But within the court, and through the nation, the bitter battle of the Reformation raged, and created a problem that many thought would baffle and destroy the Queen. She was a Protestant; the country was two-thirds, perhaps three-quarters, Catholic.39 Most of the magistrates, all of the clergy, were Catholic. The Protestants were confined to the southern ports and industrial towns; they were predominant in London, where their number was swelled by refugees from oppression on the Continent; but in the northern and western counties—almost entirely agricultural—they were a negligible few.40 The spirit of the Protestants, however, was immeasurably more ardent than the Catholic. In 1559 John Foxe published his Rerum in ecclesia gestarum … commentant, describing with passion the sufferings of Protestants under the preceding reign; the volumes were translated (1563) as Actes and Monuments; popularly known as The Book of Martyrs, they had an arousing influence on English Protestants for over a century. Protestantism in the sixteenth century had the feverish energy of a new idea fighting for the future; Catholicism had the strength of traditional beliefs and ways deeply rooted in the past.
In a spreading minority the religious turmoil had generated skepticism—even, here and there, atheism. The conflict of creeds, their mutual criticism, their bloody intolerance, and the contrast between the professions and the conduct of Christians, had made some matter-of-fact minds doubtful of all theologies. Hear Roger Ascham’s Scholemaster (1563):
That Italian that first invented the Italian Proverb against our Englishmen Italianate, meant no more their vanity in living than their lewd opinion in Religion … They make more account of Tully’s offices [Cicero’s De officiis] than St. Paul’s epistles; of a tale in Boccaccio than a story of the Bible. Then they count as fables the holy mysteries of the Christian Religion. They make Christ and his Gospel only serve civil policy; then neither religion [Protestantism or Catholicism] cometh amiss to them. In time they be promoters of both openly; in place again mockers of both privily … For where they dare, in company where they like, they boldly laugh to scorn both Protestant and Papist. They care for no Scripture … they mock the Pope; they rail on Luther … The heaven they desire is only their personal pleasure and private profit; whereby they plainly declare of whose school … they be: that is, Epicures in living, and atheoi in doctrine.41
Cecil complained (1569) that “deriders of religion, Epicureans, and atheists are everywhere”;42 John Strype declared (1571) that “many were wholly departed from the communion of the church, and came no more to hear divine service”;43 John Lyly (1579) thought “there never were such sects among the heathens … such misbelief among infidels, as is now among scholars.”44 Theologians and others wrote books against “atheism”—which, however, could mean belief in God but disbelief in Christ’s divinity. In 1579, 1583, and 1589 men were burned for denying the divinity of Christ.45 Several dramatists—Greene, Kyd, Marlowe—were reputed atheists. The Elizabethan drama, which otherwise so widely pictures life, contains remarkably little about the strife of faiths, but makes a great play of pagan mythology.
In Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (IV, iii, 250) are two obscure lines:
O paradox! black is the badge of hell,
The hue of dungeons and the school of night.
Many46 have interpreted the last phrase as referring to the evening assemblies of Walter Raleigh, the astronomer Thomas Harriot, the scholar Lawrence Keymis, probably the poets Marlowe and Chapman, and some others, in Raleigh’s country house at Sherborne, for the study of astronomy, geography, chemistry, philosophy, and theology. Harriot, apparently the intellectual leader of the group, “had strange thoughts of the Scriptures,” reported the antiquary Anthony à Wood, “and always undervalued the old story of the creation … He made a Philosophical Theology, wherein he cast off the Old Testament”; he believed in God, but rejected revelation and the divinity of Christ.47 Robert Parsons, the Jesuit, wrote in 1592 of “Sir Walter Rawleigh’s school of Atheisme … wherein both Moyses and our Saviour, the olde and Newe Testamentes are jested at, and the schollers taught … to spell God backwards.”48 Raleigh was accused of having listened to Marlowe’s reading of an essay on “atheism.” In March 1594 a government commission sat at Cerne Abbes, Dorset, to investigate rumors of a set of atheists in the vicinity—which included Raleigh’s home. The inquiry led to no action now known to us, but charges of atheism were brought against Raleigh during his trial (1603).49 In the preface to his History of the World he made it a point to enlarge upon his belief in God.
Some suspicion of freethinking clings to Elizabeth herself. “No woman,” said John Richard Green, “ever lived who was so totally destitute of the sentiment of religion.”50 “Elizabeth,” in Froude’s judgment, “was without distinct emotional conviction … Elizabeth, to whom the Protestant creed was as little true as the Catholic … had a latitudinarian contempt for theological dogmatism.”51 She called upon God—with terrible oaths that horrified her ministers—to destroy her if she did not keep her promise to marry Alençon, while in private she jested over his pretensions to her hand.52 She declared to a Spanish envoy that the difference between the warring Christian creeds was “a mere bagatelle”—whereupon he concluded that she was an atheist.53
Nevertheless she took it for granted, like almost all governments before 1789, that some religion, some supernatural source and sanction of morality, was indispensable to social order and the stability of the state. For a time, till she had consolidated her position, she appeared to hesitate, and she played upon the hopes of Catholic potentates that she might be won to their public faith. She liked the Catholic ceremony, the celibacy of the clergy, the drama of the Mass, and she might have made her peace with the Church had not this involved submission to the papacy. She distrusted Catholicism as a foreign power that might lead Englishmen to put loyalty to the Church above allegiance to the Queen. She had been reared in the Protestantism of her father, which was Catholicism minus the papacy; and this is essentially what she decided to re-establish in England. She hoped that the semi-Catholic liturgy of her Anglican Church would mollify the Catholics of the countryside, while the rejection of the papacy would satisfy the Protestants of the towns; meanwhile state control of education would form the new generation to this Elizabethan settlement, and the disruptive religious strife would be quieted into peace. She made her hesitations in religion, as in marriage, serve her political purposes; she kept potential enemies bemused and divided until she could face them with an accomplished fact.
Many forces urged her to complete the Reformation. Continental re-formers wrote to thank her in advance for restoring the new worship, and their letters touched her. Holders of formerly Church property prayed for a Protestant settlement. Cecil urged Elizabeth to make herself the leader of all Protestant Europe. London Protestants indicated their sentiments by beheading a statue of St. Thomas and casting it into the street. Her first Parliament (January 23 to May 8, 1559) was overwhelmingly Protestant. The funds she asked for were voted without reservation or delay, and to raise them a tax was laid upon all persons, ecclesiastical or secular. A new Act of Uniformity (April 28, 1559) made Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, revised, the law of English liturgy, and forbade all other religious ritual. The Mass was abolished. All Englishmen were required to attend the Sunday service of the Anglican Church or forfeit a shilling for the succor of the poor. A new Act of Supremacy (April 29) declared Elizabeth to be the Supreme Governor of England in all matters, spiritual or temporal. An oath of supremacy acknowledging the religious sovereignty of the Queen was required of all clergymen, lawyers, teachers, university graduates, and magistrates, and all employees of the Church or the Crown. All major ecclesiastical appointments and decisions were to be made by an ecclesiastical Court of High Commission chosen by the government. Any defense of papal authority over England was to be punished by life imprisonment for the first offense, by death for the second (1563). By 1590 all English churches were Protestant.
Elizabeth pretended that she was not persecuting opinion; any man, she said, might think and believe as he pleased, provided he obeyed the laws; all she asked was external conformity for the sake of national unity. Cecil assured her that “that state could never be in safety where there was toleration of two religions”54—which did not deter Elizabeth from demanding toleration of French Protestants in Catholic France.55 She had no objection to peaceful hypocrisy, but freedom of opinion was not to be freedom of speech. Preachers who disagreed with her views on any important subject were silenced or dismissed.56 The laws against heresy were redefined and enforced; Unitarians and Anabaptists were outlawed;57 five heretics were burned during the reign—which seemed a modest number in its day.
In 1563 a convocation of theologians defined the new creed. All were agreed on predestination; God of His own free will, before the creation of the world, and without regard to individual human merit or demerit, had chosen some of mankind to be elect and saved, leaving all the rest to be reprobate and damned. They accepted Lutheran justification (salvation) by faith—that is, the elect were saved not by their good works but by belief in the grace of God and the redeeming blood of Christ; however, they interpreted the Eucharist in Calvin’s sense as a spiritual, rather than a physical, communion with Christ. By an act of Parliament (1566) the “Thirty-nine Articles” embodying the new theology were made obligatory on all the clergy of England; and they still express the official Anglican creed.
The new ritual too was a compromise. The Mass was abolished, but, to the horror of the Puritans, the clergy were instructed to wear white surplices in reading the service, and copes in administering the Eucharist. Communion was to be received kneeling, in the two forms of bread and wine. The invocation of saints was replaced by annual commemoration of Protestant heroes. Confirmation and ordination were retained as sacred rites, but were not viewed as sacraments instituted by Christ; and con fession to a priest was encouraged only in expectation of death. Many of the prayers kept Roman Catholic forms, but took on English dress and became a noble and formative part of the nation’s literature. For four hundred years those prayers and hymns, recited by congregation and priest in the spacious splendor of cathedrals or the simple dignity of the parish church, have given English families inspiration, consolation, moral discipline, and mental peace.