‘Protector of Thy Church and People’: Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the Established Church of England
After the death of Her Late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, there was much discussion about her faith and the role it played in her life throughout her long reign. As monarch, she was also the Supreme Governor of the Church of England; a role that has its origins in Henry VIII’s break from Rome and the English Reformation. This paper explores the origins and development of this role, as well as the particular ways in which Queen Elizabeth II inhabited it. It is a historically complex role that must be situated in the context of late-medieval legal, political and philosophical debates about authority, the church and the state. The relationship between monarch and the Church of England was made abundantly clear to the millions of people who watched the Queen’s coronation in 1953; the ritual acts, as well as the vows the Queen made, all point to the monarch’s role in maintaining and defending the place of the Established Church. The Queen’s sense of duty and service, and the desire to live up to the promises she made at her coronation, were a strong principle in her public life. From her Christmas addresses to her quinquennial inauguration of the Church of England’s governing body, the General Synod, Her Late Majesty was motivated by her deep faith and personal convictions.
Keywords: Church of England, Monarchy, Establishment, Coronation.
In the foreword to a booklet marking her 90th birthday, Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II wrote: ‘I have been—and remain—very grateful to you for your prayers and to God for His steadfast love. I have indeed seen His faithfulness.’ Following Her Late Majesty’s death, even the secular media commentary placed significant emphasis on the Queen’s faith and its role as a guiding principle in her life. For the majority of people, this will have been most evident in her Christmas speeches, broadcast on radio and television every year on Christmas Day. In 2002, for instance, she said,
‘I know just how much I rely on my faith to guide me through the good times and the bad. Each day is a new beginning. I know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings, and to put my trust in God!’
Throughout her long reign, through the social and political change of the last century, and even through her own personal loss and grief, Queen Elizabeth spoke again and again in these Christmas messages about the central truths of Christianity: love, faithfulness, and reconciliation. She did not shy away from describing the impact of her faith in her own life:
‘For me, the life of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, whose birth we celebrate today, is an inspiration and an anchor in my life. A role-model of reconciliation and forgiveness, he stretched out his hands in love, acceptance and healing. Christ’s example has taught me to seek to respect and value all people of whatever faith or none.’
This was an inclusive vision, for all her people. In Her Late Majesty’s Christmas message in 2013, she said ‘For Christians, as for all people of faith, reflection, meditation and prayer help us to renew ourselves in God’s love, as we strive daily to become better people. The Christmas message shows us that this love is for everyone. There is no one beyond its reach.’
The Queen’s fundamental belief that human beings are all created and loved by God, allowed her to speak convincingly about the need for tolerance and friendship in British society – particularly at difficult times. This is evident in her Christmas address following the terrorist attacks in the United States on 11th September 2001:
‘We in this country have tried to bring comfort to all those who were bereaved, or who suffered loss or injury in September’s tragic events… I believe that strong and open communities matter both in good times as well as bad. Certainly they provide a way of helping one another… [A sense of community] helps to overcome differences and misunderstanding by reducing prejudice, ignorance and fear. We all have something to learn from one another, whatever our faith.’
These Christmas messages were clearly motivated by her strong, personal faith; but in addition to this, the late Queen had a constitutional role as the Supreme Governor of the Established Church of England. Dating back to the Church of England’s foundation, the position of the monarch in relation to the Church of England underpinned some significant moments in Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, perhaps most notably her coronation. This paper will explore the historical development of the monarch’s role as Supreme Governor and what it meant for the Queen and the British people during her seventy years on the throne.
‘Supreme Governor’: background and context
The complex history of the Reformation, in England and across Continental Europe, lies beyond the scope of this paper. Henry VIII’s decision to break with Rome, and establish the Church of England, is often characterised as the product of the king’s desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon: whilst history may have unfolded differently were the crisis resolved in some other way, the issue of the king’s divorce does not wholly account for the success of the Reformation. Rather, the issue enabled evangelical clergy to get a foothold in the king’s court, and develop their novel theological and political ideas, providing they served the king’s interests. The background to the English Reformation, therefore, lies in the political, religious, philosophical and legal debates that raged across Europe in sixteenth century. During the Medieval period, England had been embroiled in the same discussions over civil and ecclesiastical authority that had pitted the Holy Roman Emperor against the Pope. Already in 1519, Martin Luther was engaged in debates about the nature of papal authority, which would lead him to assert that Christ, and not the Pope, was the head of the church. The Act of Supremacy of 1534, which cemented the Reformation in England and formally declared Henry VIII the ‘Supreme Head’ of the Church of England, must be seen in this broader political, philosophical and legal context.
The Act of Supremacy, passed by Parliament, marked the definitive break with the Papacy, and established Henry VIII as ‘the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England, called Anglicana Ecclesia.’ The Act also granted the king (and his heirs and successors) ‘all honours, dignities, preeminences, jurisdictions, privileges, authorities, immunities, profits, and commodities to the said dignity of the supreme head of the same Church belonging and appertaining.’ The king’s title, Fidei Defensor, granted to him by Pope Leo X in 1521 and subsequently revoked by Pope Paul III, was confirmed by Parliament in 1543 and connected to the king’s position as Supreme Head of the Church of England. Henry VIII’s successors to the present day have therefore used the title ‘Defender of the Faith.’ From the Act of Supremacy of 1534 onward, the monarch and the Church of England were bound together.
Despite Henry VIII’s break with Rome, it was not until the reign of Edward VI that many recognisably Protestant practices were introduced into the life of the English Church. Edward himself was active in religious affairs and consciously saw himself as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Following Edward VI’s death in 1553 at the age of 15, and a failed attempt to prevent his Catholic sister acceding to throne, Mary I became Queen. She began to dismantle the reforms of her father and brother, issuing a series of injunctions in 1554 that abandoned any reference to the Royal Supremacy. The Act of Supremacy was formally repealed by Parliament in 1555.
In 1558, the Protestant Elizabeth came to the throne and her reign began with a series of measures that would eventual resolve the religious crisis in England, known as the Elizabethan Settlement. This proclaimed Elizabeth not as the ‘Supreme Head,’ but rather the ‘Supreme Governor’ of the Church of England. The change was designed to placate the English reformers who argued – as Luther had done – that Christ was the only Head of the Church. After some twenty-five years of turmoil, the matter was settled: the Church of England was the Established Church in England and the monarch was its Supreme Governor.
Church and State in the Monarch’s Coronation
The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II took place on 2nd June, 1953. It was the first coronation to be broadcast on television, watched by some twenty-seven million people, with eleven million listening on the radio. For the first time in history, the pomp and ceremony of the British State entered people’s homes, and people would have been able to see the relationship established between the Church of England and its Supreme Governor. Much was written about the coronation. Edward Ratcliff, Ely Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, wrote an explanatory pamphlet that set Elizabeth’s coronation in historical succession to King Edgar’s coronation in 973, and explained the unique ritual and ceremonial of the coronation service. The mass media available by the 1950s, combined with an atmosphere of post-war optimism, meant that Queen Elizabeth’s coronation attracted an unprecedented audience and gave them a window into this rare event in the life of Church and State.
The coronation at Westminster Abbey was presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Geoffrey Fisher, with the Archbishop of York and the Bishops of the ancient sees of Durham and Bath and Wells assisting. After the Queen entered the Abbey in procession, the service formally began with the Coronation Oath. The archbishop addressed six questions to the Queen: two on maintaining law and justice, but four on the Church of England.
‘Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England? And will you preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?’
The Queen responded, ‘All this I promise to do.’ Therefore, from the very outset of the coronation service, the monarch’s position in relation to the Church of England is made clear. As ‘Defender of the Faith,’ the Queen swore to maintain ‘the true profession of the Gospel’ and as Supreme Governor, the Queen promised three times to maintain the laws, rights and privileges of the Established Church.
The rituals of the coronation were imbued with religious and sacramental significance. Following the Coronation Oath, the Queen was presented with a Bible as Dr Fisher addressed her: ‘Our gracious Queen: to keep your Majesty ever mindful of the law and the Gospel of God as the Rule for the whole life and government of Christian Princes, we present you with this Book, the most valuable thing that this world affords.’ The Bible was given to the Queen as a guiding light in the sacred task entrusted to her.
To prepare her for this task, she was anointed with holy oil. This was a sacred moment in the liturgy: it was invested with a mystical quality by the ritual surrounding the anointing, and also by the fact that this was considered too sacred to be shown on the television broadcast. This was a solemn moment of transformation: before the anointing, the Queen’s outer robes were removed, and after the anointing, she was dressed in cloth of gold (including the quasi-priestly royal stole), invested with the orb and sceptre, and finally crowned.
The ceremonial surrounding Elizabeth II’s coronation established firmly in the minds of the millions of people watching and listening that the Queen’s reign was as much a religious service as a civil and constitutional duty. During the ceremony, the inextricable connection between the monarch and the Church of England was made abundantly clear. To be Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England was an integral part of the life of long service which Queen Elizabeth II began at her coronation in 1953.
Queen Elizabeth II: Supreme Governor of the Church of England
Despite the weighty promise made at her coronation to ‘maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England,’ the late Queen’s role as Supreme Governor of the Church of England was largely ceremonial.
In former times, the Church of England’s bishops were appointed directly by the monarch. The American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, describing the English Church in Queen Victoria’s time, wrote: ‘The Queen sends the Dean and Canons a congé d’élire, or leave to elect, but also sends them the name of the person whom they are to elect. They go into the Cathedral, chant and pray; and after these invocations invariably find that the dictates of the Holy Ghost agree with the recommendation of the Queen.’ Queen Victoria famously opposed a series of nominations made by her Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli; most notably, her steely determination ensured that her candidate for the Archbishopric of Canterbury won out against Disraeli’s candidate in 1868. The Archbishop who baptised Victoria, Charles Manners-Sutton, was himself appointed directly by King George III, provoking a row with the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger. By the time of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, the Supreme Governors of the Church of England had shown more restraint.
The Church of England’s governing body is the General Synod, made up of three houses: the House of Bishops, the House of Clergy and the House of Laity. It is this body that creates legislation governing the church, approves liturgical texts, manages ecumenical relations, and so on. The General Synod is reconstituted after elections every five years, and at the inauguration of each new synod, the monarch address the assembly as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
It is very noticeable that Queen Elizabeth took this role seriously, and opened General Synod every five years from the General Synod’s creation in 1970 until her death. This was in contrast to a number of previous monarchs. Queen Anne, who was otherwise very devout, disliked synods and almost refused to allow the Convocation of Canterbury to meet in 1710. Likewise, George V could not be present at the opening of the first Church Assembly (the predecessor to the General Synod) in 1920 because of a prior engagement, but he did send a message by telegram: the telegram was sent from Newmarket racecourse.
Queen Elizabeth was unable to be present at the inauguration of the General Synod in 2021 due to ill-health, but Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, read a message on Her Late Majesty’s behalf. This last message to General Synod was an exemplary text. The Queen reflected on the passage of time but pointed to the unchanging nature of the Gospel of Christ; she reflected on contemporary events, and she did not shy away from the particular challenges the Synod must address: ‘Your Graces and members of the Synod, the next five years will not always be straightforward. Like every new Synod, you have inherited weighty responsibilities with many issues to address, reports to debate, and difficult decisions to make. You may have to consider proposals on governance, on conduct, on the use of resources, and on other issues; and on a vision for the future of the Church.’
As with Her Late Majesty’s Christmas messages, this address to General Synod reflected her own personal convictions and strong faith. The Queen also indicated her understanding, as Supreme Governor, of the Church of England’s place and role in contemporary English society: ‘The list of tasks facing that first General Synod may sound familiar to many of you: Christian education; Christian unity; the better distribution of the ordained ministry to the needs of the population. But one stands out supreme: “to bring the people of this country to the knowledge and the love of God.”’ This last address to General Synod in 2021 provides a fitting summary of the Queen’s priorities and concerns in relation to the church over which she governed.
Whilst the Queen’s role as Supreme Governor was largely ceremonial, providing wisdom, guidance and reflections on her faith to the British people in general (as in her Christmas broadcasts) or to the Church of England in particular (as at General Synod), this role permeated a number of aspects of the church’s life. An oath of allegiance to the monarch and their heirs and successors must be taken by all those about to be ordained as priests and deacons, and by any member of the clergy who takes up a new post in a parish in the Church of England. Similarly, the monarch is prayed for daily at Morning and Evening Prayer according to the Book of Common Prayer. In his reflections on English religion, Emerson remarked that, ‘From his infancy, every Englishman is accustomed to hear daily prayers for the queen, for the royal family, and the Parliament, by name; and this lifelong consecration of these personages cannot be without influence on his opinions.’ As with the monarch’s image on coinage, the Supreme Governor permeates the life of the Church of England in subtle yet profound ways.
The diligence with which Queen Elizabeth undertook her duties as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, as well as her openness about her Christian faith, go back to those promises made at her coronation in 1953. In her Christmas address in 2013, sixty years after the coronation, she said: ‘Service and duty are not just the guiding principles of yesteryear; they have an enduring value which spans the generations. I myself had cause to reflect this year, at Westminster Abbey, on my own pledge of service made in that great church on Coronation Day sixty years earlier. The anniversary reminded me of the remarkable changes that have occurred since the Coronation, many of them for the better; and of the things that have remained constant, such as the importance of family, friendship and good neighbourliness.’ The vows that Queen Elizabeth promised in 1953 were clearly a guiding principle for her throughout her long reign.
From the reign of Henry VIII, the Church of England was woven into the fabric of English political, legal and religious life. The Elizabethan Settlement saw the end of the bloody struggles of the previous decades, and this first Elizabeth would be the first monarch to use the title ‘Supreme Governor’ of the Church of England. At her coronation, Queen Elizabeth II swore to ‘maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England.’ She took seriously her duties and responsibilities to the Church of England, and this is reflected in her addresses to the opening sessions of the General Synod from its formation in 1970 through to 2021.
As Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Her Late Majesty had a constitutional role stretching back centuries, to the formation of the modern English state. However, it was her deep personal faith, and her warmth in sharing it, for which Queen Elizabeth II will be remembered in the Church of England for generations to come.
Published works and articles
BRAY, Gerald, ed., Documents of the English Reformation, James Clarke & Co, Cambridge, Third Edition, 2019.
BURSELL, Rupert, ‘The Clerical Oath of Allegiance,’ Ecclesiastical Law Journal 17/ 3, 2015, pp. 295-305.
BUTCHER, Catherine and Greene, Mark, The Servant Queen and the King She Serves, The Bible Society, London, 2016.
CHANDLER, Michael, Queen Victoria’s Archbishops of Canterbury, Sacristy Press, Durham, 2019.
EMERSON, Ralph Waldo English Traits, James R. Osgood & Co., Boston MA, 1876.
GRZYMAŁA-BUSSE, Anna, Sacred Foundations: The Religious and Medieval Roots of the European State, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ.
HENDRIX, Scott, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2015.
LOADES, David, The Mid-Tudor Crisis, 1545-1565, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1992.
MACCULLOCH, Diarmaid, The Boy King: Edward VI and the Protestant Reformation, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles CA, 2002.
MACCULLOCH, Diarmaid, The Reformation, Penguin Books, London, 2003.
PLATTEN, Aiden, ed., Grasping the Heel of Heaven: Liturgy, Leadership and Ministry in Today’s Church, Canterbury Press, Norwich, 2020.
RATCLIFF, Edward, The Coronation Service of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II: with a short historical introduction, explanatory notes and an appendix, SPCK, London, 1953.
REX, Richard, Henry VIII and the English Reformation, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2006.
REX, Richard, ed., Henry VIII and Martin Luther: The Second Controversy 1525-1527, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2021.
The Coronation Service
http://www.oremus.org/liturgy/coronation/cor1953b.html. Accessed 01/02/2023.
Queen Elizabeth II’s Christmas Broadcasts
https://www.royal.uk/christmas-broadcast-2001. Accessed 31/01/2023
https://www.royal.uk/christmas-broadcast-2002. Accessed 31/01/2023.
https://www.royal.uk/christmas-broadcast-2013. Accessed 31/01/2023.
https://www.royal.uk/christmas-broadcast-2014. Accessed 31/01/2023.
Queen Elizabeth II’s Addresses to the Church of England’s General Synod
https://www.royal.uk/queens-message-opening-session-11th-general-synod. Accessed 02/02/2023.
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s 2015 Address to General Synod
News Items and Miscellaneous Online Material
https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-62942772. Accessed 31/01/2023.
https://www.royal.uk/the-queens-accession-and-coronation. Accessed 01/02/2023.
https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-22764987. Accessed 01/02/2023.
 Catherine Butcher and Mark Greene, The Servant Queen and the King She Serves, The Bible Society, London, 2016, p. 1.
 For a thorough introduction, see Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation, Penguin Books, London, 2003.
 Richard Rex, Henry VIII and the English Reformation, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2006, p. 1.
 Anna Grzymała-Busse, Sacred Foundations: The Religious and Medieval Roots of the European State, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, p. 44.
 Scott Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2015, pp. 79-81.
 Martin Luther objected to Henry VIII’s use of the title ‘Head of the Church of England,’ describing it in 1539 as ‘insufferable’ and reasserting his position that Christ is the only ‘Head’ of the church. Richard Rex, ed., Henry VIII and Martin Luther: The Second Controversy 1525-1527, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2021, p. 50.
 Gerald Bray, ed., Documents of the English Reformation, James Clarke & Co, Cambridge, Third Edition, 2019, pp. 97-98.
 Rex, ed. Henry VIII and Martin Luther, p. 50.
 Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Boy King: Edward VI and the Protestant Reformation, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles CA, 2002, p. 32.
 Bray, ed., Documents of the English Reformation, pp. 281-283.
 David Loades, The Mid-Tudor Crisis, 1545-1565, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1992, p. 151.
 Bray, ed., Documents of the English Reformation, pp. 285-293.
 Ibid., p. 97.
 After Elizabeth’s reign, all English (and following the Act of Union, British) monarchs have been the Supreme Governor of the Church of England – in some cases despite their own religious confessions. James II was a Roman Catholic; William III was a Dutch Calvinist; and George I was Lutheran. George III, as first King of Hanover, was simultaneously the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and the Summus Episcopus of the Lutheran Church of Hanover.
 https://www.royal.uk/the-queens-accession-and-coronation. Accessed 01/02/2023.
 Edward Ratcliff, The Coronation Service of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II: with a short historical introduction, explanatory notes and an appendix, SPCK, London, 1953, pp. 8, 18-31.
 http://www.oremus.org/liturgy/coronation/cor1953b.html. Accessed 01/02/2023.
 http://www.oremus.org/liturgy/coronation/cor1953b.html. Accessed 01/02/2023.
 Ralph Waldo Emerson, English Traits, James R. Osgood & Co., Boston MA, 1876, p. 173.
 Michael Chandler, Queen Victoria’s Archbishops of Canterbury, Sacristy Press, Durham, 2019, p. 181.
 Ibid., p. 13.
 Aiden Platten, ed., Grasping the Heel of Heaven: Liturgy, Leadership and Ministry in Today’s Church, Canterbury Press, Norwich, 2020, p. 11.
 https://www.royal.uk/queens-message-opening-session-11th-general-synod. Accessed 02/02/2023.
 Rupert Bursell, ‘The Clerical Oath of Allegiance,’ Ecclesiastical Law Journal 17/ 3, 2015, pp. 295-305.
 Emerson, English Traits, p. 167.