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