THE CHANGE OF RELIGION: 1559
MARY died on the 17th of November 1558. Parliament was then sitting, and, in communicating the event to both Houses, Archbishop Heath frankly took the initiative in recognising Elizabeth, “of whose most lawful right and title in the succession of the Crown, thanks be to God, we need not to doubt.” He was a staunch Catholic, and two months later refused to officiate at her coronation. But he was an Englishman, and even the most convinced Catholics, though looking forward with uneasiness to the religious policy of the new Queen, were sincerely glad that there was no danger of a disputed succession. Besides, it was by no means clear that Elizabeth would not accept the ecclesiastical constitution as established in the late reign. That there would be an end of burnings, and of the harassing tyranny of the bishops, every one felt certain; but it seemed quite upon the cards that Elizabeth would continue to recognise the headship of the Pope in a formal way and maintain the Mass. It must be remembered that the religious changes had only begun some thirty years before. All middle-aged men could remember the time when the ecclesiastical fabric stood to all appearance unbroken, as it had stood for centuries. Only twenty-four years had passed since the Act of Supremacy had transferred the headship of the Church from the Pope to the King; only eleven since the Protestant doctrine and worship had been forced on the country by the Protector Somerset, to the horror and disgust of the great majority of Englishmen. The nation had sorrowed for the death of Edward VI., because it darkened the prospects of the succession, and seemed likely sooner or later to bring on a civil war. But apart from the hot Protestant minority, chiefly to be found in London, the mass of the nation was conservative, and welcomed the reestablishment of the old religion as a return to order and common sense after a short and bitter experience of revolutionary anarchy. There was a rooted objection to restore the old meddlesome tyranny of the bishops, and the nobles and squires who had got hold of the abbey lands would not hear of giving them up. But the return to communion with the Catholic Church and the recognition of the Pope as its head gave satisfaction to three-fourths, perhaps to five-sixths, of the nation, and to a still larger proportion of its most influential class, the great landed proprietors. Mary’s accession was the great and unique opportunity for the old Church. If Mary and Pole had been coolheaded politicians instead of excitable fanatics, if they had contented themselves with restoring the old worship, depriving the few Protestant clergy of their benefices, and punishing only outrageous attacks on the State religion, Elizabeth would not have had the power, it may be doubted whether she would have had the inclination, to undo her sister’s work.
This great opportunity was thrown away. Mary’s bishops came back brooding over the long catalogue of humiliations and indignities which their Church had suffered, and thirsting to avenge their own wrongs. For six years they had their fling, and contrived to make the country forget the period of Protestant misgovernment. England had never before known what it was to be governed by clergymen. It was a sort of rule as hateful to most Catholic laymen as to Protestants. Catholics therefore for the most part, as well as Protestants, hailed the accession of Elizabeth. At any rate there would be an end of the clerical tyranny. Nor were they without hope that she would maintain the old worship. She had conformed to it for the last five years, and Philip had given the word that she was to be supported.
We are now accustomed to the Papal non possumus. No nation or Church can hope that the smallest deviation from Roman doctrine or discipline will be tolerated. But in 1558 the hard and fast line had not yet been drawn. France was still pressing for such changes as communion in both kinds, worship in the vulgar tongue, and marriage of priests. The Council of Trent, it is true, had already in 1545 decided that Catholic doctrine was contained in the Bible and tradition, and in 1551 had defined transubstantiation and the sacraments. But in 1552 the Council was prorogued, and it did not resume till 1562. Doctrine and discipline therefore might be, and were still considered to be, in the melting-pot, and no one could be certain what would come out. If Elizabeth had contented herself with the French programme, and had joined France in pressing it, the other sovereigns, who really cared for nothing but uniformity, would probably have forced the Pope to compromise. The Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation might have been tolerated. The Anglican formulæ have been held by many to be compatible with a belief in the Real Presence. The formal severance of England from Catholic unity might thus have been postponed–possibly avoided–in the same sense that it has been avoided in France. After the completion of the Council of Trent (1562-3) it was too late.
Two years after her accession Elizabeth told the Spanish ambassador, De Quadra, that her belief was the belief of all the Catholics in the realm; and on his asking her how then she could have altered religion in 1559, she said she had been compelled to act as she did, and that, if he knew how she had been driven to it, she was sure he would excuse her. Seven years later she made the same statement to De Silva. Elizabeth was habitually so regardless of truth that her assertions can be allowed little weight when they are improbable. No doubt, as a matter of taste and feeling, she preferred the Catholic worship. She was not pious. She was not troubled with a tender conscience or tormented by a sense of sin. She did not care to cultivate close personal relations with her God. A religion of form and ceremony suited her better. But her training had been such as to free her from all superstitious fear or prejudice, and her religious convictions were determined by her sense of what was most reasonable and convenient. There is not the least evidence that she was a reluctant agent in the adoption of Protestantism in 1559. Who was there to coerce her? The Protestants could not have set up a Protestant competitor. The great nobles, though opposed to persecution and desirous of minimising the Pope’s authority, would have preferred to leave worship as it was. But upon one thing Elizabeth was determined. She would resume the full ecclesiastical supremacy which her father had annexed to the Crown. She judged, and she probably judged rightly, that the only way to assure this was to make the breach with the old religion complete. If she had placed herself in the hands of moderate Catholics like Paget, possessed with the belief that she could only maintain herself by the protection of Philip, they would have advised her to be content with the practical authority over the English Church which many an English king had known how to exercise. That was not enough for her. She desired a position free from all ambiguity and possibility of dispute, not one which would have to be defended with constant vigilance and at the cost of incessant bickering.
From the point of view of her foreign relations the moment might seem to be a dangerous one for carrying out a religious revolution, and many a statesman with a deserved reputation for prudence would have counselled delay. But this disadvantage was more than counterbalanced by the unpopularity which the cruelties and disasters of Mary’s last three years had brought upon the most active Catholics. Again, Elizabeth no doubt recognised that the Catholics, though at present the strongest, were the declining party. The future was with the Protestants. It was the young men who had fixed their hopes upon her in her sister’s time, and who were ready to rally round her now. By her natural disposition, and by her culture, she belonged to the Renaissance rather than to the Reformation. But obscurantist as Calvinism essentially was, the Calvinists, as a minority struggling for freedom to think and teach what they believed, represented for a time the cause of light and intellectual emancipation. Was she to put herself at the head of reaction or progress? She did not love the Calvinists. They were too much in earnest for her. Their narrow creed was as tainted with superstition as that of Rome, and, at bottom, was less humane, less favourable to progress. But whom else had she to work with? The reasonable, secular-minded, tolerant sceptics are not always the best fighting material; and at that time they were few in number and tending–in England at least–to be ground out of existence between the upper and nether millstones of the rival fanaticisms. If she broke with Catholicism she would be sure of the ardent and unwavering support of one-third of the nation; so sure, that she would have no need to take any further pains to please them. As for the remaining two-thirds, she hoped to conciliate most of them by posing as their protector against the persecution which would have been pleasing to Protestant bigots.
In the policy of a complete breach with Rome, Cecil was disposed to go as far as the Queen, and further. Cecil was at this time thirty-eight. For forty years he continued to be the confidential and faithful servant of Elizabeth. One of those new men whom the Tudors most trusted, he was first employed by Henry VIII. Under Edward he rose to be Secretary of State, and was a pronounced Protestant. On the fall of his patron Somerset he was for a abort time sent to the Tower, but was soon in office again–sooner, some thought, than was quite decent–under his patron’s old enemy, Northumberland. He signed the letters patent by which the crown was conferred on Lady Jane Grey; but took an early opportunity of going over to Mary. During her reign he conformed to the old religion, and, though not holding any office, was consulted on public business, and was one of the three commissioners who went to fetch Cardinal Pole to England. Thoroughly capable in business, one of those to whom power naturally falls because they know how to use it, a shrewd balancer of probabilities, without a particle of fanaticism in his composition and detesting it in others, though ready to make use of it to serve his ends, entirely believing that “whate’er is best administered is best,” Cecil nevertheless had his religious predilections, and they were all on the side of the Protestants. Moreover he had a personal motive which, by the nature of the case, was not present to the Queen. She might die prematurely; and if that event should take place before the Protestant ascendancy was firmly established his power would be at an end, and his very life would be in danger. A time came when he and his party had so strengthened themselves, if not in absolute numerical superiority, yet by the hold they had established on all departments of Government from the highest to the lowest, that they were in a condition to resist a Catholic claimant to the throne, if need were, sword in hand. But during the early years of the reign Cecil was working with the rope round his neck. Hence he could not regard the progress of events with the imperturbable sang-froid which Elizabeth always displayed; and all his influence was employed to push the religious revolution through as rapidly and completely as possible.
The story that Elizabeth was influenced in her attitude to Rome by an arrogant reply from Pope Paul IV. to her official notification of her accession, though refuted by Lingard and Hallam in their later editions, has been repeated by recent historians. Her accession was notified to every friendly sovereign except the Pope. He was studiously ignored from the first. Equally unsupported by facts are all attempts to show that during the early weeks of her reign she had not made up her mind as to the course she would take about religion. All preaching, it is true, was suspended by proclamation; and it was ordered that the established worship should go on “until consultation might be had in Parliament by the Queen and the three Estates.” In the meantime she had herself crowned according to the ancient ritual by the Catholic Bishop of Carlisle. But this is only what might have been expected from a strong ruler who was not disposed to let important alterations be initiated by popular commotion or the presumptuous forwardness of individual clergymen. The impending change was quite sufficiently marked from the first by the removal of the most bigoted Catholics from the Council and by the appointment of Cecil and Bacon to the offices of Secretary and of Lord Keeper. The new Parliament, Protestant candidates for which had been recommended by the Government, met as soon as possible (25 January 1559). When it rose (8 May) the great change had been legally and decisively accomplished.
The government, worship, and doctrine of the Established Church are the most abiding marks left by Elizabeth on the national life of England. Logically it might have been expected that the settlement of doctrine would precede that of government and worship. It is characteristic of a State Church that the inverse order should have been followed. For the Queen the most important question was Church government; for the people, worship. Both these matters were disposed of with great promptitude at the beginning of 1559. Doctrine might interest the clergy; but it could wait. The Thirty-nine Articles were not adopted by Convocation till 1563, and were not sanctioned by Parliament till 1571.
The government of the Church was settled by the Act of Supremacy (April 1559). It revived the Act of Henry VIII., except that the Queen was styled Supreme Governor of the Church instead of Supreme Head, although the nature of the supremacy was precisely the same. The penalties were relaxed. Henry’s oath of supremacy might be tendered to any subject, and to decline it was high treason; Elizabeth’s oath was to be obligatory only on persons holding spiritual or temporal office under the Crown, and the penalty for declining was the loss of such office. Those who chose to attack the supremacy were still liable to the penalties of treason on the third offence.
Worship was settled with equal expedition by the Act of Uniformity (April 1559), which imposed the second or more Protestant Prayer-book of Edward VI., but with a few very important alterations. A deprecation in the Litany of “the tyranny of the Bishop of Rome and all his detestable enormities,” and a rubric which declared that by kneeling at the Communion no adoration was intended to any real and essential presence of Christ, were expunged. The words of administration in the present communion service consist of two sentences. The first sentence, implying real presence, belonged to Edward’s first Prayer-book; the second, implying mere commemoration, belonged to his second Prayer-book. The Prayerbook of 1559 simply pieced the two together, with a view to satisfy both Catholics and Protestants. Lastly, the vestments prescribed in Edward’s first Prayer-book were retained till further notice. These alterations of Edward’s second Prayer-book, all of them designed to propitiate the Catholics, were dictated by Elizabeth herself. In all this legislation Convocation was entirely ignored. Both its houses showed themselves strongly Catholic. But their opinion was not asked, and no notice was taken of their remonstrances.
While determining that England should have a purely national Church, and for that reason casting in her lot with the Protestants, Elizabeth, as we have seen, made very considerable sacrifices of logic and consistency in order to induce Catholics to conform. Like a strong and wise statesman, she did not allow herself to be driven into one concession after another, but went at once as far as she intended to go. At the same time the coercion applied to the Catholics, while sufficient to influence the worldly-minded majority, was, during the early part of her reign, very mild for those times. She wished no one to be molested who did not go out of his way to invite it. Outward conformity was all she wanted. And of this mere attendance at church was accepted as sufficient evidence. The principal difficulty, of course, was with the clergy. From them more than a mere passive conformity had to be exacted. To sign declarations, take oaths, and officiate in church was a severer strain on the conscience. It is said that less than 200 out of 9400 sacrificed their benefices rather than conform, and that of these about 100 were dignitaries. The number must be under-stated; for the chief difficulty of the new bishops, for a long time, was to find clergymen for the parish churches. But we cannot doubt that the large majority of the parish clergy stuck to their livings, remaining Catholics at heart, and avoiding, where they could, and as long as they could, compliance with the new regulations. It must not be supposed that the enactment of religious changes by Parliament was equivalent, as it would be at the present day, to their immediate enforcement throughout the country; especially in the north where the great proprietors and justices of the peace did not carry out the law. A certain number of the ejected priests continued to celebrate the ancient rites privately in the houses of the more earnest Catholics; for which they were not unfrequently punished by imprisonment.
Of course this was persecution. But according to the ideas of that day it was a very mild kind of persecution; and where it occurred it seems to have been due to the zeal of some of the bishops, and to private busybodies who set the law in motion, rather than to any systematic action on the part of the Government.
From Queen Elizabeth by Edward Spencer Beesly. Published in London by Macmillan and Co., 1892.
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