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Sarah Lindsay

Women in Christianity: Queen Elizabeth I

This post is part of a recurring series on women in Christianity. My goal in this series is not to highlight exceptional women but instead to discuss the many contributions of women that frequently go unremarked or overlooked. Search the tag women in christianity for more entries in this series.

Elizabeth I
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, by Nicholas Hilliard c. 1573-75 | public domain | via Wikimedia Commons

Last week, I wrote about Martin Luther and the protestant Reformation, so it seems appropriate this week to consider a woman who was crucial to the Reformation in England. Elizabeth I may not be an obvious choice for a series on theology, but her personal convictions and political astuteness laid the foundation for today’s global Anglican Communion.

To understand Elizabeth’s role in the English Reformation, we need a short(ish) history lesson. Elizabeth’s father was Henry VIII, most famous for his many wives and king of England in the early sixteenth century, as the Reformation was gathering steam in Germany, Switzerland and the the Netherlands. However, Henry was not interested in the ideas of the reformers; in fact, he wrote1 a treatise defending the seven sacraments in response to Martin Luther’s attack on indulgences. For this work, and for his continued support of the papacy, pope Leo X named Henry Defender of the Faith in 1521.

And yet, in a plot twist still fit for modern television, Henry grew enamored with the young Anne Boleyn. His wife, Catherine of Aragon, was past the age of childbearing and had not managed to produce a male heir despite seven pregnancies.2 So Henry sought what many heirless nobles before him had acquired: an annulment of his marriage to Catherine.

Catherine, however, was a well-connected and strong-willed woman. Her parents were Ferdinand and Isabella of Christopher Columbus fame; her siblings unified Spain through strategic marriages; her nephew Charles V ruled the Holy Roman Empire. She was loath to give up her position as queen of England, and it seems that Charles V pressured the pope on her behalf to deny the annulment. While the politics and motivations of Henry, Catherine and the pope are complex, the result was not: Henry was not granted his annulment.

When Henry VIII tired of waiting the pope to dissolve his marriage to Catherine (and when Anne Boleyn gave birth to his daughter, Elizabeth), he began a two-year process that culminated in the Acts of Supremacy of 1534, in which parliament declared Henry the head of the church in England. Henry himself seems to have imagined this new church as theologically identical to the Catholic church, just without the pope. However, many of the architects of the Acts of Supremacy were reformers deeply influenced by Luther. Their influence with Henry was tenuous, but upon his death in 1547 many of these reformers — including Thomas Cranmer, architect of the Book of Common Prayer — became principle advisors to the young Edward VI.

Edward VI was the son of Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour (she succeeded Anne Boleyn, after Anne’s execution); he thus grew up protestant and seems to have been genuinely enthusiastic about supporting the English reformers as they guided the nascent Anglican church in a more reformed direction. However, he was frequently ill and died in 1553 at the age of fifteen, at which time he was succeeded on the throne by his older sister, Mary, the Catholic daughter of Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

This Mary, of course, is Bloody Mary: she violently and swiftly returned England to the Catholicism she had refused to give up. After Henry divorced Catherine, he forced the teenaged Mary to stay in London and would not let her see her mother, even when Catherine was dying. Yet Mary refused to give up her Catholic faith, even when pressured by first Henry and later Edward. Although Edward and his advisors worked frantically to prevent Mary from taking the throne, her legal standing in the line of succession and her popular support meant that she succeeded Edward.

After taking the English throne, Mary wedded Philip of Spain, the son of her cousin, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Spain was emerging as the most powerful defender of Catholicism in Europe, so this alliance solidified Mary’s intention to keep England firmly in the Catholic fold. Unfortunately for Mary and English Catholics, she died in 1558, leaving no heir but her half-sister Elizabeth — Anne Boleyn’s daughter whose imminent birth (and the hope that she would be a son) had launched Henry on the path of defying Rome.

Elizabeth came to the throne of England in 1558 at the age of 25. England was in turmoil after the rapid shifts from Catholic to protestant to Catholic and back again, not to mention the turmoil always caused by short reigns and disputes over succession. In addition, as a woman Elizabeth faced significant challenges: the early modern period saw the reemergence of the ancient Greek notion that it was inappropriate for women to participate in the public sphere of politics. Elizabeth thus had to contend with arguments like that published by John Knox in 1558, titled The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Knox attacked Catholic women monarchs, especially Mary, but built a broader argument against the rule of women in general.3

In short, Elizabeth faced a political challenge: how could she assert her authority in acceptable ways, especially as the head of the Anglican church, and bring peace and unity to England?

By all accounts, Elizabeth succeeded brilliantly over the course of her long and prosperous reign. Her letters and speeches provide a master course in wielding power as an early modern woman. But for the Church of England specifically, Elizabeth’s commitment to peace and wide latitude for differing beliefs laid a distinctive foundation for Anglicanism.

After the disruption caused by Mary’s reign, Elizabeth envisioned an English church that could encompass all but the most dedicated Catholics and fervent reformers.4 This middle way, or via media, allowed for the continuation of some Catholic elements, like vestments, even as the services (following protestant theology) were conducted in English and the number of sacraments reduced from seven to two. Broadly, this middle way means that Anglican churches even today balance word and sacrament in their services: while Catholic masses tend to emphasize the eucharist (sacrament) and protestant services highlight the sermon (the word), most Anglican services seek to give equal emphasis to both.

In addition to the elements of worship services, Elizabeth’s via media also allows for wide latitude in theological beliefs. The foundational theological text of Anglicanism is The Thirty-Nine Articles, which is clearly informed by protestant theology as it among other things permits priests to marry and rejects the idea of Purgatory. Yet The Thirty-Nine Articles allows for a range of beliefs about predestination, for example, and the nature of baptism and the eucharist.

Perhaps more important for the via media than either a mix of worship elements or a flexible theology is the Book of Common Prayer. Elizabeth’s 1559 Act of Uniformity required all English churches to use the Book of Common Prayer, which meant that regardless of theological disagreements all English Christians worshipped together with the same prayers and rites. This unity in prayer powerfully bridges divisions in theology, even in today’s Anglican Communion. Thus in both ritual and theology, Elizabeth envisioned and created an Anglican church that could unify England.

Without Elizabeth’s commitment to peace and unity, and her able statesmanship, England could have collapsed into the religious warfare that rocked Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Of course, England did become embroiled in a civil war with religious underpinnings forty years after Elizabeth’s death, but that was due as much to the attempts of James I and Charles I to assert absolute sovereignty as to religious differences.

As a woman, Elizabeth could not attempt to assert absolute power; instead, she had to rule with careful political negotiations and a self-effacing humility. But these qualities endeared her to her people during her long reign and allowed her to heal the fractures of the short reigns and religious shifts that preceded her. She succeeded in uniting English Christians around a flexible protestant theology and, perhaps most importantly, a single prayer book that shaped how generations of Christians have prayed and lived.

Elizabeth was not the sole architect of the Anglican church, but without her wise and careful political guidance it surely would not have grown into one of the largest Christian denominations, with 85 million members worldwide. Because she was a woman and a politician, rather than a theologian, her contribution to the formation of the Anglican church is often left to historians. But she deserves to be honored for her wise governance that allowed the English church to grow and thrive.

  1. How much he wrote himself, and how much Thomas More contributed, has been a point of contention for centuries. However, Henry certainly agreed with the treatise, regardless of how much he produced himself.

  2. Four of Catherine’s pregnancies ended in stillbirths, one in a son who lived for less than two months, one in a daughter who survived for less than a day, and one resulted in her only surviving child, Mary.

  3. Knox’s text came back to bite him when the Protestant Elizabeth, who supported his theology, was less than pleased with his arguments about women.

  4. During Mary’s brief reign, many English reformers fled to Geneva — John Calvin’s community. Some of these reformers returned to England with the conviction that the Anglican church needed further reformation; they became the Puritans who eventually plunged England into a civil war over the question of the monarch’s authority. (Some Puritans, of course, left England prior to the English Civil War and established colonies in North America.)