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Collins: The Protestantism of Elizabeth I

Reformation Anglicanism

By the Revd Canon Chuck Collins

The Protestantism of Elizabeth I

Twelve-year old Princess Elizabeth gave her stepmother, Katherine Parr, an extraordinary new year’s present December 30, 1545. It was a small book covered in blue silk that she hand-embroidered with two red and silver initials: HR (Henry Rex) and KP (Katherine Parr). The book was a long letter that she wrote in French to Katherine along with her own translation of the first chapter of John Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion. This was the first translation of the 1541 French edition of the Institutes, and only one of two translations of any of Calvin’s writings known in England before the end of the reign of King Henry VIII in 1547. The year before her new year’s gift to Katherine was her translation of  Marguerite d’Angoulême’s A Godly Medytacyon of the Christian Sowle, what propagandist John Bale called: “a godly Protestant manifesto.”

Young Elizabeth’s tutors were humanist evangelicals, so it was no accident that her studies included languages and the new religion that was gaining popularity in England. But translating the Swiss reformer into English as a gift for her queen mother in the last years of King Henry’s life was daring and tricky. She wanted to show her love and appreciation to Katherine who had supported her and who was a quiet evangelical (Protestant) herself, without raising the ire of her Catholic and religiously unpredictable father. Walking this delicate road, Elizabeth didn’t mention Calvin or the title of his work anywhere in her letter or in the translation, describing him only as “my author,” and near the end of her letter she described the translation as “a little book whose thesis or subject, Saint Paul said, surpasses the capacity of every creature.” Clearly this gift was more than a classroom assignment; it shows Elizabeth’s incredible intellect and her sympathetic leanings towards Protestantism.

When that twelve-year old grew up, Elizabeth developed something of a wax nose in her preferences for the new Protestant religion. As Queen of England and Ireland for 44 years Elizabeth was mostly interested in keeping peace in the realm between moderate Protestants who supported the 1559 Prayer Book and the more vociferous nonconformist Puritans who were sure that its reforms didn’t go far enough. In 1550 the Protestant Bishop John Hooper wrote the Swiss reformer Heinrich Bullinger that Elizabeth was “inflamed with the same zeal for the religion of Christ” as that of her brother Edward VI. In her personal Bible the queen inscribed  in the flyleaf: “I walke many times in the pleasaunt fieldes of the holye scriptures, Where I plucke up the goodlie greene herbes of sentences by pruning: Eate the[m] by reading: Chawe the[m] by musing.” Her appointment of three decidedly Protestant Archbishops of Canterbury shows her commitment to a church that is thoroughly biblical, confessionally orthodox, pastorally generous, and liturgically beautiful. There is no reason to doubt Elizabeth’s essential and unwavering Protestantism, and her personal commitment to the historic Anglican formularies: the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion (1571), the Book of Common Prayer (1559 and 1662), and the Edwardian and Elizabethan books of Homilies. This is the famous “Elizabethan Settlement.” 

On the other hand she was religiously complicated; she said and did some things that had some Protestants scratching their heads. For example, she strongly believed that clergy should remain celibate (although she never enforced this), she kept a crucifix in her private chapel for devotion, ordered the use of the prescribed homilies (written sermons) and forbade the popular “exercises of prophesying” where clergy gathered to hear sermons and pray for one another, and she opposed the Calvinistic Lambeth Articles (1595), either because her view on predestination was more moderate (like Article 17 of the Thirty-nine Articles) or because she was upset with Archbishop Whitgift for introducing them without her approval.

Commenting on Elizabeth’s religion as Queen and Supreme Governor of the Church of England, historian Diarmaid MacCulloch said:

“Sometimes she has been seen as a Henrician Catholic, pushed into a more Protestant settlement by those around her. This is a clear mistake. Elizabeth was an evangelical, but of a distinctive and (in the conditions of the late 1550s) an extremely old-fashion variety. She disliked the marriage of clergy and enjoyed more ceremonial and decoration in worship than her half-brother would have considered tolerable. If we want to place her beliefs, we should do so not at the court of Edward, but at the court of Henry VIII and Catherine Parr in the mid-1540s. This was the era when Elizabeth had first been given a role of dignity, when she became one of the elite of children who enjoyed an exceptional rich and privileged education.

Reformation scholar Roland Bainton wrote, “If there be any who doubt the sincerity of her religious sentiment let them ponder this her private prayer”:

“This God of my life and life of my soul, the King of all comfort, is my only refuge. For his sake therefore, to who thou hast given all power, and wilt deny no petition, hear my prayers. Turn thy face from my sins (O Lord) and thine eyes to they handiwork. Create a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me. Order my steps in thy word, that no wickedness have dominion over me, make me obedient to thy will, and delight in thy law. Grant me grace to live godly and to govern justly: that so living to please thee and reigning to serve thee I may even glorify thee, the Father of all goodness and mercy.”