Throughout the reign of Elizabeth I, religion wove its way into all manner of major political events.  The religious leanings of her suitors were of great concern at court.  English military aid bolstered Protestant rebels in both France and the Netherlands.  Challenges to Elizabeth’s rule at home frequently came from Catholic circles, and the Spanish Armada, the most famous threat to England in the Elizabethan period, had an undeniable religious dimension.  It is worth asking, then, with religion playing such an important role at the top of Elizabethan society, what religion looked like for the English subject on the ground.

A good place to start is with the religious education offered through the Church of England.  The Book of Common Prayer requires that,

The Curate of every Parish, or some other at his appointment, shall diligently upon Sundayes and Holy dayes, halfe an houre before Evensong openly in the Church, instruct and examine so many Children of his Parish sent unto him, as the time will serve and as he shall thinke convenient, in some part of this Catechisme.[1]

Vos, Dirk; Edmund Grindall (c.1519-1583), Archbishop of Canterbury; Lambeth Palace; 

Said catechism is short and fairly simple, presented in the form of a series of questions and answers.  Through the instruction of their minister, English parishioners learned that baptism and communion are the only two sacraments, that God’s grace is necessary both for salvation and for leading a righteous life, that God is trinitarian in nature, that God can and will forgive sins, and that Christ will return to pass judgment on all people.

The purpose of this catechism was not to equip Englishmen to debate theology- indeed, one point made in the catechism is the importance of submitting to the spiritual authority of the clergy- but rather to prepare students to be confirmed into the Church of England.  In order to be confirmed, a student needed to recite the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments in their native language and answer basic questions on the catechism.  Membership was non-optional, church attendance being required by law under penalty of civil fines, and the Act of Uniformity of 1559 mandated a standardization of worship in England.  In theory, every one of Elizabeth’s subjects prayed, worshiped, and believed in much the same way.

In theory.

The reality, unsurprisingly, was a good deal messier.  The catechism may have ostensibly taught English subjects the basics of state-approved religion, but in practice it could only ensure they knew what to say they believed.  Many dutiful churchgoers held unorthodox or downright heretical views while standing in service every Sunday, all while believing themselves to be perfectly in line with the Church of England.  Others knowingly deviated from official Church of England belief and practice, whether because it was Protestant, in the case of Roman Catholics, or not nearly Protestant enough, as in the case of Calvinist reformers.

Much of the nonconformity in Elizabethan England came not from principled disagreement with the Church of England, but rather from inertia and apathy.  Fines were instituted to enforce church attendance, but evidence suggests they were rarely enforced, especially in more rural areas where church attendance was already lower.[2]  Although parishioners were encouraged, and indeed expected, to participate in Communion at least three times a year, many only took part twice or even once a year, if at all.[3]

As far as what was actually believed, the common laity’s understanding of religion seems to have been more simplistic and transactional than the complex Reformed theology studied by the Church of England’s clergy.  One of the most common heterodox religious ideas, for instance, was that simply by trying one’s best to lead an upright life and having good intentions, one might earn their way into heaven.[4]  Furthermore, unsophisticated circles were rife with charms, incantations, and formulaic prayers by which one might summon the aid of God in addressing the mundane concerns of day to day life, from missing objects to sick livestock to inclement weather.[5]

That these beliefs ran directly counter to the official doctrines of the Church of England did not seem to concern the average Elizabethan, much to the chagrin of the clergy.  Indeed, ministers who worked to correct these religious errors were frequently met with irritation and hostility.[6] For their part, the common folk who held these beliefs in the face of church doctrine cited tradition and a fond nostalgia for a happier time when life and religion seemed simpler.[7]  Their ministers frequently saw something different: the specter of Roman Catholicism.[8]

Essex minister George Gifford referred to this errant laity as “church papists,”[9] people who would come to church and go through the motions of religious conformity while still harboring heterodox opinions.  Although the “errors” George Gifford set out to correct in his rustic flock were largely rooted in inertia and nostalgia, a consciously Roman Catholic minority remained in England.  The question of how to engage with a church divorced from Rome was an ongoing debate for many of these English Catholics for the first decade of Elizabeth’s reign, with some grudgingly attending Church of England services and others avoiding conformity through excuses, stalling, and outright defiance.

With Pope Pius V’s excommunication of Elizabeth and anyone who obeyed her in 1570, this question of conformity versus defiance was thrown into sharp relief.  A sort of Roman Catholic shadow church began to coalesce in England, operating illicitly alongside the Church of England.  In some ways, this underground Roman Catholic community worshipped in the same manner as their counterparts on the continent.  Devotional staples like praying the rosary and going on pilgrimage remained popular with English Catholics,[10] for instance, and these secret congregations were ministered to by priests educated in a French seminary at Douai.[11]  In other ways, the English “recusant” Catholics took on Protestant habits, holding their masses more often in the homes of gentry than in consecrated churches[12] and reading a Vatican-approved English translation of the New Testament rather than the Latin Vulgate.[13]

Catholics were not the only English subjects who diverged from the Church of England on matters of faith and worship.  Calvinist reformers viewed it as too reminiscent of the church of Rome, looking askance at its vestments, rituals, and ornamentation.[14]  Beneath all these “popish” trappings, English Calvinists felt the Church of England’s theology was a hodgepodge, coming close to godliness at points but ultimately falling short of a truly Reformed church.[15]  It was scripture, these reformers argued, not ceremonies, that ought to be the focus of a church service, and they set out to adjust things accordingly.  For some, this took the form of lively preaching and as sparse a church as religious authorities would allow.[16]  For others, this involved public discussions and debates of theology and scripture, carried out by university-educated ministers for the benefit of a lay audience.[17]  Still others concluded that there could be no incremental repairs in the Church of England and, ironically mimicking their Catholic countrymen, formed their own underground congregations in defiance of English law.[18] This zeal for a religious purity unmatched by the majority of their countrymen won these reformers the pejorative nickname of “Puritans.”

Religious complexity, clearly, was not limited to court.  Many English subjects accepted or even welcomed the Elizabethan reforms introduced with the Act of Uniformity, but the population was hardly passive and monolithic when it came to faith and worship, leaving the business of religious dynamism to political actors.  Rather, it is apparent that the religious diversity of everyday Elizabethans was every bit as dynamic as the religious politics playing out in palaces, parliaments, and embassies.


Michael Lowry Lamble

[1] The Book of Common Prayer, and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies in the Churche of England (London: Richard Jugge and Johannis Cawood), 322.

[2] Clive D. Field, “A Shilling for Queen Elizabeth: The Era of State Regulation of Church Attendance in

England, 1552-1969,” Journal of Church and State 50, no. 2 (Spring 2008): 215.

[3] Christopher Haigh, “The Taming of Reformation: Preachers, Pastors and Parishioners in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England,” History 85, no. 280 (October 2000): 587.

[4] Dewey D. Wallace Jr., “George Gifford, Puritan Propaganda and Popular Religion in Elizabethan England,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 9, no. 1 (1978): 36-37.

[5] Ibid 34.

[6] Ibid 36.

[7] Ibid 35.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid 32.

[10] Christopher Haigh, “The Continuity of Catholicism in the English Reformation,” Past & Present no. 93 (1981): 60.

[11] Carlos M.N. Eire, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2016), 350.

[12] Haigh, “The Continuity of Catholicism in the English Reformation,” 48.

[13] Eire, Reformations, 351.

[14] Ibid 342.

[15] Ibid 343.

[16] Wallace, “George Gifford, Puritan Propaganda and Popular Religion in Elizabethan England,”29.

[17] Eire, Reformations, 344.

[18] Ibid 344-345.