Dissertation Prospectus Summary
Settling the Elizabethan Settlement:
Reformation in the Parishes of Late Tudor England
It is impossible to divorce religion from the life of early modern England. Communities were built around parishes, church courts regulated social order, church councils collected taxes and distributed poor relief, and religion influenced patronage, politics and protest. The reformations of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary in the mid-sixteenth century left the patterns and the structures of everyday life uncertain. When Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558, she immediately began a process of Protestant religious settlement that left great scope for personal belief but little room for disobedience or nonconformity. In the relative stability of the forty years that followed the Acts of Uniformity and Supremacy—generally known as the Elizabethan Settlement—Englishmen and women had to mediate new patterns of religious authority, subordination and power. This negotiation of the everyday, the settling of the Settlement, has yet to be closely examined in and of itself, and I propose to make this the subject of my dissertation. Such a study will allow me to ask why England was able to become a post-Reformation nation, a question essential to our understanding of early modern English history.
Strikingly, little work has been done which carefully examines the influence of the Elizabethan settlement on the lives of early modern Englishmen and women. The Elizabethan period is generally treated either as epilogue to the initial rifts of the Reformation or as prologue to the religious upheavals of the early Stuart Church.1 Those who do study the Elizabethan Reformation have generally focused on the experience of the minority: Catholics, puritans, separatists or high officials.2 A few historians have tried to examine the popular religion and religious culture of the age—and yet, their studies emphasize continuity with the longer history of the Reformation, rather than providing a specific and particular contextual analysis of Elizabethan religious practices.3 In essence, we have remarkably little understanding of how the reforms of the Elizabethan Settlement—reforms that, to this day, are the foundation of the Church of England—were understood, experienced and negotiated at a parochial level. Without a grasp of this process, we cannot properly understand the foundations of English Protestantism, as well as the great religious debates and influence of religious ideology over the course of the next centuries.
Thus this is no mere historiographical gap, but rather a fundamental problem in understanding the religious, social and political life of early modern England. My work will address this problem by examining the intersection of social structure, religion and popular politics in the Elizabethan period. Central to this question is the issue of authority: the ways in which the early modern parishioner was shaped by this settlement, and, in turn, helped to shape it. The forty-five years of Elizabeth’s reign provided an unparalleled central religious stability, and by the time of her death England had become a post-Reformation nation. While religious conflict continued to smolder for decades—if not centuries—the religious and social fabric of the country had permanently changed. I aim to investigate this process through a close, intimate and precise analysis of the ways in which the Elizabethan Settlement was negotiated in the parishes of late sixteenth-century England.
In order to do this rigorously and successfully, I will call upon a synthesis of several historiographical and methodological approaches. I plan to draw on the work of the social historians writing over the past thirty years, particularly those who concentrate on popular politics and power.4 This is especially important when examining religion in the parishes, a space most often explored by those analyzing a depoliticized popular religion.5 However, it is important to examine not only structures but also ideologies, ensuring that I discern the motivation for both resistance and negotiation.6 As such, my source base will focus on ecclesiastical records (especially consistory court records, visitations, and churchwardens’ records); secular court records; popular proscriptive literature (especially catechisms, printed sermons, and religious tracts); private correspondence and family papers; and records of state. Of special interest to me are the records of the 1580s, since I find this decade to be a crucial hinge in the long Elizabethan settlement, a late Elizabethan watershed that signaled the advent of a post-Reformation England.7
I plan to visit archives in London (especially the National Archives, the British Library, Dr. Williams’ Library, and the archives of Lambeth Palace), Norwich (the Norfolk Records Office and the Norwich Cathedral archives), and York (the North Riding Records Office and the Borthwick Institute). I have picked these two latter regions in part due to their rich records and in part due to their inherent differences: Norfolk had the reputation of being a hotbed of evangelical activity, while York was known for its strong conservative tendencies.8 Here I navigate a tricky tightrope: I am keen to avoid an over-localized project, but I also want to avoid simple, stark comparison. At the moment, I am exploring some of the work on histoire croisée and histoire multiscopique to help me nail down my methodological approach.
By better understanding the process of Settlement; by examining not only how people react to change, but also how they react to stability; by viewing both religion through a social historian’s lens and social structures through a religious historian’s lens, my dissertation will carefully parse the processes of negotiation, resistance, and religious evolution in Elizabethan England. This project will not only allow a new, important perspective on Reformation history, but it will also give us a new framework for understanding relationships of faith, power, law, persuation, and the necessities of everyday life in the early modern world.