The Cross in Elizabethan England: An Image in an Age of Iconoclasm Public Deposited

Downloadable Content

Download PDF
Last Modified
  • March 19, 2019
  • Stapleton, Paul
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature, Comparative Literature Program
  • The cross was arguably the most hotly contested image in all of Elizabethan England. For some the cross was an object of devotion, but for others of idolatry and superstition; for some, the triumphal standard of Christ, but for others, the instrument of his torture; it was the banner of Christian identity, but also an abstract spiritual ideal; a symbol of the holy Roman Catholic church, but also of the pagan Whore of Babylon; the shield of crusaders and the Templar knights, but also of the English patron Saint George and the knights of the Order of the Garter; the marching flag of the northern Catholic rebels, but also of the soldiers of the Tudor armies; the ensign of the Spanish Armada, but also of the royal navy led by Charles Howard, Lord high Admiral, and Sir Francis Drake. For Elizabethans, no matter how they identified themselves in matters of religion, no matter where along the spectrum of religious identity, whatever their shade of Protestant or Catholic, and no matter how they regarded sacred objects, whether as iconodules or iconoclasts, or somewhere in between, the cross was a phenomenon indicative of far more than as one apologist claimed, “nothing,” and another, “onely barres laide a crosse.” For all practical purposes, the various attempts in Elizabethan England to strip the cross of meaning were predicated on the same set of circumstances that historically (and ironically) undergirds almost all forms of religious iconoclasm: sacred objects like the cross are so utterly saturated with meaning that they inevitably come to be regarded as rivals to the sacred entities they are intended to represent, and thus, as inimical to “pure” forms of belief. So for some Elizabethans the cross was the primary symbol of the Christian deity, but for others it was an idol that had displaced the true Christian god. Furthermore, another circumstance was also at work for Elizabethans: in a sixteenth-century culture undergoing tremendous flux, the multifarious politico-religious connotations of the cross fractured it with paradox. So the cross came to be adopted as the primary symbol of political entities directly in conflict with each other, for example, imperial Catholic Spain and Protestant Elizabethan England, and among the English themselves, anti-government subversives like the Northern Catholic rebels and Jesuit-supported recusants. Nonetheless, the cross is the image Edmund Spenser chooses to give us at the outset of Book One of The Faerie Queene in the form of the crosses on the armor of the Redcrosse Knight. My purpose in this study is to explore the “bloodie Crosses” on the Redcrosse knight’s breastplate and shield in their relation to the politico-religious culture of Elizabethan England, which assumed for the cross a central role in the defining of English religious and national identity, albeit that role was predicated for some on a positive relation, while for others, a negative one. The fact of the matter is that devotion towards the cross was regularly regarded in post-Reformation England as a definitive marker of “papism,” if not outright allegiance to the church of Rome, and therefore, was frequently placed in a negative relation to English identity. For some like Spenser, however, such “negative” associations were simply not the case. This is partly due to the medieval setting of The Faerie Queene, which allows for the presence of anachronistic cultural residue like the crusader armor that the Redcrosse Knight wears. Yet the Legend of Holiness is also intended as a spiritual allegory for contemporary Elizabethans, and the Redcrosse Knight is a moral exemplar, whom some have even described as an English Protestant Everyman. The central role of the “papist” cross in Book One, therefore, cannot be dismissed as a mere factor of the medievalism of the poem, but it must also be recognized as a necessary contributing factor to Spenser’s depiction of Post-Reformation Englishness and holiness. Thus, I believe Spenser’s deployment of the red cross reveals what many historians have come to recognize about Elizabethan England in general: that religious beliefs were far more pragmatic, malleable, and tolerant than any attempts at hardline uniformity could ever suppress; and this seems to be equally, if not more, true of literary writers like Spenser.
Date of publication
Resource type
Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • O'Neill, Patrick
  • Young, Robert
  • Barbour, Ashley
  • Wolfe, Jessica
  • Babcock, Robert
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2015
Place of publication
  • Chapel Hill, NC
  • There are no restrictions to this item.

This work has no parents.