Today marks the 455th anniversary of a set of events in 1558 which shaped the future religious history of England. On that day there occurred the deaths, early in the morning, of Queen Mary I and, later in the same day, that of Cardinal Pole of Canterbury, and the accession of Queen Elizabeth I. With these events the 1559 settlement of the Church of England became possible.
Queen Mary I
If Queen Mary had lived longer her government and bishops might well have been able to continue with further success the work they had carried out to restore Catholic belief and practice to the country, something they can now be seen to have done to a great extent as has been shown by Professor Eamonn Duffy with The Stripping of the Altars and more particularly in Fires of Faith. Given that the majority appear to have favoured traditional religion this made the likelihood of a deeper renewal of the Papal allegiance and acceptance of Tridentine initiatives would follow. For this the Queen needed a Catholic heir. If she herself did not have child, then Elizabeth was the next heir under the 1544 Succession Act, and Elizabeth played her cards skillfully. The next Catholic heir was Queen Mary of Scots, Dauphine of France and unacceptable on those grounds to both Mary of England and her husband Philip of Spain. King Philip did not possess the crown matrimonial under the 1554 marriage treaty, so he had no continuing rights. He may have offered to marry Elizabeth - with, no doubt, no likelihood on either side of interest - but what he sought was diplomatic security for hios domains in the Netherlands. Had he and Queen Mary I had a son then he would have joined England and Ireland in a union with the Habsburg lands in the Low Countries- which raises some intersting possibilities of what might, in theory, have happened. The crucial thing was the need for a securely Catholic heir, and that there was not.
Cardinal Reginald Pole
Cristoforo Dell' Altissimo
Portrait at Shute Barton
Image: National Trust/BBC My Pictures
Cardinal Pole - royal by descent, Cardinal, papabile in 1550, dangerous liberal or dangerous reactionary depending how you looked at him - by dying when he did removed the leadership of the English hierarchy at a critical time. How he would have dealt with the new Queen Elizabeth is an unknown, and, I think, unknowable. Without Queen Mary's backing he might have had to depend upon King Philip for aid against his old sparring partner Pope Paul IV, who suspected Pole ( and not only Pole of course) of heresy. How he might have got on with Pope Pius IV, elected when Pope Paul died in 1559, and the reconvened Council of Trent, which was yet to complete the restatement of Catholic belief in a time when so much seemed shifting and unsure, again raises imponderables.
Queen Elizabeth I in the 1560s
The portrait stresses the Queen's evangelical credentials, with her restrained dress and the prayer book she is holding
Queen Elizabeth I was to be both initially cautious in her religious policy and then bold in re-establishing asystem based on her half-brother's settlement. That it may not have been what she herself favoured is likely - David Starkey's interpretation of her as favouring a Henrician style of a Catholic style combined with evangelical reforms, a liturgy with ceremony and certainly the crucifix as well as music appears convincing to me. A Papal settlement was not acceptable - had not the Pope bastardized her in the womb as she herself said, and her legitimacy and right of succession was central to her being. Unfortunately for the new Queen, and to her surprise, the surviving Marian bishops were not prepared to abandon the barque of Peter - well, all save Bishop Kitchen of Llandaff - and she was forced to deprive them. Finding replacements led her to men less attracted than she was by the more traditional forms of worship. Given an international settlement at Cateau-Cambresis which brought peace to Europe the new Queen had more room to manoeuvre diplomatically, and to play anot especially string hand very skillfully. By not pushing conformity too far, although legislation existed to do that, the Queen and her ministers maintained a consensus that for a few years proved manageable. However both Ctaholic and Puritan opposition remained, and bevcame more assertive as time, and the reign, went on. Nevertheless the curious compromise that is the 1559 Settlement is one which, for all its cobbling together, has survived for more than 450 years. Not even the Civil War and regicide in the mid-seventeenth century could destroy it. I am somewhat surprised more was not done to mark the 450th anniversary in 2009. The pity of it is that under the second Queen Elizabeth the Church of England seems to be doing to itself what its adversaries have failed to do over the previous four hundred years.
Had Queen Elizabeth died in 1562, as she very nearly did of smallpox, then the country would have faced a real crisis. The Council were divided as to who to approach as the next heir - Lady Catherine Grey or Henry Earl of Huntingdon. The Queen solved the problem by recovering, but had she not done so her legacy would be very unclear. With either of those two candidates on the throne a more Protestant Church of England might well have ensued, as of course might Catholic opposition, not to mention Queen Mary I of Scots, as yet unbesmirched by scandal...
If for Queen Mary I the succession was a continuing dilemma, then so it was for her half-sister - indeed almost more so. Queen Elizabeth I held out against naming an heir for almost forty five years, and turned the whole matter into a national concern that dare not really speak its name. Their father's break with the Papacy and Rome had made the nation's religious life a matter for the monarch to determine, and yet there was no way to determine the way a new monarch might take the Supreme Headship or Governorship. Not until 1688-9 and 1701 was a settlement made to limit that range of possibilities.