The rise of Puritanical resistance to the Elizabethan settlement


   The Elizabethan religious settlement had been a compromise in many ways, as Elizabeth tried to balance the interests of all of the religious parties. One "party", which was rather disunited within itself but united in its disapproval of the current situation, were the Puritans. They were mainly Englishmen that had been forced to flee the country during the reign of Mary I for their beliefs, and had become part of established Protestant churches in places such as Zurich. Here they had "tasted the pure milk of the gospel" and were not to be satisfied with anything less - the Elizabethen settlement was seen by them as a step in the right direction, but they expected and hoped for much more. The Elizabeth Prayer Book was much less 'reformed' that those used by the exiles in Frankfurt or Zurich, and was only one battle in the war so far as these extreme Puritans were concerned.

   At first the Puritans were willing to bide their time, and they felt sure that Elizabeth would complete what in their opinion she had only begun. It was understood that extreme Protestantism would not be well appreciated by all quarters on the international scene, and that maybe Elizabeth would have to move slowly in phasing in the reformed religion. Wrote John Jewel to Peter Martyr in Zurich -

"Many things are often tolerated by sovereigns by reason of the times. And this at first, probably, was not attended with inconvenience; but now that the fell light of the gospel has shone forth, the very vestiges of error must, as far as possible, be removed together with the rubbish and, as the saying is, with the very dust."1

   Elizabeth, it is generally agreed, saw the settlement as the end, rather than the start. While many Papists who were disillusioned with Elizabeth quickly realized that she herself was the problem, most Puritans continued to blame her "evil councillors" until the end. Either way, as time passed they became less and less willing to cope with the conservative nature of the Church of England.

Puritan beliefs

   While the Puritans did not all believe the same thing, there were certainly some recurrent factors in all extreme strains of Protestantism2. It is important to note that they were all united in their dislike of the Catholic Church and anything associated with it - some of their doctrines seem to be specifically desgined in reaction to the doctrines of Rome.

   Perhaps more important than anything else, we should establish that Puritans were not strict Christian "moralists" (for example, Protestants believed priests should marry, Catholics did not.) The image of the dull man with a strong "Protestant work ethic" becomes more appropriate in the 17th century, not the 16th. Puritans were merely extreme Protestants, right on the "left-wing" of the Church. The phrase was in use at the time, but rather as a term of abuse applied to them by Catholics. They called themselves "true Gospellers", or "the Godly." They were returning from their period in exile to the Promised Land, their faith having been truely tested.

   Among the central tenants of Puritan belief was the belief in the Calvinist doctrine of "double predestination": you were either destined for Heaven or Hell from birth, there was no free will involved. Although one logical conclusion of this is that one should therefore not bother living a good life because it wouldn't change anything, in general carrying out good works was seen as a sign of being predestined to Heaven (a member of the so-called 'elect'.) The other extreme Protestant belief adopted by many Puritans was the belief in the total depravity of man - Calvin stated that all that remains of God's image in man is "so deeply corrupted that all that remains is a horrible deformity." Extreme faith was the only way to overcome this, and another source of conflict with the Papists was where this faith should be derived from.

   Catholics held that the tradition of the Church was just as important as scripture (this had been affirmed as part of the Catholic Reformation by the Decrees of the Council of Trent) - Puritans held that the only source of faith was the Word. This caused problems at first, because they claimed that all parts of the Bible were as true and Holy as all others, but in some places the Bible is clearly contradictory. This led to them instead stressing certain areas of the Bible as more fundamental than others, particulary parts of the New Testament (much of the Old (Jewish) Testament did not describe actions carried out according to the principles that Jesus advocated.)

   Part of our image of "boring" Puritans stems from their well-publicized dislike of Church music and art, much of which they destroyed in acts similar to the Iconoclastic Fury during the Dutch Revolt. They believed that such follies detracted from the true worship of God and they associated them with Catholicism and Popery. They had a similar attitude to vestments, which led to their first conflict with the Crown during during the 1560s.

The Vestiarian Controversy

   Certain phrasing in the Act of Uniformity and the fact that at first no-one expected the settlement to be permanent led to a disunity of habit in the early Elizabethen Church - certain things were done differently by different bishops. Some wore a surplice and hat, some gave Communion with the congregation kneeling, some with it standing. The Queen was outraged by the lack of outward conformity and wrote a stern letter to Archbishop of Canterbury Parker, instructing him that not only would he take measures but he would do so off his own back. The Queen was not willing to take responsibility for what could prove to be unpopular actions, having learnt this lesson from her predecessor.

   Puritans believed that as such things as clerical vestments were not in the Bible, they were "things indifferent" (adiaphora) and free to be decided by any given priest. The Queen and bishops loyal to her believed that in the case of things not dictated by Scripture and therefore not vital for salvation all people should obey their sovereign. The teachings of Erasmus (an advocate of religious freedom) and the Puritans disagreed.

   Parker managed to achieve outward conformity in the bishoprics of London with relative ease, by publishing his Book of Advertisements which took a firm line. It enforced kneeling at Communion and the wearing of a strict standardized set of vestments. All bishops in London were called to Lambeth to pledge themselves to the Advertisements or face suspension. There were some suspensions, but it managed to effectively silenced the Puritans for a few years - there were a small set of Puritans who weren't willing to bow to the civil authority. Of course, had the Queen and Privy Council published Injunctions as they could have done under the Act of Supremacy, the problem could probably have been solved with civil violence. They were not willing to get involved in this way, however.

The Prophesying Movement

   One of the things that all Puritans wanted was an educated clergy - an uneducated clergy was seen as one of the faults of the Catholic Church, and it was natural that the anti-Papists wanted to rectify this error. They imported from Europe the idea of prophesyings, which were debates carried out by clergy in public. They discussed matters of doctrine and scripture, much to the delight of lay people who travelled miles to see them. When the Queen heard of the movement, however, she was none too pleased - firstly because of their Puritanical leanings, and secondly because she distrusted free discussion which she felt could only weaken the unity of her Church. Episcopal approval for the prophesyings varied from tacit to absolute.

   The Queen told Parker to stop the prophesyings - he was able to do so in his own diocese, but dissent continued elsewhere. When Grindal became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1576 he felt that the movement was good because it would help suppress a rising tide of Catholicism - even if it was in some cases being hijacked by people using it to speak out against the Church, he felt he could solve this problem. When Elizabeth reproached him and told him the movement was to be stamped out altogether, he refused and told her to keep her nose out of spiritual affairs. For this he was suspended and put under house arrest, and his duties were carried out by commissioners of the Queen. He remained suspended until his death, and bishops managed to keep the practice down in the south, but it grew in the north (with the Bishop of Chester making it compulsory in 1582.)

   When Grindal died, John Whitgift became Archbishop of Canterbury, and the age of compromise was over. As a product of the Elizabethan settlement and imbued with a belief that it was the right way of things, he would tolerate no Puritanism and was as authoritarian as Elizabeth herself.

The Classical Movement

   Whitgift managed to unite all moderate and radical Puritans against him by demanding that they conform to the Prayer Book, the Thirty-Nine articles and acknowledge the Royal Supremacy. Almost 400 clergy were set to be deprived for refusing to conform, but outside pressure eventually made Whitgift spare all but a few. Against this background of attempted repression, Puritans were preparing for the Parliament of 1584 by compiling a list of decadent and incompetent priests to present. They then tried to force a prayer book based on the Calvinist Genevan one through Parliament, and the whole affair ended with the Queen ordering the Commons not to interfere with the Church. The Puritans were becoming maligned more and more all the time; now they had been denied the right to reform the Church at all.

   The classical movement was an attempt to set up a 'Church within a Church' - the breadth of preparations made for the Parliament showed the strong grassroots support for the Puritan movement, and it is likely that the "classis" that started to emerge grew out of the prophesyings. The principal organizer of this movement was John Field, and it was fairly strong and ambitious throughout the 1580s.

   Within this organization there was another even more radical group which believed reform was impossible for the Church of England - they wanted to seperate from it entirely and form a Church of their own. They believed that the English Church was so tainted with Romanism that no true believer could remain in it, and in fact that any National Church would suffer from the same malady. Compulsion to join it meant it would always be tainted by non-believers - even Presbyterians and Anglicans believed a National Church was possible. Because an attack on the Church was seen as an attack on the Royal Supremacy and therefore sedition, it was possible for the civil authority to execute the leaders of this movement eventually. It is likely Whitgift arranged their eventual execution to impress the House of Commons into passing legislation against Seperatists, but the creation of martyrs did not help kill the movement.

~ Notes ~

1. This from The Zurich Letters.

2. Such was their disunity that it significantly weakened their ability to apply effective pressure on the government, however, because there was plenty of infighting and bad blood amongst the Puritans. Writes Jewel to Martyr: "We have not deviated in the slightest degree from the confession of Zurich, although your friend (Sir Anthony Cook) defends some scheme of his own, I know not what, most obstinately, and is mightily angry with us." (The Zurich Letters.)


Alexander, H.G. Religion in England, 1558 - 1662: Hodder and Stoughton, 1968.

Elton, G. R. England under the Tudors 2nd ed.: Cox & Wyman, 1974.

Lothingerton, John. The Counter-Reformation in Years of Renewal, 1470 - 1600, edited by John Lotherington: Hodder and Stoughton, 1988.

Saxon, Malcolm. Elizabeth I: Religion in The Tudor Years, edited by John Lotherington: Hodder and Stoughton, 1994.