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‘+Robinson and an Elizabethan apocryphon

As reported in an article published today by The Living Church, after the recent screening of the film Love Free or Die, bishop Gene Robinson was asked how he views Anglican debates over human sexuality. Robinson’s answer involved an appeal to history — namely, that of the so-called “Elizabethan settlement.” According to the bishop, the queen offered a happy message of harmony which transcended religious differences. Robinson summarized her message as “You Protestants and Catholics are going to stop killing each other. I will not have it.”

Admittedly, such sentiments are nowhere to be found in the corpus scriptorum Elizabethae. There is, however, a famous statement purportedly made by the queen which sounds rather similar; the queen is reported to have stated that she did not wish to “make windows into men’s souls.” It is not uncommon for this piece of folk wisdom to be found in Tudor-era films such as Shekhar Shapur’s 1998 Elizabeth. It is also found in biographies of the queen, including those written by top historians such as David Loades. However, as historians Patrick Collinson and John N. King have both noted, the statement and the sentiment are apocryphal.

Collinson and King both identify the origin of the statement in the writings of Francis Bacon, whose manuscript Notes upon a Libel, which was composed in 1592 but not published until 1861, describes Elizabeth I as “not liking to make windows into men’s hearts and secret thoughts.” However, as the nineteenth-century editors of Bacon’s works observed, the statement actually originates with Francis Walsingham (+1590) in a letter to the Secretary of France. Walsingham writes that “her Majesty, not liking to make windows into men’s hearts and secret thoughts except the abundance of them did overflow into overt and express acts or affirmations, tempered her law so as it restraineth only manifest disobedience, in impugning and impeaching advisedly and maliciously her Majesty’s supreme power, and maintaining and extolling a foreign jurisdiction.”

Bacon took this statement and incorporated it into his own unpublished treatise; like Walsingham, Bacon was attempting to defend the queen’s approach to Roman Catholics by explaining why the queen banned many Catholic practices, including the mass, after she was excommunicated by the pope in 1570. Rather far from indicating doctrinal pluralism or a royal endorsement of a broad church, the queen’s policy aimed at a better creating a focused and stable political order.

How then did Waslingham’s description of the queen become essential to popular misunderstandings of Elizabeth and her church? The history of attribution is indeed a curious one. As we have already noted, Bacon’s manuscript was not printed until 1861, which means that his own use of Walsingham’s image could not have entered the Anglican imagination before then. Walsingham’s letter, however, first saw the light of day in the third book of Gilbert Burnet’s multi-volume history of the Reformation, which was published between 1679 and 1714. However, the text seems to have had no effect in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. No one during those two hundred years looked upon doctrinal pluralism as a foundational feature of Anglicanism, just as no one looked upon Elizabeth as someone who was gifted with an intellectual complacency that allowed her to hover magically above the Protestant/Catholic divisions of the sixteenth century. To the contrary, Elizabeth was seen as a new Constantine — the image for her immortalized, and not unfairly, in John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments (also known as the Book of Martyrs).

Two points should be noted. First, Elizabeth could not afford to be doctrinally ignorant. The political situation of Europe was one in which theology and politics went together, and political alliances were oftentimes broken over theological division. This is exactly what happened between Henry VIII and the Lutheran princes in the 1530s; the latter could not accept the former’s rather conservative approach to matters such as the mass and clerical celibacy. Something similar happened in 1559 when the Duke of Württemberg invited Elizabeth to join the Lutheran princes in a political alliance. There was, however, a theological condition to membership: the queen had to accept the Augsburg Confession. Elizabeth was not disinclined from Lutheranism as such; Lutherans were more liturgically conservative than the Swiss reformers, and the queen’s own theological education as a youth had incorporated the 1535 edition of Philip Melanchthon’s Loci Communes, which had been dedicated to Henry VIII.

But even more importantly, the 1555 Peace of Augsburg brought forth the famous theopolitical principal “cuius regio, eius religio” (literally, “whose region, his religion”) — a principal more than congenial to the situation in England. But the queen withheld from joining, claiming that she preferred a religious confession that was “juxta normam Augustanae Confessionis” (“near the norm of the Augsburg Confession”).

The revision of the Articles of Religion occurred against this political backdrop, which is why there were significant changes between the Forty-Two Articles of Religion, promulgated by Edward VI in 1553, and the Thirty-Eight Articles of Religion, promulgated by Elizabeth I in 1562. Every change introduced into the Elizabethan Articles was a step in a Lutheran direction. This gave the queen a confession that was “near” the Augsburg Confession, but it also kept the theopolitical ball in her own royal court.

Regrettably, relations between the Lutheran princes themselves broke down in the 1560s, in no small part due to theological disputation, and were not resolved until the Formula of Concord in 1577 and, finally, the 1580 creation of the Book of Concord, which remains the standard collection of orthodox Lutheran confessional documents. However, as Hirofumi Horie notes, the Elizabethan Articles of Religion were likely intended to be among the confessional documents presented to the Holy Roman Emperor in an Anglo-German bid for the emperor to call a new ecumenical council, consequently annuling the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent. The queen was not theologically ignorant, but politically astute — for in the mid-sixteenth century, the two could not be separated.

This brings us to the second issue. When did people begin to attribute to Elizabeth the claim that she ‘made no windows into men’s souls’? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is to be found in the early twentieth century, first with the British historian A. F. Pollard, and then with the American historian Arthur Lyon Cross. An early abbreviated development in this transformation was in Pollard’s article “Great Britain–The Reformation,” written for The Americana: A Universal Reference Library. In it, Pollard wrote, “Elizabeth boasted that she made no windows into men’s souls.” The same view was given in Pollard’s influential 1910 contribution to the twelve-volume series  The Political History of England. Pollard composed volume VI, The History of England from the Accession of Edward VI to the death of Queen Elizabeth (1547–1603) and wrote, “In the early years of Elizabeth’s reign there was some justification for her boast that she made no windows into men’s souls.” It seems that it was not until 1920, when the American historian Arthur Lyon Cross published A Shorter History of England and Greater Britain, that Pollard’s claim about the queen became a statement spoken by the queen herself. Cross writes, “as she proudly declared, she ‘made no windows into men’s souls.'” From here, the quote has become a practical commonplace, inseparable from our perception of the great queen.

Many Anglicans operate under the strange belief that at the foundation of our tradition is something called “the Elizabethan settlement,” in which a broad-minded and doctrinally lax queen sought to make a church that focused on liturgical conformity rather than doctrinal coherence. This is simply not the case. When we understand the origins of the claim that the queen “made no windows into men’s souls,” we see that Elizabeth was not preaching to Protestant and Catholics, telling them to love one another — as if Elizabeth were some sort of proto-1960s hippie-dippie!

To the contrary, Elizabeth was politically keen, doctrinally astute, and played a significant role in shaping the Articles of Religion into something “juxta normam Augustanae Confessionis.” Bishop Robinson’s understanding of Elizabethan England is as uninformed as his understanding of the Gospels — hence his curious claim that “If Jesus was about anything, it was that love trumps rules, love trumps doctrine.” The statement and the sentiment are indeed apocryphal.


David Loades, Elizabeth I (Hambledon Continuum, 2003), 137, attributes the famous Elizabethan apocryphon to the queen, but John N. King, “Religious Writing,” in Arthur F. Kinney (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to English Literature: 1500–1660 (Cambridge University Press, 2000), and Patrick Collinson, “Elizabeth I (1533–1603),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 (online edn, Jan 2012), attribute Elizabeth’s words to Francis Bacon. Bacon’s treatise and Walsingham’s letter may be found in James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath (eds.), The Works of Francis Bacon, vol. 8 (Cambridge University Press, 1861). John Schofield, Philip Melanchthon and the English Reformation (Ashgate, 2006), contains much insight into Elizabeth’s theological affinity with the great Lutheran humanist, and persuasively proposes that alterations against monergism in Article 9 of the Thirty-Nine Articles were likely due to Melanchthon’s synergistic phase, which most fully expressed itself in the 1535 Loci Communes. Hirofumi Horie, ‘The Lutheran Influence on the Elizabethan Settlement, 1558–1563,” in The Historical Journal, vol. 34, no. 3 (Sep., 1991), 519-537, is a brilliant discussion of Anglo-German relations in the earliest years of Elizabeth’s reign. A.F. Pollard’s “Great Britain–The Reformation” was written for Frederick Converse Beach (ed.), The Americana: A Universal Reference Library, vol. 10 (Scientific American Compiling Department, 1912), no pages. Pollard’s The History of England from the Accession of Edward VI to the death of Queen Elizabeth (1547–1603) is Volume VI of William Hunt and Reginald L. Poole (eds.), The Political History of England, twelve vols. (Longmans, Green, and Co., 1906–1910). His claim about Elizabeth appears on page 218. Arthur Lyon Cross, A Shorter History of England and Greater Britain (The MacMillan Company, 1920), attributes Pollard’s statement directly to the queen on page 248.

NB: As with all works of research, the present piece is submitted to the Republic of Letters and I welcome any evidence which either nuances or corrects the above.


  1. One might also add that Henry VIII had his successive annulments and remarriages for the following reasons:

    1. Catherine of Aragon: inability to sire an heir, combined with the belief that the relationship was adulterous

    2. Anne Boleyn: purported adultery on the queen’s part, although she later claimed that her original admission of guilt was untrue; the matter is still debated

    3. Jane Seymour: died due to complications from childbirth

    4. Anne of Cleves: the marriage was never consummated, and was annulled accordingly

    5. Catherine Howard: adultery – there is no argument here

    6. Catherine Parr: outlived the king

    So, when it comes to the much-married king, we ought to note that a) one wife died; b) one wife committed adultery, and a second may have done the same; c) one marriage was never consummated; d) the last wife outlived the king. Henry VIII was no saint – he had two mistresses while married to Catherine of Aragon – but if anything, the king appears less a scheming pervert than a tragic and even pathetic figure, particularly later in life.

    To dismiss current Anglican debates about sexuality in light of Henry VIII’s marital history indicates only a lack of knowledge concerning why the king had several of his marriages annulled. With the debated issue of Anne Boleyn seen as such, the only scandalous annulment on Henry VIII’s part pertained to Catherine of Aragon. The matter is regrettable, no doubt, but hardly out of the ordinary for a medieval monarch. Indeed, one might argue that the king was more virtuous in his vision of and approach to marriage than the average Baby Boomer – not to mention the average Episcopalian bishop today.

  2. Ben,

    Thank you. This is interesting, and obviously an important discussion with respect to the ideological and theo-political foundations of Anglicanism.

    I’ll pose a question to you here that I asked you earlier via a private email exchange, that may still be useful:

    Based on your research, it seems there is still a thread of truth to the–fairly recent–attribution of an incipient ecumenism to Elizabeth, based on Walsingham’s reporting of the reason for her policy towards RCs, yes? (And if the Elizabethan Articles of Religion were intended to help prepare the way for a new ecumenical council, this would seem lends further weight to such a view.) Or is it your view that we can’t theologically parse the principle behind not wanting to “make windows into men’s hearts and secret thoughts”? I’d like to think that we can, but of course don’t want to be wholly ahistorical!

  3. There is something like an ‘ecumenical’ thread running through Anglicanism from Henry VIII on. This is most clearly seen in the reign of James VI and I – and those who are interested in this really must read W. B. Patterson’s frankly brilliant volume King James VI and I and the Reunion of Christendom (Cambridge University Press, 2000). The seemingly proto-Puritan tinge of Edward VI’s reign was not Cranmer’s design, for Cranmer had invited both Philip Melanchthon (who flirted with synergism his whole life) and Johannes Brenz (the founder of ubiquitarianism!) to England – but, they did not come. Ergo, Cranmer too had an ‘ecumenical’ edge, but it was limited (although, let’s be honest – the divisions between Brenz and Vermigli on the Eucharist were at least as large as those between Vermigli or Brenz and Trent!).

    However, the ‘ecumenical’ interests of some churchmen were inseparable from diplomatic interests of government – thus we need to recognize that not all ecumenical interests were about the unity of the Church, and were frequently bound up with urgent political concerns. Of course, political concerns (WWI)also gave rise to the WCC, and as as Bryn Geffert has shown, political concerns also heavily shaped Anglican-Orthodox relations in the interwar years. Nonetheless, I think it is just important to remember that the ‘ecumenical’ interests were inseparable from the diplomatic interests in the 16th and 17th centuries.

    Late in her reign, Elizabeth cracked down on Roman Catholics – something like 200 were burned for treason. So when Roman Catholic adherence became inseparable from political suspicion, and when it became clear that Roman Catholic hardliners weren’t content to leave well enough alone, the queen responded in kind. On the Catholic side, this culminated in the Gunpowder Plot – quite possibly the most expansively violent set of plans by Catholic terrorists in the early modern period. This wasn’t just about some Jesuit fanatic murdering a monarch, but about the entire annihilation of the whole English government. Frankly, the Marian bishops, in reasoning with ‘heretics’ before sending them to the flames, were far kinder than later Catholic terrorists.

  4. Given the qualifications Ben makes above on how the geopolitical realities conditioned relations with the national manifestations of Rome (esp. Spain and France), one might then consider the related question of Elizabeth’s tolerance of Romish practice within her own realm. At a time when the Settlement was under much pressure by Genevan Puritans and virtually all in power in the Church of England were decidedly Reformed, tolerating not even the admission that Romans might be Christian, Elizabeth had a Romish chaplain who celebrated in the early Henrician way (like Rome), and she funded Romish hymnwriters, keeping rich music alive in an era of excessively reformed sterility. Her own preferences were more traditional than the national politics would allow.

  5. Thank you for the article I found it illuminating and mostly very well argued. However, the Robinson that you deride with “Robinson’s understanding of Elizabethan England is as uninformed as his understanding of the Gospels” seems to be one not evidenced by your reasoning. You seem to object to a Robinson different to the one that you directly attack.

    The Robinson you quote does not appear to deserve you contempt. First, he agrees with you that the “Elizabethan settlement” is political not ecumenical nor doctrinally, at least in the quote of his you use :“You Protestants and Catholics are going to stop killing each other. I will not have it.”. Second, he is not too far from Mat 22:38-40 with “If Jesus was about anything, it was that love trumps rules, love trumps doctrine.”

    I believe it is where Robinson goes (or might go) with his particular anti rules view of Matthew that you want to take issue with. Maybe it is an indictment of whatever the rules are that you appear to be defending, that you have had to avoid any direct advancement of them or any cogent disagreement with Robinson.

    Nevertheless I found the history lesson interesting and useful.


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