Religion in Elizabethan England

Religion in Elizabethan England

By Aurelia Clunie, Education Associate for Student Audiences

The “Darnley Portrait” of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Circa 1575.
The “Darnley Portrait” of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Circa 1575.

Queen Elizabeth I was an incredibly popular queen whose reign is remembered as a “golden age” of culture and growth even during foreign and domestic challenges. The Elizabethan Era, during which Shakespeare lived and wrote, is also known for Sir Francis Drake’s exploration of the “new world,” the English defeat of the Spanish Armada (a naval campaign to invade and bring Roman Catholicism back to England), Sir Walter Raleigh’s colonial exploration, the blossoming of theatre and poetry in England, and setting the stage for English empire and colonization. Yet it was also a time marked by war, economic depression, and complex spiritual and political conflict. Deep tensions between Protestants and Catholics came from England’s recent departure from the Roman Catholic Church, initiated by Elizabeth’s father, King Henry VIII.

Unlike America, England at the time had no separation between church and state. Traditionally, the country was ruled politically by the king and spiritually by the Roman Catholic Church. However, Shakespeare’s was the first generation in which the monarch, rather than the Pope, served as the country’s spiritual head.

The shift to Protestantism came shortly before Shakespeare’s birth, during King Henry VIII’s rule. Henry desperately wanted a male heir, but had only one daughter, Mary, with his wife Catherine of Aragon.  Henry decided to branch off from the Roman Catholic Church in order to divorce Catherine and, in 1533, marry Anne Boleyn. This spawned the birth of the establishment of the Church of England, of which the King was head, and created tensions between the Roman Catholic Church and England. Yet Anne Boleyn also had a daughter, Elizabeth, and when she did not have a son, Henry had her executed in 1536 on charges of treason. Henry went on to marry four more times, but only his marriage to Jane Seymour, who died in childbirth, produced a son, Edward VI.

Edward VI assumed the throne at the age of nine. He reigned as a Protestant king and bolstered the strength of the Protestant Church in England. Edward introduced the Book of Common Prayer (and with it English, rather than Latin, services), did away with stained glass in churches and Roman Catholic statues, and allowed English clergy to marry. However, Edward was never very healthy and died of tuberculosis when he was only fifteen years old.

Edward VI was succeeded by his half-sister, Mary I, who ruled for five years, from 1553-1558. Mary was a devout Roman Catholic and began reinstating portions of the Roman Catholic Church. During her reign, she burned over 300 Protestant heretics. Heresy, or believing a religion other than the one recognized by the crown, was both a spiritual and state crime comparable to treason. Mary married Phillip, King of Spain, in 1554, in hopes of producing an heir to succeed her and complete England’s conversion back to a Roman Catholic state. However, the couple had no children, and Elizabeth, her half-sister, became queen in 1558.

With Queen Elizabeth on the throne, the pendulum swung back toward Protestantism. In efforts to quell sectarian violence, Elizabeth was lenient toward practicing Catholics, however specific laws, such as fining those who did not attend church, kept the Church of England firmly in place. Freedom of religion was assumed as long as laws were obeyed, but this did prevent Catholics from worshipping openly, and some sought to rise up against persecution. During her reign, Catholic factions, supported by Catholic countries including Spain, threatened the Queen’s reign and even life.

Throughout this period, everyday life in England could be quite complicated. A holiday on the calendar one year might be revoked the next, only to be added a few years later. A person’s religious practices were bound tightly to his or her political leanings. Landholders who developed property on what was once a monastery might have faced opposition from those seeking to reclaim the land. King James I, who succeeded Elizabeth and commissioned the King James Bible, would also experience a threat to his life in the infamous Gunpowder Plot—a conspiracy by a Catholic faction to bomb parliament while the King would be present. Father Henry Garnet, a Jesuit priest, was known for claiming confidentiality and withholding knowledge of the conspiracy confessed to him by followers, an act for which he was found guilty of treason and executed. Some Elizabethans were strong supporters of the Protestant reformation, some were staunchly Catholic, some were ambivalent, and some still practiced a stricter form of Christianity, Puritanism.

Shakespeare, along with all Elizabethans, would have been well aware of the ebbs and flows of this power struggle, and Shakespeare often referenced religion and its effects on culture and politics in his plays. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s characterization of Malvolio pokes fun at a strict Puritan lifestyle. The porter’s speech in Macbeth is commentary on the act of equivocation, or not telling the whole truth in order to avoid incriminating oneself or others. Father Garnet’s “equivocation” during the Gunpowder Plot trial had grave consequences. In Hamlet, Claudius holds a more Protestant view of grief customs and observances while Hamlet is more conservative, observing a more Catholic lifestyle. While Hamlet wears black and insists on mourning traditionally for his father, Claudius encourages Hamlet to move on from the funeral and celebrate his marriage to the Queen:


Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father;
But, you must know, your father lost a father;
…’tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool’d:

(1.2.87-89, 94-97)

Shakespeare’s audiences would have been familiar with the Bible and Christianity, regardless of where they fell on the religious spectrum. While Shakespeare often commented on current events regarding the Protestant/Catholic debate within the action of his plays, his personal religious leanings are unknown. His plays, however, do give a clear picture of the religious climate in Elizabethan England and its effect on daily life.