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Welcome to Episode #73 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare. 

When Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558, she inherited a tense political and religion tension that bordered dangerously close to civil war over Protestantism vs Catholicism in England. Historical basis for wars with France, the reputation of the Huguenots, and the painful English loss of Calais after ruling it for 150 years all played a role in the reception of small details, including the representation of France beside England in plays like Shakespeare’s Henry V.

For the audiences of France, religion was a tumultuous topic with many people now Protestant by government decree, with parents, even Shakespeare’s own father, who had potentially closeted Catholic sentiments. As with many things, the context of religion vs government or something more casual was a giant ball of complicated emotions that caused playwrights like William Shakespeare to need to perform a balancing act to produce a show that would be popular, but not get him arrested in the process.

Here today to help us analyze the role of religion in England, the impact of Elizabeth’s Religious Settlement, and how the country received plays like Henry V, is our guest Dr. Jonathan Willis.

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Dr. Jonathan Willis is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Birmingham, UK.  His work focusses on the history of the long English reformation, and the relationship between theology and religious belief, practice and identity.  He has written books on the relationship between religious music and the English reformation, and the impact of the reformation on the Ten Commandments (and vice versa).  He has also edited and co-edited collections of essays on dying, death, burial and commemoration; on sin and salvation in reformation England; and a guide designed to help students access and work with early modern primary sources.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Jonathan about :

  • After Elizabeth I’s father, Henry VIII established the Church of England, it seems that the country was firmly protestant. Why was Elizabeth’s Religious Settlement necessary?
  • How is it with the generally negative views of the French in England that Calvinism took hold so strongly, since John Calvin himself was French?
  • Is there any connection between the Edict of Nantes of 1598 and Elizabeth’s Religious Settlement?

    … and more!

If men could be contented to 
be what they are, there were no fear in marriage; 
for young Charbon the Puritan and old Poysam the 
Papist, howsome’er their hearts are severed in 
religion, their heads are both one; they may jowl 
horns together, like any deer i’ the herd.


Alls Well That Ends Well, I.3

Frontispiece to “Complete Journal of the House of Lords and the House of Commons Throughout the Whole Reign of Queen Elizabeth of Glorious Memory”, Sir Symonds D’Ewes published in London, 1693. Source

Elizabeth I’s Religious Settlement

After Elizabeth I’s father split up the official church to create the Church of England, of which he was the head, he introduced a rather complicated religous atmosphere for his daughter when she became Queen.

Under Edward VI, the country had become essential Calvinist, albiet practicing in what has been called a restrained manner. One of the main diversions from Catholicism is that now under Protestantism, it was taught that salvation was by justification through faith alone. That switch meant that the more traditional view of Catholic teaching which stated salvation was accomplished by the doing of good works was now challenged. Religion being a strong subject for anyone, it became a source of great tension which Elizabeth I would spend her entire reign trying to pacify and manage under constant threat of religous war.  

Sorting out how many of the old ways would be tolerated under a newly Protestant England (and remember, the government dictated religion in England at this time, meaning that the Queen was responsible for deciding what the religion of the country would be, as well as how it was practiced). This reality lead Elizabeth to establish what is called the Religious Settlement, which essentially set out to establish a peaceful religious existence in England, likely to inentionally try and avoid some of the horrible religious wars which were simultaneously going on in France at this time. 


The Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App

Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App gives you the correct pronunciation of words found in the text of Shakespeare’s plays, with audio accesibility at the click of a button. This app lets you keep a professional voice coach right in your back pocket. 
 Download the app here.

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Name not religion, for thou lovest the flesh, 
And ne’er throughout the year to church thou go’st 
Except it be to pray against thy foes.

Duke of Gloucester

Henry VI Part 1, I.1

Le Siège de Calais. 9 janvier 1558. Francois-Edouard Picot (1786–1868) Oil on Canvas. Source

The Loss of Calais

 As a result of the Hundred Years War, Calais and several other territories belonged to England, having been captured from France. The French setout to reclaim all of these territories, resulting in a long war between England and France. At Calais in 1558, during what historians would go on to call The Italian Wars 1551-1559, Calais was beseiged by French troops, who sought to claim it back for France. 

In an overwhelming lighting attack, Thomas Wentworth found himself and his troops totally overpowered. They surrendered Calais to the French on January 7 of 1558, along with three months of food supplies and 300 guns.

Calais representing the last of the French territories left to be reclaimed, the loss of Calais was a bitter moment for England but also brought with it the conclusion of nearly two centuries of fighting between England and France.

It is religion that doth make vows kept; 
But thou hast sworn against religion

Cardinal Pandulph

King John, III.1

Declaration against indulgences, also known as “The 95 Theses” by Martin Luther, Wittenberg: Melchior Lotter d.J., 1522 Sign: RA 92/3237 Source

Protestant Reformation in England

The Protestant Reformation was not unique to England, but was a massive moment all across Europe. One key city was Geneva, from which famous reformers like John Knox and John Calvin would originate.

While England was now Protestant, and reformed, they were not specifically Calvinist. They diverged dinstinctly from the Scottish Kirk (which was also Protestant though with a different governmental application) and there were a wide range of influences which contributed to the English church. 

Though French, Calvin was most influential by the second half of the 16th century. His nationality wasn’t an issue because his model of reformation was Swiss Genevian, and it was not a massive factor for the English. Protestant elite reformers, the bishops, university theologians, were internationalist in outlook, and took into account the context of the religious leanings. 

As you can tell, specificity about what and when to accept many aspects of religion was compicated in Shakespeare’s lifetime, to say the least. 

Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App gives you the correct pronunciation of words found in the text of Shakespeare’s plays, with audio accesibility at the click of a button. This app lets you keep a professional voice coach right in your back pocket. In this video, the app founder, Shane Ann Younts, talks about the purpose of the app.
I use this app regularly to hear the pronunciation of various words from the plays, and I heartily recommend it to you. 
This app is an official sponsor of That Shakespeare Life.

There is no vice so simple but assumes 
Some mark of virtue on his outward parts: 


Merchant of Venice, III.2

Shown here is Christopher Mountjoy’s Rejoinder, the fourth of four pleadings in Bellott v. Mountjoy. The lawsuit, begun on January 28, 1612, was between Stephen Bellott and Christopher Mountjoy, head of a French Huguenot family living in Silver Street in Cripplegate Ward, just north of Cheapside and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Source

Anti-French Sentiments and Huguenot refugees

 Due to the history of wars between England and France, there was a complicated relationship with the French during Shakespeare’s lifetime. On the one hand, people in general held strongly anti-French sentiments, preferred to only hire “native English” as opposed to anyone considered “foreign” and they did not like anyone who might be trying to bring outside culture into England.

However, at the same time the English seemed to be incredibly receptive to the plight of French refugees, specifically the Huguenots, which seemed to get something of a pass in terms of tolerance, due to the commonality of religion. The Hugeunots were seens as partners in religion, and were welcomed in England. That said, there was a Catholic league in France which pursued the eradication of the Hugeunots in England through acts of violence not unlike the domestic terrorism we see occurring today. 

These issues would have been made personal for William Shakespeare, as he is known to have housed with a Hugeunot family named the Moutnjoys, who had immigrated to England, presumably to escape the persecution they faced in France. 


Books Jonathan Willis Recommends:


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