Elizabeth I quickly needed a religious settlement for Tudor England after the years of religious turmoil her subjects had experienced. This came in 1559 and is known as the Religious Settlement. However, just how much it actually settled in religious terms is open to debate as both Puritans and Catholics had become entrenched in their views and position. If religious turmoil continued after the 1559 Settlement it was probably more as a result of their unwillingness to compromise as opposed to the government’s stance – though this was still obviously an issue of contention post-1559.
While Tudor society may still have had a less than positive viewpoint of women and their role in society, few doubted that Elizabeth was a queen of ability and that her intelligence and ability was as good as many men in the Privy Council. Therefore, when Elizabeth announced that there had to be a religious settlement for her people, there were no dissenters among her advisors. Elizabeth simply could not accept the notion that religious turmoil was seemingly the norm for England – though this had been so in the previous thirty years – and she pushed hard for a settlement that all would take on board.
Ironically the simple accession of Elizabeth in 1558 made any desire for a settlement so much more difficult. On the death of Mary and the accession of Elizabeth, many hard-line Protestants returned from mainland Europe (where they had fled for their own safety during the reign of Mary) in the full expectation that they were returning to a state where Protestantism was the one and only tolerated religion. However, many Catholics had remained in England on Elizabeth’s accession because of the conciliatory tone she had taken on religious issues. Both parties were bound to clash and threaten any form of religious settlement. The sudden influx of Protestants from Europe alarmed perfectly moderate Protestants and Catholics alike who had remained in England. At Mary’s funeral oration, Bishop White stated:
“The wolves be coming out of Geneva and have sent their books before, full of pestilent, doctrines."
London, in particular, became a base for these hardliners. It would have been very easy for them to stir up the capital’s poorer population, especially if they had a scapegoat – the Catholics. Elizabeth tried to control the behaviour of these men but within a very large and densely populated city, this proved to be very difficult. The Venetian Il Schifanoya, who was living in London, described in letters back to friends in Europe how hoards of men were forcefully getting into churches and preaching extreme Protestant views to those members of the public who had followed them in. Elizabeth had to issue a proclamation that stated that such acts of public disorder would not be tolerated and that any religious settlement would go through Parliament so that it had their seal of approval as well as the Queen’s.
Parliament opened for business on January 25th 1559. It was highly likely that the House of Commons would support the new queen without trouble. However, Elizabeth herself fully expected more delays from the House of Lords where Catholic bishops still maintained their power and titles.
Elizabeth had another reason for treading carefully. There were both Protestant and Catholic rulers in Europe who were keeping a very close eye on the religious situation in England. Protestant leaders in northern Germany expected Elizabeth to take up the cause of the Protestants. However, Elizabeth was also very aware that two very powerful Catholic states were carefully scrutinising religious events in England. At this time, 1559, Spain was seen as an ally – after all, the late Queen Mary had been married to Philip of Spain. Also the last thing Elizabeth wanted to do was to anger Catholic France and push the French government even more into a relationship with Scotland. Therefore, any religious settlement had to satisfy both camps and this took a great deal of skill to achieve.
In England itself, Elizabeth faced problems over religion. The first was when Convocation stated its belief in Papal supremacy and its support for the doctrine of transubstantiation. This was clearly a snub for any form of conciliation towards the Protestants who would have viewed both statements with contempt. In fact, Elizabeth underestimated the strength of feeling in the House of Lords. Whereas the Commons was willing to support the new queen, this was not the case in the Lords.
The final religious settlement recognised royal supremacy within the church. The Act of Supremacy made Elizabeth Supreme Governor of the Church and church officials were required to take an oath of obedience to Elizabeth. Neither zealous Catholics or Protestants were willing to accept a woman as Head of the Church – hence Elizabeth’s compromise of taking the title ‘Supreme Governor’ as opposed to ‘Head’.
The heresy laws passed in the reign of Mary were repealed and the celebration of Communion in both kinds was confirmed. Catholic bishops in the Lords were hostile to this but were eventually outnumbered in voting terms and the Act of Supremacy was confirmed. The arrest and imprisonment in the Tower of two catholic bishops during the Easter Recess of 1559 may have also ‘persuaded’ some Catholics in the Lords that it was in their best interests to support the new Queen.
The Act of Uniformity (1559) just about passed the Lords. It was Elizabeth’s attempt to ensure as many believers as was possible could find salvation. The 1552 Prayer Book was to be used in services while the wording of the 1549 Prayer Book was to be incorporated into the Communion service, so that a generous interpretation as to what was meant by the ‘real presence’ could be incorporated into services.
Religion was a highly contentious issue in Tudor England. Many held views that put them firmly into one corner or the other. The 1559 Religious Settlement was an honest attempt to bring as many as was possible into the fold – but it could never have satisfied the wishes of those who were at the religious extremes of society. Only one Catholic bishop took the oath to Elizabeth – all the rest refused and lost their office. However, only 4% of all lower clergy refused to take the oath to the Queen. While the clergy was allowed to marry, they were actively discouraged from doing so. An injunction was passed that stated that any member of the clergy who wanted to marry had to be questioned by his bishop and by two JP’s from his diocese. Elizabeth made it clear that she herself frowned on the clergy marrying.