turnover of officials as Elizabeth removed remaining pro-Catholic bishops and, under the 1559 CE Act of Exchange, confiscated their estates (or threatened to if they did not toe the line). Taxes that had been paid to Rome were, as before Mary’s reign, redirected to the English government. Although in practical terms, extremist worshippers were largely permitted to pursue their beliefs without interference, some 400 priests did resign as a consequence of the Settlement. It is also true that many preachers simply carried on as before hoping not to be noticed by the authorities - who in some cases were sympathetic at a local level. Despite these reactions, and considering the changes made and the violence witnessed in some other European countries, England had overcome a difficult and potentially dangerous hurdle, even if there would be more to come in the following decades as religious matters affected foreign policy and vice-versa.

Editorial Review This article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication.
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About the Author

Mark Cartwright
Mark is a history writer based in Italy. His special interests include pottery, architecture, world mythology and discovering the ideas that all civilizations share in common. He holds an MA in Political Philosophy and is the Publishing Director at AHE.

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Cite This Work

APA Style

Cartwright, M. (2020, June 02). The Elizabethan Religious Settlement. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/article/1565/

Chicago Style

Cartwright, Mark. "The Elizabethan Religious Settlement." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified June 02, 2020. https://www.ancient.eu/article/1565/.

MLA Style

Cartwright, Mark. "The Elizabethan Religious Settlement." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 02 Jun 2020. Web. 09 Jul 2020.

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