As Elizabeth acceded to the throne of England there was a great religious divide within the country. The need for a Settlement of these divides was great. Elizabeth, a Protestant, inherited a nation with a large number of senior clergy who were loyal to Roman Catholicism; others were were Puritan and others for whom some reforms were wanted. In the Elizabethan world worshipping was a matter of life, death and the afterlife, it was a matter of great urgency that a solution or compromise could be agreed.
The issue was one of the first matters dealt with by Elizabeth and her Privy Council. Legislation that is collectively known as the Elizabethan Settlement was passed just months into her reign.
Religious problems faced by Elizabeth
- There was a majority of staunch Roman Catholics among the bishops and lords
- There was a large number of influential Protestants within England, herself included!
- There was more than one view on how the church ought to be reformed, if at all
- Religion had become a bloody affair. Persecution, revolt and unrest had blighted England throughout the reigns of Edward VI and Mary I
- England had significant allies in Europe who were staunchly Roman Catholic
- Elizabeth in inherited her crown from her sister, Mary I. Mary was Roman Catholic and married to the King of Spain, who had a claim to the English throne. A Settlement would need to take Anglo-Spanish relations into consideration.
- Following the death of Mary, many Protestants returned to England in the belief that the country would be Protestant
- Conversely, many Roman Catholics had opted to remain in England as Elizabeth had given them the impression that she, unlike her sister, was more tolerant of differing views
- There was growing religious unrest in France. The Queen of France was Roman Catholic and intolerant of protestants. That Queen also happened to be Mary, Queen of Scots who was next in line to England’s throne until Elizabeth produced an heir.
The Religious Settlement
There is some debate among historians as to the precise wishes of Elizabeth. However, it is clear that she wanted a middle ground. The motives for this were political and perhaps a personal preference.
Who would be viewed as being in charge of the Church?
This may seem a innocuous question but the way in which this is phrased in political and religious law has great affect on the meaning of worship. This prompted debate over the issue. The role of the monarch in this area needed to be addressed. It had been written into law by Henry VIII and used by the administration of Edward VI and again by Mary I to change religious practise. If the monarch were the head of the church, this would place them above all others. It was also the case that only men were viewed as being the head of bodies. Use of this phrase would assert Elizabeth’s supremacy whilst angering many. Instead a compromise term of Supreme Governor was adopted, after debate. Even this solution was not universally accepted.
What format would a religious service take?
The Church in England had only broken from Rome a generation earlier. Even then, the split was not a change of theological approach, more a political tool for Henry VIII’s gain. It had allowed reformers, the protestants, to implement some changes though. These had been introduced by means of a prayer book that standardised and Anglicised the mass. Other changes had also seen Roman Catholic imagery and decorations to be removed from churches. These changes suited few. They either went too far or not far enough for many theologians. They had also been changed in the previous monarchs reign. The Elizabethan Settlement would need to tackle this issue. The solution was to use elements of both the protestant version and catholic version of the prayer books. This allowed an element of interpretation by the clergy.
The Elizabethan Settlement in Law
The Act of Supremacy made Elizabeth the Supreme Governor of the Church in England. Clergy and Royal Officials had to swear an oath of allegiance. Many of the Roman Catholic Bishops refused, and lost their positions as a result.
The Act of Uniformity stated the way in which churches should be set out and the way in which services should be conducted.
Royal Injunctions were given that explained how the Elizabethan Settlement ought to work on a day to day basis.