- William Cecil and Episcopacy, 1559–1577
In this thoroughly researched investigation of William Cecil's role in the formation of the episcopacy during the first sixteen years of Elizabeth I's reign, Brett Usher constructs a study based upon his admitted assumption "that William Cecil spent much of his official life under Elizabeth trying to do his best for the Episcopal bench, almost invariably got his way with the queen, and was very much a 'church puritan' in the sense that his aims were at first reformist and ecumenical" (xii). Building upon seminal work by Christopher Hill and Felicity Heal on ecclesiastical finance and administration, and later endeavors to explain the 1559 religious settlement, Usher tackles the settlement through an examination of the role of the bishops — in particular, how and why certain candidates were chosen. [End Page 256]
Usher's study considers the episcopal bench in light of appointments to bishoprics, and, significantly, which posts remained vacant. At the center of his inquiry are questions about who was in, and who, "though seemingly better qualified for the job," was out, as well as why, and how such decisions were made. In particular, Usher is concerned with William Cecil's role, noting the latter's hopes for an evangelical episcopacy. William Cecil's memoranda and correspondence relative to the bishops is scrutinized alongside the sources on ecclesiastical appointments found in the exchequer records: namely, the composition books and the accompanying plea rolls in the Public Record Office. A frank disclaimer, if it may be so called, is Usher's allowance that the evidence is of a "highly allusive nature [hence] . . . the argument must proceed by inference and juxtaposition of facts which may or may not prove to be vitally connected" (xii). Taking a more positive view in his analysis, jostling by ambitious courtiers and financial considerations did not always play a role in determining bishopric appointments.
Cecil's memoranda — specifically what Usher calls "the List of Spiritual Men," "the July List," and "the October List" — concerning bishopric appointments to the first Elizabethan bench have proved tricky to date. Specifically, the third memorandum has been omitted from studies of the early Elizabethan episcopacy because of the difficulties of precise dating, "because . . . Strype failed to print it" (8). (The editor of the Calendar State Papers "guessed" January 1560 [8-9]). This "stumbling block" is plausibly resolved through a careful comparative analysis of dates of vacancies, appointments, and Cecil's notations — "despatched" — beside listed candidates, along with the issuances of the relevant congé d'elire. Thus, the memorandum dates from "c. 19 October-13 November" in 1559 (9). Identified as key documents for this study these memoranda seem to convincingly correspond to "early, mid- and late 1559" (10).
Previous work has tended to concentrate on institutional and legal developments or doctrinal debates about episcopal authority. Before the Reformation the sources for that authority were located in the pope, the monarch, or in scripture. Afterward, Reformation debates about episcopal authority in England ranged from the question of whether a legitimate basis existed for an episcopacy rather than Presbyterian oversight, — to whether episcopal authority should be conceived of as evangelical, or predicated upon law. These issues, and the concomitant lack of consensus about the direction and extent of religious reform, influenced the construction of the Elizabethan episcopacy.
The first of a two-volume endeavor, William Cecil and Episcopacy, 1559-1577, focuses on the struggles to define the Church of England and the episcopacy at the beginning of Elizabeth's reign. The fallout of the 1559 Religious Settlement reveals a contested religious field with competing interpretations of doctrine and institutional shape. One gets a sense from the present study that Cecil's notion of what form the English Church ought to assume should somehow have trumped Elizabeth's. Yet Usher does emphasize that the shape of the Elizabethan episcopacy resulted from "a combination of politics, personalities and economic realities" to conclude that an interpretation "of an...