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Elizabeth I's Religion: The Evidence of Her Letters

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 February 2001


Scholars have tended to ignore Elizabeth's letters as a potential source for evidence of her religious beliefs, and have turned elsewhere to find a ‘window into her soul’. A few fixed on her personal Book of devotions as the most valuable route into her inner life, since it was generally assumed that she had composed the prayers within it herself. From this kind of evidence, the queen emerged as a deeply pious princess, far different from the politique figure who dominated the writings of A. J. Pollard, J. E. Neale and J. B. Black. J. P. Hodges, for example, thought these private prayers revealed both ‘a spiritual perception’ and ‘a deep personal faith which has every token of sincerity’, while William P. Haugaard, likewise, detected a ‘spiritual depth and unity to her character’. As the prayers also manifested a belief in solifidianism, Haugaard identified Elizabeth's piety as unmistakably Protestant, a view which Christopher Haigh endorsed. More recently, however, Patrick Collinson has questioned the historical value of the Book of devotions. He first speculated that the prayers within it might well have been written for Elizabeth by others, and in a clever piece of deconstruction, went on to suggest that, in any event, the book itself (together with one or two other small devotional books) was probably a fashion accessory rather than an object encouraging personal piety. To find clues to her religion, Collinson preferred to rely on the queen's actions and private behaviour. There he saw so many illustrations of religious conservatism, including her dislike of married clergy, hostility to the destruction of crosses and church monuments, her use of Catholic oaths and her ‘unusually negative prejudice against the preaching ministry’ that he dismissed the queen as ‘an odd sort of Protestant’, arguing that her conservative policies probably reflected her religious preferences rather than simply political expediency. Collinson has not been alone in playing down Elizabeth's Protestantism, although only a small minority of historians today describe the queen as a Henrician Catholic, who would have been content in 1558 ‘to return to the Church of her father’.

Research Article
© 2000 Cambridge University Press

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A shorter version of this article was read as a paper to the 1998 conference at the University of Reading on ‘Women and Letter Writing’.