England’s Return to Protestantism, 1559

In the first of a new series of blogs on the Elizabethan period, Dr Andrew Thrush, editor of our 1558-1603 House of Lords project, discusses the last-minute attempts by the bench of Catholic bishops to thwart Elizabeth I’s reintroduction of Protestantism. He also draws attention to an important, if little appreciated, date in the re-establishment of the English Protestant state, as it was on 24 June 1559 – 462 years ago to the day – that the 1559 Act of Uniformity took effect …

In May 1559, six months after Elizabeth I ascended the throne, England formally returned to the Protestant fold, to the dismay of her Catholic bishops. The English Reformation had begun under Henry VIII, with Protestantism becoming entrenched under Henry’s immediate successor, Edward VI. However, during the brief reign of Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary I (1553-58) England had readopted Catholic doctrine and restored the papal supremacy. Elizabeth’s return to Protestantism was accomplished through Parliament. She thereby obtained not only the consent of her people but also gave legal force to her changes in religion. Two important bills received the Royal Assent on the final day of Elizabeth’s first Parliament (8 May 1559): the Act of Supremacy, which abolished all foreign jurisdiction over the Church and recognized the Queen as its supreme governor; and the Act of Uniformity, which outlawed Catholic liturgy and required all clergy to use a new Book of Common Prayer instead.

Queen Elizabeth I, ‘Darnley Portrait’, by unknown artist, c. 1575
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Despite this legislation, the English Church did not become Protestant overnight. Nevertheless, the new Acts established two important deadlines that helped set the pace of change. The first was 7 June 1559, thirty days from the dissolution of Parliament. After that date, the Act of Supremacy declared, no-one living in the Queen’s realms would be legally entitled to claim that ‘any foreign prince, prelate, person, state or potentate’ had authority over the English Church. This period of grace was probably the shortest that was reasonable in an age when the fastest means of communicating news was by horse.

The second deadline which helped shaped the formation of the Elizabethan Protestant state was included in the Act of Uniformity, which decreed that on the next Feast of St John the Baptist, 24 June 1559, the Marian legislation that had repealed Protestant forms of worship would itself become void. This established a longer interval than the thirty days allowed by the Act of Supremacy, perhaps reflecting the additional time required to print and distribute new prayer books. The Feast was a familiar deadline to Elizabethan Englishmen, as it was one of four so-called quarter days, the others being Lady Day (25 March), Michaelmas (29 September) and Christmas Day. In the medieval and early modern periods, these were the days on which rents and other financial dues were paid. Aside from Christmas Day, they are now largely forgotten, though the fiscal year still ends on Lady Day, which ever since 1752 (when Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar) has fallen on 5 April.

The Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity provided the Elizabethan regime with an operational framework. It is no coincidence, for instance, that it was on 25 June 1559, the day after the Feast of St John the Baptist, that the crown established a commission to inspect York province to ensure that the new settlement was being enforced. The deadlines also served to focus attention on the bench of Catholic bishops, who to a man had opposed the religious legislation in Parliament. It was vital for the Elizabethan regime that by the time the second deadline came around the bishops had either abandoned their opposition or been removed. Without a cooperative bench of bishops, it was hard to see how the religious reforms enacted by Parliament could be implemented.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1559 Parliament, the Privy Council tried to win over the bishops with a mixture of threats and promises. According to the eighteenth-century historian John Strype, the Queen also appealed to them in person, on 15 May. However, these tactics failed to achieve the desired result. Consequently, the Council called Edmund Bonner, bishop of London, before them on 30 May. Bonner was the most notorious of all the Marian bishops, having played a leading role in the execution in 1556 of the Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. Predictably, Bonner refused to take the Oath of Supremacy or abandon Catholic practice, for which offence he was deprived. According to the Spanish ambassador, he was not formally removed from office until 11 June. If that is correct, then the Council waited until the 7 June deadline prescribed by the Act of Supremacy had elapsed before taking action.

Edmund Bonner burning the hand of Thomas Tomkins
woodcut by unknown artist, published 1563
© National Portrait Gallery, London

By making an example of Bonner, the Council undoubtedly hoped to persuade the other bishops to fall into line. The propaganda value of having them embrace the new religious settlement was obvious. It would also be helpful for some of the existing bishops to consecrate a new Archbishop of Canterbury as, in Catholic eyes at least, a prelate’s legitimacy depended on his ability to claim an unbroken line of descent from Christ’s apostles. However, Bonner’s deprivation merely served to stiffen the resolve of most of his colleagues, who responded by advancing the novel constitutional theory that it was illegal to deprive bishops for refusing to obey a law to which none of them had consented in Parliament. Only one prelate, the elderly Anthony Kitchin of Llandaff, decided to conform. Consequently, on 26 June, two days after the Feast of St John the Baptist, seven or eight more bishops were deprived, and over the course of the summer most of the rest were removed. The last to be deprived was David Pole, bishop of Peterborough who, for reasons that remain unclear, remained in post as late as the first week in November.

The loss of all but one of the Catholic bishops was an inevitable consequence of their own obduracy and the requirements of the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity. It also threatened to make more difficult the transition to Protestantism, as the bishops themselves undoubtedly hoped it would. Although Kitchin of Llandaff was included on the commission to consecrate Matthew Parker, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, he declined to serve, perhaps under pressure from his former colleagues. In the event, the regime was saved from difficulty and embarrassment by two former Edwardian Protestant bishops, Miles Coverdale and John Scory, both of whom retained the power of ordination. Their involvement in Parker’s consecration in December 1559 thwarted the opposition of the Marian bishops and cleared the way for the creation of a new episcopate, a vital step in the formation of the Elizabethan Protestant state.


Further reading:

Norman L. Jones, Faith by Statute: Parliament and the Settlement of Religion, 1559 (London, 1982)

Brett Usher, William Cecil and Episcopacy, 1559-1577 (Aldershot and Burlington, VT, 2003)

Follow the research of our Lords 1558-1603 project on our newest blog page, The First Elizabethan Age.

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