The effects of the Reformation were felt just enough to produce a bold and free exercise of thought, without kindling the passions to fierce excitement
Continuing The Reign of Elizabeth I of England,
our selection from an article in Great Events by Famous Historians, Volume 10 by Henry R. Cleveland published in 1905. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. The selection is presented in four easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in The Reign of Elizabeth I of England.
The character of the age was stamped with the dignity which hallows tribulation, and with the force and nerve which the habitual contemplation of danger rarely fails to confer. The same causes undoubtedly promoted the religious spirit which prevailed. While bigotry and fanaticism appeared in a small portion of the nation, it is certain that the age of Elizabeth was marked by the general diffusion of a spirit of deep devotion. There was enough of chivalry left to keep alive the fervor which prevailed at an earlier period, and enough of intelligence to temper this fervor into rational religion. The feeling of shame at professing faith and devoutness was the growth of a later day; it was unknown in those times. The gayest courtier that chanted his love-song in the ear of the high-born maiden, and the gravest statesman who debated at the table of the privy council, were alike penetrated with devotional sentiment, and alike ready to offer up prayers and thanksgiving to the Most High. We are perfectly aware that the outward signs of piety displayed by a few principal characters are not a faithful index of the state of religion at any period. It is not fair to infer, because Elizabeth devoutly commended herself to the care of the Almighty when forsaken, friendless, an orphan, alone, and helpless, she was landed at the foot of the Traitor’s Stairs in the Tower of London, or because she returned to the same gloomy fortress when a triumphant queen, to offer up her praise and gratitude to God for his marvelous mercies, that she lived in a pious age. Neither are we to regard it as a sure indication of the prevailing spirit, when Burleigh solemnly commends his son to the Almighty in his letter of advice; when the chivalrous Sidney is found composing a prayer, which, for solemnity, grandeur, and devotion, is scarcely surpassed in the English liturgy; when the adventurous Raleigh displays an amount of knowledge on sacred subjects that might be the envy of an Oxford professor of theology, or when the city of London presents to the young Queen, on the day of her coronation and in the midst of her glittering pageantry, the Bible, as the most appropriate and acceptable offering.
These are not certain signs of a religious age; but they would pass for something at any period, even if they were mere hypocrisy. They would show that religion was held in such respect and by so numerous a class somewhere, as to make it worth while for the Queen and her court to assume at least the outward badges of piety. But they have additional force when we reflect at the same time that, at the period when they were manifested, the Reformation was making a gradual but sure progress in England; that the question of religion occupied every intelligent mind and affected the interests of every family; that the lives and fortunes of millions, the fate of kingdoms, and the progress of intellectual freedom throughout the civilized world were inseparably connected with the cause of Protestantism.
If bigotry and fanaticism had been prevalent in England, and the opposing party of Romanist and Reformer nearly equal, there would have been witnessed in that country during the sixteenth century a succession of atrocities and horrors compared with which the wars of the white and red roses were bloodless. If; on the other hand, the great mass of the nation had been indifferent, with regard not merely to forms, but to religion itself, we should not have seen the outward show of piety in the highest ranks; we should not have seen a house of commons legislating in favor of Edward’s liturgy, and a nation turning to worship in their vernacular tongue. Nothing but a widely diffused spirit of piety can account for the character of those miracles of literature which made the days of Elizabeth glorious, and which are stamped with nothing more strongly than their deep and wise religion.
Moreover, in the age of Elizabeth, England was more distinguished for patriotism than any nation in civilized Europe. On the Continent the feeling of nationality was absorbed, and the distinction of language, laws, and country absolutely lost, in the zeal for religious belief. Nations, which for centuries had been enemies, were found leagued against their natural allies; inhabitants of the same state were divided, and at war with each other; the prophecy was literally fulfilled that “the brother shall betray the brother to death, and the father the son, and children shall rise up against their parents, and shall cause them to be put to death.” “The Palatine,” says Schiller, “now forsakes his home to go and fight on the side of his fellow-believer of France, against the common enemy of their religion. The subject of the King of France draws his sword against his native land, which had persecuted him, and goes forth to bleed for the freedom of Holland. Swiss is now seen armed for battle against Swiss, and German against German, that they may decide the succession of the French throne on the banks of the Loire or the Seine. The Dane passes the Eider, the Swede crosses the Baltic, to burst the fetters which are forged for Germany.”
Nothing of this kind was seen in England. The number of Catholics who preferred the triumph of their party to the welfare of their country was too small to be of any consideration. A few fanatics in the college at Rheims, and a few romantic champions of the unhappy Queen of Scots, were the only domestic enemies whom Elizabeth had to fear. With a great majority of the Romanists, the love of country prevailed over all religious distinctions; and, when the invasion was threatened by Philip, they united cordially with the Protestants in the defense of their native land; they enlisted as volunteers in the army and navy; they equipped vessels at their own charge, armed their tenants and vassals, encouraged their neighbors and prepared, heart and hand, for a desperate resistance of the common foe.
The energies of the nation were naturally brought into vigorous action by the great objects, interests, and enterprises which the times presented. The effects of the Reformation were felt just enough to produce a bold and free exercise of thought, without kindling the passions to fierce excitement. The storm which burst with all its fury on the Continent, wrapping nations in the flames of civil war, prostrating, withering, and overwhelming civil institutions, and marking its path with desolation did but exert a salutary influence in England. The lightning was seen flashing in the distant horizon, the rolling thunder could be heard afar off, but the fury of the storm fell at a distance; the atmosphere was purified and the soil refreshed, and the rainbow was glittering in the heavens.
Never in the history of England had there been a time when energy and wisdom were more needed than that period. The nation was compelled, by irresistible force of circumstances, to stand forth as the champion of Protestantism. The eyes of all civilized countries were fixed upon her; some, with imploring looks; some, glaring upon her with jealousy, fierceness, and settled hatred. Enemies were springing up, with whom peace was hopeless. A popish princess was heir to the throne of Scotland, with a powerful ally ready to support her pretensions to the English crown. On the Continent were allies, whom England was compelled to support at the risk of a war with the mightiest empire that had risen since the fall of Rome. And an armament was preparing for the invasion of Britain, of an extent that seemed to render resistance hopeless, by a monarch whose resources appeared inexhaustible, while Ireland was in open rebellion and ready to receive the Spanish fleets into her ports.
We want to take this site to the next level but we need money to do that. Please contribute directly by signing up at https://www.patreon.com/history