Elizabeth I

Essay by Anonymous UserUniversity, Bachelor'sA, March 1996

download word file, 12 pages 3.7

Downloaded 97 times

The modern world is rife with ideological fanaticism. It did

not end with the Cold War -- in fact, it has apparently increased,

becoming more diversified and threatening, whether it takes the

form of North American neo-conservatism, religious zealousness in

the Middle East, or totalitarianism in Nigeria. Against this

backdrop, a philosophy of moderation, perhaps the most liberal of

liberal virtues, seems very wet and uninspired by comparison.

Indeed, the most successful rulers and politicians these days are

anything but moderate.

Therefore, it is useful to turn to history at this point,

especially English history in particular, as it provides a superb

analogy to the politic/social climate of today. In particular, it

is interesting to look at Queen Elizabeth I and her moderating

policy of the day, the via media. Throughout her reign, Elizabeth

held fast to the ideas of the via media: moderate, middle-of-the-

road policies that kept both religious and political fanaticism in

line, and in dealing with all of England's domestic and

international concerns.

In short, Elizabeth I displayed during her

day that moderation was the reason that her reign was so

successful, and why the more radical subjects of the day were no

threat to her. Moderation may not have been glorious or exuberant

-- but Elizabeth realized it was enough to rule successfully and


The success of such a policy was intrinsically linked to

Elizabeth herself, and it is a character trait that her

contemporaries actually share an opinion on. Her prime enemy of

the day -- Pope Sixtus V -- acclaimed her as great (Levin, 40),

while her Protestant subjects were never in any doubt of the fact.

But what exactly was it that influenced Elizabeth to such an extent

that moderation, and the pursuit of the via media, became such an

extension of her own person?

It was the way she was raised which was her prime influence.

Indeed, she could well be described as truly Protestant 'by destiny

and upbringing.' (Regan, 21) Educated by Renaissance scholars of

liberal outlook, it influenced and bred within her a mistrust of

any sort of fanaticism. This was no doubt compounded by observing

the short reigns of her brother and sister, especially the latter.

For 5 years, Mary Tudor governed the country as a Catholic devotee,

causing Elizabeth to learn much from her own personal danger during

this time. Instead of making England united and Catholic, Mary

intensified faction, alienated moderate and patriotic men and cast

a gloom over the nation by the clerical character of her

government, the excessive use of the stake against dissidents, and

the subordination of England to foreign interests (namely Rome and

Spain). 'If ever there was a lesson that passion and politics do

not mix well, Mary's reign showcased it.' (Doran, 43)

When Elizabeth rose to the throne of England at age twenty-

five in 1558, she found her country -- and the rest of the western

world -- still deeply embroiled in the conflict of the Reformation.

She was not helped in dealing with it by the return of hundreds of

zealous Marian exiles from the continent who, having found their

new Jerusalem in Geneva, were determined to begin an equally strong

counter-revolution in England, backed up by both a like-minded

parliament and a sympathetic population. The exiles hoped that

Elizabeth herself would become their Deborah, and lead them to

another new holy realm.

But Elizabeth had other plans, although she understood

immediately what expectations were placed on her. Upon her

ascension she accepted her destiny to the extent of deciding on an

immediate break with the Papacy, proving in that one act even more

courageous than most of the advisors that had urged it in the first

place. But beyond this act, caution ruled her judgement. With her

eye on danger from abroad and disunity at home, she proposed to

defer doctrinal changes, and so far was she from sharing the

crusading ideals of her triumphant supporters that for her ultimate

religious settlement she wanted a church that was nothing more than

conservative, comprehensive and tolerant as possible. (Doran 19)

She even hoped to carry many of Mary's bishops with her, thus

counter-acting the influence -- and relying on less support from --

the radicals. Even thought the eventual settlement was a stubborn

compromise, with Elizabeth forced to make some concessions, it was

still enacted without fulfilling any of the radicals' desires for

more thorough doctrinal and institutional reform.

Thus fanaticism during the Queen's reign was checked from the

very beginning, and the advantages were quickly realized. During

the early part of her reign -- when it was critical for Elizabeth

to consolidate her power -- Catholic forces abroad were not

provoked into attempting her overthrow, Catholics at home remained

quiet, national instead of factional sentiments were fostered, and

domestic peace was preserved.

Though the radicals remained troublesome and defiant --

looking on the settlement as a temporary expediency only

(MacCaffrey, 100) -- Elizabeth's moderate policy of via media

accomplished success from the outset in terms of domestic religious

concerns, and it was a signal achievement of her reign. For while

the rest of Europe remained in turmoil, England herself escaped the

domestic religious wars that raged across the nations on the


The Queen had no doubt that a growing peace would continue to

breed more loyalty into the radicals, but events unfolded that put

the via media through the most torturous of tests: England being

drawn into the great storm that was the Catholic Counter-

Reformation. With the Religious Wars breaking out in France and

the Netherlands revolting against Catholic Spain, Protestant

zealots in England were convinced that at the Council of Trent, and

subsequently at a Franco-Spanish conference, a universal Catholic

conspiracy had been planned: its objective to root out

Protestantism by any and every means necessary, in every country

that could be reached.

Events during the final quarter of the sixteenth century

seemed to confirm this. The Papacy seized the opportunity to issue

a bull deposing Elizabeth as Queen, thus openly ranging

international Catholicism against Protestant England. (Doran, 55)

It signalled the start of a period of aggressive Cold War tactics,

with many English Catholics fleeing to the continent, where they

were trained for the English mission field. Once finished, they

would then be sent back secretly to convert their countrymen. At

the same time, the Papacy, in conjunction with the Catholic Guise

Party in France, were planning the invasion of England by an

international Catholic army, in which the missionaries would become

the fifth column -- to be called into action at the Pope's command

when the invaders landed. (Morey, 68)

Against this ominous backdrop, there occurred plot after plot

against Elizabeth, beginning with the Ridolfi plot of 1572. Plans

were made and remade for the assassination of the Queen, and

ultimately -- as the English government angrily discovered --

received the blessing of the Holy See, through the Papal Secretary.

(Doran, 59) Add the Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Eve in France in

1572, and the assassination of William the Silent by a Catholic

fanatic in 1584, and one has a perfect picture of the Elizabethan

political climate of the day: ideological warfare without scruple

or limit. As recognizable then as it was between the United States

and the USSR in the 1950's, and in Israel in the 1990's.

The result of all this in England was an angry, fanatically-

tempered House of Commons, supported in some of its most extreme

proposals by both the more sombre-minded House of Lords and the

Privy Council, usually in the constant attempts to extend the

treason and sedition laws. (Hartley, 74) The parliaments of the

day knew that Catholicism regarded the only thing standing in the

way of the end of Protestant England and the advancement of

international Catholicism was Queen Elizabeth, and her life and

realm required protection at all costs. They wanted to root out

Catholicism in all corners of England by any means necessary, stop

the missionaries by merciless laws, answer terror by terror. Many

spoke and acted as if the only good Catholic was a dead Catholic.

(Doran, 20)

Standing against Parliament and the Privy Council, often in

stark isolation, was Elizabeth herself. She proved herself a

politique (Hartley, 181), which is not to say that she was

indifferent about her faith, or the situation surrounding her. Hew

own experience during her sister's reign, combined with her

temperament, had taught her the principles by which to rule

effectively: civil obedience. The State was Protestant; the law

demanded attendance at Church; the people must conform. But the

Queen was content merely with outward obedience -- opposed to

forcing conscience. As Sir Francis Bacon expressed it,

...Her Majesty, not liking to make windows

into men's hearts, and secret thoughts...

(Ades, 202)

She had assured her people of this in 1570 at the time of the

Northern Rebellion; and when, in 1571, Parliament, with the cordial

support of both Houses, bishops and Privy Councillors, passed a

bill to compel attendance at Communion services -- in order, as one

Puritan zealot declared,

...that not only the external and outward,

but the very secrets of the heart should

come to a reckoning...,

(Perry, 112)

the Queen vetoed the bill. The relevance of such an incident only

stresses how much Elizabeth was willing to do in order to stand by

the integrity of her moderating principles.

She continued to restrain her parliaments in such a fashion,

and never more so than in dealing with the largest problem of her

entire reign: her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. In this matter,

the via media was put to the ultimate domestic test.

In 1568, Mary fled from Scotland into England. Through her

mother, she was a daughter of the French House of Guise, leaders of

France's militant Catholicism. It could be argued that she was the

rightful Queen of England: certainly on grounds of mere descent,

she had the best title to be Elizabeth's successor. (Levin, 140)

And Mary as Queen of England foretold a return to Catholicism, the

nightmare of all good English Protestants. She instantly became a

focus for the discontented political and religious zealots of the

day. Her mere presence revived Catholic hopes and attracted

conspirators both foreign and English. English statesmen foresaw

the peril, but the alternative of allowing this dangerous woman to

leave England was even more perilous. 'Our good Queen,' wrote one

of them, 'had the wolf by the ears.' (Perry, 84) Therefore, she

was held in honourable captivity until her execution in 1587.

But even captive she was a focus for the Catholic cause, and

the Northern Rebellion of 1570 was the first of many plots to be

created as a result of the coalescence of political and religious

discontents around Mary. The missionary situation was another off-

shoot of this, resulting in Parliament, in 1581, framing a bill to

impose orthodoxy on the nation with the ruthlessness of a modern

day totalitarian regime. Missionaries and their converts, without

qualification, were to be guilty of treason; and for other

Catholics in England there were many other provisions that skirted

-- and even crossed the line -- Draconian-style justice.

(MacCaffrey, 90) Elizabeth immediately intervened to reduce the

penalises in these laws, and so qualified treason to mean simply

treasonable intent, not simple conversion. With this action she

once again applied another of her via media principles:

...that matters of personal conscience cease

to be when they exceed their bounds and

become matters of faction, involving overt

threats to the established government.

(Doran, 26)

It would be the same principle she would extend to dealing with the

puritans, more on which later.

Needless to say that Parliament was more than willing to

remove Mary as the focus of all of Elizabeth's -- and England's --

problems long before 1587, if they had been allowed. But the

Queen's reaction to their fearful anger not only puzzled them, but

proved to be one of the most astonishing actions of her reign in

terms of applying the via media.

In 1572, after the Ridolfi Plot, the Lords, Commons and Privy

Council all united in a passionate determination to attain and

execute Mary. When the Queen declined this, they repeated their

demand with all the vehement and angry arguments that they could

devise; and it was only after a second emphatic denial by the Queen

that they turned -- in disgust and tears -- to the milder

alternative of excluding Mary from the succession to the throne.

(Levin, 162) But at the end of the session, Elizabeth shocked them

all by vetoing this bill as well! Even when they considered

legalizing lynching laws against Mary -- after both the

assassination of William the Silent and the Babbington Plot --

Parliament was still denied action by the Queen. (Levin, 162-163)

In attempt after attempt, Parliament could not pass a single

detrimental bill against Mary by the Queen herself no matter how

hard they tried. Thus, no historical legend could be more ironic

than the one, still cherished by Scotsmen, which saddles Elizabeth

with unalloyed responsibility for the execution of Mary. (Levin,

166) If only they had known moderation, in Elizabeth's eyes,

disinherited such an honour.

The situation with Mary, Queen of Scots drove another problem

into the light: the rise of Puritan radicalism. It was these very

same radicals who were the returning Marian exiles of the 1550's,

they who restored the alliance of Puritan clergy with Parliament

and pressed for repressive anti-Catholic legislation. Outwardly,

the acclaimed their support for Elizabeth as Queen with shouts to

the heavens if the need arose, but for all their support of her,

the Puritans became Elizabeth's most troubling -- and pressing --


In dealing with the Puritans, Elizabeth had a quality working

within her that was not present at all in her dealings with the

issue of Mary: hatred. She detested the radicals. Puritanism to

her was an abomination. She scorned and chastised its doctrinal

character, disliked its radicalism and detested its inquisitorial

discipline. (Ridley, 34)

But she was also wary of their growing political clout as

well, and was wise to do so. In the 1570's, the Puritan party

among the clergy developed a younger left-wing of extremists, who

became Calvinist and wanted to changed the polity of the Anglican

Church, substituting Presbyterianism for the episcopal and

hierarchical system inherited from Rome: a change so far-reaching

in its political and social consequences that revolution would be

the only adequate term for it. Their program suited the times.

Its claim to be the apostolic form of the Christian Church caught

the prevalent mood of truth-seeking at the time (Ridley, 41), and

was the spiritual complement to the totalitarian desires of

politicians in the House of Commons.

Furthermore, even with its sombre and severe discipline, it

was singularly well organized and well adapted to subversive,

minority movements. The movement was masterful at propaganda, and

though it was primarily a clerical concern, it won wide support

from the gentry, and even included Privy Councillors among its

patrons and sympathizers. Many laymen were convinced adherents;

still more were fellow travellers.

Long before its conspiratorial nature was revealed, a great

many of Elizabeth's bishops and statesmen were beguiled by it.

Puritan divines were regularly briefing their supporters in the

House of Commons, and they maintained a constant agitation there

(Ridley, 55), but Elizabeth was adamant in resisting every

parliamentary effort to interfere with Church affairs.

The Queen was both a shrewd woman and a shrewd politician, and

while more and more of her advisors were becoming fellow

travellers, she foresaw the nature of the Puritan organization

before anyone else did, and was determined to put a stop to it.

This reached a climax in the Parliament of 1587, when the

Puritan extremists, who had set up their secret presbyteries and

were undermining the Church from within, attempted to impose their

revolution on the country by legislation. The Queen imprisoned the

group of M.P.'s responsible, and set her best orators to expose the

true character of their bill, thus shocking fellow travellers in to

some awareness of the company they had been keeping. (Hartley, 106)

A few years later, having uncovered the secrets of the Puritan

clergy's organization, she was able to strike at its leaders and

destroy a very dangerous conspiracy. Again, moderation triumphed

over more fanatical and extremist ideals, resulting in a stable

political and religious climate.

What is the final assessment of Queen Elizabeth I's moderate

policy? The history of the reign -- in particular the

parliamentary history -- leaves no doubt that but for Elizabeth's

firm rule the period would have been much more cruel and bloody.

Her statesmen, including moderates such as Sir Francis Bacon and

Lord Burghley, were always bemoaning her merciful nature, perilous

to herself and the country. (Ades, 147) But even though law

enforcement during this time was still tyrannical in many

instances, had parliament had its way, and had a different

sovereign been on the throne, it could have been so much worse.

Elizabeth realized that the dampening down of ideological

extremism was the only way that England, when dangers ceased, could

recover any sort of balance. She realized that fanaticism was not

an enduring part of civilized society, and that stability only

reigned when moderation was in abundance. Thus, through the via

media, order was maintained by keeping a balance within society,

and by not provoking any one group against another.

In governing the realm the way she did, Elizabeth I made

romantic leadership an art of government, drawing support from

every facet of the population. The name 'Gloriana' and the phrase

via media seem odd companions. But the liberal way of life is the

richest and fullest, and it was well for England that when men's

passions led them from it, the Queen preserved the tradition. Her

Puritan and political fanatics had no more obstinate opponent:

she, in turn, had no more devoted worshippers. It is the strangest

paradox of her reign and the supreme tribute not only to her

greatness, but to her moderation -- a lesson modern day zealots

could learn quite a bit from.

Thus, is it any wonder then that the only Englishmen to

welcome the Spanish Armada were the exiles and extremists...?


Ades, Dawn. Francis Bacon. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1985.

Doran, Susan. Elizabeth I and Religion. London: Routledge, 1994.

Hartley, T.E. Elizabeth's Parliaments: Queen, Lords and Commons,

1559-1601. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992.

Leslie, John, Bishop of Ross 1527-1596. A Treatise of Treasons

Againts Queen Elizabeth I. Ilkley: Scolar Press, 1975.

Levin, Carole. The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and

the Politics of Sex and Power. Philadelphia: University of

Philadelphia Press, 1994.

MacCaffrey, Wallace T. Elizabeth I - War and Politics. Princeton:

Princeton University Press, 1992.

Morey, Adrian. The Catholic Subjects of Elizabeth I. Totowa:

Roman and Littlefield, 1978.

Perry, Maria. The World of a Prince: A Life of Elizabeth I from

contemporary documents. Suffolk: Boydell, 1990.

Plowder, Alison. Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stewart: Two Queens in

One Isle. Totowa: Barnes and Noble Books, 1984.

Regan, Geoffrey. Elizabeth I. New York: Cambridge University

Press, 1988.

Ridley, Jasper Goodwin. Elizabeth I - The Shrewdness of Virtue.

New York: Fromm International, 1989.