Religion and Politics in Elizabethan England

The Age of Elizabeth is considered by many to have been a golden era in the history of England. Politically it was a time of relative peace, economically it was a time of prosperity and socially it was an era of advancement in art and culture.

Regardless of all this Elizabeth ’s reign from 1558-1603 was filled with a lot of religiopolitical turmoil. The source of most of this trouble was the Catholic church’s refusal to acknowledge Elizabeth as a legitimate heir to the English throne. As a mark of Papal displeasure, the Pope issued a Papal Bull excommunicating Elizabeth, thereby relieving all Catholics of their duty to be loyal to the Queen. This put Elizabeth and her Parliament in an extremely uncomfortable position because she was keenly aware of how political revolution could rear its head under the guise of religious rhetoric.

It then became a matter of national security for the Queen to make sure that her subjects were loyal to her and not the Pope. In order to accomplish this, she demanded that everyone in the country become Protestants overnight and as a sign of their commitment to the new church they were required to attend Protestant services weekly.

This gave rise to a movement of recusancy among Catholics who were unwilling to violate their conscience by pretending to be Protestant. Elizabeth though aware of the recusant community was happy to turn a blind eye to the movement until the discovery of a series of assassination plots on her life pointed to the direct or indirect involvement of many recusants. What followed was a swift and ruthless crackdown on recusant Catholics which included fines and penalties for those who attended mass and harbored Catholic priests.

Claims to the Throne and The Jesuits

The situation worsened when Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots showed up on Elizabeth’s doorstep seeking political asylum. Mary was a Catholic and she was also Elizabeth’s niece, being her cousin James’ daughter, which meant she had a claim to the throne of England. The Catholic church encouraged this claim and Mary herself no doubt felt it was legitimate. For Elizabeth, it was an unwanted complication. The Pope and Philip II were yapping at her heels trying to depose her on one hand (Philip believed he had a claim to the throne being the widower of the deceased Mary Tudor) and then here was Catholic cousin Mary sailing into England having a legitimate claim to the throne as well.  Elizabeth couldn’t turn her away but she chose to keep a close eye on her by placing her under house arrest.

Added to all this the Jesuit counter-reformation had been quietly set in motion under the watchful eye of the Spanish priest Ignatius Loyola years before Elizabeth’s reign and now had its guns trained on the new Queen. It was not an easy time to be a Catholic in England but it wasn’t an easy time to be a Protestant on the continent either. Pope Pius IV then added to the situation by condemning Catholic participation in Protestant services as sinful which meant that any Catholic who did attend a Protestant service was in danger of hellfire.

The recusant movement grew more determined and possibly also more militant out of sheer frustration at the lack of religious freedom. Many of them were sincere Catholics who wanted the freedom to worship according to the dictates of their conscience but since their conscience was dictated to by the Pope and he had somewhat seditious ideas regarding the Queen the entire situation was complicated, to say the least.

In 1580 the first Jesuit priests set foot in England with a singular purpose of preserving the Catholic faith in England. Edward Campion and Robert Persons claimed they had no interest in politics or in waging a holy war, however, what Campion wrote in 1580 in his brag smacked of mildly seditious ideas. He wrote  “the expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God, it cannot be withstood. So the faith that was planted must be restored”. The only way to restore the faith that was planted was to get rid of the Queen who had supplanted it in the first place. Such religious intentions while looked upon by Catholics as a promise of missionary zeal were looked upon by Protestants and more precisely by the Queen as dangerous politically charged religious rhetoric. Campion was hunted down, caught, racked and burned at the stake as a warning to all Jesuits and their accomplices.

The Spanish Armada

Since the more subtle methods of disposing of the Queen of England weren’t really working, Philip and his Catholic alliance then turned to more overt measures. In addition to the fact that there was a Protestant monarch on the English throne, it seemed like France was in danger of going the same way as England.

Philip mustered the largest fleet ever assembled in an attempt to not only defeat Protestantism in England but also in France as well. The Spanish Armada sailed in 1588 and thought it made a valiant attempt to secure its end it was defeated by the English Army. The fleet limped back home with their tails between their legs having lost over half their ships and nothing to show for it.

The Rise of Puritanism

But while the Catholics viewed the Queen as an enemy of the church there were some Protestants in England who viewed her as being not Protestant enough. Elizabeth wanted a brand of Protestantism that would be socially and politically inclusive and would avoid the threat of Civil war at all costs. However many of those who had been exiles in Geneva during Mary Tudor’s reign of terror wanted the kind of Calvinist Protestantism that was completely contrary to Elizabeth’s brand of middle-ground politically correct Protestantism.

Another angle was that the lack of suitably trained ministers hampered efforts to instill Protestantism among the people which meant that though England was officially Protestant in its outlook the people, in general, were not necessarily Protestant in practice.  Puritans largely differed from their conformist Elizabethan peers not in the theory of doctrinal values but in their commitment to seeing those values thoroughly incorporated into everyday life. They wanted to instill the kind of Bible religion in the lives of people that would bring about true heart conversion and it was to this end that they championed their cause.

They wanted to see the Scriptures become the central focus of worship in England and pushed to see more Biblical teaching, preaching, and education. They also wanted to get rid of things that had even the slightest savor of Catholic tradition and move towards a governance structure that was completely different. Their religious fervor was often, unintentionally, socially and politically divisive.

Socioeconomic Changes under Elizabeth I

In addition to the religiopolitical movements of Elizabeth’s reign, there were also significant socioeconomic shifts as well. During her reign, the nobility was declining both in terms of their social importance and also their economic prowess. The gentry, upper-middle-class industrialist landowners, were rapidly rising to prominence. They had made their fortune through commerce and had then amassed large estates making them not only rich but also well educated. Many of them were appointed as advisors to the Queen or were members of the House of Commons in the English Parliament.

Economic trade was increasing and industry was developing rapidly which was giving rise to middle-class merchants making large fortunes. It was an era of the rise of the working class to the status of the middle and upper middle class not by means of old money but by means of acquired money. This led the gentry to demand more of a say in government and with many of them being sympathetic to the Puritan cause they also wanted to see the church of England reformed and were willing to use political means to secure their end.

James I and The Puritans

The tensions that had been building over the years of Elizabeth’s reign began to erupt when she died in 1603 without having produced an heir. The next nearest male relative and heir to the throne was James VI of Scotland who then became James I of England. The Puritans saw him as their most viable hope for bringing about true Reformation in England. He was after all a strong Protestant who had been raised in Scotland away from the Catholic influences of his mother Mary Stuart.

But their hopes were bitterly disappointed when James vetoed many of the Puritan moves toward more decided reform. One such move was commissioning the King James version of the Bible which removed the additional footnotes that had been inserted into versions like the Geneva Bible. This was a move to reduce the hold of Calvinism on the church of England but it was seen as an attempt to water down the pillars of Protestantism by the Puritans.

Many Puritans were discouraged by this lack of reform and religious freedom and it was during the reign of King James that many of them set sail for America in search of guaranteed religious and civil liberty.

James I and The Catholics

However, it was not easy to be King during the reign of James I.  Not only was he unpopular with the Puritans and the Parliament he was also unpopular with the Catholics. The recusant movement had been growing stronger and bolder during the reign of Elizabeth I despite repeated efforts to snuff it out. When James came to the throne in 1603 many of the Catholics had had enough. Not only were they faced with another Protestant Monarch but they also had to bear the bitterness of seeing radical Protestants in control of the parliament.

A daring plot was hatched by a group of recusant Catholics led by Robert Catesby to blow up parliament with the King and members of Parliament inside.  They rented a ground floor vault directly under the House of Lords and ferried all their gunpowder from Catesby’s house in Lambeth to Westminster. Fawkes, a former explosives expert in the Spanish navy, was the man designated to set the entire thing to detonate. The plot was uncovered by Lord Monteagle who received an anonymous tip-off on the night of the 4th of November. 

In the early hours of the morning on the 5th of November 1605, Fawkes was discovered, fully dressed and ready to ride at a moment’s notice, with a watch, a match and 36 barrels of gunpowder crowded into the tiny vault directly under the parliament.

All the plotters and their associates were arrested in a series of raids conducted throughout England. Catesby and Fawkes were put to death while others received varying degrees of punishment depending on their involvement in the plot.

It was a dark day for England and a reminder of how important it is for religion and politics to remain separate. To Catesby and his associates, the matter of restoring Catholicism to England was one of eternal importance.  The concept of waging a holy war on the Crown in order to see eternal good come upon the nation was not looked on as radical but necessary. In such cases, as these, the end amply justified the means in the minds of each player.

Ultimately the King and the members of Parliament lived to see another day but the remainder of James I reign was fraught with constant political friction between himself and the Parliament.

Political Impact

The main cause for the political friction between the King and his Parliament was the King’s desire to reign with absolute power. This meant that the King would have more power than the Parliament which was contrary to the traditional methods of government that had been established in England. The Parliament was strongly opposed to the idea of absolutism and resisted every move the King made towards furthering this agenda.

When the King introduced a Royal court system it infuriated the Parliament. The system operated not by common law but by Roman law which meant that a case could only be tried by a judge appointed by the King. It was a move to monopolize the legal system and place the King above the law. Parliament then began to step up its opposition to the King by trying to limit his broadening power base. One maneuver they tried in 1621 was to force the King’s first minister Francis Bacon to resign. In retaliation the King had some of the members of the house executed. A nasty breach between the King and Parliament was imminent but the King was lucky enough to die before it widened.  

Charles I

When James’ heir took the throne as Charles I in 1625 the situation worsened. In desperation the Parliament to present the new King with a list of demands known as the petition of right in 1629. The focus of the petition was to significantly limit the King’s power by forcing him to share his power base equally with the Parliament. Charles refused to sign the petition and dissolved Parliament not recalling it into session for 11 years. During that time he ruled on his own without the help or sanction of the governing body.

Charles time of sole rulership led him to make decisions that were considered by many at the time to be illegal. This further muddied the waters of his already tenuous reign. He also increased the repression of Puritanism prompting key leaders of the gentry and Puritans to begin to plan ways of limiting the authority the King had taken upon himself by force.

The longed-for turning point came in the form of a crisis in 1639 when a Scottish army invaded England. This forced Charles to convene parliament in order to raise the funds to fight them. Charles called a session of Parliament in 1640. The Parliament, led by the puritan John Pym, immediately called for the King to make concessions and meet their demands which the King refused to do. The parliament in turn refused to release funds for the war which led to a stalemate. In the face of this impasse Parliament moved to pass laws which put into effect many of their demands but they did this without the signature of the King. This move pitted the Parliament directly against the King and was considered to be open rebellion. The parliamentary demands ranged from political initiatives to religious reforms and many of them were put forward by Oliver Cromwell, a leading member of Commons.

Charles seeing his entire power base threatened ordered the arrest of John Pym and four other members of parliament for treason. The attempt failed because the members in question evaded the arrest and went into hiding in Westminster. Later in June of 1642 Parliament sent the King a final list of demands stipulating that he hand over complete control of the church, the army and his ministers and judges to parliament.  The King refused to comply and both parties moved to assemble armies signaling that civil war was imminent.

The English Civil War

War broke out between 1642 and 1647 and the lines of division were drawn between the Puritans, who were supported by the large cities, the middle classes and the gentry, and the King who was backed by the nobility. The way the party lines were drawn gave evidence that many citizens were willing to reject years of tradition, stability, and loyalty to the monarchy in order to attempt radical social and religious reform.

At the end of the first year, the parliament was gaining the upper hand and a group of radical Puritans under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell began to campaign for religious changes. They called for the abolition of the Church of England proposing a new kind of church governance made up of independent local congregations which would be led by Bishops. Each congregation would have complete freedom of worship and total religious tolerance. These were issues  that the Puritans had called for since the reign of Elizabeth I; civil and religious liberty and the separation of church and state

However, Cromwell’s ideas were considered slightly too radical by some of the more moderate Puritans who called themselves Presbyterians. They opposed Cromwell’s plans and called for the establishment of Calvinism as the main doctrinal position of the Church of England. In 1645 Cromwell persuaded the Parliament to reorganize its army which resulted in the New Model Army, an intense force of zealous Puritans who marched to war in the strength of battlefield sermons, hymns, and prayer. They won against the King’s forces in the battle of Naseby in 1646 and shortly thereafter the King surrendered.

The Anatomy of Regicide

Once the King had surrendered the Independents and the Presbyterians squabbled over what to do with him. Cromwell and the Independents favored the nuclear option of executing him and declaring a republic. Their logic was that as long as the king lived he would be a rallying point for the opposition to pin their hopes upon. The Presbyterians, on the other hand, dialled it back a notch and suggested that he be put back on the throne as a figurehead. The arguments intensified until things took an unexpectedly dramatic turn. The Presbyterians couldn’t accept the idea of executing a legitimate King. They were appalled that their cause had turned from a military push for civil and religious liberty into a revolution calling for regicide and a republic.  They abruptly deserted the revolution and allied themselves with the King and the scots.

The war resumed with the lines being redrawn between the New Model Army fighting the alliance of the King, the Presbyterians, and the Scots. In only a year the New Model Army was victorious again and the King was captured. The civil war ended in 1647 and the control of England now fell to the most radical Puritan revolutionaries. Their aim was total social, political and religious revolution in England and they began this by ejecting all Presbyterians from Parliament and leaving only those who were sympathetic to their cause, thus forming what was called a Rump Parliament.

They then proceeded to abolish the House of Lords and the upper house of the nobility. The King was tried for treason, convicted and beheaded in public view on a scaffold outside Whitehall Palace in 1649.

Cromwell and The Republic

After the execution of the King, Cromwell and his Independent Party declared England a republic and named it the Commonwealth. Immediately after this, the entire fabric of English tradition began to fall apart.

The new Parliament, with Cromwell at its head, soon began to feel the effects of what they had done. The overthrow of traditional establish authority in England paved the way for radicalism to rear its head in every nook and crevice of the nation. Cromwell spent more time stamping out radical groups than governing, but he did manage some religiopolitical reforms.

Cromwell’s agenda was to create a constitutional Parliament with  full religious freedom for all faiths. This was a new concept and the Parliament struggled to agree to such a radical notion. After a protracted debate the exasperated Cromwell dissolved Parliament and decided to rule England alone. His new system was named a Protectorate and he named himself Lord Protector, thus becoming an absolute leader. It was an ironic situation considering the fact that Cromwell now occupied  the very position which had led the Independants to commit regicide. He then appointed 11 generals from the army to help him rule, making each responsible for a specific area of the country.

An additional irony was that Cromwell, a man championing civil and religious liberty, set up a system of governance that was diametrically opposed to the values he claimed to espouse. And so it was that the man who stood up as a spiritual revolutionary to bring freedom of conscience and worship to England turned himself into a military dictator almost overnight. The lesson to be gleaned from the evolution of Oliver Cromwell are mind boggling.

The Restoration

Cromwell died in 1659 and after a brief period of military rule under the leadership of General Monck, the English leadership came together to deliberate what form of government they preferred. They all agreed that England desperately needed a monarch to bring stability to the country.

They then wrote to the exiled son of Charles I asking him to return and take the throne. So it came about that a Stuart heir once more ascended the throne in 1660 as Charles II. This was the beginning of a period known as the Restoration which was essentially a period of time that undid many of the social reforms that had taken place under Cromwell.

Cromwell had shut down taverns, banned theatres, dancing and partying in general. Charles II restored all these diversions and spearheaded a crackdown on Puritanism as a whole. However, in terms of politics, the King’s power was significantly limited and the power of the Parliament greatly increased making the English model of governance a more representative one.

Charles II didn’t like the new system of government but he didn’t really have a choice. He loathed the idea of being accountable to the Parliament, a situation that became more pronounced under the rule of his successor and brother James II.

The Glorious Revolution 

James II came to power in 1685 and he was a staunch Catholic. There was a concerted effort to exclude him from succession but in the end, he managed to overcome the opposition. As soon as he ascended the throne he promptly began to restore Catholicism in England. Parliament was exasperated and decided to depose him but they didn’t really want another bloody civil war.

An investigation into the matter of succession revealed that the next in line to the English throne was William of Orange, Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic. William’s claim to the throne was through his wife Mary who was James’ Protestant daughter. Parliament promptly sent them a secret message inviting William to invade England with a Protestant Army and to take the throne.

Parliament promised that they would not oppose him and they also predicted that the English Army would not fight on behalf of their Catholic King, James II. William and Mary liked the idea, recruited an army and landed on the English coast with the openly stated intention of taking the throne.

Parliament welcomed him with open arms and, as predicted, the Army refused to fight for James. The King then fled the country and William entered London in triumph to take the throne with his co-regent and wife Mary. The move became known as the Glorious or Bloodless Revolution of 1688 in which not a drop of blood was shed in the unseating of one Monarch and the enthroning of another.

Upon taking the throne William and Mary signed into law two acts of Parliament. The first was the Bill of rights which clearly outlined the Parliament’s power to govern the nation and the second was the Act of Toleration which ensured religious freedom for all.

England now had what she had wanted for a long time, a moderately Protestant monarch and a Parliament that had a representative model of governance. This ensured religious freedom, political stability and a decided move away from absolutism. England then became a truly constitutional monarchy with a clear delineation between church and state.