“There is only one Christ, Jesus, one faith. All else is a dispute over trifles”.
– Elizabeth I
How and why did various Protestant factions oppose the Elizabethan Religious Settlement 1559?
In 1534 Henry VIII had broken with the Papacy declaring himself the Head of the Church of England. Under his successors Edward VI and Mary I, disputes took place over whether the Church was to be primarily Protestant or Roman Catholic. When Elizabeth I succeeded to the throne in 1558, she inherited a state rife with religious turmoil and to ease the violent divisions, a compromise, the Elizabethan Religious Settlement was passed by Parliament, comprising the Act of Supremacy and the Act of Conformity. However, whilst developed to attain via media, the Settlement faced opposition from Protestant factions, the Puritans and the Presbyterians, who claimed that the reforms were not extensive enough.
Religion by committee:
The Settlement restored the independence of the Church from Rome, and appropriated spiritual authority to the monarchy. It imposed church attendance, approved the vestments of the clergy, approved a new version of the Book of Common Prayer, first instituted under Edward VI, and enforced its use. The Prayer Book simplified many traditional ceremonies, Mass was a no longer a re-enactment of Christ’s sacrifice, and the elevation and worship of the Host was prohibited. But the Prayer Book did retain some conservative elements, it represented the bread and wine as ‘the body and blood of Christ’ thus implying the physical presence in the elements and permitted the preservation of ornaments and clerical dress.
The Settlement was concluded in 1563 with the establishment, of the ‘Thirty Nine Articles of Faith’ and is the defining statements of doctrines of the Church of England. However, the Book of Common Prayer and ‘Thirty Nine Articles of Faith’ proved to be problematic due to the ambiguities of the Prayer Book, and both works contradicted each other. The most significant inconsistency was the issue of predestination, the doctrine that all events have been willed by God and included eternal damnation for some and salvation for others.
The Puritan movement developed from the teachings of John Calvin, a leader of the Protestant Reformation. Calvin agreed with other Reformists on such basic teachings as the superiority of faith over good works, the Bible as the basis of all Christian teachings, and the universal priesthood of all believers.
The first major challenge to the Religious Settlement came from Puritan theologian Thomas Sampson, the Vestiarian Controversy. A Marian exile, who spent time in Geneva, he had been engaged in a reformed community that had renounced all vestments as ‘vain’ and ‘idolatrous’. The wearing of the surplice and square cap were bitter reminders of popery. Elizabeth demanded the conformity of essential standards of clerical dress and enforced compliance to the Settlement.
The ‘Lambeth Articles’ 1595, were commissioned and approved by Archbishop Whitgift, to clarify and defend the Calvinist concept of predestination. Whitgift and his associates claimed the Articles were a clarification of the existing laws of the State, but Elizabeth’s reaction would suggest otherwise. Outraged once she had discovered that the Articles had been proposed and deliberated upon without her authority and consent, she demanded the Articles’ retraction. Elizabeth adverse towards Calvinism overall, particularly wished to discourage episcopal mediations on matters of religions without her authority, especially if they challenged the conciliatory nature of the Religious Settlement.
A Reformist movement, Presbyterians pushed for even further amendment of the Elizabethan Religious Settlement. Influenced by John Knox, they campaigned to restore church governance as observed in Scripture based on the equality of ministers and the inclusion of lay elders.
In 1570, Thomas Cartwright called for the abolishment of episcopacy and the establishment of a Presbyterian form of church governance in England. Under this system of governance, all members of the session were deemed equal. However, this system would contradict the ‘Thirty Nine Articles
of Faith’ which forbid councils gathering without the authority of the monarch. Elizabeth refused calls for Presbyterianism, insisting upon adherence to the Settlement concerning all matters of faith.
In 1572, Thomas Wilcox and John Field in ‘An Admonition to the Parliament’, denounced bishoprics and called for the abolition of episcopalianism, to be replaced by Presbyterianism claiming the bishops’ courts, bestowing authority or prominence to any clergyman over another violated divine law. Such a system of governance would strip Elizabeth of her authority over the Church, and so such petitions were refused.
The Puritans and Presbyterians challenged the Religious Settlement but were unsuccessful. After Elizabeth’s death in 1603, a more violent chapter of the English Reformation was fermenting; but in her reign, Elizabeth consistently refused to adjust the Settlement even in detail, she demanded conformity. If the Elizabethan Religious Settlement did not affect religious conformity, at least it was able to engender political and civil conformity for a state rife with unrest and instability.
Dent, C. M. Protestant Reformers in Elizabethan Oxford. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Doran, Susan, and Christopher Durston. Princes, Pastors, and People: The Church and Religion in England, 1500-1700. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2002.
Guy, John. The Tudors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Haigh, Christopher. English Reformations: Religion, Politics, and Society under the Tudors. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993.