Essay, Pages 6 (1378 words)
This document is a first hand document : it’s actually a letter sent by Queen Elisabeth to some English bishops. Thus, it reflects her intention in matter of religious policy at the beginning of the her reign in 1558. Indeed, she inherited the situation left by her half-sister Mary : she had to make an short-term choice, either to stay in a Catholic Nation, or to restore Supremacy, in other words, follow or not Mary’s policies.
In 1559, several bishops of the Church of England asked Elisabeth for a meeting : they wanted to Continue Mary’s pro catholic policies, and claimed Henry the 8th had been quarrelled with the Pope because of the influence of heretics.
Her answer “as to your entreaty for us to listen to you we wave it” (line 1) is the proof that she is not about to renounce Supremacy, or create a Catholic Nation under direct control of Rome domination. This letter is then the basis of her policy followed intensely throughout her forty-five year long reign.
This document is basically composed of two distinct paragraphs, one dealing with a remote period in English history, namely the very introduction of Christianity in England, and the other one dealing with a much more recent period, i.e. the break with Rome allegiance, and Henry 8, Edward 6, and Mary’s respective reigns.
The Queen in her letter is addressing the bishops, and plays on the constant contrast between the pronouns “your” and “our” : “our realm x 4 ; your church; your own Romish idolatry”, implying that the bishops belong to a different church and even a different universe than her and her loyal subject, though they are members of the clergy of the Church of England.
As a result, she is depicting the defenders of the Church of Rome as a foreign power. Indeed, according to her, the authority of the church of Rome have never been legitimate, but it was imposed to the English people against native tradition of England. The proof is, she refers to the early history of Christianity in England :
” ..your own Romish idolatry maketh you liars; witness the ancient monuments of gildas unto which both foreign and domestic have gone in pilgrimage there to offer. This author testified Joseph of Arimathea to be the first preacher of the word of God within our realms. Long after that, when Austin came from Rome, this our realm had bishops and priests therein, as is well known to the learned of our realm by woeful experience, how your church entered therein by blood…”
She refers to Austin – aka Augustine – the missionary sent by Pope Gregory the great to evangelised the island in the late 6th century in spite of earlier religious practices. The climax of this mission being the birth of the church of England in 597. Indeed, when Augustine arrived in England, there was already a Christian Church : as for Elisabeth, there was a native Christian ambition long before the arrival of the missionary. As soon as Augustine became archbishop, the authority of the English Kings and the native Church of England were replaced by the domination of Rome.
She also refers to Joseph of Arimathea who went to England and started to preach the words of God : she points out that a direct witness of Christ life and death come to England to explore the world. These are tow foundations of the English church not founded at all thanks to the mission of St Augustine, but by the follower of Christ. Therefore, the Pope decision to establish Austin as archbishop of Canterbury was regarded as a real invasion for the primitive English Church : “Rome’s usurped authority”.
If people accept this version of the foundation of the Church of England, it has a significant consequence ; in 1534, when the Act of Supremacy was drafted, it was just the return of a native tradition, that had previously been broken by the Church of Rome. Indeed, in every field at that time, it was important to prove your ideas and point of view was in keeping with tradition : if you want people to believe you are right in a debate you have to show you fallow a very old tradition. And, of course, this is what Elisabeth is playing on : supremacy was based on the primitive and native tradition of the English Church.
The question of Rome authority, and more precisely the question of the Pope’s authority, was highly criticized by Luther. It was indeed a matter of debate on continent in the quarrel between protestant and Catholics. We can discern in Elisabeth’s written reply, a real disagreement. Then she uses the term “Romish”, which is a clear indication, by the add of the pejorative suffix “-ish”, of an attitude emphasizing the rejection of the doctrine of the Church of Rome. We find confirmation in the language of the Queen to describe the Church of Rome and the Pope:
“our realm and subjects have been long wanderers, walking astray, whilst they were under the tuition of Romish pastors, who advised them to own a wolf for their head (in lieu of a careful shepherd) whose inventions, heresies, and schisms be so numerous, that the flock of Christ have fed on poisonous shrubs for want of wholesome pastures.”
The language she uses, rely on images, metaphors and comes from the Bible, which is a familiar language to the people she is addressing to, and the, they are highly able to understand implication of these allusions to “pastors, wolf, careful shepherd, wholesome pastures”. Indeed, it comes from the Psalm 23, poem written in name of God and describing God as a careful shepherd taking his sheep to places they won’t need anything. The use of this language was very common place to describe the true Church since priest were also considered as shepherds. As for her, the Pope is not the careful shepherd but the wolf (line3). The pope appears as the anti-Christ : Elisabeth is using implications very common place to protestant propaganda.
She takes back the role of Luke in the Gospels, warning the people about a wolf disguised in a sheep, depicting then the Pope as the leader of a false Church. Moreover, in keeping to these assertions, we find a list of the different ways in which the church of Rome has corrupted the primitive Christian faith. The church of Rome was accused of its “inventions, heresies, schisms, and idolatry”, in other words, their novelties, errors and wrong interpretations of the Christ messages. Elisabeth aim, by depicting the church this way – very protestant- wants simply to restore truth, unity and worship of the only true God.
Eventually, she is answering a more specific accusation summed up in the first line of the second paragraph : they indeed claimed the break with Rome was due to the influence of heretical advisors, reefing of course to Henry 8’s advisors. However, the bishops themselves were already members of the clergy under her father’s reign and supported supremacy, or at least didn’t go against its principles ; which was her reply. Then she addresses those bishops directly, pointing them out, revealing that the reason they previously accepted supremacy is the simple fact that supremacy didn’t mean the introduction of Protestantism, but a return to the primitive and native tradition. Thus, very subtly, she is demonstrating them they are in real contradiction with themselves.
Therefore, according to this official version, going to become the founding myth of the Church of England, there were continuity between the reigns of Henry and Edward ; a continuity of a preservation of primitive tradition, broken by Mary and her catholic policy. Her message is then the exact opposite of what the bishops were excepting : she highly wants to restore this continuity, with tradition as a keyword.
Thus, the importance of this document is that it is one of the very first official stage of this particular traditional myth : Thanks to supremacy and its protestant identity, the Church of England preserved all the oldest primitive traditions and the true Christian faith. This created the conditions for the emergence of a distinctive religious identity neither Catholic, nor Protestant but Anglican.