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Elizabethan Settlement

Elizabethan Settlement

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After Queen Mary I died in 1558, Elizabeth I became queen. She inherited an England deeply divided on religious issues. How could she reconcile the nation? Was there a middle ground between Catholics and Protestants?

Elizabethan Settlement Portrait of Elizabeth I StudySmarterFig. 1 Portrait of Elizabeth I

Elizabethan Settlement Definition and Summary

The Elizabethan Settlement was religious legislation passed from 1559 to 1571 that intended to provide a compromise between English Catholics and Protestants. It included the Act of Supremacy, Act of Uniformity, a new Book of Common Prayer, and the Thirty-Nine Articles.

Book of Common Prayer

The Book of Common Prayer gave English-speaking people prayers in their language. Its purpose was to give the common people access to liturgies and prayers.

The Elizabethan Settlement intended to provide a compromise between Catholics and Protestants by incorporating elements of each faith into the Church of England. Although it did not heal the divide brought on by the Reformation, it did stabilize the Church of England, and many of the religious decisions made during the Elizabethan Settlement period remain part of the Anglican church today.

Elizabethan Settlement Church Illustration from the Surrey Archaeological collection 1854 StudySmarterFig. 2 Church Illustration from the Surrey Archaeological collection 1854

Elizabethan Settlement Causes

Henry VIII officially broke with the Catholic Church in Rome in 1534 by passing the First Act of Supremacy, making himself head of a new Church of England. This act ignited the English Reformation and established a unique form of Protestantism known as Anglicanism as the official religion. There was much debate among traditionalists and zealous reformers about how this new church should look. It did not help that the church's Supreme Head was easily influenced, highly paranoid, and dangerously erratic.

Why did Henry VIII break with the Catholic Church?

Henry VIII secured his position on the throne through violence in 1485 when he defeated Richard III. His lineage was unstable, and his production of a male heir was necessary. After Henry's first wife, Catherine of Aragon, failed to give Henry an heir to his throne, Henry's eyes wandered!

Did you know?

Catherine of Aragon was Henry VIII's brother's wife. He believed that as punishment by God for this communion, God was refusing him a male heir, and this influenced his decisions to divorce and remarry.

Henry wished to dissolve his marriage to Catherine and to be remarried to Anne Boleyn, but Pope Clement VII refused. Henry was later excommunicated from the Catholic Church after his secret marriage to Anne. The Act of Supremacy in 1534 removed any religious authority in England from the Pope and gave it to himself, and his heirs. Meaning he could finally divorce Catherine!

Anne gave birth to Henry's daughter; Elizabeth I and Henry was undoubtedly disappointed again.

Church of England and Lutheranism

During Henry's reign, the Church of England went semi-Lutheran in 1537, asserting that justification by faith alone was central to doctrine and that the church should eliminate saint worship. Henry dissolved the English monasteries and seized their assets, causing widespread unrest. In 1539, Henry tried to walk back some of his more Lutheran-leaning reforms and make the Church of England more Catholic by reaffirming transubstantiation and celibacy for clerics.


The belief that the wafer and wine literally transform into Christ's body and blood during Communion service.

Elizabethan Settlement Lutheran 22D Street Third Avenue StudySmarterFig. 3 Lutheran 22D Street, Third Avenue

Edward Seymour's Reforms

When Henry died in 1547, the Protestants gained the upper hand. Henry named Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, as regent for the young King Edward VI. Somerset was a Calvinist, and the young king grew up with a host of Protestant tutors. Edward VI believed that strict Protestantism was best for the Church of England, and his reforms undid all of the protections for traditional religion enacted in 1539. The reforms included allowing clerics to marry and denying transubstantiation. The upheaval by yet another major religious reform resulted in rebellion in many English provinces.

Elizabethan Settlement Edward Seymour 1855 StudySmarterFig. 4 Edward Seymour 1855

Edward died at age seventeen in 1533, and England's official religion suffered dramatic changes again. When Edward VI died, his sister Mary I became queen. Mary was just as passionate a Catholic as Edward had been Protestant. Her brief reign sought to return England's church to Catholicism and reconcile with the Pope. While some were happy to return to the traditional religion, many were not, and the land was ripped apart by rebellion. Mary died in 1558, and England again faced upheaval in the name of religion.

Did you know?

Edward VI's death is believed to be caused by a subsequent case of tuberculosis after he suffered from measles.

A United Church of England

When Elizabeth I became queen in 1558, England's religious situation was dire. So much flipping back and forth between Protestantism and Catholicism left the country deeply divided. Elizabeth was a Protestant, but not a zealous one as her brother Edward VI had been. Instead, she approached religion with a more pragmatic air. One of her first acts as queen sought to heal the religious division brought on by the past half-century by treading a middle ground between the two sides: a new united Church of England.

Elizabethan Settlement Etching of Elizabeth I in Parliament StudySmarterFig. 5 Etching of Elizabeth I in Parliament

Religious Settlement 1559

Elizabeth I knew that one of her first acts as queen needed to resolve the ongoing confusion about what the Church of England was. Immediately, she established that England was not tied to Rome in any way. Elizabeth accepted the title of Supreme Governor of the Church of England upon her ascension in 1558. She envisioned a church rooted in traditional religious practices but upheld essential Protestant elements such as clerical marriage, Bibles in the vernacular language, and offering both kinds of communion (bread and wine) to all.

Settlement Legislation

Act of Supremacy (1559): This Act established Elizabeth I as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. She pledged not to interfere in issues of Church doctrine but only focus on administration. Her reason was:

I would not open windows into men's souls"- Elizabeth I 1

  • Act of Uniformity (1559): This Act established the structure of the Church of England. Its doctrine was predominantly Protestant but retained a Catholic hierarchy with archbishops and bishops. Clergymen were allowed to marry as with Protestantism, but the services kept their elaborate Catholic-like ceremonial structure, except they were now in English. In addition, every church was required to have Bibles in English, and everyone was required to attend church on Sunday.
  • Book of Common Prayer (1559): A moderate new prayer book was introduced, required for use in all English churches. Thomas Cranmer wrote this book during the reign of Edward VI, and Elizabeth's religious advisors made only minor changes to appeal to the more traditionalist religionists.

The Thirty-Nine Articles (1563-1571)

These articles served as the foundation for the Church of England's doctrine. They established the practice of faith and religious procedures in England. They went through several revisions and were finalized in 1571 and added to the Book of Common Prayer.

Elizabethan Settlement Essay on Thirty Nine Articles of Religion StudySmarterFig. 6 Essay on Thirty Nine Articles of Religion

The articles are based on the Forty-Two articles written by Thomas Cranmer in 1553 but could not be implemented because of Edward VI's death during the same year. When Elizabeth I ascended to the throne, she took up the articles and gave them to a Convocation of religious leaders for revision for the new Church of England. They reduced the number to thirty-nine, leaving out a few that they thought would most offend the Catholics.

The finalized articles include:

  • The Holy Scriptures contain "all things necessary for salvation."

  • Salvation comes from God's grace alone and not through good works

  • No one is without sin except Christ.

  • Justification by faith alone, meaning that salvation is a gift from God received through faith.

  • Purgatory does not exist.

  • There are only two sacraments: Baptism and Communion, or the Lord's Supper. The articles removed Catholic sacraments: Confirmation, Penance, Holy Orders, Marriage, and Last Rites or Extreme Unction.

  • All Christians may receive the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper.

  • The Church will not prohibit oath-taking by Christians for civic purposes.

Elizabethan Settlement Significance and Legacy

The Elizabethan Settlement provided the foundation for the Church of England, much of which is still in place today. However, many Englishmen disagreed with its "middle ground" approach to religion to pacify Protestants and Catholics alike. Protestants thought the settlement did not provide enough reform. They tried to push more Protestant-leaning reforms in 1566 but failed. Those who chose not to adhere to the Church of England's rules were persecuted. Almost 200 Catholic priests and those who helped them were hunted and burned.

Historians debate how fast and complete the settlement changed religion in England. The traditionalist argument was very pro-Protestant. A.G. Dickens wrote of widespread popular support for Protestantism that made the Elizabethan settlement inevitable and immediately supported. However, Ronald Hutton argues that certain Catholic elements such as altars were present in some regional churches as late as 1567, demonstrating a reluctance to convert to the new Church.

What do YOU think?

Which of the two mentioned historians do you agree with? Try and produce an argument for your decision by gathering evidence from the article!

Regardless of how quickly Elizabethan reform spread throughout England, the legislation of the Elizabethan Settlement did stabilize the face of the Church of England. It remains a unique institution that treads between Catholicism and Protestantism known in other regions. But that does not mean that it was never again contested. The outbreak of Protestant radicalism during the English Civil War challenged ideas of inclusion and tolerance within the church. How far could one's views about faith go before the established church could no longer accept them? Again, the question remained a moving target, and many-faced persecution as the definition of acceptable religion continued to shift.

Elizabethan Settlement - Key takeaways

  • The Elizabethan Settlement sought to provide a compromise between Protestants and Catholics by making a Church of England that had elements of both.
  • The Church of England was Protestant at its core but took the hierarchy from the Catholics by keeping archbishops and bishops.
  • The Elizabethan Settlement did not heal the divide between Protestants and Catholics. However, those who refused to comply were persecuted.
  • The Church that Elizabeth created is unique. There is none other like it in Europe. Additionally, today's Anglican Church structure is essentially the same as it was in 1563.


  1. Elizabeth I.Oral Tradition, originating from a letter drafted by Bacon; in J. B. Black Reign of Elizabeth 1558–1603 (1936). Sourced from Susan Ratcliffe, (2016). Oxford Essential Quotations (4 ed.).

Frequently Asked Questions about Elizabethan Settlement

The Elizabethan Settlement was religious legislation that provided a compromise between English Catholics and Protestants.

The Elizabethan Settlement established a unified Church of England that included Protestant beliefs and the Catholic hierarchical structure.

The Elizabethan settlement did not settle the religious debates brought by the Reformation. Those who refused to conform to the new Church of England were persecuted.

The main features of the settlement include: establishing a Church of England that included Protestant beliefs and the Catholic hierarchical structure and making Queen Elizabeth I Supreme Governor of the Church.

Yes and no. The Elizabethan settlement did not settle the religious debates brought by the Reformation but it did provide the structure for the Church of England, much of which is still in use today.

Final Elizabethan Settlement Quiz

Elizabethan Settlement Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


What year were the Acts of Uniformity and Supremacy passed?

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When were the Thirty-Nine Articles passed?

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What was the Elizabethan Religious Settlement?

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A series of Church reforms that sought to create a middle ground between rival Catholics and Protestants.

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Which of the following was NOT included in the Thirty-Nine Articles?

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Christians must not make oaths for civic duty

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What was a Catholic element of the new Church of England?

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Keeping the hierarchy of archbishops and bishops

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What was a Protestant element of the new Church of England?

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Bibles in English

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Did the Elizabethan Settlement heal the divide between English Catholics and Protestants?

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No, the feud between these religions would continue until the end of the seventeeth century.

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What historian argued that the Elizabethan Settlement was the inevitable end of a popular Protestant Reformation?

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A.G. Dickens

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What historian argued that the Elizabethan reforms were slow to take hold in some regions of England?

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Ronald Hutton

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What did the Act of Supremacy (1559) do?

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Made Elizabeth I Supreme Governor of the Church

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