Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 1. The Elizabethan settlement

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XVIII. “Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity”

§ 1. The Elizabethan settlement

THE LONDON of the early days of Elizabeth has been described as a city of ruins. On every side lay the wreck of some religious house which had perished in the days of the dissolution, and had not been supplanted by new edifices. This description of the capital may not inaptly be applied in a wider sense to the condition of England. For more than a generation, the work of destruction in every department of social and political life had been in progress; and, in religion, which then completely overshadowed all other human interests, the old order had collapsed, and the signs of its fall were on every side. The work before the statesmen and divines of the age was emphatically one of reconstruction, which had to be done in the midst of much turmoil and distraction, with foes on every side ready to criticise, to deride and, if possible, to destroy whatever was being erected. Perhaps the most striking and courageous act of the government of Elizabeth was to face the religious problem, a task on which, though complete success was impossible and serious failure would have been disastrous, the fate of the country largely depended.

The destruction of the scholastic system of theology, built up during the middle ages, left the nations of Europe without a theory either of government or religion; and the first results of the reformation had been a series of disastrous experiments in both spheres. Anabaptism and socinianism alike showed the need for protestantism to formulate and define its teaching; and the result was the rise of a new scholasticism. But for this, the entire reformation must have failed in face of the Catholic revival, which was rapidly gaining ground throughout Europe; and it is due to the genius of Calvin that a strong barrier to its progress was erected. Calvin showed at Geneva that he possessed in an eminent degree the power of ruling men and of supplying the moral support for which they craved. He defined the limits of theological speculation; by his action in the matter of Servetus, he proclaimed to the world that he had no sympathy with any attempt to tamper with the fundamentals of Christianity; whilst his Institutes, as was truly said, took the place of the Sentences of Peter Lombard as the groundwork of protestant theology.

But the Genevan church showed itself every whit as masterful and dogmatic as its Roman rival, and its actions were equally justified by an appeal to Divine authority. If the papal dogma rested on the rock of church tradition as defined by the successors of St. Peter, that of Geneva was based on the impregnable rock of Holy Scripture as interpreted by John Calvin. Both churches were agreed in demanding unquestioning obedience and in regarding the civil power as simply an instrument to carry out their decrees. In both, St. Augustine’s ideal Civitas Dei was to be made as real a factor in human politics as circumstances would permit. The nations had practically to choose between two theocracies: the one, venerable with the unbroken tradition of ages; the other, full of the vigour of youth, the inspiration of genius and the confidence that the future of humanity lay in its hands. Elizabeth and her advisers deliberately refused to put England under either.

What England needed most at the accession of Elizabeth was time. The nation was as yet unprepared to make its final decision in the matter of religion; it was exhausted by internal dissensions and a ruinous foreign policy; revolution and reckless experiments had rendered the church almost impotent. Lutheran protestantism, Genevan protestantism, Zwinglianism and the Catholic reaction had all been welcomed and found wanting; and the queen was resolved to have no more experiments. Rome meant Spain and the inquisition; Geneva, the repetition of the miseries and disorders of the reign of Edward VI; and the country was in equal dread of both. Moreover, it was not by any means certain that the divisions of the western church were yet permanent, or the breach between Rome and the northern nations irreparable. The council of Trent had not concluded its sessions and there was still a hope, albeit a faint one, that the Roman church would so reform itself that reunion might be possible. The country had not yet made up its mind between the old religion and the new; and which side it would adopt time and circumstances alone could show.

Accordingly, with the general approval of the nation, Elizabeth temporised; and the arrangement she made in ecclesiastical matters was essentially of the nature of a compromise. The queen and her advisers had the wisdom to recognise the vital necessity of peace both at home and abroad, to give England time to recover from the disasters of the last two reigns. To have precipitated matters would have meant either a foreign or a domestic war—perhaps both. If peace were to be preserved, it was essential to persuade Catholic and protestant alike that nothing final had been done; to allow Philip and Spain to look for the speedy reconciliation of England to the church without unduly damping the expectations of the reformers, on whose support Elizabeth mainly relied. The result was the settlement of 1559, by which the prayer-book and the communion service were restored and episcopacy and such ancient ceremonies as were not absolutely incompatible with the new theology retained. No one believed, perhaps, that the religious policy of Elizabeth possessed any more elements of permanency than those of her predecessors; and the nation acquiesced in what had been done in confident expectation of further developments.

Regarded from the purely political aspect, no legislation could have been more beneficial in its effects than that of the first parliament of Elizabeth. It saved England from the tyranny of a Spanish inquisition and from the horrors of the French wars of religion. It gave the country nearly ten years’ respite from dangerous religious controversy and enabled it to enter upon a new era of progress in almost every department of life. Seldom, if ever, has a religious policy animated by aims so secular as those of the government of Elizabeth proved so complete a success. But it could not do more than mitigate the evils it sought to avoid. It could save England from civil strife, but not from religious dissension. It was not to be expected that fervent enthusiasts on either side would be satisfied with what, after all, was little better than a compromise prompted by the wisdom of statesmen rather than by the spirituality of earnest seekers after the kingdom of God. Events, moreover, moved rapidly during the first years of Elizabeth. It soon became evident that the breach with Rome was final. The attitude of Paul IV towards the overtures made by Elizabeth, the rebellion of the northern earls, the excommunication of the queen by Pius V and the Ridolfi conspiracy showed that all attempts on the part of the queen’s government to leave a door open for reconciliation had hitherto failed, as they were destined to do, despite the attempts to bring about an amicable understanding with Rome which were continued to the last days of the queen’s reign. Abroad, the counter-reformation had begun and soon the massacre of St. Bartholomew was to reveal the lengths to which the papal party was prepared to go. Protestantism had entered upon a struggle for existence with powerful and able opponents, united to crush it and guided with consummate strategy. Against its enemy, the reformation had forces courageous and resolute enough, but divided into almost hostile camps. Was, asked many an ardent reformer in England, his country to stand aside during the great contest, content with a lukewarm adherence to the new doctrines, intended to conciliate protestant and papist alike, and capable of satisfying neither? Such was the state of affairs when, in 1572, Mr. Strickland, an aged gentleman, introduced a bill for the further reformation of the church. The queen promptly silenced interference in church matters in the House of Commons; but, henceforth, it became evident that a strong puritan party was coming forward with a well-thought-out scheme of church government in opposition to the Elizabethan settlement.