The Puritan threat

Portrait of Sir Francis Walsingham
Sir Francis Walsingham

Puritans were strict Protestants who wanted to ‘purify’ the Church and get rid of all traces of the Catholic faith. Many had fled abroad when Mary I, a Catholic, was queen, but had started to return when Elizabeth, a Protestant, came to the throne. Elizabeth’s Religious Settlement meant that the country was now officially Protestant, but allowed some traditions of Catholic worship. At first many Puritans seemed to accept the Settlement, but they soon started organising campaigns to make it more Protestant.

How much of a threat were the Puritans?

They raised their points in Parliament, but did not on the whole get involved in plots to overthrow Elizabeth or destabilise the country and were therefore seen as less of a threat than the Catholics.

Some of Elizabeth’s most trusted Privy Councillors and MPs, notably Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and Sir Francis Walsingham, were Puritans and tried to pressure her into taking harsher steps against Catholics.

Even if they weren't a great threat, Elizabeth still did not welcome the Puritans' challenge to her authority.

Puritan threats

DatePuritan threatElizabeth’s action
1571Walter Strickland, leader of the Puritan group in Parliament, wanted to reform Elizabeth’s new Prayer Book and ban clergy vestments (this was known as the Vestarian Controversy).Elizabeth silenced him by closing Parliament so his ideas could not be discussed.
1575-83Some Puritan clergy started organising prayer meetings known as ‘prophesyings’ which displeased Elizabeth. In these meetings Puritans took a freer approach to prayer and did not follow what Elizabeth had specified. She was concerned ideas might spread that challenged the Religious Settlement.Elizabeth ordered her new Archbishop of Canterbury, Edmund Grindal, to ban the meetings but he protested. She suspended him, suggested he resign, and 200 Puritan priests were expelled from their roles. Grindal then apologised and was reinstated.
1583The Puritan, John Stubbs, published a pamphlet criticising Elizabeth’s on-going marriage negotiations with the brother of the Catholic French king.Stubbs was found guilty of stirring up trouble and sentenced to have had his right hand cut off.

Elizabeth firmly resisted the Puritan attempts to get her to change the Religious Settlement and the movement lost momentum towards the end of her reign as, one by one, the old Puritan leaders died. By 1590 most of the people accepted the Church of England as the national Church.

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