The Elizabethan period of English history was a time of religious turmoil. Catholicism and Protestantism battled for a prime place as the nation's major religion, and many people lost their heads to the executioner's axe in that struggle. Elizabeth I was a devout Protestant, and the monarch's religion determined the faith of the nation. However, her religious affiliation made her the target of Catholic plots to reinstate a Catholic monarch.

Religious Instability

When Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558, England had been see-sawing between Protestantism and Catholicism since her father Henry VIII broke away from the Roman Catholic church in 1534. During the short reign of his son Edward VI, the country remained Protestant, but the accession of Mary I in 1553 returned England to the Roman Catholic faith. Mary was as devoutly Catholic as her mother Katherine of Aragon, and during her reign she tirelessly punished practicing Protestants by burning them at the stake, earning her the infamous nickname Bloody Mary. Elizabeth inherited a realm riddled with religious instability, so she set about imposing stability in the first years of her reign.

A Country Divided

Elizabeth became queen on November 17, 1558. The return of a Protestant monarch allowed the country's Protestants to breathe a sigh of relief after Mary's persecutions, and many exiles returned home. However, while Protestantism was strong in the southern part of the country, the northern nobles remained staunchly Catholic. This division threatened Elizabeth's control of the country, so she imposed her rule and her faith through two important acts of Parliament: the Act of Supremacy and the Act of Uniformity in 1559. Now Catholics lost the freedom to worship openly; wealthy Catholics worshipped secretly at home, but always in fear of informants betraying them and the priests who came to perform the Catholic rites.

Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity

In 1534, her father Henry had insisted parliament pass an Act of Supremacy, making him head of the Church of England and removing papal authority. Mary repealed the Act, but Elizabeth reinstated it in 1559. Anyone holding a public or church office, university students and members of parliament had to swear the Oath of Supremacy acknowledging Elizabeth as supreme head of the church and of the state. Refusal to take the oath was a crime punishable by death. The Act of Uniformity made Protestantism England's official faith. Importantly, it established the uniform use of the "Book of Common Prayer" as the format for church services. The Act also ruled that all services must be in English, unlike the Catholics' adherence to the Latin mass. Throughout her reign, Catholic nobles plotted to usurp Elizabeth's rule and replace her with a Catholic like her cousin Mary Queen of Scots. Because so many plots centered around her, Mary was executed in 1587 after 19 years as Elizabeth's prisoner.

Elizabethans and Jews

Anti-semitism was rife in Elizabethan England, but the persecution harks back to the late 1200s when all Jews in England were forced to wear identification badges in public; Jews were also banished from England from 1290 to 1655. However, some Jews were allowed to live in England during Elizabeth's reign. In public they had to pretend to follow the Protestant faith, and could only practice Judaism in secrecy. Shakespeare's depiction of Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice" conforms to the Elizabethan stereotype of the money-lending Jew. Most people of the period knew very little about Jews except tales of horror about how they spread bubonic plague and used ritual murder as part of their faith. Indeed, the Elizabethans tended to view anybody "foreign" with suspicion.