William Cecil: Life Story

Elizabeth I’s Chief Councillor

Chapter 8 : The Religious Settlement

Whilst the vast majority of the populace outside London and the South East were largely Catholic in their habits and customs, Elizabeth’s immediate advisors were generally Protestant, and many had either been exiles from Mary’s rule or had been hiding their religion under a cloak of conformity and were now eager to continue the Protestant reformation begun in Edward’s reign. This prevalence of Protestants in her Government, led by Cecil, together with a growing dislike of religious persecution (although we need to be careful not to read contemporary reaction solely through the eyes of the martyrologist and vehement Protestant John Foxe) meant a break with Rome was inevitable.

The Pope, himself, not certain of Elizabeth’s views, was hopeful that she might prove a more biddable member of his flock than Mary had, but he was doomed to disappointment. Whilst Elizabeth never discussed her legitimacy or otherwise, it would be hard for her to accept the Roman Catholic position on her parents’ marriage - that it was bigamous and unlawful.

Prior to the meeting of her first Parliament, the law was observed at Elizabeth’s court and elsewhere, and the Catholic Mass continued, although Elizabeth showed her rejection of transubstantiation by walking out of Chapel when the priest elevated the Host. Nevertheless, her religious preferences were conservative, and her preferred resolution would have been the reinstitution of the ambiguous 1549 Book of Common Prayer, with acceptance of the monarch, rather than the Pope, as Supreme Head of the Church in England.

A bill to restore Church supremacy to the monarch was introduced in Elizabeth’s first Parliament. Guided by Cecil’s father-in-law, Anthony Cooke, newly returned from exile, and his brother-in-law, Nicholas Bacon, it eventually passed through the Commons, although not easily.It went to the Lords, where there was strong opposition from both peers and bishops. The Archbishop of York (the senior ecclesiastic, as the see of Canterbury was vacant) pointed 0ut that as a woman could not be a priest, she could not possibly be the head of the Church. The arguments continued, and, instead of the quick return to the Protestant regime of Edward, Cecil found himself stymied.

As the Lords and Bishops could not be punished for their speeches in Parliament, he came up with a scheme to trap the Bishops into appearing to disobey an order from Elizabeth’s Council during a debate elsewhere on religion. A couple of the most recalcitrant were sent to the Tower and the others given the opportunity to rethink their objections when a new Supremacy Bill came forward. Again, the Lords were divided, but although all of the Bishops rejected it, the absence of two of them in the Tower, and the strange non-appearance of Dr Feckenham, the Abbot of Westminster, who had led the calls for refusal, meant that the bill was carried by three votes.

The law of the land, enshrined in the Act of Uniformity 1559, now stated that all ministers (not priests) of the Church of England must use the 1559 Prayer Book, which mirrored the 1552 book, amended by deletion of some statements highly offensive to Catholics about the Bishop of Rome, and removal also of the clear statement that the bread and wine do not change.

To encourage consistency and acceptance of the new rules, every person was to attend the parish church and hear the prescribed service each Sunday, on pain of a fine. The programme of education of the laity and reform of the clergy which had been part of Mary and Cardinal Pole’s plan continued, but with a Protestant bent. In particular, clergy were permitted to marry, something Elizabeth heartily disliked. It was all Cecil could do to persuade her to accept it and, throughout her life she would either ignore, or be rude to, clerical wives. Where he had no success was in the matter of candles and flowers in the Queen’s own chapel.

At this time, provided the parish church was attended, or the fine paid, there were few questions asked of anyone who continued to hear Mass in private, and it is clear that many, including some of Elizabeth’s nobles, did so.