Creating Elizabeth’s Via Media

R. E. Foster reconsiders the origins of the Church Settlement of 1559.

According to the BBC’s millennium poll, Elizabeth I was our greatest monarch. Putting the case for Elizabeth, Michael Portillo made clear why her appeal endures: she sought unity and urged tolerance – in sharp contrast to her father and siblings. In no aspect of her rule was this seemingly more apparent than in her religious settlement, ‘Her Majesty’, in Francis Bacon’s phrase, ‘not liking to make windows into men’s hearts and secret thoughts’. In reality, however, the historical record is uncertain: the Queen’s thoughts are rarely revealed and the kaleidoscope of influences which contributed to the settlement are various and complex. Even the fundamental premise that her underlying objective was a compromise predicated upon tolerance can be questioned. 

Popular Belief

One apparent example of Elizabeth’s commonsensical approach to her religious settlement was that she was in tune with the nation. A.G. Dickens asserted that the 1559 Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity would be inexplicable without recognition of the fact that protestantism had made significant strides by 1558. True, it was firmly established in London, a fair chunk of the south-east, in parts of East Anglia and specific urban centres such as Bristol and Coventry, even indeed as far afield as the textile villages of Gloucestershire and the Yorkshire towns of Rotherham and Wakefield. Yet the pattern suggested by the last generation of research is an unsymmetrical one. Lancashire and Cornwall remained very conservative in religious outlook. So, more surprisingly, did parts of Sussex and Hampshire. Such findings have led to the suggestion that English protestantism was less a cause than a consequence of the Elizabethan settlement.

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