Elizabeth the Great Essays and Criticism
by Elizabeth Jenkins

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Attitude and Policy in Regard to Religion

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

King Henry VIII inadvertently brought the Protestant Reformation to England in 1533, when Anne Boleyn was still pregnant with the future Queen Elizabeth I. For personal reasons, Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church and named himself head of the Church of England. Elizabeth was thus raised Protestant and reigned as a Protestant queen during a period of great conflict in England between Catholics and Protestants, each of whom represented approximately half of the four million citizens of England at the time. In Elizabeth the Great, Jenkins pays special attention to the attitudes and policies of Elizabeth with regard to religion. Jenkins weaves direct quotes from Elizabeth and quotes from those who knew her with her own psychological and historical analysis of the queen’s religious attitudes and policies.

Jenkins makes clear early in her biography that Elizabeth was never a deeply or ardently religious person, although she was undoubtedly a believing Christian. Jenkins asserts, ‘‘Elizabeth held the unquestioning belief in the Christian faith which was universal in Europe, but her mind was incapable of religious fanaticism.’’ Jenkins points out that Elizabeth considered both Catholicism and Protestantism to be mere variations on the same Christian faith. Jenkins comments, ‘‘The famous saying of [Elizabeth’s] later years, ‘There is only one Christ Jesus and one faith: the rest is a dispute about trifles,’ is an expression, not of experience, but of temperament.’’

Jenkins makes clear, however, that Elizabeth, though never passionately devout, did often turn to her faith in times of personal crisis. For instance, during the period in which her half-sister Queen Mary I kept her locked in the Tower of London as a potential conspirator against the throne, Elizabeth composed a note to herself expressing the solace she found in the reading of Scriptures. Jenkins observes that Elizabeth’s ‘‘sense of abandonment and despair’’ during this period of imprisonment, ‘‘was reflected in what she wrote on the flyleaf of St. Paul’s Epistles.’’ Jenkins quotes:

August. I walk many times into the pleasant fields of the holy scriptures where I pluck up the goodlisome herbs of sentences . . . that having tasted their sweetness, I may the less perceive the bitterness of this miserable life.

Jenkins observes that, early in the reign of Mary I, Elizabeth struggled with her sister’s insistence that she observe the Catholic faith. Elizabeth was at first inclined to plead her conscience, begging that she not be required to observe a faith in which she did not believe. When Elizabeth’s brother, King Edward VI died, Elizabeth did not attend his funeral service because it was held at a mass in a Catholic Church. Jenkins notes that, at this point, Elizabeth ‘‘declined’’ to attend ‘‘any mass whatsoever.’’ However, Queen Mary, angered by this, refused to see Elizabeth.

When Elizabeth was finally granted a meeting with Mary, Jenkins states, she ‘‘wept and asked if it were her fault that she could not believe.’’ Mary responded that, if she attended mass, belief would come. Elizabeth, though probably not convinced by this assertion, recognized that she must begin attending Catholic mass to please her sister, on whose royal favor her life now depended. Jenkins observes that Mary was effectively placated by Elizabeth’s outward show of observance of Catholicism. As Jenkins states, Mary was ‘‘pathetically pleased’’ by Elizabeth’s compliance in going to mass and rewarded her with a jeweled brooch.

In 1555, Queen Mary I began the mass burning of Protestants which earned her the epithet Bloody Mary. Jenkins relates that, at this point, behaving as a Catholic was a means of survival for Elizabeth. Jenkins suggests that Elizabeth must have been warned ahead of time that this violent treatment of Protestants was in the workings; some five months before the burnings began, Jenkins notes, Elizabeth...

(The entire section is 5,483 words.)