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4.1: The English Background

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    In 1559, Elizabeth I, youngest daughter of Henry VIII, continued the Tudor dynasty when she came to the throne of England. In a departure from the strict Catholicism of her sister Mary I, known as Bloody Mary, Elizabeth reflected the atmosphere of religious diversity in which she had been raised. Many historians believe that Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, secretly followed the theology of Martin Luther, who broke with the Catholic Church in the late 1510s and early 1520s.

    When Elizabeth took the throne, hundreds of Protestants, called the “Marian exiles” because they had left England when Mary intensified persecution of non-Catholics, began to return to their motherland. These exiles had spent the 1550s mainly in Geneva, which was under the control of the ardent Protestant John Calvin; he was more radical in his intent on spreading Protestantism than Martin Luther had been. The Marian exiles were determined to force a religious settlement on Elizabeth that would take the Church of England away from the Catholicism of Mary toward a more Protestant, or Calvinist, direction. Most of the exiles believed that all people were predestined to be saved or damned no matter what they did during their lifetimes, a concept known as predestination; that individuals did not have free will and could not earn salvation through “good works,” which was an important Catholic doctrine; that priests should be allowed to marry; and, finally, that “high church,” or Catholic, practices like genuflecting, the use of incense and music during services, and kneeling at the sign of the cross, should be removed from church liturgy. According to these Protestants, priests were simply men; they could not perform miracles, could not convert bread into wine during the Eucharist, and should be allowed to marry. All of these reforms, of course, were anathema to orthodox Catholics.

    In 1559, pressured by the Marian exiles, Elizabeth agreed to the “Settlement” whose prayer book is still the basis of the Anglican worship in the twenty-first century. The Settlement consisted of two acts of Parliament, one that conferred upon Elizabeth the title Supreme Head of the Church, and a second, the Act of Uniformity, which created the Anglican prayer book and defined the new Church of England. The theology reflected in the Book of Common Prayer is a compromise between the Catholicism of Henry VIII, Mary I, and Calvinist theology; it is neither strictly Catholic nor strictly Calvinist. Stained glass, genuflecting, incense, and music during church services were remnants of Catholic liturgy; on the other hand, priests were allowed to marry, they were not thought to be able to perform miracles during the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper, free will was modified, and predestination was given credence. In typical Anglican fashion, the Articles of Religion stressed the importance of the two Protestant sacraments of baptism and communion, but also acknowledged the remaining five Catholic sacraments: ordination, confirmation, marriage, the last rites, and penance. Transubstantiation, or the conversion of the elements during the Eucharist by the priest, was put aside. The Eucharist became, in the Calvinist tradition, simply commemorative of the Last Supper.

    The Elizabethan Settlement, however, did not go far enough in the direction of fundamental Calvinism to suit the Puritans. This group of reformers insisted that the Anglican church should be “purified” (hence the name) of all Catholic trappings. Puritan protests grew more strident in the early decades of Elizabeth’s reign. Because these reformers also were being elected regularly to the House of Commons, they quickly became a thorn in her side. In addition to the Puritans’ demands, Elizabeth was faced with challenges by her first cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots of the Stuart line. Mary had issues with the Presbyterian leadership in the Church of Scotland. While Elizabeth was a moderate in religion, Mary was a strict Catholic who plotted to take the English crown away from Elizabeth and unite England and Scotland under her own control. Mary was accused of treason, found guilty, and decapitated in 1587, the year before the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

    As if conditions in the British Isles were not pressing enough, Philip II of Spain, the avowed leader of European Catholicism and widower of Mary I, Tudor, raised an armada against England in the hopes of ending Protestantism in Europe once and for all. Unfortunately for Phillip, the fleet he raised—and paid for with income from the silver mines of the new world—failed. In the view of Elizabeth, God had come down on the side of the Protestants; a “Protestant wind” had blown, insuring victory against Catholic Spain and the preservation of the Protestant faith.

    England’s earliest experience with colonization began in 1578 when Elizabeth gave a grant of land to Sir Humphrey Gilbert; the purpose for colonizing was “to discover, search, find out and view such remote heathen and barbarous lands, countries and territories not actually possessed of any Christian people.” She was no doubt encouraged in her continuing patronage by the publication four years later of Richard Hakluyt’s Divers Voyages Touching the Discovery of America and the Islands Adjacent. Hakluyt’s consideration was exhaustive and made much of the advantages to any who either sponsored or participated in voyages of exploration. He insisted that “lasting riches do waite upon them who are zealous for the advancement of the kingdome of Christ and enlargement of our glorious Gospell.” The grant to Gilbert excluded lands already controlled by Spain, Portugal, or the Dutch. Gilbert led three expeditions to the Americas; after he was lost at sea during the third, Elizabeth, in 1584, passed the grant to Gilbert’s half-brother, Sir Walter Raleigh. The first English colony, the “lost colony” of Roanoke, was founded the same year.

    Stuarts of Scotland and England: James I and Charles I

    Elizabeth I never married, and her two siblings, Edward VI and Mary I, both childless, had predeceased her. On her death in 1603, the throne therefore went to her nearest living male relative, her first cousin, James VI (Stuart), king of Scotland. James I, as he was known in England, was an unfortunate monarch whose character was, according to Historian J.P. Kenyon, “complex, extensive and shallow.”4 James came to England thinking that he would be independent of Parliament and automatically receive a generous annual allowance to do with as he wished. A firm believer in the “divine right of kings” as put forth in his book The Trew Law of Free Monarchies, James made the mistake of lecturing Parliament, insisting that “there are no privileges or immunities that can stand against the divinely appointed King.”

    Upon hearing of James’s succession, English Puritans at first looked forward to his arrival. James after all was the leader of a country, Scotland, whose official religion was Presbyterianism, based, like Puritanism, on the theology of John Calvin. They were convinced that James would no doubt take seriously their complaints about the remaining Catholic practices of the Church of England. The Puritans could not have been more wrong. Shortly after James came to the throne, a delegation of Puritan clergy presented him with the Millenary Petition. The Petition urged, among other things, that the term “priest” should not be used when referring to the clergy and that confirmation no longer be practiced in the Church. James bluntly refused to consider the petition, commenting that “no Bishops” would mean “no King.” He was resolute in enforcing uniformity.

    James I, like his cousin Elizabeth, was interested in the developments taking place in the new world, and in 1606 granted a group of wealthy merchants, who had formed the Virginia Company of London, the right to settle in Virginia or in any area “not now actually possessed by any Christian prince or people.” The purpose of those who participated in the venture would be finding gold and “propagating of Christian religion to such people as yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God and may in time bring the infidels and savages living in those parts to humane civility and to a settled and quiet government.” The First Virginia Charter granted land to two branches of the Company: the London branch, which was granted land to establish a colony near the Chesapeake Bay, and the Plymouth branch, which was given land in the New England area. The Company was a stock company whose shares cost £12, 10 shillings.

    Charles I followed his father to the throne in 1625 and was equally unsuccessful with the English people in general and Parliament and the Puritans in particular. He made errors that alienated Puritans both in and outside of Parliament. First, he married a Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria, sister of Louis XIII of France, and, second, he allowed the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, to introduce additional Catholic liturgy and theology into the Church of England. Laud even went so far as to deny predestination, a doctrine mentioned in the Articles of Religion and a cornerstone of Puritan ideology; this action on the part of the Archbishop was anathema to the Puritans. Charles, whom many of the English, especially the Puritans, thought was an undeclared Catholic, tried to avoid Puritan influence in Parliament by dismissing the body in 1629 and attempting to rule England on his own; thus he created what historians call the “elevenyear tyranny.” During this period, Charles imposed taxes, many of them not used for hundreds of years, in an effort to give economic support to the Crown. He had little success in this endeavor; the rule without Parliament was fiscally disastrous, and, in 1640, he was forced to reconvene the body.

    Long Parliament, the English Civil War, and the Republic

    Known as the “Long Parliament,” the meeting convened by Charles sat from 1640 until 1660. One of its first actions was to present Charles with a list of grievances and demands, including a Triennial Act that would force a king to call Parliament at least once every three years, whether he wanted to or not. The year before Parliament drafted the Triennial Act, William Laud, who was responsible in the eyes of Puritans for all of the problems in the Church, was tried for treason, found guilty, and sent to the Tower of London. Charles, fearing further retaliation from Parliament, reluctantly accepted the act and agreed to address the remainder of their grievances.

    Relations between king and Parliament did not improve over the succeeding two years, however. In 1642, both sides raised troops, and the English Civil War broke out between Royalists and Parliamentarians. By 1648, the Royalists were on the defensive; the next year, 1649, Charles was captured, tried for treason, and executed. It marked the first time that a reigning monarch had been brought before a legislative body and indicted for treason. The army of Parliament, known as the New Model Army, was led by a popular figure, Oliver Cromwell, whom historians credit for its decisive victory over the Royalists.

    The eleven year period that followed the execution of Charles I is usually called the “Interregnum,” a period “between kings.” During this time, England was actually a republic ruled by Parliament, a Council of State, and a Lord Protector in the person of Oliver Cromwell. In addition to being militarily talented, Cromwell was a devout Puritan who supported religious toleration. Religious policies were outlined in the Instrument of Government, which gave all Christians except Catholics the right to practice the religion of their choice. Many historians point out that England under Cromwell was in reality a military dictatorship. There was not much immigration to the English colonies during the Interregnum, nor were new colonies created.

    By 1655, the republic was clearly a fiscal failure, and, when Cromwell died, he was followed only briefly by his ineffectual son, Richard. In 1660, the republic ended and the monarchy restored. Lacey Baldwin Smith comments that the failure of republican England was due to the fact that Oliver Cromwell had been caught between opposing forces: the army, the nobility, the Puritans, and Parliament. He, and all of England, had learned an important lesson: “Parliament could no more exist without the Crown than the Crown without Parliament.” Oliver Cromwell had not objected to monarchy and had even suggested in 1650 that Charles I be replaced by his son, also Charles, who had taken refuge in France. Therefore, it was not completely unexpected that within two years of his death, Parliament extended an invitation to the man who would become Charles II, the third Stuart King of England. Monarchy was restored, and the republican experiment was at an end.

    This page titled 4.1: The English Background is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Locks, Sarah Mergel, Pamela Roseman, Tamara Spike & Marie Lasseter (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.