Queen Elizabeth I, John Calvin, and John Knox

Phil D.

Puritan Board Junior
Contemplating the recent end of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign brought to mind some studying I had previously done involving the beginning of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, and the bearing it had on the Protestant Reformation in England. (I know, I have an odd brain…)

But first, a quick historical primer, viewed through the prism of England’s various monarchs.

Henry VIII (reigned 1509-47) – Initially, Henry championed Roman Catholicism quite tenaciously over and against the fledgling Protestant Reformation. Then, with the passing of the Act of Supremacy (1534), Henry turned his back on Rome. This switch in allegiance was really for political and relational reasons, more than an embracement of the biblical ideals of Protestantism. Still, his Archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, was able to at least start moving the Church of England in the right direction. So, under Henry the COE’s introduction into Protestantism was quite tepid and tarnished, but nonetheless welcome.​
Edward VI (1547-53) – Henry’s only male heir came to the throne at the tender age of nine. Edward’s tutors and handlers were staunchly Protestant in conviction, but tainted with their own power-struggles and political intrigues. Yet the young king did exhibit a heart for true reform, and Cranmer was commissioned to create a new, more evangelical liturgy for the state church, called the Book of Common Prayer (1549). This was soon followed by a new confession of faith, rather unimaginatively dubbed the Forty-Two Articles (1553), which actually contained a good dose of Reformed theology. But all of this promising momentum came to a shuddering halt, when Edward died at just the age of fifteen, seemingly from tuberculosis.​
Mary I (1553-58) – The ongoing Protestant reforms in England were violently interrupted by Mary’s reign. A most zealous Roman Catholic, the new queen banished the Book of Common Prayer and the Forty-Two Articles, and solemnly restored the fullness of Romanism to the Church of England. Many Protestant leaders were forced to flee the country, or else face a gruesome end. Indeed, Thomas Cranmer was among about 300 Protestant martyrs to be burned at the stake, earning the monarch the everlasting epithet “Bloody Mary.” Mary died after a relatively short reign of six years, possibly of uterine cancer.​
Elizabeth I (1558-1603) Upon Mary’s death, her half-sister Elizabeth ascended the mighty English throne. In a bid to maintain a semblance of religious peace within her badly divided realm, the Elizabethan Settlement was reached (finalized in 1563). This established a so-termed via media in the Church of England—in effect meaning it would retain many vestiges of Roman Catholic practice alongside a mostly Protestant doctrine (but wherein Cranmer’s original Forty-Two Articles were pared down to Thirty-Nine Articles). This compromise formed what still remains the foundation of the Anglican Church—and triggered the informal formation of the Puritan party, composed of those who yet desired a more thorough restructuring. Still, in the precarious political context of her time, Elizabeth declared herself and the state church to be firmly Protestant.​

Elizabeth’s ascension was greeted with relief and even hope by many English and Continental reformers alike. And this is where we pick up our immediate topic. The fact that Elizabeth was a female ruler greatly complicated her relationship with many reformers, and John Knox and John Calvin in particular. The tension in this matter also created an obstacle to the new monarch’s readiness to accept other theological positions advocated by these men. Still, Calvin characteristically came to adopt a relatively moderate stance on the issue, at least when compared to Knox.

The Genevan leader actually inserted himself into the situation quite boldly, by offering his unsolicited counsel and encouragement to Elizabeth’s personal secretary and chief advisor, the powerful Sir William Cecil. While one would imagine Calvin would have been disappointed with the ultimate terms of the Elizabethan Settlement, in tempering his opposition to female leaders in principle, he still may have had at least some positive influence on the situation.

This angle of the story is well-told in an article I found in the Davenant Institute’s journal, Ad Fontes, from which I will share some extracts. It was written by Dr. David Talcott, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at The King’s College in New York City, and elder at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Millburn and Short Hills (PCA), in New Jersey.

[Word of the Week: “gynecocracy”]



Calvin’s views on women in government are not as notorious as John Knox’s. This is perhaps surprising given his strong, principled opposition to female rulers. In a letter to Sir William Cecil, a chief political adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, Calvin said female rulers were “a deviation from the primitive and established order of nature” and “ought to be held as a judgment on man.”

[...] John Knox, in his First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, made a similar argument. But he drew the further conclusion that female government is inherently illegitimate and therefore a justification in itself for revolution. Here Calvin differed from Knox: he thought female government ill-advised, not illegitimate. Simply by being female a queen does not forfeit her power. Female power is still legitimate power, and hence revolution is not justified.

We can see this at work in Calvin’s letters. Calvin’s international correspondence is large and includes many letters to noblewomen across Europe. In some cases, these women faced persecution for their Protestant faith, in others, they had political power that Calvin hoped to turn to the benefit of the church.

[…] Calvin’s correspondence includes several letters addressed indirectly to Queen Elizabeth I, through her close advisor Sir William Cecil. These letters were not, as was the case with some others, warm and intimate, but rather were occasioned first by Elizabeth’s succession to the throne after “Bloody” Mary, and then later by Elizabeth’s response to John Knox’s notorious First Blast of the Trumpet. When Elizabeth ascended and began re-establishing the Protestant church, Calvin wrote to encourage her to continue the reformation. He wrote to Cecil that he should encourage her “to scatter the superstitions of popery which have overshadowed your land for the last four years, and to cause the uncorrupted doctrine of the gospel and the pure worship of God again to flourish among you” and “having once entered upon the right path, she should unflinchingly persevere therein.”

Only a few months later Calvin wrote again, this time to defend his reputation. His association with Knox meant that his own works were receiving an icy reception by the Queen. Elizabeth was, perhaps unsurprisingly, not favorably disposed toward John Knox’s arguments against women in civil government, and particularly unhappy with his arguments for rebellion.

Thus Calvin, concerned for the peace and survival of the church, wrote to clarify his opposition to revolution. Mary had been a terrible persecutor of Protestants. But Elizabeth was helping, not hindering, the church. Calvin therefore strongly advocated submission to Elizabeth’s reign, for the peace and protection of the Protestant churches.

[…] Of course, this does not change Calvin’s opposition to female government in principle. As we have seen above, Calvin agreed with Knox that it was improper and unwise. Still, he thought Knox’s position intemperate, because of the political dangers facing the church. He admitted all this openly to Queen Elizabeth within a few years of the publication of Knox’s book. He wrote in a letter to Cecil:

Two years ago John Knox, in a private conversation, asked my opinion respecting female government. I frankly answered that because it was a deviation from the primitive and established order of nature, it ought to be held as a judgment on man for his dereliction of his rights…​

Years earlier he had recounted the same conversation in a letter to Bullinger. There he wrote:

About the government of women I expressed myself [in response to Knox] thus: Since it is utterly at variance with the legitimate order of nature, it ought to be counted among the judgments with which God visits us. ...But though a government of this kind seems to me nothing else than a mere abuse, yet I gave it as my solemn opinion, that private persons have no right to do anything but to deplore it. For a gynecocracy or female rule badly organized is like a tyranny, as is to be tolerated till God sees fit to overthrow it.​

[...] Pastoral and pragmatic commitments prevented this strong opposition to female government from leading Calvin to the revolutionary conclusions of John Knox. Rather than seek to overthrow the government, we ought rather to “ask God for a spirit of moderation and prudence, to stand us in aid in the critical moment, than to agitate idle enquiries.”

Calvin continually keeps his eye on the ultimate goal: God’s glory. God will be glorified as his kingdom is spread throughout the earth. Many imperfections must be suffered within that process. Where reform is possible, we must reform. Where it is impossible, we must suffer. Where the church is endangered, we must be wise as serpents and survive, always being faithful to our King, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Holy One of Israel, the Lamb who was slain.


Here also is Calvin’s incredible first letter to Sir William Cecil. It is sometimes rather sharply prodding, and sometimes quite gently cajoling (which I actually find very reminiscent of Augustine’s style of letter-writing...).

For writing to you familiarly, most accomplished man, I shall not make a long apology, although I am personally unknown to you. Relying on the testimony of some pious persons, who have declared to me your generosity of heart, I trust that you will be disposed to receive my letter with pleasure; especially when you shall discover from the perusal my intention in writing.​
Since the awful darkness which had almost stupified the minds of pious men is dispersed, and the clear light has suddenly shone forth beyond all hope, it is reported that you, possessing distinguished favour with her Majesty the Queen, have endeavoured diligently to remove the profligate superstitions of Popery, which had accumulated through four years in England, so that the sincere doctrines of the gospel, and the pure and entire worship of God, again flourish. I have now therefore to exhort you freely and openly to commence your warfare for Christ.​
This one thing however remains, that what you do, you should proceed to do with the greatest activity and most invincible constancy. Your holy labours should neither be broken by any troubles, difficulties, contests or terrors, nor even in the least degree retarded. I doubt not, indeed, but that obstacles sometimes encounter you; and that dangers rise full before your eyes, which would dishearten the most resolute, unless God should sustain them by the most wonderful power of his Spirit. This is the cause, for the defence of which it is not lawful for us to decline the most arduous labours.​
During the time that the public place of execution was appropriated for burning the children of God, you yourself remained silent among others. At least then, since greater liberty is restored by the singular and incredible favour of God, it becomes you to take courage; and if you were, during that period, too timid, you may now compensate that loss by the ardour of your zeal.​
I know very well that a preposterous haste is injurious; and that many retard their progress by an inconsiderate and precipitate zeal, with which they would leap in a moment to the end of their race. But on the other hand, it is faithfully to be considered, that to maintain the whole truth and pure devotion of the gospel, is the work which God assigns us, and which must not be slothfully undertaken.​
From the present state of things, you are better able to judge, what steps are proper to be pursued, and what degree of moderation is to be exercised. But you will remember, that all delay, with however specious colours it may be covered, ought to excite your suspicion.​
One fear, I conjecture, is from popular tumults, since among the nobles there are many who would kindle up the fire of sedition; and if the English become tumultuous among themselves, their neighbours are at hand, who anxiously watch for whatever opportunity may offer for their purpose. But as her Most Serene Majesty has been wonderfully raised to the throne, by the hand of God, she cannot otherwise prove her gratitude, than by shaking off all delays by her prompt alacrity, and surmounting all impediments by her magnanimity.​
Since it can hardly be otherwise, but that, in the present turbulent and confused state of things, her attention should be suspended among important affairs, her mind perplexed and sometimes wavering; I have ventured to exhort her, that, having entered the right course, she should persevere with constancy. Whether I have done this prudently or not, let others judge. If, by your endeavours, my admonition produces the desired effect, I shall not repent of having given her that counsel.​
Consider also, most illustrious sir, that God has placed you in that degree of favour and dignity which you hold, that you might be wholly attentive to this concern, and stretch every nerve to the accomplishment of this work. And lest slothfulness by any means creep upon you, let it now and then come into your mind of what great moment are these two things:​
First, in what manner that religion, which was miserably fallen away; that doctrine of salvation, which was adulterated by abominable falsehoods; that worship of God, which was polluted with defilements, may recover their lustre, and the Church be cleansed from this abomination?​
Secondly, how the children of God among you may be free to invoke his name in sincerity; and how those who are dispersed may be again collected?​
Farewell, most excellent man, sincerely respected by me. May the Lord guide you by his Spirit, protect and enrich you with all good gifts.​
Geneva, January 29, 1559.​
[Elijah Waterman, ed., Memoirs of the Life and Writings of John Calvin: Together with a Selection of Letters, Written by Him, and Other Distinguished Reformers, (Hartford: Hale & Hosmer, 1813), 393ff.]​
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Puritan Board Senior
Am I mistaken or did Calvin dedicate one of his commentaries or volume of sermons to Elizabeth? I seem to recall reading it but can't find it.

Phil D.

Puritan Board Junior
Yes, the 1559 Latin edition of Calvin's Commentary on Isaiah is dedicated to Elizabeth. He had also dedicated his Commentary on the Catholic Epistles to Edward.