The Elizabethan Settlement

Elizabeth’s accession in 1558 was universally met with expectations of change in religion. Catholics dreaded the renewal of schism from Rome, while Protestants eagerly anticipated the continuation of reforms begun under Henry VIII and Edward VI. Amongst various Protestant groups there was little consensus or organization. A few extremists, including some of those exiled during Mary’s reign who hoped to see England follow the Calvinist model of Geneva, went so far as to reject female rule altogether; John Knox and his followers were unsurprisingly barred from England as a result. While it is difficult to assess the wishes of the less vocal majority, Elizabeth herself apparently intended to establish an espiscopal church along Edwardian lines, and began to alter the services said in her own chapel at the earliest opportunity.

There seems to have been no question that the settlement of religion had to be enacted by Parliament, under the guidance of the new queen and her counsellors. One difficulty for Protestant reformers, however, was that the House of Lords, including the bishops, was staunchly Roman Catholic. Another was the expectation that Elizabeth would soon marry and that her future consort might wish to exert his influence over the religious settlement. Elizabeth had already received a proposal from King Philip II of Spain, whose explicit intention was to ensure that England remained Catholic. On the other hand Cardinal Pole, who might have headed a conservative faction against reform, died shortly after Mary. Convocation was further depleted by the death or incapacity of several other prelates before the first Parliament of the new reign assembled in January 1559.

Surviving policy outlines among the papers of Elizabeth’s secretary of state Sir William Cecil, most notably an anonymous ‘Device for Alteration of Religion’, form the closest thing we have to a blueprint of reforms the new regime intended to introduce. The Lord Keeper Sir Nicholas Bacon† in his opening speech to both Houses of Parliament declared the queen’s desire to establish ‘an uniforme order of religion’, implying a prayer book enforced by statute. This was not, however, the primary focus of the bill initially introduced in the Commons on 9 Feb. 1559 ‘to restore the Supremacy of the Church of England to the Crown of the Realm’. Debated at unusual length on 13 Feb. it dominated proceedings for several days before being committed, although unfortunately no record survives of the arguments either for or against it. Another measure described first as ‘for order of service’ and then as ‘for the book of common prayer’ was twice read before being incorporated into a new supremacy bill introduced on 21 February. Little is know of this bill’s contents but Sir Anthony Cooke, Cecil’s father-in-law, certainly played an important role, for together with Sir Francis Knollys he headed the committee; both men were former religious exiles, and close to the queen’s innermost circle of trusted advisors.

Having been passed by the Commons the revised supremacy bill, described by Norman Jones as ‘a complete reform package’ because it included provision for uniformity of worship, was dispatched to the House of Lords and there caused uproar. After drastic redrafting by a Catholic-dominated committee all mention of the prayer book was removed, leaving only the narrowest possible assertion of royal supremacy; the English church by this reckoning would be Catholic without the Pope. The Commons in the interrim passed several measures to appropriate various ecclesiastical holdings and revenues to the Crown, and to repeal Marian heresy laws, thereby attempting to introduce limited religious toleration. The supremacy bill sent down by the Lords was eventually passed by the Commons on 22 March, although it achieved little that had been hoped for by the Protestants or indeed Elizabeth herself. For this reason she abandoned her original intention to dissolve Parliament before Easter. Steps were taken during the recess to reduce the influence of the most conservative members of the Lords; two bishops were sent to the Tower, a further six were called before the Privy Council, fined and bound over, and pressure was also applied to leading Catholic laymen such as Lord Howard of Effingham and the earls of Arundel and Derby.

A third supremacy bill of official origin introduced the formula ‘supreme governor’ rather than ‘supreme head’ of the church, a compromise intended to appease hardliners in both camps. Drawing on its predecessor the new bill included the revival of Acts for consecrating bishops and licensing communion in both kinds, and the repeal of Marian heresy laws. It also required an oath to be taken by all ‘spiritual and temporal officers’. First read in the Commons on 10 April, this bill was again modified by the Lords before it passed both Houses. In the meantime a bill for uniformity was introduced in the Lower House on 18 April and sent up to the Lords two days later. Its origins are obscure except that it bore great similarity to Edwardian legislation of the same name. The order of service that it prescribed was largely based on Thomas Cranmer’s 1552 Book of Common Prayer. The only significant change of wording left it open to interpretation whether Christ’s body was really, or only figuratively, present in the communion. This proved acceptable to both sides; the bill was narrowly passed by a somewhat reduced House of Lords on 28 April. Both bills received the royal assent at the dissolution ten days later.

Taken together the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity, supplemented by Royal Injunctions in July 1559, completed the settlement of religion upon which the Church of England is based. The hybrid thus created was a compromise that left numerous issues unresolved. Unlike the majority of her subjects Elizabeth had no appetite for further reformation, and notwithstanding her attempts to prevent religious debates they featured in every subsequent Parliament of the reign.

Author: Rosemary Sgroi