Church of Ireland: Elizabethan Era

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Church of Ireland: Elizabethan Era

After the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558, the Irish Parliament met in 1560 and adopted the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity. Thus the Church of Ireland was pronounced independent of Rome, and the new queen was declared "supreme governor" of this reestablished state church (similar legal situations had existed before in the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI). Through the Act of Uniformity, the Book of Common Prayer was reintroduced in Ireland, making the Church of Ireland a nominally Protestant church. However, the existing fabric and personnel of the church, which had been Catholic under Elizabeth's predecessor Mary, remained in place and the religion of the greatest part of the population of Ireland remained the Catholicism of the Middle Ages. Elizabethan reformers hoped gradually to transform the Church of Ireland into a Protestant church and to educate the people in the new faith.

In England, this plan of reform was largely realized during Elizabeth's reign. The Reformation was spread through the land, creating an overwhelmingly Protestant nation. In Ireland, however, the Reformation was not a success, but a failure, and the Church of Ireland did not succeed in spreading the Protestant faith. On the contrary, by the end of Elizabeth's reign, the state church catered only to the English (and later Scottish) colonial minority in Ireland, while the majority of the people adhered to the Roman Catholic Church. The older historiography as well as some works of the 1980s and 1990s argue that there was either an unwavering disposition toward Catholicism among the Irish or that the battle over the religious disposition of the inhabitants was quickly won by Catholicism in the first half of the sixteenth century. However, in the historiography of the 1990s, a consensus has developed that Elizabeth's reign was a true watershed. Thus, Elizabethan church formation, and the development of the Church of Ireland between 1560 and 1603, can be seen as a decisive component of the failure of the Reformation in the western island.

During the first years of Elizabeth's reign, until about 1580, the religious (as opposed to the ecclesiastical) situation in Ireland remained largely unaltered. Although the population, especially the so-called Old English (the medieval English settlers in Ireland), displayed varying degrees of conformity to the state church, they continued to exhibit medieval religiosity. This situation has been called "survivalism" or "church papistry" by historians, denoting that the population of Ireland was in a kind of limbo: The church that the people knew had officially been altered, but they could not embrace, or be embraced by, a vitally Protestant state church, such as was coming into existence in much of England and Wales.

During this period the weakness of the English government in Ireland was a major reason why the key mechanisms of church formation were not set in motion in the Church of Ireland. The government controlled only a small part of the island and was constantly threatened by uprisings. Consequently, the state was too weak to assist Protestant church formation effectively or to enforce religious conformity throughout the land. In addition, the financial resources of the established church were unequal to the task. Many of its churches were ruinous, and its benefices poor, thus making it unattractive to educated clergy. As a consequence, the Church of Ireland remained a weak church, failing to control or to convince either the clergy or the laity of the new faith.

In contrast to England, the Marian bishops in Ireland were not replaced with Protestant recruits, who might have provided leadership to the lower clergy. The latter were left to their own devices and often preserved medieval religiosity by adapting the services based on the Book of Common Prayer to resemble the old Latin Mass. This was made easier because use of the Latin Prayer Book remained legal in Ireland. At the beginning of her reign, Elizabeth had provided money to translate the Prayer Book into Gaelic and have it printed, but the bishops did not act and had to be reminded in 1567 to proceed with the translation or to return the money. Still, the Book of Common Prayer in Irish Gaelic was printed only in 1608, although the Gaelic Protestant catechism had appeared in 1571, and a Gaelic New Testament had been published in 1603. Thus, Ireland lacked a Protestant clergy to educate the people and Protestant religious texts in the language of the majority of the population.

The institutions that were meant to ensure the conformity of clergy and laity, the Commission of Faculties and the Commission of Ecclesiastical Causes, were hindered by corruption and internal squabbles, and consequently the oaths of supremacy and uniformity, which were also vital to ensure the conformity of clergy and secular officials, could not be systematically enforced. Episcopal visitations, one of the most successful aids to church formation in England and on the continent, were rarely conducted and were restricted to individual dioceses. Only in the seventeenth century were regal visitations covering the whole of Ireland carried out. Moreover, the education of the next generation, which was so important to Protestant reformers in the rest of Europe, was largely neglected. Schools were not brought under Protestant control, and there were no successful initiatives to establish a Protestant educational system in Ireland. The training of an indigenous Protestant clergy would have required a Protestant university in Ireland; only after much effort was Trinity College, Dublin, founded in 1592 for that purpose.

During the 1580s the religious situation in Ireland changed gradually, but nevertheless dramatically. The close identification of the Protestant church with the English state, its officials and its plantation projects, increasingly discredited the Reformation in the eyes of the majority of the Irish population. The Church of Ireland discovered in the last two decades of the sixteenth century that it now had a rival for the religious allegiance of the population: a resurgent Catholic Church, influenced by the Council of Trent and the Catholic reform movement on the continent and staffed by the sons of Old English and Gaelic Irish families, who had been educated on the continent. Thus, the religious vacuum of the first part of Elizabeth's reign was increasingly filled by Catholicism, which was now a clearly defined confessional alternative. The Protestant state church found its position rapidly eroding. Catholic missionaries were actively providing pastoral care. Older clergy died out and others left their benefices to work underground as Catholic priests. And recusancy, that is, the refusal to attend the services of the state church, was massively on the increase among the laity. "As the religious divide between the two churches hardened," Alan Ford observed, "the middle ground crumbled" (1997, p. 40).

As the religious limbo was eliminated in favor of a rigid division in late-sixteenth-century Ireland, the established church was forced to inaugurate a process of church formation. Although its status as an allembracing state church existed only in theory and not in practice, it reacted to the Catholic resurgence by successfully implementing some measures of church formation. For example, as it did not manage to educate and recruit Protestant clergy in Ireland, it "imported" Protestant clergy from England and Scotland. As a corollary of this, the Church of Ireland increasingly catered to the New English (and later Scottish) settlers. Trinity College became an institution for the colonial elite, and the Church of Ireland became a privileged minority church, which is what it remained until the mid-nineteenth century.

While the reigns of James I (1603–1625) and Charles I (1625–1649) saw an intensification of Protestant church formation, this served only to integrate the small group of Protestants in Ireland. Catholics, by contrast, came to feel even more alienated from the state church when it became firmly Protestant in the early seventeenth century. The confessional divide, which had begun to open in Elizabeth's reign, was thus institutionalized for the rest of the early modern period.

SEE ALSO Burial Customs and Popular Religion from 1500 to 1690; Council of Trent and the Catholic Mission; Edwardian Reform; Marian Restoration; Old English; Protestant Reformation in the Early Sixteenth Century; Puritan Sectaries; Religion: 1500 to 1690; Trinity College; Primary Documents: Act of Uniformity (1560)


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Bottigheimer, Karl S., and Ute Lotz-Heumann. "The Irish Reformation in European Perspective." Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 89 (1998): 268–309.

Clarke, Aidan. "Varieties of Uniformity: The First Century of the Church of Ireland." In The Churches, Ireland and the Irish, edited by W. J. Sheils and Diana Wood. 1989.

Ellis, Steven G. "Economic Problems of the Church: Why the Reformation Failed in Ireland." Journal of Ecclesiastical History 41 (1990): 239–265.

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Ford, Alan, James McGuire, and Kenneth Milne, eds. As By Law Established: The Church of Ireland since the Reformation. 1995.

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Ute Lotz-Heumann

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