England and Religion

The word ‘religion’ usually strikes fear into the hearts of many, being a word not many would like to meddle with. Now, imagine the relationship between England and religion as your average teenage couple – once used to be the best friends but because of some differences, can’t stand and want to never see each other again but can’t because the two of them are bound by handcuffs. It’s this sort of relationship that England and religion have had in their history. However, things weren’t always like this.

For whatever reason, the English, more so than those of other European nations, was particularly obsessed with religion in their way of life. Going back as far as the Middle Ages of the thirteenth and fourteenth century, religion was intertwined with every aspect of English life and culture. Most importantly, it played a far greater role in the development and structure of English politics and society.

If you thought people nowadays make a big deal out of religion, you sure didn’t want to be living in the sixteenth and seventeenth-century England where religion alone is responsible for unnecessary quarrels unwarranted bloodshed and social instability. The most well-known example of the beginning of England’s tumultuous relationship with religion dates back to the reign of Henry VIII, the infamous Tudor monarch and the splitter of churches, and ladies.

Henry VIII c. 1537 – Hans Holbein, the younger

When Henry VIII ascended the throne in 1509, the Tudor dynasty was on the verge of extinction. Henry’s older brother Arthur died without any children and Henry himself was the last living male in the Tudor line. Because of this, in order to keep the dynasty going, he needed to produce a male heir and thereby secure a future progeny. His first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was the widow of Henry’s older brother and the daughter of powerful Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castille. You might think marriage might solve the problem but then problems began to ensue. Catherine had gone into labor many times but all but one resulted in stillbirths or miscarriages. The only offspring that survived to maturity was a daughter, Mary. By 1525, Henry became increasingly dissatisfied with his marriage. After all, he still needed an heir. And moreover, he was becoming infatuated with another woman, Anne Boleyn. So in 1527, Henry VIII requested to Pope Clement VII to annul his marriage (a.k.a. divorce) so he could marry Anne. However, he was denied. Henry, in a desperate situation, didn’t take to this very well and this denial is what set off a dramatic chain of events, in which Henry defied papal authority and broke from the Roman Catholic church, declaring himself as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. It is at this point the English Reformation began to unfold.

Fast forward to 1547 when Henry VIII died and his only son was crowned Edward VI. Just before his death, Henry explicitly laid out his rules for succession in his will, placing Edward as his heir apparent, then Mary, then Elizabeth respectively as his successors. But of course, this wouldn’t be the Tudor dynasty without complications.

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury – Gerlach Flicke, 1545

Edward, during his reign, often argued with his step-sister Mary on the issue of religious practices. Mary was raised a devout Catholic while Edward, although conforming to Catholic practices in his early years, became influenced by the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, and became increasingly Protestant. In 1551, Edward formally banned the practice of mass and further advanced the Reformation. However, in 1553, a succession crisis arose and sent the court into a state of chaos and frenzy – which as the title of the post insinuates had a religious undertone. As the fifteen-year-old Edward lay on his deathbed, he fretted over the imminent ascension of his older half-sister Mary, who he believed would undo his Protestant reforms, to the throne. And so Edward hastily rewrote his will and named his first cousin once removed, Lady Jane Grey, as his successor as she was a Protestant and would support the reformed Church of England. However, Jane’s reign would last only nine days as she would be executed under the orders of Mary.

Queen Mary Tudor of England – Anthonis Mor, 1554

Following Jane’s execution, we’ve now arrived at the infamous reign of Bloody Mary, whose namesake comes from the fact that Mary had over 280 religious dissenters burned at the stake. Mary, being a zealous Catholic, always rejected the break with Rome instituted by her father and the establishment of Protestantism by her brother’s regents. By the end of 1554, Pope Julius III and Mary came to a concession, and the Heresy Acts were revived. The revival act stated:

For the eschewing and avoiding of errors and heresies, which of late have risen, grown, and much increased within this realm, for that the ordinaries have wanted authority to proceed against those that were infected therewith: be it therefore ordained and enacted by authority of this present Parliament, that the statute made in the fifth year of the reign of King Richard II, concerning the arresting and apprehension of erroneous and heretical preachers, and one other statute made in the second year of the reign of King Henry IV, concerning the repressing of heresies and punishment of heretics, and also one other statute made in the second year of the reign of King Henry V, concerning the suppression of heresy and Lollardy, and every article, branch, and sentence contained in the same three several Acts, and every of them, shall from the twentieth day of January next coming be revived, and be in full force, strength, and effect to all intents, constructions, and purposes for ever.

Essentially with these making a comeback, anyone who defied the accepted beliefs of a church or religious organization. So if you weren’t Catholic yourself and happened to be outwardly critical, you were swiftly silenced with execution. And that is what precisely happened under the Heresy Acts as numerous Protestants were executed in the Marian Persecutions.

For a while, it seemed like England would revert back to its old faith, but that was short lived as Mary would not reign long enough to realize her aspirations. After Mary’s death in 1558, her re-establishment of Roman Catholicism was reversed (once again) by her younger half-sister and successor Elizabeth I, reigning over a period that is heralded as the great Elizabethan Era lasting until her death in 1603. The next major religious-based conflict would not arise until almost a century later in 1688.

So what happened in 1688? Well, we have the Glorious Revolution, which surprisingly seems to be obscure among the public. Regardless, the Glorious Revolution is critically important in British history as it would shape the political power and system of the monarch, which remains in effect to this very day.

William of Orange, the Dutch prince invitee – Godfrey Kneller, 1680s

The Glorious Revolution, in short, refers to the deposition of the anointed King James II by members of his own Parliament (who set aside their differences despite their political alignments) in favor of the Protestant Dutch stadtholder, William of Orange, whose wife happened to be one of James’s daughter, Mary. So why did they depose James II? Well, James was a Catholic and ever since Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church, Catholics have had a terrible approval rating. Also, James’s attempts to create religious liberty for English Roman Catholics and Protestant nonconformists went against the wishes of the Anglican establishment and thus upsetting a large percentage of his own nation. Not to mention James displayed a great deal of nepotism for those of Catholic faith as many Catholics were appointed to positions of power. To top it all off, James sought to ally himself with his cousin Louis XIV of France, a largely Catholic nation. But the worst part was yet to come.

In June 1688, James’s second wife, Mary of Modena, gave birth to a son. This, of course, struck fear into the minds of the Parliamentarians who grew increasingly wary of the potential establishment of a Roman Catholic dynasty. James already had two Protestant daughters, Mary and Anne, but their positions in the line of succession were displaced after the birth of a son. Afraid of the imminent reversion to Catholicism,  seven Parliamentarians, consisting of both Tories and Whigs, sent out an invitation to William of Orange aptly named the invitation by The Seven, which read:

We have great reason to believe, we shall be every day in a worse condition than we are, and less able to defend ourselves, and therefore we do earnestly wish we might be so happy as to find a remedy before it be too late for us to contribute to our own deliverance … the people are so generally dissatisfied with the present conduct of the government, in relation to their religion, liberties and properties (all which have been greatly invaded), and they are in such expectation of their prospects being daily worse, that your Highness may be assured, there are nineteen parts of twenty of the people throughout the kingdom, who are desirous of a change; and who, we believe, would willingly contribute to it, if they had such a protection to countenance their rising, as would secure them from being destroyed.

James II, the last Catholic King of England – Peter Lely

The intricate affairs are quite lengthy and if you’re interested, I advise further reading into this topic as it is truly is quite fascinating how severe religious issues mattered in seventeenth-century English society. In the end, James II fled from England to France on the night of December 23rd (his wife and child had already fled but James was caught and forced to stay behind) and was coronated on April 11, 1689.

The most notable consequence of the Glorious Revolution, however (specifically regarding religion), is the Act of Settlement of 1701. The act was prompted by the failure of William III and Mary II, as well as of Mary’s sister Queen Anne, to produce any surviving children, despite Anne having been pregnant 17 times. Under the Act of Settlement, anyone who became a Roman Catholic, or who married one, became disqualified to inherit the throne. The act also placed limits on both the role of foreigners in the British government, as was the case with William III, and the power of the monarch with respect to the Parliament of England. In short, the English crown essentially pronounced the entire Catholic population as ‘legally dead’.

So from this, the English really had problems with Catholics ever since the breaking with the Catholic Church during the Tudor dynasty. So much so that the idea of religious difference and tolerance consumed the English politics and had to be addressed immediately for its prolonging could have effectively plunged the nation into unwanted civil war. These kinds of events spark interesting speculations. Just imagine what the immediate aftermath of England would have been like had Edward VI lived as long as Henry VIII, or William’s invasion to have failed. It really makes you wonder, doesn’t it?


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