Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England

The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, which revisited and revised the Forty-two Articles of 1553 that addressed the Protestant makeup of the Church of England, permanently reestablished Protestant institutions in England by Queen Elizabeth I and her religious advisers.

Summary of Event

Elizabeth I became queen of England on November 17, 1558, upon the death of her half sister, Queen Mary I. Even though both had been declared illegitimate during the lifetime of their father, King Henry VIII, there was little opposition to Elizabeth’s succession. She was the logical candidate, and there was no other possible claimant except her Roman Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. Church of England
Thirty-nine Articles of Religion (1563)[Thirty nine Articles of Religion (1563)]
Elizabeth I
Parker, Matthew
Cranmer, Thomas
Edward VI
Mary I
Elizabeth I (queen of England)
Mary Tudor (queen of England)
Henry VIII (king of England)
Edward VI (king of England)
Cranmer, Thomas
Parker, Matthew

As expected, Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry VIII’s second queen, Anne Boleyn, restored the English Protestantism Protestantism;England in which she had been raised, reversing the Catholic restoration under Mary I that had occurred from 1553 to 1558. Within the first month of her reign, Elizabeth ordered several parts of the Mass translated into English and also forbade the elevation of the bread and wine for the adoration of the congregation. Attacks on symbols of Catholicism were largely ignored by the new government.

Anticipating these changes, only one of the bishops, all of whom had been appointed during Mary’s reign, agreed reluctantly to crown Elizabeth. Early in 1559, Parliament began to reenact some of the ecclesiastical legislation of Henry VIII. Papal taxes were once again to be paid to the Crown and certain Church lands were seized, despite strong opposition by the bishops in the House of Lords.

When Parliament subsequently took up a bill to define the doctrine of the English Church, the bishops and the lower clergy in convocation denied that such matters were subject to parliamentary control. They also reaffirmed certain Catholic doctrines, especially the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

On March 22, Parliament passed a bill restoring to Elizabeth the title Supreme Head of the Church of Christ in England, which had been borne by Henry VIII and Edward VI. Instead of signing it, Elizabeth recessed Parliament because she had reservations about the title Supreme Head.

On May 8, a reconvened Parliament passed a new Act of Supremacy Supremacy, Act of (1559) in which the queen’s title was the somewhat more modest Supreme Governor of the Church in England. An oath to that effect was to be taken, as in the days of Henry VIII, by all clergy, all agents of the Crown and public officials, and all graduates of the universities or the law courts.

A second bill, which passed the House of Lords by only three votes, abolished the Mass in England officially, substituting a communion service that was to be celebrated regularly. These new Elizabethan bills together revived most of the ecclesiastical legislation of King Henry VIII’s reign. In addition, the Act of Uniformity Uniformity, Act of (1559) prescribed that the second edition of the Book of Common Prayer (1552) Book of Common Prayer (1552) , most of which had been translated from the Latin by Thomas Cranmer, but with significant omissions and additions to make it Protestant as well as Catholic, was to be the official liturgy of the Church of England. Not a single bishop took the Oath of Supremacy, reversing the situation at the time of Henry VIII. All the bishops were thus deprived of their offices, to be replaced by men of Protestant sympathies, many of whom had been in exile on the Continent during Mary’s reign and had close contacts with Protestant leaders. As in the days of Henry VIII, the great majority of the parish clergy took the oath and remained in office; the great majority of the laity to whom it was proffered also took the oath.

During the next several years, the business of reforming the English Church to reflect its Protestant focus proceeded with general success. A substantial number of laypersons, including some of the nobility, constituted a self-conscious Catholic minority called recusants because of their refusal to take the oath; but the majority of the nation conformed quietly to the third major reversal of religious practice they had been asked to undergo in thirty-five years. The earlier reversals were Henry VIII’s reform of 1534 and Mary’s return to Catholicism in 1553. The most vocal discontent was expressed by Protestants, who already were coming to be known as Puritans. They were disappointed that Elizabeth retained Catholic remnants as bishops, ritual services, and sacraments.

Early in 1563, a convocation was summoned under the presidency of Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury, to deal with disciplinary problems in the Church, including the low level of morality and lack of learning among many parish clergy, and also to define an official and comprehensive doctrine for the Church. The last non-Catholic attempt to accomplish this task had been Edward VI’s Forty-two Articles of Religion Forty-two Articles of Religion (1553)[Forty two Articles of Religion (1553)] , which had been enacted in June, 1553, shortly before the young king’s death and the restoration of Catholicism under Mary. During 1562, the Forty-two Articles, which addressed measures to be adopted by the Church of England that ran counter to Catholicism, were revised by Parker. In their new form as the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, they were submitted to the convocation early in January, 1563. By the end of the month, all the bishops had accepted them, and they became the official doctrine of the Church of England.

The new articles recognized two sacraments—baptism and holy communion—that were said not to confer grace on the recipient but merely to strengthen his or her faith. The physical presence of Christ in the communion was denied, although its actual meaning was left somewhat ambiguous. The idea of holy communion as a reenactment of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was also denied.

In accordance with the Protestant pattern, the articles affirmed that anything not in Scripture could not be a matter of importance for belief, thus in effect rejecting the Catholic affirmation of the importance of tradition. The question of salvation was also defined in Protestant terms. People are saved by faith alone and solely by God’s action, not by any merit of their own. The doctrine of predestination was specifically upheld.

Diversity of ceremonies among the various national churches was also upheld, as was the use of English in official worship. A married priesthood was permitted, although Elizabeth was somewhat uncomfortable with the idea and snubbed Archbishop Parker’s wife.

By Act of Parliament in 1571, the Thirty-nine Articles were to be subscribed to by all those required to take the Oath of Supremacy. Elizabeth had rejected a similar bill in 1566, declaring that matters of belief were within her prerogative and not within the scope of Parliament.


The legislation of the early years of Elizabeth’s forty-five-year reign gave a distinctly Protestant bias to the Church of England, which it had not had under her father and had only briefly under her half brother. In effect, the Thirty-nine Articles completed the establishment of the Anglican Church in England.

Committed Protestants, many of whom occupied high positions in the Church, in time became increasingly frustrated at the obvious unwillingness of the queen to move beyond the Elizabethan Settlement of 1559 Elizabethan Settlement (1559) , which established Elizabeth as the Supreme Governor of the church and required the Oath of Allegiance and also established the Act of Uniformity. In various ways, the Puritans Puritans attempted to make unauthorized changes in the church that led to many suspensions from office, imprisonments, and even a few executions. Several times Puritans in the House of Commons attempted to legislate liturgical or organizational reforms, but Elizabeth successfully resisted each time.

By the end of Elizabeth’s reign in 1603, the Puritans were temporarily exhausted, but the issues left unsolved by the Elizabethan Settlement would become major crises in the Civil War period from 1640 to 1649.

Further Reading

  • Brigden, Susan. London and the Reformation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. A work that is essential to an understanding of the forces that shaped Elizabethan religious opinion.
  • Doran, Susan. Queen Elizabeth I. New York: New York University Press, 2003. Portrays Elizabeth as a flawed but brilliant manipulator who used this ability to protect her country and to steer it safely through a host of dangers. Includes illustrations, map, bibliographic references, index.
  • Dunn, Jane. Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. Study of the rivalry and political intrigue between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, attempting to portray the private emotions behind their public acts. Includes photographic plates, illustrations, bibliographic references, index.
  • Haigh, Christopher, ed. The Reign of Elizabeth I. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. An excellent collection of revisionist essays on Elizabeth I and her era.
  • Hughes, Philip. The Reformation in England. Vol. 3. Rev. ed. Reprint. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1993. Although biased by current standards, this work is still the most thorough study available on the English reformation.
  • Levin, Carole. The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994. One of the new interpretations of Elizabeth I, this work focuses on the succession and the queen as a religious figure. A host of other topics are also covered that are essential to an understanding of Elizabeth I.
  • MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Later Reformation in England, 1547-1603. 2d ed. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Study of the major events of the Reformation in England after Henry VIII’s death, together with a discussion of the reception and understanding of those events by the English people. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • Marshall, Peter. Reformation England, 1480-1642. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Extremely detailed, meticulously supported argument that the English Reformation should be understood to begin in the late fifteenth century and to last well into the seventeenth century. Grapples with and explicates the specific meanings of Protestantism and Catholicism to the major players and to laypeople during the Renaissance. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • Meyer, Carl S. Elizabeth I and the Religious Settlement of 1558. St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia, 1960. Earlier scholarship tended to see the English Church under Edward VI and Elizabeth I as essentially Calvinistic in theology, but Meyer tends to find Lutheran influences equally important, if not more so.
  • Ridley, Jasper G. Elizabeth I: The Shrewdness of Virtue. New York: Viking Press, 1988. Ridley’s biography of the “Virgin Queen” is one of the best because the author fully analyzes the personality of the queen.
  • Shagan, Ethan H. Popular Politics and the English Reformation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Study of the way in which ordinary English subjects interpreted and reacted to Protestantism. Argues that religious history cannot be understood independently of political history, because commoners no less than royals understood religion and politics as utterly intertwined. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • Trimble, William Raleigh. The Catholic Laity in Elizabethan England. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964. An exhaustive recent study of the subject.

1531-1540: Cromwell Reforms British Government

Dec. 18, 1534: Act of Supremacy

July, 1535-Mar., 1540: Henry VIII Dissolves the Monasteries

Oct., 1536-June, 1537: Pilgrimage of Grace

May, 1539: Six Articles of Henry VIII

July, 1553: Coronation of Mary Tudor

1558-1603: Reign of Elizabeth I

Nov. 9, 1569: Rebellion of the Northern Earls

Feb. 25, 1570: Pius V Excommunicates Elizabeth I