CHAPTER XXVIII. ELIZABETH (xiii), 1558-1603 - ASPECTS OF THE REIGN

[Features of the Reign]

The reign of Elizabeth may be said to have been distinguished primarily by three leading features. The first is the development and establishment of England as the greatest maritime power in the world, a process which has been traced with some fulness. The second is that sudden and amazing outburst of literary genius in the latter half, and mainly in the last quarter, of the reign, for which there is no historical parallel except in Athens, unless once again we find it in England two centuries later: whereof the last few pages have treated. The third is the Ecclesiastical settlement, on which it has hitherto been possible only to touch. This, with certain other aspects of the reign, remain for discussion in this concluding chapter.

[State and Church]

In this settlement, the primary fundamental fact, politically speaking - for theological problems do not fall within our range - is the recognition by the State of the Church as an aspect of the body politic, and of her organisation as a branch of the body politic, subject to the control of the Sovereign and maintained by the sanction of the Sovereign's supremacy; precluding the interference of any external authority, and overriding any claims to independent authority on the part of the organisation itself; requiring from all members of the body politic conformity, under penalties, to the institutions thus regulated, and rejection of any authority running counter thereto. The secondary fact is that the State thus sanctioned such institutions as, under a reasonable liberty of interpretation, might be accepted without a severe strain of conscience by persons holding opinions of considerable diversity; so that conformity should be possible to the great bulk of the nation, including many who might not in theory admit the right of the State to a voice in the matter at all.

The politicians, that is, deliberately chose a via media. Theologically, the dividing line lay between those who desired the Mass and reunion with Rome, and those who rejected the Mass and derived their dogmas from Geneva. Under Mary, the Government had thrown itself on the side of the former; under Edward, mainly on that of the latter. Elizabeth's Government would have neither. It would not admit the papal claim to override the secular authority, or the equally dictatorial claims of the Genevan ministry as exemplified by John Knox; the first necessity for it was to assert secular supremacy, the second to make its definitions of dogma sufficiently ambiguous to be reconcilable with the dogmatic scruples of the majority of both parties; with the result however of shutting out both determined Romanists and determined Calvinists, while the Church thus regulated contained two parties, one with conservative, the other with advanced, ideals.

The outward note of Conservative churchmen was insistence on ceremonial observances, as that of the advanced men was dislike of them. But as the reign advanced, another feature acquires prominence - the protest of the Puritans against the Episcopalian system of Church Government, with the correspondingly increased emphasis laid on the vital necessity of that system by the Conservatives.

[The State and the Catholics]

The Queen's personal predilections were at all times on the Conservative side; those of her principal advisers always leaned towards the Puritans - at the first Cecil, Bacon, and Elizabeth's own kinsmen, Knollys and Hunsdon; then Walsingham, drawing Leicester with him. But in the early years of her rule, when it was imperative to minimise all possible causes of discontent, the admission of the largest possible latitude in practice was required, even if it was accompanied by legislation which gave authority for restrictive action. It followed however from the political conditions that direct hostility to the Queen was to be feared only from the Catholics - the whole body of those who would have liked to see the old religion restored in its entirety. This was emphasized by the Papal Bull excommunicating Elizabeth in 1570 - a political blunder on the part of the Pope which greatly annoyed and embarrassed Philip at the time. The result, joined with the Northern Rising, the Ridolfi plot, and the indignation aroused by the day of St. Bartholomew, was to strengthen the hands of the Puritans and to give open Catholicism the character of a political offence; and to this an enormously increased force was added in 1581 by the Jesuit mission. During these years, parliaments were all unfailingly and increasingly Puritan, and Puritanism was steadily making way all over the country, not without the favour of the leading divines. Elizabeth herself viewed this tendency with extreme dislike, mercilessly snubbing bishops and others who seemed to betray inclinations in this direction - Grindal in particular, Parker's successor at Canterbury, suffered from her displeasure; but she could not suppress it. She might - and did - say a good deal; but she could not in act go nearly as far as she would have wished, in opposition to subjects whose political loyalty was indisputable, as well as extremely necessary to her security.

[The Church and the Puritans]