Elizabeth I viewed the 1559 Religious Settlement as an Act of State, which was to establish a proper relationship between the Crown and the Church. Elizabeth desperately wanted to repair all the damage that had been caused within her kingdom in the previous decades under the name of religion. Once the Religious Settlement had taken root, Elizabeth was quite content to all freedom of religious conscious as long as did not challenge all that she had put in place.
“I (Elizabeth) never had any meaning or intent that (my) subjects should be troubled or molested by examination or inquisition in any matter either of their faith or for that matters of ceremonies, as long as they shall in their outward conversation show themselves quiet and not manifestly repugnant to the laws of the realm.”
Elizabeth was quite happy to be tolerant as long as those involved ‘played by the rules’ which she set.
Very quickly into her reign, it became apparent to Elizabeth that she faced challenges on two fronts – the first was from die-hard Catholics who wanted to carry on the work of Mary I and the second were those who wanted a more radical Church of England. While the Catholics had to be more secretive with regards to their activities, the opposite was true for the radicalised Protestants; most of them had returned to England only on the death of Mary and all of them expected great things from Elizabeth.
In 1563 a set of radical articles was introduced into Convocation that pushed for the removal of all superstition in the Church. There were four principal demands.
1) That the minister in a parish church faced the congregation when he read the Common Prayer and gave divine service.
2) That during baptism, a minister should dispense with the making of the cross on a child’s forehead as this was mere superstition.
3) That those who were unable to kneel during communion should not have to do so if they were aged or sick.
4) No minister should wear anything other than a plain surplice during a service.
These demands were only defeated by one vote and Elizabeth had to send a letter to Archbishop Matthew Parker reminding him in the strongest of language that those at the higher end of the Church were expected to conform to the Religious Settlement. However, the Queen’s approach was to bring her into conflict with a group known as the Puritans. These were men who had very strong Protestant beliefs and who wanted to sweep away any form of Catholicism. Whereas Elizabeth had stated quite clearly that she was willing to be tolerant of Catholicism and Puritans as long as they were subtle and loyal in their work, the Puritans were unwilling to accept any form of toleration except for what they believed in. This was bound to bring them into conflict with the Queen.
Parker came up against resistance from the more extreme ministers in London. In the immediate aftermath of Mary’s death and the Religious Settlement, many radicalised Protestants had returned from mainland Europe to England and the majority had made their base in London. Parker was aided by the likes of Martin Bucer who stated that vestments were of no consequence when it came to religion. In 1566 Parker published his “Book of Advertisements” which did a great deal to bring on board many of the radicals. However, ‘many’ was not everyone and those who were not taken in by Parker took on a more radical stance and it soon became clear that the issue of vestments would become divisive. Elizabeth insisted on conformity. This was something the Puritans could not guarantee. Whereas Elizabeth had stated her belief that those who were outside of the religious norm could practice what they believed in – only quietly – there were Puritans who were not prepared to be quiet. One of the key issues was the “Word”. The word of God could only be spread by preachers – and by the very nature of what they did, preachers could not be expected to be quiet and diplomatic. Many of these preachers were radical and their activities brought them into conflict with the government.
A direct challenge to Elizabeth came in 1570 from the Cambridge theologian Thomas Cartwright. He stated that the system of church government based on archbishops, bishops, archdeacons etc was wrong and that any study of the Acts of the Apostles would show that such a structure should be swept away and replaced with a committee of elders. Such an idea was clearly very radical and Cartwright had to flee the country. However, he had sown the seeds of how the Church might be governed in the future.
Some Puritan preachers attained great fame and people travelled from miles around to hear them speak. Their speeches were known as ‘prophesying’ and they based what they did on the preachers who had been so successful in the cantons in Switzerland that had converted to Protestantism. Elizabeth viewed these preachers as a challenge to her and in 1576 she ordered the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Edmund Grindal, to suppress prophesying. Grindal refused to do so as he believed that what they did was of great benefit for the Church. As a result he was suspended. It now became clear that Elizabeth and the Puritans were on a collision course.
After failing to persuade her Archbishop of Canterbury, Elizabeth made a direct appeal to the bishops in England and Wales. In 1577 they were ordered to stop all prophesying in their sees. In a letter to the bishops Elizabeth referred to prophesying as a “great abuse”. Despite being Supreme Governor of the Church (as was set out in the 1559 Religious Settlement) the Queen had great difficulty controlling church affairs at a local level. Local magnates had far more day-to-day influence and many were able to protect preachers who were popular with those in the locality.
There were those men who had retuned to London on the death of Mary who were willing to conform to the Elizabethan Church. But there were many who were not. They tended to be younger men who were far more radical. Edwin Sandys, a Protestant who had fled Marian England but on his return was willing to work with the Church, called these men “foolish…..who despise authority and admit no superior, (who want) the complete overthrow and rooting up of our whole ecclesiastical polity.”
Edmund Grindal, who had stood up to Elizabeth, was replaced as Archbishop of Canterbury by John Whitgift. He had made his name by using his literary ability to attack extreme Protestants. Now as Archbishop, he knew that he would have full royal backing to launch a major campaign against anyone who was deemed to be a Puritan.
Whitgift produced his 'Three Articles'. If a preacher failed just one of them, he was not allowed to preach. The articles were all encompassing and the Court of High Commission was used to enforce them. Anyone brought before the Commission and could not swear to uphold all three was deprived of his ministry. The Three Articles were criticised by Wiiliam Cecil, Lord Burghley for being too much like the Spanish Inquisition – designed to trap anyone who would not conform. Though Whitgift did soften the tone of the Three Articles, it was only by degrees and his work, combined with the legal clout of the High Commission, did a great deal to break the Puritans.
As a result, smaller Puritan churches developed throughout the 1590’s as they felt that there was no place for them in Elizabeth’s Church and that there was no hope of the Church being reformed as they would wish. These were small churches but still represented a challenge to Elizabeth and her government. In 1593 some of two Puritan leaders, Barrow and Greenwood, were arrested and executed. The example was clear to the followers of Barrow and the remaining ‘Barrowists’ left for Amsterdam.
By the time of Elizabeth’s death in 1603, the Puritans had little influence in London but were still popular among local populations. The accession of James I gave them hope for a better future.