The Reformation: A New England

The Reformation: A New England

When Henry VIII became King of England in 1509 England was a deeply Catholic nation with a strong sense of political, religious and cultural affiliation to the Church of Rome. No other religion played any role in English life and the authority of the Pope hadn't been seriously challenged for centuries. Only Angevin Kings Henry II and King John had seriously attempted to challenge the Pope but then on political grounds, not religious. The Pope's religious authority, by the 1510's, was being challenged in a way that it had never been for a thousand years.

German Priest and academic Marin Luther was disgusted by the corruption of the Church. Luther was ordained as a Priest in 1507, shortly before Henry VIII became King of England, and began instantly criticizing Church practices especially in relation to indulgences. Indulgences were a financial gift given to the Church in exchange for forgiveness of sins and this, to Luther, was buying a pathway to heaven. Luther became a toxic figure in Europe, loved by many and hated by many, after he started writing denunciations of indulgences and began lobbying Bishops regarding the issue. Luther obsessively studied the Bible and concluded that the Catholic Church was riddled with corruption and blocking the masses from learning the true word of God. Luther produced the Ninety-Five-Theses denouncing indulgences. In 1520 the Pope threatened Luther with excommunication. This was essentially ruinous for Luther as the Church had provided him with a salary for years. Luther was excommunicated after refusing to recant any of his writings.

In England Henry VIII wanted a son. After years of marriage to Catherine of Aragon only a daughter, Mary, had survived. Henry had condemned the works of Luther and wrote a pamphlet denouncing all Luther's works. The Pope then described Henry as the defender of the faith. As year after year passed and Catherine aged Henry's hopes for a son were fading. Henry had also fallen madly in love with Anne Boleyn.

Henry now wanted a divorce from Catherine so he could marry Anne. He instructed his Chief Minister, Cardinal Wolsey, to begin petitioning the Pope to annul Henry and Catherine's marriage on the grounds that Catherine had been married to Henry's elder brother Arthur who had died shortly afterwards. Wolsey couldn't secure a divorce for Henry and Henry exiled Wolsey from court. Henry eventually decided to act and married Anne. The Pope excommunicated Henry, but he and Anne welcomed a child after their marriage, a daughter, Elizabeth. After three years of marriage Henry tired of Anne and had her beheaded for treason on trumped up charges of adultery and incest. Henry then married Jane Seymour and she gave birth to Henry's long awaited son, Edward. Jane died shortly after the birth, but Edward became Henry's pride and joy.

England now had an independent national church with Thomas Cranmer being the nation's first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry had never intended to embrace Lutheranism, but the Protestant faith was now out of the bottle, and nothing could put it back in, not even a short reign of a Catholic fundamentalist, Bloody Mary.

Edward had become King upon the death of his father when he was just nine years old. Edward was fiercely Protestant, and his councillors began establishing Protestantism throughout England. But Edward died at the age of just fifteen and his eldest sister Mary became Queen. Mary was as hotly Catholic as Edward was Protestant and she began her God given mission to save England from heresy. She began by arresting leading Protestants including Thomas Cranmer who was burned at the stake. Mary's reign was short lived, and she died after just five years as Queen with her heir being her younger half sister, a Protestant, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Tudor became Queen in 1558 and went onto have one of the longest reigns in English history. Elizabeth, who was cleverer than her brother and sister, slowly but surely began the reestablishment of Protestantism in England. She learned from the extremism of her brother and sister which had come so close to causing civil war and went about her task with tact and subtlety rejecting and isolating extremists on both sides. During Elizabeth's reign English Catholicism became a minority and beleaguered faith and not even an attempted invasion by the most powerful nation in Europe, Spain, could save the Catholic faith in England. By the time she died in 1603 England was a firmly Protestant nation with Catholicism viewed by many as something foreign and to be distrusted. The Reformation in England was complete.

England, by the seventeenth century, was a hotly Protestant nation. It was the reign of Henry VIII that began the process of religious revolution. It caused bitter divisions amongst the governing elite, but it never spilled out into open civil war in the sixteenth century. When James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603 a group of Catholic extremists led by Robert Catesby attempted to blow up Parliament and the Royal family, the plot was foiled and not a whisper was heard again from Catholics until the reign of James II. When Charles Stuart succeeded his father in 1625 Protestantism, especially Puritanism, was becoming radically anti monarchy. England descended into civil war in the 1640's and Charles I was eventually executed. The Protestant Reformation was designed to empower monarchy over the Pope, but it eventually led to the destruction of it as the institution it had been during Catholic England.