For over thirty years England had been in the throws of a religious reformation. One king told them to do this, another told them to do that. The English weren't sure what they believed anymore--or if it was legal under the current monarch. This was the maelstrom into which Elizabeth I stepped on day one of her ascension. And she tackled the subject head on.
Elizabeth I was a busy, busy queen even before she was officially coronated in 1559. She had to be. With a court and church packed with Mary’s loyalists, Elizabeth had to diplomatically create a government that would do what she wanted and a church that would officially recognize her. No easy task.
In that first year, Elizabeth fired most of her bishops, appointed a new Archbishop of Canterbury, summoned parliament, and then proceeded to pass the Act of Supremacy, the Religious Settlement, and the Act of Uniformity.
Elizabeth's coronation portrait. Part of a private collection, this portrait is now housed at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The artist is unknown, but this portrait was done around Elizabeth's death, based on an earlier portrait which had been destroyed in a fire. Elizabeth was 25 years old when she became queen of England.
All three of these acts were an attempt to settle England’s deep religious divisions. Under the three previous Tudor monarchs England had been a Catholic country, then a Protestant one, than once again Catholic. The upheaval had been bloody (and fiery!). With yet another Tudor stepping onto the throne, English citizens couldn’t help but wonder what they would be required to believe now.
As a daughter of the Protestant Reformation (it was her mother’s marriage to King Henry VIII that caused England’s initial break with Rome), Elizabeth could not rule over a Catholic country. The Pope did not even regard her as legitimate. Nor did she want to continue the strident religious views of either of her siblings. She wanted to create a unified church with a very clear liturgical message. And she wanted everybody to stop fighting about it.
Her solution was to affirm herself as head of the church with the Act of Supremacy, pass the Religious Settlement which declared the Church of England as the official state religion, and to require certain acts by both her bishops and her subjects with the Act of Uniformity.
May 8th is the anniversary of Elizabeth’s signing of the Act of Uniformity. This act helped standardize religious services in England by requiring the use of the English Book of Common Prayer, and by setting the order of the liturgical prayers. The act also required citizens to attend church once a week or pay a fine.
This image shows a revised version of the 1559 Act of Uniformity, which passed Parliament by only three votes. The Act helped stabilize England's volatile religious environment. It established a common liturgy, required church attendance by all citizens, and made England a Protestant country once and for all. But the act did concede to many Catholic sensitivities, including the wearing of vestments by clergy and the inclusion of musical hymns. The Act also deliberately kept the wording of the communion ceremony vague so that Catholics and Protestants alike could participate in the sacrament.
Our modern sensibilities naturally reject such draconian measures, but at the time, these firm directives were a huge step forward in stabilizing a tumultuous country. Elizabeth didn’t exactly end religious strife in England. She continued to be the target of Catholic assassination attempts throughout her life, but her parliamentary efforts––and her ability to outlive her enemies—did, once and for all, establish England as a Protestant country.
The Church of England remains the official state religion of England (although citizens are no longer fined if they don’t go to church!), and the Queen of England remains the Supreme Governor of the church, albeit in a ceremonial role.