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Problems in Establishing the Religious Settlement (GCSE Example Answer)


Last updated 11 Apr 2020

Here is an example answer to the following 16-mark question on whether geographical divisions were the biggest problem for Elizabeth I in establishing the religious settlement in England.

Geographical divisions were the biggest problem in establishing the religious settlement in England’. How far do you agree?

Marks: 16 marks + 4 marks SPAG

Stimulus = Crucifix controversy / The influence of London

[Examiner commentary following each paragraph and at the end is provided in italics]


The fact that England was roughly divided between the Catholic north west and the Protestant south east did make implementing the religious settlement difficult in some areas. However, the fact that most of the country was relatively mixed or easy to control meant that geographical divisions were not the most important issue. The challenges to Elizabeth’s authority from the clergy (especially the bishops) and puritans were far more difficult for Elizabeth in establishing the religious settlement.

[Criteria for the required judgement justified from the outset, with a clear explanation of why geographical divisions were not the most important. This instant approach to the question demonstrates a Level 4 approach and wins over the examiner from the outset.]

Geographical divisions were problematic for Elizabeth to some extent. Generally, the south east and in particular London was the most Protestant, due to its proximity to the Protestant Netherlands and Germanic states. By extension therefore, areas that were furthest from London and the new ideas (such as Durham, Lancashire and the diocese of Lichfield in Stafford) were heavily Catholic and resistant to Elizabeth’s religious settlement. This meant that upon implementing the religious settlement, Elizabeth had to deal with extremism on both sides. For example, in London there was widespread destruction of church ornaments and statues of saints, owing to the fact that the settlement wanted to remove the Catholic practice of idolatry. This caused friction within the community. Likewise, in the north west, recusancy was high, even amongst the nobility (which partly explains why Northumberland and Westmoreland were able to rebel in the north in 1569) and this helped undermine the implementation of the settlement.

[Understanding of the characteristics of the period showcased by awareness of the resistance from Catholics, as well as the violence from puritans (the latter is often neglected as students often assume that because the puritans are Protestant they don’t do anything to undermine Elizabeth).]

However, Elizabeth had greater challenges to her authority that made the implementation of the settlement even more difficult, from both Catholic and Protestant clergy alike. Despite approximately 8000 of 10,000 clergy taking an oath recognising Elizabeth as supreme governor of the Church under the Act of Supremacy, only 1 of 28 bishops accepted it, meaning Elizabeth had to replace these bishops with Protestants (although there was a shortage of well-qualified Protestant clergy in England at the time). The challenges faced by Elizabeth’s settlement are illustrated by the first round of visitations in 1559, which sought to assess the extent to which the settlement was being successfully enforced. 400 clergy were dismissed, as they failed to implement the necessary changes, showing that there was Catholic resistance to the settlement.

[Statistics used here accurately capture the scale of the problem.]

The Queen’s problems were not only with Catholic clergy who resisted change. Elizabeth I also had to deal with the staunch views of puritans. This can be seen with both the crucifix and vestment controversies. Puritan bishops wanted to ensure all crucifixes were removed from churches as this was seen as idolatry and undermined the purity of God’s message through the bible. Elizabeth, however, wanted to keep crucifixes in churches as she didn’t want to isolate and anger English Catholics by changing too much too soon. When puritan bishops threatened to resign, Elizabeth backed down as she had insufficient trained Protestant clergy. With vestments, Elizabeth wanted Protestant clergy to wear special clothes. Despite experiencing some resistance (as Protestantism championed the wearing of ordinary clothes to signify all people were equal under God) the vast majority assented to Elizabeth’s wishes. However, the situation was not fully resolved until 1566, demonstrating how difficult Elizabeth found it to enforce her religious settlement.

[This is where good content knowledge in the form of dates can help quantify the extent of a problem.]

Lastly, limitations on the settlement can be attributed to Elizabeth’s own weakness upon acceding the throne. As a ‘Virgin Queen’ whose legitimacy was in question, and with a Catholic rival claimant in the form of Mary Queen of Scots north of the border, Elizabeth didn’t want to alienate her Catholic population and so was lenient towards their disobedience. Despite their limited interference in the issue over the religious settlement, the Pope’s instruction in 1566 for Catholics to not attend Church of England services certainly had an impact on recusancy. Although, officially, many punishments were introduced to reinforce the settlement (which in itself demonstrates its lack of popularity among the people) such as fines and imprisonment, as well as loss of job or property, such was Elizabeth’s weakened position as Queen that she instructed the authorities to tread lightly with recusancy as she did not want to create martyrs, nor let it be common knowledge that there were high levels of disobedience.

[Elizabeth was always having to deal with different levels of papal interference so referencing this is important.]

In conclusion, I disagree with the statement. Whilst geographical divisions clearly had a role to play in the continuing resistance of Catholicism in the north and the increasing growth of puritanism in the south (both of which undermined Elizabeth’s ‘middle way’), it was Elizabeth’s own weak position which meant that the settlement could not be enforced as quickly and as consistently as she would have liked, despite the use of visitations and the threat of the law. This is why she was beholden to Protestant Bishops and backed down with the crucifix controversy and tolerated recusancy for years. Elizabeth’s priority was in maintaining power. It is no surprise therefore, later on in Elizabeth’s reign, that the more secure her hold on power became, the less tolerant she became of puritanism and recusancy alike.

Overall Examiner Comments:

Level 4, 13-16 (+3-4 marks SPAG)

A very detailed response which demonstrates excellent subject knowledge and reaches a clear judgement based on justifiable criteria. The answer does touch upon the issue of religion but this could be extended further to acknowledge the extensive divisions within society given the preceding tumultuous changes (a brief mention of the role of the puritans for example could help). Nevertheless, the answer has sustained conceptual focus and is wide-ranging in its analysis.

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