Religious Life in the Elizabethan Era

by Benna Crawford

The Elizabethan era was a relatively peaceful and very prosperous time for England, although threats to the crown, natural disasters and religious dissension influenced events. Queen Elizabeth managed a delicate balance among constantly shifting religious and political factions. But during her reign, the Anglican Church definitively gained the upper hand as Roman Catholicism was deliberately contained and marginalized.

Legacy of Henry VIII

Queen Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII, directly opposed the Roman Catholic pope when he divorced Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. His 1534 Act of Supremacy made him the Supreme Head of the Church of England and required all clergy to swear an oath of fealty to Henry, not Rome. The Catholic Church condemned and excommunicated Henry. Religious protests and uprisings targeted the monarchy. Heads rolled and Henry dissolved the powerful monasteries throughout his kingdom, seizing and redistributing their wealth. Decades of turmoil followed as Edward, Henry's successor, burned and destroyed all elaborate religious art, stained glass windows and statues in Catholic churches. Edward's successor Mary I, the daughter of Catherine of Aragon, officially reinstated the Roman Catholic Church, burning Church of England officials and other Protestants at the stake earning the nickname "Bloody Mary." This was the religious battle zone Elizabeth I inherited when she assumed the throne in 1558.

Elizabeth and English Religion

Elizabeth restored the supremacy of the Church of England but had no taste for the murderous zealotry of her predecessors. The "Book of Common Prayer," the vernacular liturgy of Elizabeth's church, supplanted Latin Catholic liturgies. The crown required all people to attend church services using the vernacular liturgy every Sunday and holy day or face a stiff fine, so most complied. Initially, Elizabeth tolerated the practice of Catholicism, allowing Marian priests, holdovers from the Catholic reign of Bloody Mary Tudor, to say Latin Masses and tend to the Catholic faithful. But when Elizabeth's cousin, the Catholic Mary Stuart, became a threat, the uneasy truce deteriorated and the persecution of Catholics and the execution of priests increased. After the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church began openly and covertly plotting to overthrow Elizabeth and place Mary Stuart on the throne and, in 1591, an act of Parliament declared conversion to Catholicism as high treason.

Politics and Puritans

In Elizabethan England, doctrinal choices were never separate from questions of political loyalty. Religious life fragmented into factions under all the competing pressures. Catholic services were scattered and clandestine. Church of England services retained many trappings of Catholicism: elaborate ceremonial garb for priests and bishops; genuflecting and bowing in church and prayer; kneeling to receive communion; using the sign of the cross in baptisms; and ringing bells for church services. But reform-minded Protestants regarded this as papist decadence. Puritans, including Calvinists, Presbyterians and other Protestant faithful, worshiped in simple, stripped-down churches with no ornamentation. Celebrants lived as ordinary people and were free to marry. Strict rules governed daily conduct and there was no hierarchy among bishops. As Protestant intransigence escalated, so did the crown's persecution against them. Ultimately, the Church of England prevailed and was widely accepted. Elizabeth's court became more secular and the prestige, political influence and personal fortunes of all clerical hierarchy plummeted.

Faith and Fairies

Formal religion was not the only source of belief and ritual in Elizabethan England. As controversy and conflict re-shaped religious systems, old superstitions and practices flourished, especially among the common people. Shakespeare wrote stirring plays about witches, ghosts, fairies and spirits because many believed in them. Alchemy and astrology were considered sciences and even the queen consulted a noted astrologer to determine the most auspicious date for her coronation. People carried charms and talismans against mischievous spirits and feared spells. Sunday scripture and spell casting coexisted, as pagan beliefs continued to influence daily life.

About the Author

Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .

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