A Bright Particular Star
Queen Elizabeth and the Settlement of Religion. A seminar delivered by Barry Collett, Judith Richards and Paul Nicholls on May 24, 2003
In May 2003, three local specialists in Tudor history (Barry Collett, Judith Richards and Paul Nicholls) spoke to the Institute for Spiritual Studies in commemoration of the death of Queen Elizabeth the First in 1603. Among the many achievments of this major figure in world history, Elizabeth is regarded as the monarch most profoundly responsible for the actual establishment of the Church of England: it was not, as popular myth-makers would have it, her father Henry. The first part of this paper is a summary of Barry Collett's paper on Elizabeth's spirituality. Barry is lecturer in History at the University of Melbourne.
Barry Collett gave what he called 'an unusual interpretation' of Elizabeth's spirituality. He doubts if we can learn much about her spirituality from the ecclesiastical action of the Settlement of Religion of 1589. This religious policy was one of political expediency. All of Elizabeth's prayers and poems, found in her Collected Writings (published in 2000), are carefully constructed literary works, written for their effect. In fact, some are downright propaganda.
Elizabeth asked to be guided by wisdom: 'Pour out thy mercy ...' She was ascetic to a point; for example, sleep was to be in no way excessive, and devotions had to be ordered. She had a healthy distrust of intellectual and career clergy; she liked them to be honest, sober, and wise. The Queen held that the totality of sin was only overcome by grace alone — a perfectly Protestant position — but her own view resembled more that of Marguerite of Navarre and contemporary Benedictine doctrine: 'The goodness of thy Spirit'. She laid emphasis on the goodness and kindness and loving care of God. She grieves over her badness and confusion, on account of 'my iniquities'. She held that sin is part of our human degredation, but much less a matter of guilt than of mortality, just as the Italian Benedictines were teaching at the time. Degredation of the image of God is at the centre of her thought. One cannot be holy by one's own efforts — a Protestant view, but also true of certain kinds of medieval and contemporary Franko-Italian theology.
It is significant that Elizabeth translated Marguerite of Navarre's 'Mirror of the Sinful Soul' at the age of 11, for her stepmother, Katharine Parr. Marguerite's ideas are reflected in Elizabeth's own views. It can be noted that Elizabeth was not obsessed with guilt and punishment: in fact, not much at all for someone so obsessed by other things. She was following another line, one that is not puritanical either. The real problem is with a sickness to do with being mortal and ageing. Restoration of health in body and mind is essential. She is concerned with damage to the person and the society.
The mortality of things is the problem. She speaks of alienation. Being alone is part of her theology, the process of sin. Sin can come with temporal power, as she knew well. The sin of ingratitude is due to the value we put on temporal things. All of this comes from Marguerite, who takes it from the Benedictines. It is a different emphasis from the orthodox Protestant and Catholic teaching of the time. Therefore, a strong emphasis in Elizabeth is on transformation, which moves away from Protestant ideas, and also some Catholic thinking.
According to Barry Collett, Elizabeth even goes as far as to say she may become divine: 'I saw how He makes Himself me so that I can make myself Him.' She will take on the divine, a process of sanctification guided by providence. Elizabeth reflects on her coming to the throne. Being restored from sin is, for her, part of His plan and one, therefore, that she must give thanks for. Elizabeth sees the transformation of the body politic in England as also a sign of God's Providence.
The standard debate over how much Queen Elizabeth was a Protestant or Catholic needs to be questioned; it is not the key to her spirituality. Her spirituality is being informed by other sources, outside England: Marguerite of Navarre in France and the Benedictines of Santa Giustina in Padua. The monks tried to reconcile the Reformation problem of works; for them this was the wrong problem. Elizabeth searches likewise in her own mind for a solution to the Protestant-Catholic divide, finding it in Greek patristic thought mediated through new European interpretation.
Submission to existing authority was a high expectation in Tudor England, Judith Richards said. One could not say anything nasty about Mary, that she was a Jezebel or such like. John Foxe's Book of Martyrs therefore became an unofficial presentation of the time: 'the horrible and bloody time of Queen Mary'. Bloody Mary, now less Bloody and more Boring Mary, is due mainly to historical rewrites. There is indeed much common ground between the two half-sisters. Both had reason for disliking the Edwardian bishops, especially Bp Ridley, who preached that they were bastards. Both had similar educations, entrenched in humanism. At the start of their reigns, both declared for a broad Henrician church, only excluding the most extreme elements. Both recoiled from the Edwardian reformation.
Mary's hopes for a comprehensive agreement were dashed, in part because she had not read the change in dissent that had happened in England. Catholic restoration was going to be up against it, coming as it did from Mary's Erasmian upbringing. Interestingly, the Bible was planned to be translated into English by the Catholic hierarchy during her reign, with the guidance of Cardinal Reginald Pole, but this never eventuated due to the shortness of her reign. Elizabeth embraced the English Bible during her reign.
Mary was not simply conservative. The polemic of Foxe and others tried to hide the resurgence of Catholicism in England. Foxe may also have written his Martyrs to influence Elizabeth to a more orthodox Protestant position. Foxe, though, expressed total disapproval of burning for heretics and this was atypical of the age. Like Mary, Elizabeth found that she could not turn back the clock.
Under Elizabeth, royal supremacy was restored out of personal necessity. It had to be a repudiation of papal claims on England. In 1559 Elizabeth restored the Prayerbook, with its wording in the Communion of the 'body and blood', not just 'in remembrance'. Elizabeth was lukewarm about preachers and would even rubuke them at times in church, during the sermon. Does she occupy the via media?, Judith Richards queried. It is questionable, there being very many fewer cool Prots than hot Prots in the court. Elizabeth had no one 'on her right'. Politically she was surrounded by clerical advisers who had lived through the ravages of the Marian regime, sharpening their protestantism in European exile. Elizabeth had not been shaped in that way: her formative religious education when young being under her stepmother Katherine Parr, whose role in Elizabeth's life was very important.
As a tendentious conclusion, Judith asked us: what is to be made of a woman who officially shored up for centuries the conservatism of one of the most conservative patriarchal institutions.
Paul Nicholls felt the formulation of the Settlement of Religion (1558-1559) is obscure. Remains are scanty and we cannot interpret the motives of the players. But the signs were there early. Elizabeth's coronation was a triumph of Protestant stage play. She moves early to establish the supremacy of the Church of England, in a parliamentary act. The Supremacy bill and uniformity changes were debated in March 1558, and passed. But the Queen waited, inviting debate between Protestant and Catholic representatives. This debate was rigged to trap the Catholics. If they agreed, then they were seen to disagree with the Pope: disagree, and they were up for treason. They couldn't win.
Other signs were the re-introduction of the Prayerbooks of 1549 and 1552, which combined the two prayers of consecration mentioned earlier by Judith: real presence and commemoration. This Tudor wording was kept right down to our own time, when the Prayerbook was put into modern English. It is the Protestant form of worship in a traditional setting.
Was Elizabeth a closet Catholic? No, she was a thorough-going Protestant, if by Protestant we mean non-papal. She wished to assert the supremacy of the crown over the church. She was a Protestant by upbringing rather than conversion. She approved of the rejection of the 'superstitions' of the old faith, rather than a full embrace of the new. She disliked clergy marriage but approved of Catholic ceremonial, making her an Evangelical of an old-fashioned kind. All of this comes from Katherine Parr's court. Katherine and Elizabeth were Nicodemites, that is, they kept their evangelical interests private. As a girl, Elizabeth took Mass; she favoured prayer over preaching.
The Royal Supremacy was strategically achieved. England was not a Protestant nation at the time of Elizabeth's accession. The country had been through 25 years of religious upheaval. Soon after, the Protestant reaction was swift. There was destruction of religious objects, or 'gear'. Practices began to vary wildly; in fact, liturgical anarchy prevailed. Bishop Parker tried to encourage uniformity with the Queen. Rules were drawn up, but how could they be enforced? The bishops found they had to live with the popularity of various practices. The Puritan radicals were one problem, preaching without the use of the Book of Common Prayer. The conservative (i.e. Catholic) clergy were able to adapt to the new order of 1559. Militant Protestantism was asserted, but the rhythms of the old religion continued in different ways.