The Elizabethan Reformation: Confessional State and ‘Monarchical Republic’

Portrait of Elizabeth commemorating the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588), depicted in the background. Elizabeth’s hand rests on the globe, symbolising her international power. One of three known versions of the “Armada Portrait”. By George Gower, 1588 / Woburn Abbey

Lecture by Dr. Keith Wrightson / 10.08.2009
Randolph W. Townsend, Jr. Professor of History
Yale University

The Elizabethan Confessional State: Conformity, Papists and Puritans

Religion and Elizabeth I


Geneva Bible given to Queen Elizabeth, 1559 / British Library

As you know, in 1528 religious change had not been a significant issue in English politics. By 1558, it was in many ways the central issue and it was about to take another turn. On the 17th of November, 1558, Elizabeth I was proclaimed queen, a young woman of twenty-five, highly intelligent, well educated and long schooled in the necessity of caution, discretion and even dissimulation in order to survive the dangers that she had faced. She was of course Anne Boleyn’s daughter, and as Anne Boleyn’s daughter it was in a sense her conception in December of 1532 that had finally precipitated the assertion of Henry VIII’s royal supremacy. So you could say in a sense that Elizabeth’s whole identity, and above all her claims to the throne, were bound up with the rejection by her father of papal authority.

Now the precise nature of her personal beliefs remains uncertain. She didn’t really disclose them, but unquestionably she identified herself with the Protestant cause. Shortly after her accession, at Christmas 1558, she very ostentatiously walked out of mass in the royal chapel at the point at which the host was elevated. A month later in January 1559 she very ostentatiously embraced an English Bible which was offered to her by the citizens of London on her state entry to London prior to her coronation. So Elizabeth was making no secret of the fact that she inclined towards reform, as indeed everyone expected.

But if she inclined towards reform she was neither dogmatically nor straightforwardly Protestant, and the religious settlement of 1559, the first business of her reign, very much reflected that fact. It was in part the product of theological convictions, but it was also very much a settlement that reflected a religious preference that was tempered by sheer political expediency. What actually happened remains rather cloudy — some aspects of the documentation are inadequate — but the most convincing interpretation of the settlement to my mind is that of Norman Jones. In his view Elizabeth and her chief adviser, William Cecil, intended initially to return to the situation of 1552 just before the death of her brother, Edward VI. But they met severe opposition in Parliament particularly in the House of Lords, opposition not only from the Catholic bishops who sat in the Lords but also from some of the leading lay members of the peerage, and so they had to return to Parliament with a distinctly watered-down draft prayer book setting out their desires for religious settlement.

Title page of the Common Prayer Book of Parliament, 1559 / British Library

So, for example, in 1559 in the prayer book they brought to Parliament the communion service was in fact a blend of the prayer book of 1552 with its very Protestant statements regarding the communion service being essentially a service of remembrance and thanksgiving. They blended that with the earlier 1549 prayer book which had allowed for the possibility that there was a real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the communion service. And so in 1559 the wording at the administration of the communion was as follows: the bread…”the body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.” That’s 1549, followed immediately by “take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving”; that’s 1552. They blended the two together so that you could read it as you chose. It’s been described by Diarmaid MacCulloch as “a masterpiece of theological engineering,” or fudging the issue you could say.1

Again in 1559 the bill brought before Parliament put forward the title for Elizabeth not as supreme head of the Church of England but only of Supreme Governor. That’s often seen as being a more appropriate title for a woman, governor rather than head, but it also of course left open the possibility that the settlement might be accepted, that the position of supreme governor might be accepted, by people who regarded the supreme head of the church as being elsewhere, in Rome. Even so, despite these compromises, Elizabeth and her counselors were able to get their settlement through Parliament only by purging the House of Lords. They ruthlessly excluded many of the Catholic bishops in the end and they still got a majority of only three votes. They squeezed it through the House of Lords. Support in the commons was much stronger.

So the Church of England was reestablished. English was Protestant again, sort of. It was a confessional state bound by an Act of Uniformity that the prayer book should be used throughout the kingdom, uniformity to the religion set down by the Queen in Parliament, what was often described as ‘the religion by law established’. But that religion was less imposed by simple royal dictate than a reflection of what Elizabeth and her advisers had proved willing to settle for. There was no doubt that England had turned in a broadly Protestant direction again, but there was also a lot of ambiguity about the nature and the extent of that Protestantism.

Okay. Well, maybe Elizabeth and William Cecil and the other counselors got less than they originally intended, but they accepted it, and they could even use it to their advantage. It was perhaps no bad thing in the England of 1559 that the religious settlement contained a lot of ambiguity. Thirty years of religious flux had left the nation profoundly divided in matters of faith. No change during those thirty years had had time to put down deep roots. To some historians like Christopher Haigh most of the people remained, in the main, traditionalists in their religious beliefs. To other historians like Robert Whiting people had grown almost indifferent, acquiescing and conforming to change after change, but essentially guarded and unenthusiastic in their attitudes. But also, as you’ve seen in last week’s reading, there was a third reading of the situation represented by the work of Christopher Marsh. People were now only too aware of the existence of alternatives in religion, alternatives which hadn’t existed back in the 1520s. Some of them hankered after the old ways, some of them were drawn to the attractive features of the new doctrines, but everyone knew the danger of religious conflict. They’d witnessed enough of that under Mary.

As a result, Marsh suggests they “held their peace,” and as you know he uses that term in a double sense: negatively in the sense that they were compliant, they remained silent before the demands of authority; positively in the sense that they preserved the peace of their own communities as best they could. One could say that that was an attitude that had developed as a result of the turmoil of the late 1540s and early 1550s in particular. Even under Mary, the mayor of Exeter in the west, down here in Devon, was a man who although a devout Catholic in his own practice regarded Protestant sympathizers among his neighbors with some discretion and tolerance. It was said of him that he did “friendly and lovingly bear with them and wink at them,” he shut his eyes to their practice. And one could say that Elizabeth was winking at people too. She winked at people in many ways. [Laughter] She was the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. She was the head of a confessional state but she also said early in her reign, “I will not make windows into men’s souls”; a striking metaphor, “I will not make windows into men’s souls.”

What she and her counselors wanted was order, outward conformity, stability, and in pursuit of those objectives the ambiguities of 1559 were in many ways advantageous and they could be developed. Soon after the passage of the settlement through Parliament, a set of injunctions concerning worship were issued. They permitted the images which had survived Protestant iconoclasm to remain in churches so long as they were not superstitiously abused. They said that in future communion tables were to be used for holy communion rather than altars, but nonetheless the communion table could stand where the old altar had stood. At holy communion traditional wafers were used rather than common bread. There were many concessions of this kind. Elizabeth herself would have liked to have kept the rood screens above the chancel with their crucifixes, etc. She kept a crucifix in her own chapel. But her more Protestant bishops really wouldn’t stand for that and many rood screens were gradually dismantled throughout the kingdom in the course of the 1560s.

Archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker, from the Flemish School, 16th century / British Museum

Or again in dealing with the clergy, she faced in Parliament bishops who put up such a stiff opposition that she was forced to deprive them. She would have liked them to stay. They didn’t, but new appointments to the Episcopal bench were rarely religious extremists. It was significant that she chose as Archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker, a Cambridge academic who was a Protestant certainly, but who had not gone into exile under Mary. He had conformed and kept his head down. She considered Parker a more appropriate choice than some of the more radical Protestants that she could have selected. Amongst the parish clergy too there was no mass purge. Many of the clergy were allowed to keep their positions and even to get away with formally subscribing to the prayer book and the Act of Uniformity but continuing many traditional practices unhindered.

The toleration which was extended to traditional practices allowed them to preserve in many ways the appearance of tradition in the way they conducted services in their parishes. Christopher Haigh has a nice phrase for it. He says many of these people were “liturgical hermaphrodites.” They used the prayer book but they could tweak it their own way. Again fines were laid down for people who failed to attend the Church of England at least once a month but they were set very low. The fine was twelve pence a month if you failed to attend Church of England services, which was about the equivalent of a day’s wages for a London laborer, not a steep fine at all.

So what did it all mean? Clearly, Elizabeth was no Catholic but she refused to persecute, and equally she refused to countenance any further reform. She seems to have learned her lesson in 1559 about the art of the possible and she stuck to it. And that came out very clearly just a few years later in 1563 when at a meeting of the convocation of the Church of England, the assembly of the clergy of the Church of England, there occurred what’s known as the Vestiarian Controversy. Some of the more radical Protestants in convocation wanted to get rid of traditional vestments worn by the priests during services. They described them as the “rags of Rome.” These, however, had been retained in the prayer book of 1559 and Elizabeth insisted upon retaining traditional clerical dress and forced Archbishop Parker to demand it of the clergy.


Elizabeth’s Act of Uniformity, 1559 / British Library

So what was England’s religion in the 1560s? Ultimately, one could say it was the Queen’s religion. With regard to the pope’s authority, it was emphatically schismatic. Papal authority had been abrogated once again. With regard to essential doctrines, it was essentially Protestant, but nonetheless it retained a latitude to make of the settlement, to read the prayer book, as you chose provided you conformed in general. The only element of settlement one could say which was totally without ambiguity was the Act of Uniformity; conform and hold your peace.

Well, in an age of religious partisanship, in what was already becoming in Europe an age of religious war, that was not really a bad deal. But of course it couldn’t stand there. Whatever the ambiguities of the settlement, first of all no one could really doubt that it was basically Protestant in orientation, and secondly no one yet knew that Elizabeth would live to be seventy. And those two facts shaped the attitudes of both committed Catholics and the more committed Protestants, and by 1560 of course there were plenty of both. Both groups of zealots were preoccupied with what might happen next. Would there be another turn of the wheel? Would Elizabeth survive? And both sides were determined to do what they could to shape events to their own advantage if such a possibility of future change emerged.

So let’s look at the two groups who opposed in different ways the Elizabethan settlement and how their challenges were met. We can start by looking at the Catholics.

Christopher Haigh argues, persuasively I think, that there was a great deal of what he calls traditionalist “survivalism.” To a considerable degree, the early Elizabethan church was attempting to accommodate that traditionalism amongst the population as a whole. But the more committed, more theologically aware and more politically aware Catholics knew that this was a recipe for the gradual erosion of Catholic principle. There were a lot of people who were described at the time as “church papists” in the 1560s, people whose bodies were in the Church of England, as it were, but whose hearts remained with the old religion. Such people would gradually become hopelessly compromised over time unless something was done to stiffen their resistance to a gradual slide into conformity and acceptance of the new ways. And in the eyes of those who feared this there was, after all, every possibility that the settlement of 1559 would not endure any longer than other changes.

It all hung on the life of one young woman and in 1562 Elizabeth contracted smallpox and almost died. Her counselors were in a panic as she lay on her sick bed. She recovered, but it was a warning of what could happen. We have to remember this, this vital element of uncertainty, whenever we look at the Elizabethan church and indeed at other aspects of her reign. So, you get in these years the gradual emergence of what might be called a kind of shadow church or a church in exile waiting for the possibility of a return to the old ways. And the years 1568 to 1570 proved to be in many ways a turning point for these Catholics.

Cardinal William Allen, 1565 / Wikimedia Commons

In 1568, William Allen, a former Oxford don who had fled to the continent, founded a college at Douai in the Netherlands for the purpose of training priests who would be smuggled back into England and who could operate in secrecy to stiffen the faith of English Catholics. In the same year, in May of 1568, Mary Stuart, the Queen of Scotland, a Catholic, was deposed by her own subjects and fled into England. There she was kept under house arrest by Elizabeth, but while she remained she was clearly a claimant to the English throne within reach of those who opposed Elizabeth. She was Elizabeth’s nearest relative, her cousin, and a Catholic. I’ll say more about Mary, Queen of Scots next time, but her presence is a constant factor in the equation.

In 1567 to ’68, almost simultaneously, came the outbreak of the Dutch revolt, a revolt of the provinces of the Netherlands, just across the narrow seas, against Spanish rule, which led to the establishment in the Netherlands of a powerful Spanish army to put down that revolt sent by King Philip II of Spain, the champion of the Counter Reformation in Europe. Its arrival was followed by a massive repression of Protestants in the Netherlands and the flight of many of them to England. And in the following year, in 1569, came the revolt of the northern earls.

That began with a plot to release Mary, Queen of Scots from captivity, to marry her to the Duke of Norfolk, who was a crypto-Catholic, to restore her to the Scottish throne with the help of the Spanish army, which was just over the seas in the Netherlands, and to depose Elizabeth. When the scheme was discovered by Elizabeth’s intelligence service the earls of Northumberland and of Westmorland, the two dominant nobles of the north, rose in rebellion. They raised about 5,000 men. They captured the city of Durham. They restored the mass in Durham Cathedral. They moved gradually south. The government responded to the rising by securing Mary and moving her south out of their reach. She was placed under the tutelage of the Earl of Shrewsbury down in the Midlands. The northern earls failed to move swiftly. They got bogged down besieging a castle near Durham which was held by the loyal Bowes family for Elizabeth and eventually realizing that their support was eroding they gave up and fled into Scotland. There then followed two years of diplomatic and military bullying before eventually the Earl of Northumberland was surrendered back to the English and was executed.

By then the rebellion was long over. By December 1569, it had proved to be a fiasco and had fizzled out, but in February 1570, rather too late, the Pope, having heard of it, offered his support. He excommunicated Elizabeth and he absolved her subjects from their obedience to the Queen. He was telling her Catholic subjects, in other words, that rebellion against this heretic queen was no sin — a little too late, but nonetheless at last a clarifying decision on the part of the papacy with regard to Elizabeth. For the Catholic subjects of the Queen in 1568 to ’70 one could say the moment of truth had at last come. At last there had been principled resistance to the Elizabeth settlement, at last there had been a lead from the papacy, but in a sense it was also a disaster for the average traditionalist in religion. Now they were in a position where they had to choose. They had to make a stand, like it or not. Geopolitical realities increasingly demanded it, and for many of them that was an absolutely agonizing situation.


And in the years that followed, in many ways, it got worse. From the mid 1570s missionary priests trained in the Netherlands began arriving to stiffen the faith of the Catholic faithful. There were something like sixty who arrived in the course of the later 1570s. Between then and the end of the reign in 1603, something like 500 Catholic priests were smuggled into England to operate in secret. From the 1580s, they were joined by another group, the Jesuits, the shock troops of the Catholic Counter Reformation in Europe who joined in the mission to England.

Now of course from their perspective these were heroic people, and yet they were fatally compromised by their association with a foreign power, Spain, and they were inevitably associated with the dynamics of religious conflict in Europe — not least because some of the leaders of the Catholic mission subscribed to the view that it was no sin to depose or even murder a heretical monarch. And so began a series of plots which were uncovered throughout the middle and later years of Elizabeth’s reign. In 1571, the Ridolfi plot to depose Elizabeth, place Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne, marry her to the Duke of Norfolk. That ended in 1572 with the execution of Norfolk. In 1572, the news came from France of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Protestants in Paris. This seemed a demonstration from abroad of the risk of Catholic treachery. In 1583, the Throckmorton plot to murder Elizabeth was uncovered. A year later in 1584, the leader of the Dutch Protestants, William the Silent, was murdered in the Netherlands. In 1586, the Babington plot to depose Elizabeth and elevate Mary, Queen of Scots to the throne was uncovered.

The atmosphere then was one of tremendous insecurity and the government’s response was severe. In 1581, it was declared by Parliament treason to be absolved from schism with Rome and to be reconciled to the Catholic church. Recusancy fines for not attending the Church of England were raised from one shillings a month to twenty pounds. That’s a four hundredfold increase in the size of recusancy fines. In 1585, England was at last, after long hesitation, brought to declare open war with Spain and to send troops to the Netherlands to help stiffen the resistance of the Dutch Protestants. And in the same year Parliament made it treason for any ordained priest of the Catholic church even to enter England. For a priest to be found on English soil was treason. In 1586, following the Babington plot, Mary, Queen of Scots was at last brought to trial, sentenced to death, and then, after long hesitation on the part of Elizabeth, finally beheaded in February 1587. And then in 1588 the whole nation was mobilized to resist the threat of invasion by the Spanish Armada — a great fleet sent by Philip II intended to pick up troops in the Netherlands, transport them across the narrow seas, and attack London. A plan which was eventually foiled only by the resistance which was put up by the English fleet in the Channel and then the scattering of Spanish ships as they sailed north and eventually around Scotland and Ireland to return to Spain, many of them being lost on the way. Following the — what was seen as the — divine deliverance in the Armada campaign the war dragged on right through to the end of Elizabeth’s reign.

Well, in such a context any priests who landed in England to do God’s work amongst the Catholic faithful as they saw it, were inevitably regarded by the government as the traitorous servants of a foreign power. Between 1581 and 1603, 131 Catholic priests were arrested and executed together with sixty of the lay people who had hid them, all of them being executed as traitors. These are those who are regarded in the English Catholic tradition as the Catholic [correction: English] Martyrs. And in a nation that was increasingly prone to regard itself as a beleaguered island threatened by mighty enemies, Catholicism almost inevitably became tainted by its association with that threat. Of course, that was mistaken. Many of the Catholic nobility and gentry went out of their way to stress their loyalty to Elizabeth; that they would not support any foreign invasion; that they would indeed sometimes openly declare themselves as sufficiently loyal to oppose it. They were well known. They were often trusted as individuals by their Protestant neighbors. The fines levied upon them for their Catholic recusancy were often very selectively and intermittently enforced. Amongst the Catholic population as a whole there were only a tiny number of zealots who were ever actively involved in treasonable plots, especially against the Queen’s life. Nevertheless, be that as it may, in the situation after 1570, and especially after the outbreak of war in 1585, the Catholic community as an entity lay under the shadow of distrust and it was subject to a developing prejudice which would take centuries to dispel. As Patrick Collinson has written, anti-Catholicism became almost “a sheet anchor of English nationhood” and the Catholic community within England became in a sense aliens within their own land.2


Portrait of John Calvin by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1550s / British Museum

What about the other threat? — the radical Protestants, those who we think of now as Puritans but that was not a term they used initially. It was a term of insult that was sometimes thrown at them. They were described usually at the time as “the hotter sort of Protestants”; “the hotter sort of Protestants.” To them the accession of Elizabeth in 1558 had been a providential deliverance, a divine intervention in English affairs. November the 17th, the Queen’s accession day, was celebrated with the ringing of bells; it became almost like a Protestant holy day. But though they regarded the Church of England which she established a year later in 1559 as undoubtedly a true church, it seemed to these Protestant radicals that it was a church which was only half reformed, and they too were worried about what might happen next. They could have no certainty that it would last. They were anxious to push ahead, to consolidate the position, to move urgently to what they described as “further reformation.”

Especially they wanted reformation of some of the traditionalist structures of the Church of England and the removal of some of the more traditional aspects of its forms of worship. They wanted to get rid of the “rags of Rome” or the “dregs the popery.” This is the sort of language they used. So there was from the beginning an element of dissidence even amongst those who could be regarded as Elizabeth’s most enthusiastic supporters. And that was especially true amongst the younger clergy who were emerging from the universities, now thoroughly trained in Protestant doctrine, and who were becoming, if anything, more emphatically Protestant even than those who had led the church in the later years of Edward VI.

This younger generation were moving beyond the doctrinal position which had been established by Archbishop Cranmer in the early 1550s and was enshrined in the prayer book. Increasingly, they felt the influence of John Calvin, the great Protestant leader of Geneva, and his successor there, Theodore Beza. In terms of the doctrine of salvation, they increasingly adopted the doctrine of ‘predestination’ championed by Calvin; the notion that only an elect minority would find salvation. Many also adopted the doctrine of double predestination championed by Beza; the view that God had decreed from the beginning of the world who would be elect and who would be damned.

This kind of belief bred amongst them a very anxious spirituality. At the individual level they were deeply anxious about their own spiritual state. Were they or were they not amongst the elect? They tended to indulge in intense spiritual self-searching, rigorous attempts to sanctify their personal lives in a way that would give them a sense of assurance of their own election. It was also a kind of theological position which bred what’s been described as a “piebald mentality.” They saw things in very black and white terms, a piebald mentality. The godly saw themselves as a beleaguered minority in a world that was dominated by the reprobate, the unregenerate. They tended to describe themselves as the “little flock,” the “godly remnant,” and that in turn seems to have bred amongst them a kind of activist mentality. There was a duty to demonstrate their own godliness by standing up for the honor of God, by doing His work in the world, by spreading truth, by combating sin and error. A form of activism which in a sense could give them greater assurance.

Gallery of famous Puritans: Thomas Gouge, William Bridge, Thomas Manton, John Flavel, Thomas Goodwin, Stephen Charnock, William Bates, John Owen, John Howe, Richard Baxterm and Dorothy Dear even though she isn’t in the picture. / From Thomas Gouge / Wikimedia Commons

For the most part, they did that work in relative obscurity, down in the many parishes of the kingdom. Puritans were amongst the most zealous preachers. They were often chosen as ‘lecturers’, people who would be hired by local authorities to preach extra sermons on market days, for example, or on the weekdays. In some areas they were numerous enough by the 1570s to found regular meetings of sympathizers which were known as “prophesyings.” These were meetings of the local clergy who would get together to hear a sermon, to debate its doctrine. They often opened these meetings to members of the laity. It was thought to be an excellent method of improving clerical knowledge, of passing on theological knowledge to the godly laity, and in areas of — some areas of — the country they were extremely influential in influencing the whole tone of local religious life. East Anglia was a great area of Puritan strength. There were eight of these prophesying meetings in the county of Suffolk in the middle of East Anglia and in the county of Essex, just to the south, there were six of them operating by the early 1570s.

But after 1570 Puritanism also began to acquire something of a political edge. Specifically, that came in the form of a movement to try to formally alter the structures of the Church of England and to purge the prayer book of what they saw as traditional papist survivals. Those who became involved in it were convinced that the New Testament laid down a clear model of church government, that it did not involve bishops, that it should be based upon autonomous congregations who elected their own ministers and elders, who would in turn meet together at the higher level in councils and synods to govern the church as a whole. In other words, a Presbyterian system of church government. This is what they desired, and advocates of such a system were to mount a series of challenges to the Elizabethan settlement between 1570 and 1587. And there were a number of landmarks in that process.

In 1570, for example, the professor of divinity at the University of Cambridge, Thomas Cartwright, gave a series of lectures in the university in which he argued that the English church failed to follow the model of the New Testament and advocated a Presbyterian system. There was a tremendous controversy in the university as a result. Cartwright in fact lost his job. He was quickly picked up by one of Elizabeth’s favorites, the Earl of Leicester, who sympathized with the Puritans, and placed in a living elsewhere. So he survived, but he lost his position at the university. In 1571, in Parliament, one member, William Strickland, introduced a bill to revise the prayer book and purge it. Members of the council sitting in Parliament opposed this move. He was called before the royal Privy Council and warned not to trespass on the Queen’s prerogative in matters of religion. But a year later when Parliament met again John Field and Thomas Wilcox, two leading Puritans, published the “Admonition to Parliament,” an outspoken attack upon the structure of the Church of England as not being a truly reformed church, calling on Parliament to take steps to further reform it. Indeed, it was so extreme in some of its statements that it greatly scandalized moderates amongst Protestants and there was no successful action in Parliament.

In 1576, there came a further attempt to discuss the church in Parliament, and on that occasion Elizabeth had to intervene personally to ban discussion of religion in Parliament. The Queen also became convinced in that year that the prophesying meetings were a destabilizing influence on the church in the localities. She ordered Archbishop Grindal to put a stop to them. The Archbishop protested. He thought they were doing good work; they were beneficial to the clergy. As a result, the Queen simply suspended him and the Archbishop of Canterbury himself was suspended from exercising his duties from 1577 through to his death in 1583.

Portrait of Edmund Grindal, Archbishop of Canterbury, by Dirk Voss, 1580 / Wikimedia Commons

Well, at that point, Grindal’s death in 1583 could be said in a sense to symbolize the passing away of the first generation of Elizabethan bishops, many of them people who half sympathized with the desire for further reformation within the church, men who had been willing to serve, willing to bear with the Elizabethan compromise for the time being, but in their hearts would have liked to have seen more. The phrase that was often used for people like that was that they were willing to “tarry for the magistrate,” they were willing to wait until such time as the Queen was willing to move further in a Protestant direction. And they were gradually being replaced by people of a different stamp, and the most significant of the new bishops to emerge was the new Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift.

Whitgift was a very different kind of man from Grindal. He was a Calvinist in his doctrine, no Protestant could ask for more in terms of his theological position, but he was also a man who had grown up with the Elizabethan settlement and who was deeply committed to the settlement in itself. In addition to which he was a firm disciplinarian, and in 1583 as a means of preventing further action on the part of Puritans Whitgift introduced what was known as the Three Articles to which each of the clergy was required to subscribe. They included recognition of the royal supremacy, recognition of the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion laying down the doctrine of the Church of England, and taking an oath that there was nothing in the Prayer Book which was contrary to the word of God. He proceeded to use the church courts and particularly his own Court of High Commission to examine suspected dissidents within the church under oath and to administer the Three Articles. He was in fact prevented by members of Elizabeth’s council sympathetic to the Puritan cause from taking this policy as far as he would have liked. Nonetheless, it was a clear statement of his unwillingness to tolerate dissidence from radical Protestants.

Well, the advent of Whitgift perhaps provoked what turned out to be the Presbyterian or Puritans’ final throw. Some of the prophesying meetings which were now forbidden simply went underground. In some areas they developed into what’s known as the “Classis” movement, secret meetings of the clergy who were practicing a kind of underground Presbyterianism. John Field, one of the authors of the “Admonition to Parliament” in 1572, built up quite an extensive network of Presbyterian sympathizers amongst the clergy and the laity throughout the kingdom. And that network was activated in 1584 and 1586 to try to introduce further bills into Parliament calling for a Presbyterian system and the revision of the prayer book. These attempts were again scotched by royal councilors sitting in Parliament. In 1586, for example, Parliament itself sent both the promoter of the bill and those who defended it in Parliament to the Tower of London briefly to cool their heels.

The Presbyterians had failed again. But the exasperation and the frustration that they felt was vividly expressed in 1588 to ’89 in the secret publication of a number of extremely scurrilous attacks upon the bishops of the Church of England. These were known as the Marprelate Tracts. They were directed against bishops, prelates; the Marprelate Tracts. The Archbishop of Canterbury instigated an investigation to discover the secret press that was producing them, and in the course of that John Field’s Puritan network was uncovered and the movement was essentially smashed.

Meanwhile, as the 1580s drew to a close, some of the leaders of Puritanism were dying away. John Field died in 1588. Some of his sympathizers in the Royal Council, the Duke [correction: Earl] of Leicester, Sir Francis Walsingham, Sir Walter Mildmay all died in 1589 or 1590. Puritanism as a political movement was over for the time being but it left three legacies.

Robert Browne was the founder of the Brownists, a common designation for early Separatists from the Church of England before 1620. In later life he was reconciled to the established church and became an Anglican priest. / Lilford Hall, Northamptoshire, England

First of all, there were small groups of Puritan extremists who were so disillusioned that they broke from the Church of England altogether and formed separatist congregations meeting in secret. One of their leaders said that they had decided they would have “reformation without tarrying for any.” They wouldn’t tarry for the magistrate; they would have reformation without tarrying for any. Some of them were eventually forced to flee abroad. The group led by Robert Browne based in the city of Norwich removed themselves to the Netherlands to escape potential persecution. Another group led by Henry Barrow in London went underground and some of them eventually also emigrated to the Netherlands where they enjoyed religious freedom in the Protestant areas of the Netherlands. Henry Barrow, returning to England at one point, was arrested and was eventually hanged for sedition. It was from amongst these groups of radical separatists who had broken completely with the Church of England that some of the Mayflower Pilgrims of 1620 were eventually to be drawn.

So one legacy was separatism, a tiny minority who broke away completely. Secondly, there was a much broader legacy of activist evangelism within the Church of England. Many Puritan sympathizers felt that if they could not change the structures of the Church of England then they could at least transform its spirit and thereby leave their own distinctive stamp on the nature of English Protestantism. They advocated a religion heavily based upon the Bible: advocating preaching, practicing the sanctification of the Sabbath, insisting upon strict moral behavior, pursuing moral reformation where they had the power and the opportunity, and they constantly drummed upon the theme of the failure of England to live up to the — to show proper gratitude for God’s deliverance of the kingdom, the need to turn to a more strict religious observation in return for God’s favor. So that was the second legacy.

Thirdly, there was a legacy of a different kind. Some of those who had defended the Elizabethan settlement from Puritan attacks began to develop an altogether more positive view of the Elizabethan settlement. They began to see it not just as a temporary compromise, but as a distinctive and valid alternative, a distinctive middle way between Catholicism on the one hand and radical Protestantism on the other. Theologians like Richard Hooker and Richard Bancroft saw the retention of a traditionalist structure in the Church of England as not simply a matter of convenience, or political expediency, but as a valid Protestant alternative. Indeed, in Bancroft’s view, a divinely ordained form of church government in which England maintained the tradition which descended from Christ’s apostles, purified of the corruptions which had crept in in the Catholic Middle Ages. So a new and more positive notion of Anglicanism as a middle way was also emerging amongst the defenders of the church. Diarmaid MacCulloch said of this that “perhaps the Anglican gift to the Christian story is the ability to make a virtue of necessity.”3 [Laughter]

Reformation as a Series of Confirming Experiences

Canterbury Cathedral houses the cathedra or episcopal chair of the Archbishop of Canterbury and is the cathedral of the Diocese of Canterbury and the mother church of the Church of England as well as a focus for the Anglican Communion. / Photo by Hans Musil, Wikimedia Commons

But what finally about those who were neither Catholics nor radical Puritans nor Anglican divines, the mass of the people down in the parishes? It’s been said that for most of them the reformation under Elizabeth was essentially a series of conforming experiences. A slow shift from the visual and ritual and symbolic richness of late medieval religion to a somewhat plainer, more verbal, religion based on the English Bible, based on the Prayer Book of 1559, including such things as more frequent preaching, psalm singing, and other novel practices. That process of gradual shift in religious culture was probably aided by the elements of continuity observable in Church of England services and gradually it did its work. The older generation of both the clergy and the laity who could remember the old days had largely died away by the 1580s. An increasing proportion of the population knew no other church than that of Elizabeth. They faced no serious threat from the Catholic mission. The Catholic missionary priests concentrated their attention on politically significant people. Most of their work was done amongst the gentry, there was no real mission to the common people, and by 1603 the Church of England had something like two and a half million communicants while there were only some 8,000 to 9,000 known Catholic recusants, most of them members of the gentry or their immediate tenants sheltered under their protection.

To this extent one could say that the Catholic threat was actually diminishing. Meanwhile, the Anglican clergy were gradually adapting to their role as pastors and teachers. Initially, there’d been a severe shortage of preachers and of educated clergy, but steady work by the bishops, steady work ordaining young men in the universities, meant that by the death of Elizabeth preaching was commonplace in most areas of the kingdom, the clergy were increasingly university graduates; their level of learning was improving. The more severe and the more demanding of the clergy could be highly critical of the religious attitudes of the common people. Some of them saw the common people as being perhaps de-Catholicized, perhaps hostile to papal authority, but scarcely Protestantized in any deep and meaningful sense. But perhaps that’s too harsh a judgment on people who have been nicely described as ‘parish Anglicans’ or ‘prayer book Anglicans’, building up a loyalty for the form of religion with which they were familiar.

By the 1590s, it’s likely that they certainly thought of themselves as being members of the Protestant family, as it were, even if their theological grasp on exactly what that meant was probably rather shaky. At the same time of course it remained the case that Puritans saw the reformation as essentially unfinished amongst the population at large. And there were a fair number of people who shared that perception — that it remained unfinished — for the audience of the godly preachers was by 1603 significantly larger, significantly more literate, significantly more likely to have a better knowledge of the Bible and of the prayer book, significantly more likely to have read some of the English language religious publications in the Puritan tradition which were pouring from the presses; people more deeply involved in a vernacular religious culture, much of it produced by Puritans who had abandoned their political opposition but who had emerged as the most active evangelicals, the most earnest, the most godly counselors of the Protestant tradition in the parishes.

At this level the later reformation was perhaps mostly un-dramatic except in the private drama of people’s personal conversion. But if the situation of 1600 was one of relative calm it was also storing up the seeds of future drama. Protestantism was gradually working its way into popular culture, the Puritan minority was extending its influence, not as a political movement but as a widespread religious style. Hostility to what was described as ‘popery’ was increasingly widespread, and tensions remained regarding what the nature of English Protestantism should be. And they would give rise, as we will see later, to what have been called England’s wars of religion in the seventeenth century. Disputes not between Catholics and Protestants — that was perhaps largely settled by 1600 — but disputes between different conceptions of what it was to be a Protestant.

The Elizabethan “Monarchical Republic”: Political Participation

Elizabeth I and Her Councilors

Official printed copy of Elizabeth I’s “Golden Speech” delivered in the Presence Chamber at Whitehall Palace to 141 MPs. Attacked for granting lucrative trading rights to favoured courtiers the Queen responded with a speech which totally disarmed the distrustful audience. November 30, 1601 / The National Archives, UK

In retrospect, looking back from the perspective of the twenty-first century, the reign of Elizabeth I tends to shimmer in the historical imagination. She reigned for forty-five years; she restored political stability; she settled the religious question at least for the time being; she survived a powerful foreign enemy, Spain, and she presided in all of her iconic splendor over a brilliant court and the flowering of English literature. At the end of her last Parliament in 1601, the sixty-eight year old queen made her Golden Speech, as it’s called. She told the members of the House of Commons assembled before her that they may have had mightier monarchs but they’d had none who had shown greater care to defend them from “peril, dishonor, tyranny and oppression,” and she expressed her confidence that “though God hath raised me high, yet this I count the glory of my crown that I have reigned with your loves.” And she invited each member of Parliament to come forward and kiss her hand before they departed into their countries. And so each member filed forward to kiss the Queen’s hand before leaving her, probably knowing that they would never see her again.Well, this is marvelous stuff, and she was great at it. It’s the theater of majesty. Generations of historians feel the urge to bow their knees and kiss her hand too. And me too; I confess it. [Laughter] When the present Queen Elizabeth came to the throne I was a little boy in primary school and our teacher, Miss Cranston, the lady who taught me to write, told us all stories about Elizabeth I and said that we should grow up to be the new Elizabethans, [laughter] which was a terrible psychological burden [laughs] [laughter] to place on small children.

Okay. That’s how we tend to look back on Elizabeth’s reign, but what we have to remember of course as historians, and it’s hard to remember, is that none of this was known in advance. It’s easy to forget the extent to which her reign was fraught with crises and danger, especially in its early decades, the role of her servants in surmounting those dangers and the subtle shifts which her long reign brought about in government and in political culture and the sheer exhausting struggle of so much of it. And these are some of the things that I want to talk about today.

When Elizabeth came to the throne on the 17th of November 1558, it was another sign of people’s continued recognition of the legitimacy and the authority of the Tudor line. Even her Catholic councilors readily accepted her accession. But the situation was far from stable, far less stable than it had been under Henry VIII for example. And that was evident in various ways, not only in the risks posed by the clear internal divisions in matters of religion, about which I talked last time, but also an international situation of considerable danger. England as an ally of Spain was at war with France. The city of Calais, the last English possession on the French coast, had just been lost. Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, then aged only sixteen, was married to the heir to the French throne and she had a claim to the English throne via her grandmother, Henry VIII’s sister. That raised the possibility of a French ambition of uniting both Scotland and perhaps England to the French crown. There was at this time a French army in Scotland supporting Mary’s mother who was ruling Scotland in her daughter’s absence. That posed a potential threat from the north. Spain was currently an ally because of Mary’s marriage to Philip II, but Spain was also the champion of resurgent Catholicism in Europe and closely identified with Mary’s Catholic restoration in England. So what might Philip II do with Elizabeth on the throne?

Portrait of William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley / National Portrait Gallery, London

So the young queen needed advice, she needed counsel, and it’s the relationship between Elizabeth and those who sought to counsel her that gives the early and most decisive part of her reign its distinctive political flavor. As her sister, Mary, had approached death late in 1558, the nucleus of Elizabeth’s council was already forming. And the central figure amongst those who advised her was William Cecil, later Lord Burghley.

Now Cecil was a somewhat older man; he was in his mid-thirties. He’s nearly always represented in television and film productions about Elizabeth as an old man but he was in his mid-thirties at the beginning of her reign. He was to serve the Queen for no less than forty years and he forged a very close and remarkable partnership with her, which was truly central to the Elizabethan regime. Traditionally, he’s portrayed as highly capable but rather staid, rather dull, perhaps unimaginative, congenitally cautious, a bureaucrat. But as is increasingly appreciated, this was far from being the whole man. Certainly, he was a very good servant of the state and he was a judicious, deliberative person and a prodigiously hard worker. He left behind him masses of papers, many of them in his own hand, which to this day have never been fully explored. He had the habit of working out decisions which had to be taken by setting out the pros and the cons on any question in lists in his personal papers as he worked his way through. He called this “reasoning by question upon a matter uncertain,” and it was derived from the methods he’d learned in his classical education.

But he wasn’t simply the Queen’s cautious, plodding adviser. He also had his own ideas and his own ideals. Cecil and some of his closest colleagues in Elizabeth’s first council were essentially Edwardians, by which I mean they’d cut their political teeth in the reign of Edward VI as servants, junior servants at that time, of a regime that was governed by a privy council in the absence of an adult male ruler. So Cecil was the Queen’s man but he wasn’t just the Queen’s man. He had a very strong sense of public service, again derived in part from his classical education, and he had a very strong sense of a state which was independent of the person of the monarch. He also explicitly subscribed to the view that in England sovereignty lay not in the crown alone but in the crown in Parliament. He was very keen on the notion that the consent of the whole political nation, Queen, lords, and commons in Parliament, should be obtained for any major political initiative. A strong sense then of the state as an entity.

And secondly Cecil and his colleagues had an agenda of their own, which was essentially the reestablishment and preservation of the Protestant state. He wasn’t a dogmatist in religion. He was considerably less advanced in his religious views towards Protestantism than some of his colleagues, but nonetheless he was a sincere adherent of the Reformation. Indeed, back in 1552 some of the meetings about the second Edwardian prayer book had been conducted in Cecil’s house. So the importance of this ideological element, this ideological undertone in the politics of the early reign of Elizabeth, mustn’t be underestimated.

Okay then. Elizabeth’s councilors had certain ideas and certain purposes of their own to be pursued in a very dangerous situation. And finally they had certain assumptions also about the new monarch and about the nature of their relationship to her. Obviously, Elizabeth was a woman, a young unmarried woman, and in 1559 shortly after her accession the Scottish reformer, John Knox, with quite appalling timing, issued a book called The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. It was an attack upon what he regarded as the unnatural nature of female rule, the ‘regiment of women’. This book was directed against Elizabeth’s sister, Mary I of England, and against Mary of Guise, the mother of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was ruling Scotland as regent. But by the time it came out it was deeply embarrassing, because it appeared when Mary had died and Elizabeth was on the throne.

John Aylmer, Bishop of London, 16th century / National Portrait Gallery, London

One of Elizabeth’s bishops, John Aylmer, quickly was recruited to answer it, and he wrote a book called An Harboowr for Faithful and True Subjects to defend her rule. But it was a very odd defense. He maintained that Elizabeth’s rule posed no threat since, to quote him, “first it is not she that ruleth but the laws,” and secondly “she maketh no statutes or laws but in the honorable court of Parliament.” Therefore, “what may she do alone wherein is peril?” In short, what he’s saying is that she would not really rule. Government would be conducted in her name and by her royal authority, but the general assumption was that she would soon marry appropriately and in the meantime the privy council would assert its role in running the country and Parliament would provide safeguards. It’s hard to imagine any of this being written about a male ruler.

Well, such expectations showed that Aylmer didn’t really know Elizabeth and indeed perhaps even Cecil didn’t yet fully appreciate her potential. She had had a very long schooling in caution and in the avoidance of danger, but she was also in many respects very much her father’s daughter. She knew what it was to be a monarch. She had an imperious temperament and she was perfectly prepared to assert it when she was crossed. Nor did she intend to allow her sex to inhibit her in doing that. In 1566, at the age of thirty-three in response to representations made to her by a parliamentary delegation over the succession she stated, “though I be a woman, yet I have as good a courage answerable to my place as ever my father had. I am your anointed queen. I will never be constrained to do anything. I thank God I am endued with such qualities that if I were turned out of this realm in my petticoat I were able to live in any place in Christendom.” She could play the gender card to her own advantage, and of course she was to do so many times, most famously in her speech to her troops at Tilbury during the Spanish Armada campaign: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king and of a king of England.”

Well, as statements like this were repeatedly to show, she had a great sense of her own capability and a very strong sense of her place as monarch, and assertions of this kind were most likely to come when she felt that her royal authority was being encroached upon. She knew of course that she ruled under the law, but firstly she had no doubt of her right to the crown. She was a monarch ordained by God and anointed at her coronation. Secondly, she believed that in her person the imperial kingship of Henry VIII had been restored. She did not regard her supreme governorship of the Church of England as something which had been granted to her by Parliament; rather it had been given to her by God and confirmed by parliamentary statute. And thirdly, she regarded certain ‘matters of state’, as she termed them, as lying ultimately within the sphere of her ‘prerogative power’: her sole power of decision, her prerogative power, things to be decided by her. And notably they included the crucial matter of religion, foreign policy and the succession to the throne.

On these matters she would certainly listen to advice and counsel, but she alone had the last word and she strongly believed that Parliament in particular had no business in meddling in such matters. As she told that same parliamentary delegation in 1566 when they pressured her on the matter of the succession, “it is a strange thing that the foot should direct the head in so weighty a matter.” All of this considered, a great deal then would depend upon how the Queen and her councilors would get along in handling the central issues of her reign. And on the whole they got along pretty well.

On a day-to-day basis, the privy council ran the affairs of government under the secretaryship first of Cecil and then of Sir Francis Walsingham. Elizabeth would attend council frequently, but on many days they were allowed to simply proceed with administrative matters. Cecil was given a particularly free hand in his efforts to address the problems of the commonwealth in economic and social affairs, to plan legislation to be brought before Parliament intended to stabilize and strengthen the nation, some of these things I’ve touched on already.

Foreign Policy

The Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis and the Embrace of Henri II and Philip II / Siena, Palazzo Pubblico

But what about those vital ‘matters of state’, the really central issues as far as the Queen was concerned?

Well, the first order of business of course was religion, the religious settlement, and as we saw last time there was essential unanimity between Elizabeth and her councilors on that issue in shaping the religious settlement and in getting it through Parliament, though the Queen’s personality was to become very evident in the way in which, as I described last time, she set the limits to the further reform which might proceed.

The issues of foreign policy and of the succession were much more fraught. And here you’ve got a pattern, repeatedly, of pressure being brought upon the Queen and of resistance on her part to such pressure; pressure on her to make decisions which her councilors believed to be absolutely crucial, and on her part a great unwillingness to take categorical decisions which might prove to be irreparable and which might prove to have unforeseen consequences. She was very anxious to avoid decisions which might lead in directions which might prove disastrous.

So, to look at foreign policy first of all: early in the reign, in April 1559, the war with France was ended by the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis. England suffered the humiliation of losing Calais, its last French possession once and for all, but that could be blamed upon Mary and Philip — it had happened under Mary’s reign — and there was the positive benefit of the treaty that the peace treaty meant that the other monarchs recognized Elizabeth as Queen of England. That still left, however, the problem of Scotland. Scotland was still being ruled as a French protectorate by Mary of Guise, and then in 1559 Mary, Queen of Scots, became Queen of France when her husband, Francis, acceded to the French throne. To Cecil, the best hope of achieving security in this situation was to encourage resistance to French domination in Scotland, to encourage, in particular, the resistance of the Scottish lords known as the Lords of the Congregation who were Protestants and who were engaged in what was at that time still a largely unsuccessful resistance to French dominance.

Elizabeth was willing to go so far as to act covertly in the Scottish situation, even authorizing the smuggling back to Scotland of the preacher, John Knox, in order to stiffen Scottish Protestant resistance. But she was exceedingly reluctant to intervene openly to help any rebels against their true monarch. This time, however, Cecil managed to persuade her because of the obvious threat, and in 1560 some English troops and ships were sent to aid the Scottish covenanters. They were not very successful militarily, but in June 1560 Mary of Guise died and in July the war in Scotland was brought to an end with the Treaty of Edinburgh. French troops were evacuated from Scotland and the Protestant lords took control in Edinburgh.

So, that won a breathing space but it was only a short breathing space, because in December 1560 Francis II of France, the young king, husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, died, leaving Mary an eighteen year old widow. She returned to Scotland. She accepted the Protestant settlement which had taken place there, though she was herself a Catholic, but she also made great show soon after her return to Scotland of the fact that she maintained a claim to the English throne, a claim to the succession. And this made — this situation became even worse in the mid-1560s, first of all when Mary married. She married Henry, Lord Darnley, who was also descended from the same Tudor grandmother as Mary, Queen of Scots herself by a second marriage that she contracted, and who also had a distant claim to the throne. They married and then in 1566 they had a son, James, who was baptized a Catholic, a potential successor to the English crown.

Portrait of Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, by François Clouet, 1559 / Victoria and Albert Museum

This time the situation was resolved not by any English intervention but by Mary, Queen of Scots’ own errors of judgment. By 1566, she had fallen out of love disastrously with Lord Darnley. He was a wastrel; he was a rake; he resented deeply his exclusion from real power. In a jealous rage he assisted in the murder of her secretary, David Rizzio, at one point; and in 1567 he was murdered by a group of Scottish lords acting, it was said, with the covert assistance of Queen Mary herself. With Darnley dead, Mary embarked upon an adulterous affair with Lord James Bothwell, a rather romantic figure, one of the lords of the Scottish border area, with whom she was in love, and remained with him until he managed to obtain a divorce from his wife and they married in May 1567.

All of this was too much for the Lords of the Congregation; they rebelled. In June 1567, Mary was forced to abdicate and the Earl of Moray took power as regent for her infant son, James. A year later Mary managed to escape from her imprisonment in Loch Leven Castle but, having failed to raise adequate support to restore her to the throne, she was forced to flee to England. She crossed the border and she appealed to Elizabeth for help in restoring her to the throne. Well, this was a highly embarrassing situation, and in this situation Elizabeth and her council had to act very circumspectly indeed.

They didn’t want to restore Mary, Queen of Scots to the Scottish throne, because the Scottish — power in Scotland was now in the hands of friendly Lords of the Congregation who had proceeded to bring up the young James as a Protestant. They couldn’t let Mary go to France either. If they allowed that, she might in France reassert her claim to the English throne as well as the Scottish and perhaps try to be restored to Scotland and possibly to England with French military aid. Elizabeth offered to hear both sides of the story, and commissioners met to hear the charges of murder and adultery which were laid by the Lords of the Congregation against Mary and to hear Mary’s countercharges of treason and rebellion against her Scottish subjects. And judiciously Elizabeth eventually determined that the case had not been proved either way. Scotland was neutralized — it was to remain under the rule of the Protestant regency — but Mary could not be released. Instead she was held in what was deemed honorable imprisonment in a succession of English castles.

So that brought a temporary resolution to England’s advantage, but it also meant that Elizabeth was saddled with what was described as “a permanent and lively danger” in the person of Mary, Queen of Scots. She was held in custody, but as you know, almost from the beginning Mary became the focus of plots against Elizabeth. Indeed, already by 1572, after the first of these, some members of Parliament, some members of Elizabeth’s council, including even some of the bishops, were calling for Mary’s head in order to resolve this danger. But Elizabeth wouldn’t countenance that. She would not execute an anointed queen. When Parliament asked her to do so she vetoed the bill that was brought before her with the words “la reine s’avisera,” “the queen will think about it.” And she did — for about fifteen years. [Laughter] She wouldn’t execute an anointed queen, nor would she quietly accede in Mary’s assassination, which was also suggested to her as a way out of the problem. Some of her councilors simply despaired and they were vigilant on her behalf, especially Francis Walsingham, the head of her intelligence service, but as yet the Queen would not budge.


Portrait of Robert Dudley, 1st Early of Leicester, by Steven van der Meulen, 1560 / Wallace Collection

She also refused to budge on another vital matter, the matter of the succession, and here the tension at the very heart of the regime is perhaps most clearly revealed. Initially of course people expected that Elizabeth would soon marry and that she would bear children, bear an heir. In 1559 to ’61, various candidates were being talked about. Philip II of Spain, the former husband of her sister, Mary, offered his hand in marriage, but that was diplomatically and politely rejected. There was talk of Lord Robert Dudley as a possible husband but there were problems there. First of all, he was already married, and then in 1560 when his wife was found dead at the foot of the staircase in their country home there was much suspicion that Dudley might have had a hand in her death in order to clear the way. I think there’s little question that Elizabeth loved Robert Dudley, but to marry him would have been an act of supreme political folly. They considered Prince Eric of Sweden, but he was rumored to be mentally unstable. They considered the Archduke Charles of Austria but he was a Catholic. And so it went on.

Nothing had come of all of this by 1562 and nor would Elizabeth name a successor in the meantime. And then in 1562 she nearly died of smallpox and the fragility of the situation was vividly demonstrated. What would happen if she were to die? In 1563 when Parliament met it almost immediately petitioned the Queen to marry and to name a successor. Both the House of Lords and the House of Commons were involved and they were not very discreet in approaching the Queen. The Speaker of the House of Commons, using his privilege of free speech, reminded her of the history of Alexander the Great and the disastrous consequences of his failure to provide for a clear succession. Almost certainly at this point the members of Parliament were actually being covertly encouraged by William Cecil and the privy council who wanted pressure put upon the Queen in this matter, but she gave only evasive replies and Parliament eventually gave in and went into recess without any definite result.

By the time they met again in 1566, the situation was even worse because of Mary, Queen of Scots’ marriage to Lord Darnley and her pregnancy, and again Parliament was encouraged to raise the matter and did so pretty bluntly. They declared that they would not pass any taxation bill unless she replied to their petition of 1563 asking her to name a successor. That was why Elizabeth rebuked them in the words I’ve already quoted to you for encroaching on her sovereign rights, though she also promised that she would indeed in good time marry; she intended to. When Parliament pushed again by trying to incorporate that verbal promise into one of their money bills she rejected it angrily. She told them they would not have dared have treated her father thus; nor indeed would they, she was right. But under the pressures of the times there had been something of a shift in political life. As Stephen Alford says, in writing of William Cecil and the privy council, these were men who were “redefining their relationship with a monarch who refused to play by the rules of monarchy and select a successor.”

Elizabeth I’s Privy Council, headed by William Cecil, 1st Baron of Burghley / Wikimedia Commons

The role of the council, one could say, was shifting somewhat from that of being merely an advisory and an executive body to that of attempting to put political pressure on the Queen herself. And Parliament was taking something of a novel role in calling openly for definite policies, definite courses of action in matters the Queen regarded as solely her own prerogative. And Parliament was to do it again very soon in 1572 when it called for the head of Mary, Queen of Scots. Sir Francis Knollys, one of the council, told the Queen in 1569, “it is not possible for your majesty’s most faithful councillors to govern your state well unless you will resolutely follow their opinions in weighty matters.” There was a ring of compulsion in that, reflecting a rather unfamiliar set of political assumptions about the relationship between the Queen and her council. As Patrick Collinson has put it, there were “citizens concealed within subjects” in Elizabethan England.

But whatever her councilors’ views the fact remained that Elizabeth was all they had and she was secure in that knowledge. She knew they depended totally upon her presence on the throne and she stood her ground, putting them off with what Cecil in exasperation described as “answers answerless” to their pressures; answers answerless. No one can really say when she decided that she would never marry and perhaps she never actually consciously took that decision; perhaps matters simply drifted in that direction. Any decisive action perhaps seemed unacceptable at particular points in time and gradually it emerged that she would indeed never marry. It’s difficult to believe that she was very serious, for example, about the marriage negotiations which were conducted between 1575 and 1581 with the French Duke of Alençon. She was by that time in her late forties and it’s unlikely that she really took this seriously. But if she conserved her freedom of action by refusing to act on certain critical matters that was also just prolonging what seemed to many of her councilors to be a never ending situation of insecurity.

And that was especially the case as England’s relationship with Spain deteriorated into one of permanent threat, particularly after 1567 with the Dutch Protestant revolt against Spanish rule in the Netherlands and the establishment as the result of a very powerful Spanish army just across the narrow seas. Again Elizabeth declined to act decisively. There were many in her council who urged her to intervene militarily in support of the Dutch, or later as the wars of religion broke out in France to intervene on behalf of the French Protestant cause. Robert Dudley, now Earl of Leicester, was one of those who pressed her to do so; so did Sir Francis Walsingham. They were frustrated by her willingness to countenance covert assistance to these rebels, to countenance an undeclared war against Spain being pursued by privateers like Sir Francis Drake in the Spanish-American possessions, but remaining unwilling always to openly support any rebels against their sovereign monarch.

Well, at this point we can pause briefly just to consider another dimension of the shifting structure of political life, one that you already have discussed or will discuss in section — the way in which under Elizabeth local government was gradually intensifying and an increasingly direct relationship was being built up between the privy council at the center and local justices of the peace, encouraging an extended form of political participation amongst the gentry elites of the English counties. These were men, as you know, who were very conscious of their role as local representatives of their counties, who pursued that role in their correspondence with the center in their petitions and the questions they raised in their attempts to modify and influence policy. And they were men who were also at the same time very conscious of their place in the national structures of government, above all when they periodically came up to the center to serve in Parliament. And indeed demand for places in Parliament was such that the number of members of Parliament was greatly increased under Elizabeth from 251 in 1547 to 370 by the end of her reign; representation was being extended. These things you’ll discuss in section, but remember that they also represent a further development of the nature of political participation under Elizabeth in the world outside Westminster and in Westminster itself when those people came up to take part in Parliament or visited the court.

Queen Elizabeth I in Parliament, 1682 / History of Parliament, UK

Well, all of these various strands of the situation came together in the mid-1580s. In 1584, William the Silent, leader of the Dutch rebels, was assassinated. Spain looked like winning the war against the Dutch under the Duke of Parma, a brilliant commander. If that happened would England be next on the Spanish agenda? This, together with the discovery of the Throckmorton plot against Elizabeth, provoked in 1584 a movement known as the Bond of Association, the circulation and signing of a public oath by members of the political nation that they would undertake to revenge any successful attempt against Elizabeth’s life. The Bond of Association was signed by members of the privy council, by members of the nobility, by the gentry, by many clergy, by mayors of cities, even in some counties right down to the level of the leaders of parishes, yeoman farmers, church wardens and so forth. It had probably been designed by Cecil and Sir Francis Walsingham, but it clearly found massive spontaneous support nationwide.

In 1584, they also brought before Parliament and passed an Act for the Surety of the Queen’s Most Royal Person. This legislated an obligation upon the whole nation to take revenge and to exclude from succession anyone guilty of plotting Elizabeth’s death. Guess who that was aimed at. Cecil was also secretly drawing up contingency plans for what would happen if the Queen was assassinated. He’d actually considered such things as long before as 1563, but in the mid-1580s he went into great detail. If the Queen was to die or be assassinated, all officers of the crown were to remain in their posts. That was a constitutional innovation. A council of thirty was to be chosen to govern the nation. Parliament would then be called to meet and choose a successor. In other words, he was envisaging a kind of emergency republic if necessary, resulting in a parliamentary choice of king. It didn’t happen of course, but it’s still quite extraordinary. It shows just how far men like Cecil were prepared to go, if necessary, in order to secure the Protestant regime and national independence.

Other factors entered the situation shortly. In 1585, Elizabeth was forced at last to accept the need for direct intervention in the Netherlands to prevent the victory of the Spanish army, and English troops were sent under the Earl of Leicester to stiffen the resistance of the Dutch. In 1586, following the clear implication of Mary, Queen of Scots in the Babington plot to kill Elizabeth, which may possibly have involved entrapment, Mary, Queen of Scots was at last sentenced to death. Elizabeth signed her death warrant, but then withheld it until the council acted without her permission by dispatching the death warrant to Fotheringhay Castle where Mary was promptly executed. When the news came to London the Queen was furious. She threatened to have the secretary of the council executed and she was probably serious, but that boil had been lanced. Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland, now age twenty and beginning to rule in his own right, protested against his mother’s execution. But he got over it, [laughter] knowing full well that being brought up as a Protestant as he had been, he was very likely to be the obvious heir to the English throne in due course.

Portrait of James VI of Scotland (James I of England), by John de Critz the Elder / Prado Museum

So the reign had reached its crisis point and it had been surmounted by forms of action on the part of central members of the political nation which have led Patrick Collinson to describe all this as evidence of a kind of “monarchical republic,” as he puts it. Well, of course that term is something of an exaggeration. It’s rather being playful in putting it forward for the sake of argument, but it does make a very serious point about the changing structures of political life and about what the expanded, increasingly participating political nation was capable of conceiving of and even of doing; their capacity to act in defense of the state that they wanted with or without the Queen’s consent. The Queen had stood her ground. She retained the ultimate power of decision, but her councilors had got what they wanted too. The crucial decisions had been made. And who’s to say that the delays which Elizabeth had forced upon them hadn’t done a great deal to help in getting them right when they were finally made?

And so for the moment it rested there. The last years of the reign were focused upon the war with Spain and upon a united effort to sustain it, which was a tremendously debilitating effort given England’s limited resources. In 1588, the whole nation was mobilized as the Spanish Armada approached the English coast and the defeat of the Armada — the prevention of its loading troops from the Netherlands to land in England, and its eventual scattering as it made its way back to Spain around the northern coast of Scotland and Ireland — all of this was regarded as a providential deliverance of England from this tremendous threat. But that providential deliverance, as they saw it, was followed by a hard slog through the 1590s: the debilitating costs in treasure and in men of maintaining an army in the Netherlands, the costs of facing rebellion in Ireland where the Earl of Tyrone rose against Elizabethan authority aided by a Spanish expeditionary force which landed in Ireland.

As the war dragged on, Elizabeth’s older councilors gradually died away. Leicester died in 1588. She wrote on the last dispatch she’d received from him, “his last letter.” Walsingham died in 1590. Cecil died in 1598. The 1590s saw the absolute pinnacle of the cult of Elizabeth as a kind of national icon represented in the great paintings, the white face, the great, elaborate wig, the magnificent dresses and so forth. But also that period saw heads gradually turning away from the aging Queen and towards the assumed, but as yet formerly undeclared successor, James VI of Scotland. Court factions began forming, jockeying for position for when James was to succeed, and when the Queen finally died in 1603 somewhat withdrawn, certain perhaps that her age was over, James entered joyfully upon the inheritance for which he had waited so long.

But it was to be a rather more complicated inheritance than James appreciated as he rode south from Edinburgh to become not James VI of Scotland but James I of England. It was an inheritance which contained many concealed ambiguities about the nature of the relationship between the crown and the political nation, about the way power had come to be shared and exercised in a kingdom which remained highly centralized under the monarchy but which also operated a political system which was heavily consultative and in many ways participatory. And an inheritance which was also ambiguous with regard to the purposes which the political nation expected political power to serve if the monarchy was to retain its legitimacy in the eyes of members of the political nation. Before long, under the early Stuarts, some people were beginning to remember rather ruefully how much better things had been in the time of “Queen Elizabeth of blessed memory,” as they tended to put it.

“I will not make windows into men’s souls.” “I will never be constrained to do anything.” “I have the heart and stomach of a king.” “I have reigned with your loves.” She had.



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