Elizabeth's Religious Settlement

The death of Mary Tudor concentrated the hopes of English Protestants on the person of the new Queen. This hope was to a great extent justified. It was virtually beyond doubt that Elizabeth would reverse the religious policy of her sister, especially in withdrawing from the Catholic Habsburg alliances, but beyond this the extent of any reform could only be guessed at.

Alternatively many would have felt unease and uncertainty at what success Elizabeth could possibly have. She was unmarried, young and inexperienced, for those who had lived through the short reigns of Edward VI and Mary, and the religious overhauls which came with them, must have wondered whether Elizabeth would be around long enough to have a lasting effect. That she was must largely be attributed to her remarkable judgement and skill.

On taking up the Throne the young Queen was careful not to make any definitive statement on the religious question. The situation with France (see Foreign Affairs) made any attempt to impose Protestantism a dangerous one so Elizabeth sided with caution and simply enforced the existing laws. However her general behaviour was a source of hope to the Protestants and a source of worry to the conservatives (those who wished to conserve the Marian settlement). Elizabeth would often talk to preachers whose Catholic credentials were scant to say the least, and her constant use of scriptural phrases in speeches was similarly worrying. This is not to say that Elizabeth had at this date decided on a particularly Protestant doctrine, her main concern was to return the Church to the state her father had left it in: doctrinally Catholic but with English jurisdiction. Elizabeth's main aim was to reclaim the power Henry VIII had usurped from the Pope.

When Parliament was formed in January 1559 the Catholic Church in England was in a weakened state. Its head, Cardinal Pole had died shortly after Mary and many of the Church's sees were vacant. Their firm objections to the royal supremacy (i.e. the installation of Elizabeth as the head of the English Church) fell largely, therefore, on deaf ears. The conservatives lacked any support in the House of Commons and only scant support in the House of Lords. Their protests, however, had made it clear that if Elizabeth were to enforce the royal supremacy she would have to find a completely new set of bishops to run her Church. The refusal of English Catholics to bend on this issue made the idea of English religious jurisdiction an entirely Protestant one; it was becoming more and more impossible for Elizabeth to return to the English Catholicism of her father. The fully Protestant settlement of her brother Edward was looking like the only feasible option, while the return of Protestant exiles from the continent showed Elizabeth it would not be impossible to form a new episcopacy. In the end Cecil chose the new episcopacy where he decided on Cambridge men who had gone into exile during the Marian persecutions.

The end of hostilities with France and the recognition of Elizabeth as the Queen of England by the Emperor Philip gave the young Queen the international stability she needed to impose her religious settlement. The Act of Supremacy, and the Act of Uniformity were passed. The former was little different to the original act investing the English Monarch with the power over the Church of England, while the latter installed the 1552 Prayer Book. All Church lands that had been secularised were to remain the property of their new owners. The clergy had to preach against superstition and popery, images, relics and miracles. Finally every church was to provide a pulpit for the preaching of the new faith, and altars were categorically banned (see section on Theology). By so doing Elizabeth had fulfilled all the major aims of the Protestants who went into exile during Mary's reign. This was to be the lasting settlement (although this would have been doubted by those who had lived through three different regimes), one on which Elizabeth refused to be questioned or goaded into reform.

Possibly due to the uncertainty of any religious measure at this time there was very little opposition to Elizabeth's settlement, despite the fact that the majority of England were almost certainly Catholics by faith. When a commission was sent around England to administer the oath of supremacy less than three hundred refused to take it. There was a large amount of apathy towards the new Protestant settlement; perhaps after years of confusion and the horrors of the Marian burnings where five hundred Protestants were martyred the people of England had simply had enough. Or perhaps people simply didn't want to be disloyal to their new queen. Priests grumbled about the services, congregations looked back to the good

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