British Museum blog

The Protestant state under Elizabeth I

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Communion and Conscience: The Stratford Chalice explores religion in Elizabethan England.

A communion cup from Holy Trinity Church, Stratford, which features in today's episode.
© Inspired Images

Eamon Duffy, University of Cambridge

Everybody in 16th-century England took religion for granted as a fundamental part of life. In the Protestant state under Elizabeth I, attendance at church and the reception of communion were increasingly enforced. It became, in a way, a test of citizenship.

Catholics would have been required to receive the Protestant communion at least once a year, and Catholics who stayed away from services would have been fined.

For everybody, these were changes that affected fundamental views of the meaning of life and of the afterlife. The Mass was no longer in Latin, but in English. We tend to see this as a move towards intelligibility. Some people were thrilled by it, the arrival of the English Bible. For many, it was a revelation and an empowerment.

But for others, it was tiresome gobbledegook. When the English communion service was first introduced in 1549, most of the people in the west of England were outraged. They felt this was some bizarre game that was being imposed on them and rebelled against it, which led to a horrendous siege at Exeter. The rebels denounced the new service as a sort of Christmas game and demanded the return of the Latin Mass.

So it took people time to accustom themselves to these changes, and the date on this communion cup – 1571 – is one indicator of the time it takes simply to change material culture. When we look at this cup, we are looking at a whole culture in movement, adjusting itself. By 1571 it’s becoming clear to everybody that there is not going to be a return to Catholicism in the near future.

In the late 1560s, even before the sterner [religious] enforcement began, communities all over England are beginning to say, oh well stuff this for a game of soldiers, we better do it. Here in Cambridge in the late 1560s, the church wardens of the main town churches begin to sell off the Catholic vestments, they were beginning to equip themselves properly for Protestantism.

This doesn’t mean to say that Catholicism disappeared. Catholic beliefs remained current in one form or another, especially around things like funerals, for a very long time. When Shakespeare was young, there would still have been old people saying the rosary, crossing themselves when there was thunder, using holy water.

Shakespeare couldn’t have avoided knowing about Catholicism, it’s probable that every family in England had Catholic relatives. Shakespeare himself had a second cousin, Robert Saville, who became a Jesuit priest. Saville was executed at Tyburn and is a Catholic saint.

What is certain is that every literate person in England in the 1590s and early 1600s had some acquaintance with Catholicism, even if it was so that they knew the enemy.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme Communion and Conscience:
The Stratford Chalice

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on, ,

One Response - Comments are closed.

  1. Emma says:

    Thanks for a fantastic summary.


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