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Religious Wars and the “Common Peace”: Anglican Anti-War Sentiment in Elizabethan England*

  • Ben Lowe


The “age of religious wars” usually serves as the main interpretive framework for students of late sixteenth-century European history. This period is often conceptualized as just preceding the establishment of a secularized, politique-based state system that provided domestic tranquility as welcome relief from extended, highly partisan warfare. It is true that religious sentiments ran high among certain Protestants and Catholics who believed millions of souls were at stake, and that passionate defenses of doctrinal purity, to the point of taking up arms, characterize a good deal of the polemic of the age. Consequently, since prominent clerics were most vocal and influential in stirring up pious fervor for holy causes, many historians have focused on clerical martial rhetoric and found in it the ideological basis for the “religious wars” that ensued. Unfortunately, a hint of teleology informs much of the historical narrative that then follows, as if confessional devotion were synonymous with volatile, even bellicose calls for godly reform. A broader, more nuanced look at some of the pertinent sources, however, suggests that in many, perhaps even the majority, of cases, newly energized evangelicals found holy causes abhorrent and contrary to the gospel message.



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I would like to thank Janelle Greenberg and Linda Levy Peck for offering helpful suggestions on an earlier version of this article.



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1 Bonney, Richard, The European Dynastic States, 1494-1660 (Oxford, 1991), pp. 118-19, 131; Repgen, Konrad, “What is a ‘Religious War’?” in Politics and Society in Reformation Europe: Essays for Sir Geoffrey Ellon on His Sixty-Fifth Birthday, ed. Kouri, E. I. and Scott, Tom (New York, 1987), pp. 318-22.

2 Bonney, , European Dynastic States, pp. 530-31. See also Rowen, Herbert H., The King's State: Proprietary Dynasticism in Early Modern Europe (New Brunswick, N.J., 1980).

3 Bonney, , European Dynastic States, pp. 130-31. Repgen concludes “that the actual reasons for war, even in the confessional age, can hardly ever be exclusively or even predominantly attributed to the complex ‘religion.’” Repgen, , “What is a ‘Religious War’?” pp. 311-23. Braudel's, Fernand monumental La Mediterranée et le monde méditerranéen à l'époque de Philippe II (Paris, 1949) was one of the first important works to stress the non-religious aspects of late sixteenth-century warfare. For more recent examples see Lloyd, Howell A., The State, France, and the Sixteenth Century (London, 1983); Holt, Mack P., The Duke of Anjou and the Politique Struggle during the Wars of Religion (Cambridge, 1986); Crouzet, Denis, Les guerriers de Dieu: la violence au temps de troubles de religion, vers 1525-vers 1610, 2 vols. (Seyssel, 1990); Thompson, I. A. A., War and Government in Habsburg Spain, 1560-1620 (London, 1976); Rodríguez-Salgado, Mia J., The Changing Face of Empire: Charles V, Philip II, and Habsburg Authority, 1551-1559 (Cambridge, 1988); Parker, Geoffrey, The Dutch Revolt (Ithaca, N.Y., 1977).

4 Charles V avoided religious categorization altogether and viewed the Schmalkaldic wars as a “breach of the public peace,” which threatened the integrity of the empire and fomented treason. Repgen, , “What is a ‘Religious War’?” pp. 311-23.

5 Note Bishop of Norwich John Parkhurst's excitement over the rumor of peace between England and France in a letter to Heinrich Bullinger in Zurich, dated August 13, 1563. His prayers were rewarded soon thereafter with the proclamation of the Peace of Troyes in London on April 11, 1564. See The Zurich Letters, ed. and trans. Hastings Robinson, Parker Society, vol. 53 (Cambridge, 1842), 1: 113n.; Strype, John, Annals of the Reformation…In the Church of England, Vol. 1, Pt. 2 (Oxford, 1824), pp. 115-16.

6 Neale, J. E., Elizabeth I and Her Parliaments, 2 vols. (New York, 1958); Hale, J. R., “Incitement to Violence? English Divines on the Themes of War, 1578 to 1631,” in Renaissance War Studies (London, 1983); Walzer, Michael, The Revolution of the Saints: A Study in the Origins of Radical Politics (Cambridge, Mass., 1965).

7 See, for example, Elton, G. R., The Parliament of England, 1559-1581 (Cambridge, 1986).

8 Hale, , “Incitement to Violence?,” p. 487.

9 Walzer, Revolution of the Saints; Johnson, James Turner, Ideology, Reason, and the Limitation of War: Religious and Secular Concepts 1200-1740 (Princeton, N.J., 1975), pp. 110-13.

10 Underdown, David, Revel, Riot, and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England 1603-1660 (Oxford, 1987), pp. 148-65.

11 Hale, , “Incitement to Violence?,” pp. 511-13. This gap would be in keeping with the Jacobean predilection for peace. See Coward, Barry, The Stuart Age (London, 1980), pp. 106-14; Lee, Maurice Jr., James I and Henry IV: An Essay in English Foreign Policy, 1603-1610 (Urbana, Ill., 1970), pp. 11-16, 136. Coward contends that “James's vision of himself as rex pacificus and international peacemaker dominated his conduct of English foreign policy” (p. 106).

12 Hale, , “Incitements to Violence?”, pp. 511-13; Walzer, , Revolution of the Saints, pp. 268-99.

13 Walzer, , Revolution of the Saints, p. 290.

14 Lowe, Ben, “War and the Commonwealth in Mid-Tudor England,” Sixteenth Century Journal 21 (1990): 171-91.

15 idem, “Peace Discourse and Mid-Tudor Foreign Policy,” in Political Thought and the Tudor Commonwealth: Deep Structure, Discourse, and Disguise, ed. Thomas F. Mayer and Paul A. Fideler (London, 1992), pp. 108-39.

16 Smith, Thomas, A Discourse of the Commonweal of This Realm of England, ed. Dewar, Mary, The Folger Shakespeare Library (Charlottesville, Va., 1969), pp. 9293; Schwoerer, Lois G., “No Standing Armies!”: The Antiarmy Ideology in Seventeenth-Century England (Baltimore, 1974), pp. 818.

17 Webb, Henry J., Elizabethan Military Science: The Books and the Practice (Madison, Wis., 1965), pp. 7172; Larigsam, G. Geoffrey, Martial Books and Tudor Verse (New York, 1951), pp. 170-74.

18 See for example, Gascoigne, George, Dulce bellum inexpertis in The Complete Works of George Gasciogne, ed. Cunliffe, John W. (Cambridge, 1907-1910), stanzas 55-58, 1: 152; Humphrey, Lxaurence, The Nobles, or Of Nobilitye (London, 1563), sigs. n4r–n6r; Florio, John, His First Fruites: Which Yeelde Familiar Speech, Merie Prouerbes, Wittie Sentences and Golden Sayings (London, 1578), sigs. 38v–39v.

19 Harleian MS, 5176, fol. 107r; Proceedings in the Parliaments of Elizabeth I: Volume I (1558-1581), ed. Hartley, T. E. (Wilmington, Del., 1981), p. 34.

20 MacCaffrey, Wallace, “Parliament and Foreign Policy,” in The Parliaments of Elizabethan England, ed. Dean, D. M. and Jones, N. L. (Oxford, 1990), p. 83; Neale, , Elizabeth I and Her Parliaments, pp. 204-05.

21 During the crisis of the 1580s and 1590s, Sir Walter Raleigh referred to these two camps as the “men of war,” and the “scribes.” The foreign secretary, Francis Walsingham, stood out in the first group, while Lord Burghley and his son, Robert Cecil, dominated the second. Wernham, R. B., The Making of Elizabethan Foreign Policy 1558-1603 (Berkeley, Calif., 1980), pp. 82-84, 92. Jorgensen, Paul A., “Theoretical Views of War in Elizabethan England,” Journal of the History of Ideas 15 (1952): 469-79; Waggoner, G. R., “An Elizabethan Attitude Toward Peace and War,” Philological Quarterly 33 (1954): 2033.

22 MacCaffrey, , “Parliament and Foreign Policy,” p. 75; Bell, Gary M., “Elizabethan Diplomacy The Subtle Revolution,” in Politics, Religion, and Diplomacy in Early Modern Europe: Essays in Honor of De Lamar Jensen, ed. Thorp, Malcolm R. and Slavin, Arthur J. (St. Louis, 1994), pp. 267-88.

23 Crowson, P. S., Tudor Foreign Policy (London, 1973), pp. 39; Ashton, Robert, Reformation and Revolution 1558-1660 (London, 1984), pp. 79107; Smith, A. G. R., The Government of Elizabethan England (New York, 1967), pp. 112.

24 This point was reiterated over and over, especially in Parliament. In 1571 Lord Keeper Nicholas Bacon said that through peace “we generally and joyfully possess all,” and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Walter Mildmay, opened the subsidy discussions in 1576 with a striking recitation on England's peace and justice as the envy of all its wartorn neighbors. Even with the realization that war with Spain was approaching in 1586-87, the somewhat modified message exalted more the inward peace of England, with its “mild Church of the gospel” that foreign Catholics were trying to destroy. Hartley, , Proceedings, pp. 36, 184-85, 442, 502-04; idem, Elizabeth's Parliaments: Queen, Lords and Commons, 1559-1601 (Manchester, 1992), pp. 54-55.

25 Southgate, W. M., John Jewel and the Problem of Doctrinal Authority (Cambridge, Mass., 1962), p. 179.

26 Using chapter 24 of the prophet Isaiah as his text, and speaking of Christ's return and rule, Calvin states that “since we are still widely distant from the perfection of that peaceful reign, we must always think of making progress.” Calvin, John, Isaiah (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1948), 1: 102.

27 The use of martial language to describe spiritual struggles or battles dates back to the apostle Paul's letter to the Ephesians in which he enjoined the church to “put on the full armor of God” (including swords, shields, arrows, etc.), but at the same time emphasized that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood., but against the spiritual forces of evil” (Letter to the Ephesians, 6: 10-18). Erasmus, the most pacifist humanist of his day, vividly, even militantly, laid out his Enchiridion militis Christiani (1503) in much the same way. The book was very popular in England, especially in high circles.

28 Klein, Arthur J., Intolerance in the Reign of Elizabeth, Queen of England (Boston, Mass., 1917; repr., Port Washington, N.Y., 1968), pp. 93-94; Collinson, Patrick, The English Puritan Movement (London, 1967), p. 103.

29 Even though the existence of “Anglicanism” before Richard Hooker has been questioned of late, we can use the term here simply to refer to those Elizabethan prelates who served the Church of England faithfully by accepting both episcopacy and the royal supremacy. This clearly differentiated them from Presbyterians and radicals. Lake, Peter, Anglicans and Puritans? Presbyterianism and English Conformist Thought from Whitgift to Hooker (London, 1988), p. 227.

30 Lake, Peter, Moderate Puritans and the Elizabethan Church (Cambridge, 1982), pp. 7792.

31 Collinson, , Elizabethan Puritan Movement, p. 103.

32 idem, “Episcopacy and Reform in England in the Later Sixteenth Century,” in Studies in Church History, vol. 3, ed. G.J. Cuming (Leiden, 1966), pp. 91-125.

33 Russell, Conrad, The Causes of the English Civil War (Oxford, 1990), pp. 6875.

34 Rosinsky, Larry M., “James Pilkington: The Study of an Elizabethan Bishop” (Ph.D. diss., West Virginia University, 1975), pp. 200-03.

35 Ibid, pp. 370-78; Pilkington, James, Works, ed. Scholefield, James, Society, Parker, vol. 35 (Cambridge, 1842), p. 461.

36 Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, Reign of Elizabeth, Addenda 1566-1579, ed. Lemon, Robert and Green, Mary A. E. (London, 1856-1872), p. 53.

37 Calendar of State Papers, Foreign Series, Reign of Elkabeth, ed. Turnbull, William B., et al. (London, 1863-1874), 8: 544. Rosinsky, , “James Pilkington,” pp. 219-20.

38 Collingwood, Charles, Memoirs of Bernard Gilpin, Parson of Houghton-Le-Spring and Apostle of the North (London, 1884), pp. 210-11. The only detailed treatment of Pilkington and the northern rebellion of 1569 is in Rosinsky, , “James Pilkington,” pp. 232-60.

39 Pilkington, , Works, pp. 149, 157-58.

40 Ibid, p. 159.

41 Ibid., pp. 427, 432.

42 Ibid., pp. 433-34.

43 Kelley, Donald R., “Elizabethan Political Thought,” in The Varieties of British Political Thought, 1500-1800, ed. Pocock, J. G. A. (Cambridge, 1993), pp. 7276; Allen, J. W., A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century (London, 1957), pp. 169-83.

44 According to Donald Kelley, the “vernacular Scriptures” served as the main source for the language of social protest that arose out of the Reformation's “purification of language,...doctrine and Christian life in general. Law, Liberty, Authority, Tradition-these totemic concepts were all purged and redefined.” Kelley, Donald, “Ideas of Resistance before Elizabeth,” in The Historical Renaissance: New Essays on Tudor and Stuart Literature and Culture, ed. Dubrow, Heather and Strier, Richard (Chicago, 1988), p. 48.

45 Southgate, , John Jewel, pp. 176-91; Booty, John E., John Jewel as Apologist of the Church of England (London, 1963), p. 136.

46 Southgate, , John Jewel, pp. 189-91.

47 Porter, H. C., “The Nose of Wax: Scripture and the Spirit from Erasmus to Milton,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th ser., 14 (1964): 158-59.

48 A Defence of the Apologie of the Churche of Englande (London, 1567); Booty, , John Jewel, p. 136. The Elizabethan church settlement included statutory recognition that the bible, the works of the early fathers, and the decrees of the first four councils provided the basis for Anglican belief. I Eliz., cap. 1, sec. 20.

49 Jewel, John, A Treatise on the Holy Scriptures, in Works, ed. Ayre, John, Society, Parker, vols. 23-26 (Cambridge, 1846-1850), 4: 1173; Southgate, , John Jewel, pp. 175-79; Greenslade, Stanley, The English Reformers and the Fathers of the Church (Oxford, 1960), pp. 5, 79.

50 Jewel, John, An Apology of the Church of England, ed. Booty, J. E., The Folger Shakespeare Library (Charlottesville, Va., 1963).

51 Tertullian, , On Idolatry and The Chaplet, or De Corona, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Roberts, Alexander and Donaldson, James (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1956), 3: 73, 99100. See also Recognitions of Clement, 2: 39, in Anti-Nicene Fathers, 8: 105.

52 Brock, Peter, Pacifism in Europe to 1914 (Princeton, N.J., 1972), pp. 711.

53 Jewel, , Commentary on First Thessalonians, in Works, 2: 884.

54 This statement bears striking resemblance to Origen's polemic against so many kingdoms in his day taking vengeance at every opportunity and being a “hindrance to the spread of the doctrine of Jesus throughout the entire world.” Origin, , Against Celsus, 2: 30, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 4: 444. Jewel may be reflecting also the poor reputation of soldiers, which he would have had in common with Tertullian and Origen as well.

55 Jewel, , First Thessalonians, 2: 885.

56 Sandys, Edwin, Sermons, ed. Ayre, John, Parker Society, vol. 41 (Cambridge, 1841), pp. xxvxxxviii.

57 Fox, Alistair, “English Humanism and the Body Politic,” in Reassessing the Henrician Age: Humanism, Politics and Reform, 1500-1550 (Oxford, 1986), pp. 5051; Elton, G. R., “Reform and the Commonwealth-Men' of Edward VI's Reign,” in The English Commonwealth 1547-1640: Essays in Politics and Society, ed. Clark, Peter, Smith, Alan, and Tyacke, Nicholas (New York, 1979), pp. 2338; Jones, R. D. Whitney, The Tudor Commonwealth 1529-1559 (London, 1970), passim.

58 Sandys, , Sermons, p. 57.

59 Ibid., pp. 60-61.

60 Latimer asserts “that where war is, there be all discommodities; no man can do his duty according to his calling, as appeareth, now in Germany, the Emperor, and the French king being at controversy.” Latimer, Hugh, Sermons, ed. Corrie, George Elwes, Parker Society, vol. 27 (Cambridge, 1844), pp. 390-91.

61 Sandys, Sermons, p. 61.

62 Ibid., p. 83.

63 Ibid., pp. 282-86.

64 Ibid., p. 257.

65 This idea can be traced to Seneca who believed that too much peace encouraged immoral excesses that came from “the weakening effects of luxury and idleness.” Waggoner, , “An Elizabethan Attitude Toward War and Peace,” p. 33; Jorgensen, , “Theoretical Views of War,” pp. 476-78.

66 Sandy's Sermons, p. 286.

67 Curteys, Richard, A Sermon Preached Before the Queenes Maiestie, by the Reuerenae Father in God the Bishop of Chichester, at Greenwiche, the 14 Day of Marche 1573 (London, 1573), sigs. B6r–v, B8r–v, C4r, D4r–v.

68 idem, A Sermon Preached Before the Queenes Maiesty at Richmond the 6 of March 1575 (London, 1575), sig. D1v; idem, Two Sermons Preached by the Reuerend Father in God the Bishop of Chichester, the First at Paules Crosse on Sunday Being the Fourth Day of March (London, 1576), sigs. D5V, D6V.

69 Curteys was a zealous reform-minded prelate whose ambitious ideas engendered hostility and opposition within his diocese, eventually culminating in his suspension before his death in 1582. The best treatment of the bishop in action is Manning's, Roger B.Religion and Society in Elizabethan Sussex: A Study of the Enforcement of the Religious Settlement 1558-1603 (Leicester, 1969), pp. 63125. Manning calls Curteys a “conforming Puritan,” because he supported both episcopacy and the Prayer Book but also promoted bible-based preaching in every parish (pp. 71-72).

70 Stockwood, John, A Sermon Preached at Paules Crosse on Barthelmew Day, Being the 24 of August 1578 (London, 1578), pp. 3844.

71 MacLure, Millar, ed., Register of Sermons Preached at Paul's Cross 1534-1642, rev. Jackson Campbell Boswell and Peter Pauls (Ottawa, 1989), p. 58.

72 Udall, John, The True Remedie Against Famine and Warres (London, 1590), sigs. 57v–58r.

73 MacLure, , Register of Sermons, p. 65.

74 Gravet, William, A Sermon Preached at Pavles Crosse on the XXV Day of June Ann. Dom. 1587, Intreating of the Holy Scriptures, and the Vse of the Same (London, 1587), pp. 6174.

75 Lupset, Thomas, A Treatise of Charitie (London, 1533).

76 Certain Sermons or Homilies, Appointed to be Read in Churches, in the Time of Queen Elizabeth (4th ed.; London, 1766), 1: 64-67, 129-40; 2: 536-37.

77 Liturgical Services. Liturgies and Occasional Forms of Prayer Set Forth in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, ed. Clay, William Keatinge, Parker Society, vol. 30 (Cambridge, 1847), pp. 476-77.

78 Ibid., p. 615.

79 Ibid., p. 644.

80 Ibid., pp. 644-46.

81 For how the image of the “Christ-like Prince of Peace” became associated with Elizabeth iconog-raphically see King, John N., “The Royal Image, 1535-1603,” in Tudor Political Culture, ed. Hoak, Dale (Cambridge, 1995), pp. 122-32.

82 Kellner, Hans, “Triangular Anxieties: The Present State of European Intellectual History,” in Modern European Intellectual History: Reappraisals & New Perspectives, ed. LaCapra, Dominick and Kaplan, Steven L. (Ithaca, N.Y., 1982), pp. 116-17.

* I would like to thank Janelle Greenberg and Linda Levy Peck for offering helpful suggestions on an earlier version of this article.


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