Religious Debates in the Elizabethan Parliaments

The Elizabethan Settlement of religion achieved in the 1559 Parliament left many loose ends. At the opening of the 1563-6 Parliament Lord Keeper Sir Nicholas Bacon† placed ‘matters of religion’ at the top of the agenda including improvement of the clergy, discipline and church attendance; Convocation therefore passed the Thirty-Nine Articles of faith and proposed to re-inforce the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity with a raft of further legislation. (Proceedings in the Parliaments of Elizabeth I, ed. T.E. Hartley, i. 80-2.) An ‘Act for assurance of the queen’s power’ requiring all officeholders to swear the oath of supremacy was the most important of a handful of religious measures enacted at the end of the first session. (N. Jones, Faith by Statute, 169-85.) Several more, known as the alphabetical bills because they were labelled A-G, appeared in 1566 but were thwarted by Elizabeth who, as supreme governor of the church, claimed that they infringed her prerogative. Thereafter she attempted to prevent Parliament from passing or even discussing further religious measures despite a very widely perceived need for ongoing reformation. As a result religion became a source of political tension from the 1570s onwards and led to clashes over freedom of speech in the Commons. Those in Parliament and beyond who continued to push for religious change in the face of royal disapproval were branded as ‘Puritans’ and their proposals were repeatedly quashed.

In the 1571 Parliament some of the alphabetical bills were re-introduced but this moderate programme of reform was derailed when William Strickland exhibited a much more extreme measure of his own concerning the prayer book and sacraments. Only ‘B’ requiring all clergy to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles, and ‘E’ against simony in ecclesiastical leases, were finally enacted. Elizabeth sent a message banning further debate, and vetoed an anti-Catholic church attendance bill that was supported by the bishops, privy council, and both Houses. A pamphlet entitled An Admonition to Parliament urged a radical remodelling of the church along Presbyterian lines, but attempts to debate such measures in the 1572-73 Parliament were halted by royal intervention. Unlike earlier religious bills which had conciliar and episcopal backing, Strickland’s proposals and most of the subsequent legislative initiatives that began in the Commons were of unofficial origin. Although these had no chance of passing into statute law they served to maintain Parliament’s role as a forum for religious debate. In both 1576 and 1581 the Commons petitioned Elizabeth to redress ecclesiastical grievances. However, the evidence of abuses that they presented were summarily dismissed as the carping of dangerous extremists.

Pressure for religious reform gathered ‘cumulative momentum’ that came to a head during the Parliaments of the 1580s. (P. Collinson, Elizabethan Essays, 77.) An increasingly vocal minority of MPs refused to accept Elizabeth’s ban on religious debates. A ‘bill and book’ campaign begun in the 1584-5 Parliament demanded the abolition of the episcopate and replacement of the Book of Common Prayer; although this came to nothing a Sabbath observance bill passed both Houses only to be rejected by Elizabeth. In her closing oration she reproved slanderous ‘faulte findars’ in religion for their presumption, and warned that she would not ‘tollerate new-fanglenesse’. (Procs. ii. 31-2.) This did not deter Anthony Cope from presenting a new ‘bill and book’ in the 1586-7 Parliament, for which he and four other Members were imprisoned in the Tower. Cope’s bill was the last attempt to bring in legislation that would completely overhaul the Elizabethan Settlement; thereafter reformers focused their efforts upon attacking the persecution of nonconformist divines, and clerical abuses such as pluralism and non-residence, albeit without great success.

At the opening of the 1589 Parliament Lord Chancellor Christopher Hatton warned the Commons against letting religion become a ‘stumbling blocke’ as it had been before. He particularly inveighed against ‘intollerable innovacion’ propounded by Puritan sectaries, and delivered Elizabeth’s commandment not to ‘meddle with anie such matters or causes of religion, excepte it be to bridle all those, whether papists or puritanes, which are therewithall discontented’. (Procs. ii. 419-20.) Humphrey Davenport nevertheless requested a conference with the Lords concerning motions against, among other things, the use of ex-officio proceedings to deprive non-subscribing ministers. This was raised again in the 1593 Parliament with two bills ‘against the bushoppes’ jurisdiction’ proposed by James Morice which clearly attracted significant support in the Commons. Elizabeth intervened, and Morice was sequestered from the House until the end of the session. A recusancy bill devised by Archbishop Whitgift and Lord Burghley (Sir William Cecil) sparked heated debate over its inclusion of nonconformists, and its severity; after a last-minute conference of both Houses this and another measure against Catholic recusants were eventually enacted.

While it would be innaccurate to state that religion declined in importance during Elizabeth’s later Parliaments, there was a reduction in drama associated with religious debates towards the end of the reign. In the 1597-8 Parliament Elizabeth allowed a Commons committee, including such hardliners as Anthony Cope, to gather evidence of ecclesiastical grievances for her consideration. A Sabbath observance bill was narrowly defeated in the 1601 Parliament and debate over a bill against pluralitites was terminated by a reminder that Elizabeth would not permit anyone to ‘meddle in cases of this nature, soe neerlye toucheinge her prerogatyve royall’. (Procs. iii. 357.) Thus through her orders limiting freedom of speech, messages to the Speaker, the imprisonment of Members who disobeyed, and the royal veto of passed bills, Elizabeth effectively lifted religion out of the remit of Parliament, and even of the bishops, in order to retain absolute personal control over her newly established church.

Author: Rosemary Sgroi