Sunday, December 25, 2011

On This Day in Elizabethan History: Queen Elizabeth's first Christmas as Queen.

First let me say, Happy Christmas to all who celebrate the holiday! I hope the new year finds all of my readers (of any faith) and their loved ones happy and healthy.

Today I would like to share with you a pivotal event that happened the very first Christmas after Elizabeth had been named Queen of England, after the death of her sister Mary.

On Christmas Day, 1558, Elizabeth gave her subjects her first real hint as to her religious inclinations and the religious traditions she would observe as queen.

Normally, the Archbishop of Canterbury would have held a mass on Christmas morning for the reigning monarch and their court, but this position was now vacant since Archbishop Reginald Pole had died the same day as Queen Mary. This was fitting, as Reginald was one of Mary Tudor's lifelong supporters, like his mother Margaret Pole before him; his perfectly timed passing suggested that he was following his queen from this life into the next.

A detail from a portrait of Cardinal Reginald Pole. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Many of Mary's former clergy were wary of Elizabeth's religious beliefs. While she had never made any secret of her Protestant faith, it remained to be seen if her beliefs would lean more toward the Puritanical, like her brother's regime, or remain more moderate. Perhaps they feared, she would inhabit the same martyr like quality her sister had for her own faith, and exact revenge on the Catholic ministers who had sentenced Protestant "heretics" to death. Of course, none of the Catholic clergy and politicians fears would come to pass, but in the early months of Elizabeth's reign, they held their breath as they waited for the queen to shown her hand.

After the Archbishop of York boldly announced that he would not crown a "heretic" as  queen, there was only one clergyman willing to host a Christmas Day service for Elizabeth. He was Owen Oglethorpe, the Bishop of Carlisle.

Elizabeth, like her father, was prepared to maintain some of the "pomp & circumstance" of a Catholic service in an Anglican-style mass, but there was one element of the service she would not waver on, she told Oglethorpe in a message...

The Elevation of the Host was to be eliminated, since it implied the miracle of transubstantiation, (the belief that the bread and the wine was actually transformed into the body and blood of Christ, rather than just symbolically) actually occurred, which Protestants did not believe in.

Oglethorpe received the message, but he boldly chose to deny the queen's single order, and proceeded with his traditional service.

When the Bishop of Carlisle held the bread and wine up to the heavens to be transformed, Elizabeth was furious. From where she was seated in her chapel, she ordered him to cease and desist. When he ignored her and continued with the service as he saw fit, the queen rose and left the chapel, followed by her retinue.

The Clopton Portrait of Elizabeth I, c. 1558-1560 by an unknown artist. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Two days later, Queen Elizabeth issued a proclamation decreeing that some parts of a religious service be said in the people's language of English; she also ordered all preaching and prophesying, on both the conservative and radical sides of the religious question, to stop until further notice. She hoped that this edict would temporarily prevent Catholics and Protestants from aggravating one another in a war of words which could eventually lead to violence.

The states new policy on religion was scheduled to be determined in the Parliamentary meeting in January, after the queen's coronation.


Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. New York: Ballantine Books, 1999. Print.