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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Protestants Versus Catholics: Religion in Elizabethan England

Shakespeare was well acquainted with the religious tensions of his age between the Catholics and the Protestants, and inevitably drew connections between the violent civil Wars of the Roses and the current threat of civil war over religion that many Elizabethans feared. Although it is highly contested, many historians believe that Shakespeare himself was a covert Catholic and would have intimately understood the secrecy, confusion, suspicion and potential punishment that accompanied following the old religion under Elizabeth. Shakespeare sneakily employs religious references and symbolism that his audiences would have been acutely aware of to talk about his tumultuous age and the way the Queen oversaw the nation’s religious affairs.

The young Queen Elizabeth I.

When Elizabeth was made Queen of England after the death of Mary Tudor on November 17, 1558, her people had good reason to be concerned. Within more or less the past decade the nation had gone from Protestant under Edward VI to Catholic under Mary and now back to Protestant. If famine, plague, inflation, and war with France and Scotland were not bad enough, now there was the threat of religious upheaval and the violent persecution that accompanied it.

Bloody Mary Tudor.

Neither Elizabeth nor her government was very enthusiastic at first about religious reform, knowing the problems that would ensure. At first, she simply banned preaching altogether to try and keep the peace, desperately afraid of Catholic revolt. Most Catholics were equally optimistic, assuming that a Catholic husband was all Elizabeth needed. It was the Protestant population, in fact, who wanted revenge for their fellow Englishmen who were exiled, imprisoned and burnt at the stake under Queen Mary. But as the crown began to seem more unstable in light of Elizabeth’s unmarried status and rumblings of a Scottish invasion that would seat Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne, Elizabeth sought to “reduce the realm to conformity” (Jones 19).

In 1559, Parliament passed the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity, which made Elizabeth the head of the Church with the help of an Ecclesiastical High Commission, or religious police, and returned the nation to Protestantism as it had been under Edward VI. Furthermore, anyone who denied the Queen’s authority over the church was punishable by death and those in office in the church and state were required to take an oath declaring as much. Protestants primarily objected to Catholic mass given in Latin, as it was “against the word of God to use a tongue unknown to the people of common prayer,” and the superstitious, ostentation of idols, images, altars, rosaries and Catholic rituals in general. The Book of Common Prayer from 1552 was adopted, which in particular allowed for a looser interpretation of the Eucharist. When it came to the destruction of images and altars, windows were replaced, idols destroyed and tables replaced altars. Elizabeth even sent out inspectors to make sure that it was done, unlike Queen Mary when she instated the Catholic ceremonies.

Elizabethans were very confused about religion. They did not know whether their God was a wrathful or a benevolent one, or what the fundamental differences were between the old and the new faiths. Many became “jacks of both sides” in order to escape notice, and at first, it seemed to work (Jones 18). However, devout Protestants wanted the Catholics purged and Elizabeth herself continued her reforms by creating a new calendar, translating the Book of Common Prayer in Latin for the universities and hanging the Ten Commandments where altars once were. Catholics were associated with witchcraft and necromancy, and even William Cecil, Elizabeth’s closest advisor, used this belief as an excuse to make political arrests.

The Tyburn tree in London, where Catholic martyrs were killed.

1563 marked a real turning point in the treatment of Catholics, and it was after Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion were finally accepted in 1566 that Elizabeth no longer looked like a more lenient ruler than her predecessor. The articles were intended to purge the Book of Common Prayer of any vestigial “popery,” clergy were given specific forms of dress, including collars and square caps, grammar schools were to be installed in each cathedral, both clergy members and laity had to be more studious, and the church would reallocate its funds (Jones 51-2). The articles were highly contested on the subject of, what else, uniforms for clergymen, and Elizabeth herself was furious that they had been drafted behind her back.

Edmund Campion and the Tyburn tree.

But after several riots over the articles, debates that widened the gap between Protestantism and Catholicism, more plots related to Mary in Scotland, and a new Act of Treason, Catholics were exiled and imprisoned en masse. At first, Elizabeth did not want to outright execute Catholics, attempting to distinguish her own rule from that of Mary Tudor. But the rebellion led by Edmund Campion and Robert Persons proved to be the limit, and these men became the first Catholic martyrs under Elizabeth. After that, Catholics were persecuted no differently than their Protestant counter parts had been, such as the Northern rebellion led by the Earl of Norfolk in 1559 that sought to put Mary on the throne. Elizabeth destroyed the rebel army and plundered the region in response, hanging 800 men in the first month of 1570. Catholics were no longer just enemies of the church to be reprimanded, but intolerable enemies of the nation.

The execution of Mary Stuart in the 2007 Cate Blanchett film, Elizabeth, the Golden Age.

It was around this time that Elizabeth’s suspicions grew of Mary’s involvement in various plots to make her queen. Almost twenty years of plotting went on until, in 1586 Elizabeth finally put her on trial at Fotheringhay Castle and in early 1587, Mary was executed in order to secure Elizabeth’s place on the throne as well as religious control. In 1588, Elizabeth faced yet another Catholic threat from Philip V of Spain, and it was defeating his Armada that finally ensured her English Protestant power.

Defeat of the Spanish Armada


Jones, Norman. The Birth of the Elizabethan Age: England in the 1560s. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishing Inc. 1995. Print.

“Queen Elizabeth I: Biography, Portraits, Primary Sources.” Tudor Monarchs. Web. Accessed 2-26-10. <>.

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