This article is an edited transcript of Elizabeth I with Helen Castor, available on History Hit TV.
Before Elizabeth I’s reign, England had veered between religious extremes over a very short period of time – from the 1530s when Henry VIII’s reforms started taking effect, to the late 1550s when Elizabeth came to the throne.
And not only had the religious changes been massive, but the religious violence that accompanied them had also been massive, and it was not yet clear exactly what the Church of England was going to be.
When it came to balancing the country’s religious forces, Elizabeth tried to take up a kind of middling position so as to create a broad church that would recognise her own sovereignty, while at the same time attracting as many of her subjects as possible.
Ultimately, however, the position that Elizabeth ended up taking in 1559 – both doctrinally and in regards tothe functioning of her church – was one that very few other people would actually support.
Maximum participation and maximum obedience
Like her father before her, Elizabeth took up a position that was very distinctively hers. It was Protestant and it did break from Rome, but it also allowed some room for manoeuvre on the key doctrines – for instance, what was actually happening to the bread and the wine during Communion.
Elizabeth also kept a lot of ritual which she was clearly very fond of (her bishops, however, hated being made to wear the vestments that she insisted they put on). And she hated preaching so she put up with as little of it as possible. This hatred partly stemmed from the fact that she didn’t like being lectured. And partly from the fact that she saw preaching as dangerous.
What Elizabeth wanted was maximum participation and maximum obedience – maximum security, really.
And she held firm on that line for a long time, even as it becoming increasingly difficult to do so.
But although Elizabeth clung to her position for as long as possible, it eventually became untenable. The Catholics – including the bishops who were still in position at the end of Mary’s reign – obviously didn’t support a renewed break from Rome, while the Protestants, though very pleased to see Elizabeth, a Protestant, on the throne, didn’t support what she was doing either. They wanted her to go much further.
The situation spirals out of control
Elizabeth’s ministers saw danger everywhere. To them, Catholics within England were a kind of fifth column, a sleeper cell waiting to be activated which posed dreadful, dreadful danger. So they were always pushing for more clampdowns and more restrictive laws and practices against Catholics.
The queen did try to resist that, seemingly because she saw that bringing in more repressive measures, would only force Catholics to choose between being a Catholic and being an Englishman or woman.
She didn’t want them to have to make that choice – she wanted loyal Catholic subjects to be able to find a way to keep obeying her and to keep supporting her and her sovereignty.
Of course, the Catholic powers on the continent – and the pope in particular – didn’t help her. In 1570, she faced a pincer movement from her ministers on the one hand and the pope on the other, with the latter excommunicating her.
The danger Elizabeth faced was then ramped up and the situation became a kind of vicious spiral where there were more Catholic plots against her but where her ministers were also looking for Catholic plots in order to justify implementing more brutal and repressive measures against the Catholics.
And, as the plots became ever more pressing, increasingly appalling violence was visited upon Catholic missionaries and Catholic suspects.
Is Elizabeth judged more harshly because of her gender?
People at the time and since have written about Elizabeth being vacillating, emotional and indecisive; you couldn’t pin her down.
It is true that she didn’t like taking decisions – and she particularly didn’t like taking decisions that were going to have very big repercussions, such as the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. She resisted that decision until the very last moment and beyond. But it seems she had very good reasons for resisting that.
As soon as Elizabeth had got rid of Mary, a Catholic, and all the plotting that she was at the centre of, then the Spanish Armada turned up. And that wasn’t coincidental. Once Mary had gone, her claim to the English throne passed to Philip of Spain and he therefore launched his Armada to invade England and take it over as he was duty bound to do.
Indeed, when it comes to the Tudor dynasty, if we’re looking for a ruler who made emotional decisions and changed their mind all the time, then Henry VIII would be the obvious choice, not Elizabeth. In fact, he is one of the most emotional decision-makers of all of England’s monarchs.