To fully understand the religious issues of Elizabeth's reign knowledge of the basic religious belief of Protestantism is essential.

The main tenets of Protestantism as laid down by Martin Luther and developed by Zwingli and Calvin are as follows. The Grace of God - the forgiveness of all sins and the green card to Heaven - can only be achieved through a complete unquestioning faith in God as gained through an understanding of the scriptures. The Catholic belief that Grace can be achieved through good works (giving to the poor, helping the sick and so on) is thus rendered void, as is the institution of Indulgences (literally bits of paper entitling the bearer to time off Purgatory gained through the saved good works of the Saints). Protestants do not believe in Purgatory, as its existence has no scriptural basis.

The word of the Bible is all-important to the Protestant belief; it has a totally unambiguous meaning which must be followed to the letter. The Catholics, by this account, are heretical in that they practise ceremony and follow doctrine which has no basis in the scriptures. Thus all icons, paintings and other adornments are considered unholy and a secular incursion into the realm of plain belief. The altar is a continuation of this. It sets the priest apart from the congregation and gives him a dominating presence that he should not have. In this system, the pope is an exaggerated example the unholy act of raising one man artificially towards the status of the divine above his fellows. He has a secular and religious power that has no scriptural backing. For the Protestants the minister is only there to lead the ceremony, he has no extraordinary place in the Church, he is simply another worshipper. This is what Protestants mean by "the Community of All Believers". No one is thought more holy because he has taken vows. Paradoxically, the doctrine of the elect states that God has already chosen who shall join him in Heaven. This is why the idea of faith by good works is abandoned - in this system everything is predestined; it does not matter how much you help your fellow man outside the all important fact that it is ordained in the Bible that this is a proper thing to do. These basic ideas must be kept in mind when looking at the actions of the Elizabethan Protestants.

It is also worth bearing in mind the how seriously the Elizabethans took their religion. It was the justification for royal power (the "Divine Right of Kings") and therefore the reason for their whole way of life, subordinated to a leader elected by God to rule on Earth. Those such as Marlowe who believed religion was only to "keep men in awe" were in the minority. For the most part religion was held with a ferocious belief, the absence of which would seem to make much of the reign unintelligible. However, the reverence afforded Diana, Princess of Wales in our own time demonstrates the manner in which we are willing to raise up a female figure of beauty, virtue and chastity (regardless of the truth of the situation) to the position of effective goddess. It is just this mixture of pagan-rooted hero/heroine-worship and religious belief that defines Elizabethan works such as Spenser's long poem The Faerie Queene.

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