1.4: England, A Case Study: “The Religious Hokey-Pokey”

(“England” is technically the name only for the kingdom in the southwestern part of the British Isles. “Great Britain” is the name of the present-day country, which consists of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. The ruler of England, over time, became the ruler of the other territories as well. However, they are still considered four separate states united together, just like the 50 states of the United States.)

King Henry VIII was born shortly after the end of the Wars of the Roses. The red and white rose represented two rival families for the crown of England. (Henry’s father was born of a marriage between those two families.) Therefore, Henry VIII wanted a son in order to prevent England from sliding back into disputes about the male heir to the crown. However simple his wish, Henry’s desire for a son would result in a civil war, this time not between families but between religions: Catholics vs. Protestants.

The problem was with Henry’s wife, Catherine of Aragon (a kingdom of Spain). Catherine was originally married to Henry’s older brother, Arthur, who died young. Therefore, she only gave Henry one child, a girl named Mary. As Catherine was too old to have any more kids after Mary, Henry wanted a new wife to have that son to pass on the throne to. Henry was a devout Catholic and therefore did not want to divorce, but rather an annulment from the Pope. However, the pope refused the annulment, as it was obvious that Henry had had “relations” with his wife—because they had a kid.

[Annulment—a cancellation of a marriage (as if it never happened in the first place)]

Henry VIII always viewed Luther’s views as too extreme. However, in a very bold move, he decided to create his own church, which would eventually be called the Church of England (the religion now called Anglicanism). In effect, Henry made himself both the king and the pope for England. Catholics, like Henry’s chancellor Thomas More, refused to acknowledge this, and ran the risk of being killed for this religious “treason.” (Thomas More was beheaded in 1535 and later became a Catholic saint.)

Henry granted himself the annulment that he wanted. However, Henry’s next wife Anne Boleyn—and the four others that followed her—failed to produce a male heir. (Anne had one child, a girl named Elizabeth.) Although one son, Edward, was born, he died barely into his teens.

So, shortly after Henry’s death, the crown passed to the oldest of Henry’s children, Mary, the daughter of the Spanish Catholic. During her reign as queen, Mary in effect flipped Henry’s orders: Catholicism was restored and members of the Church of England ran the risk of being imprisoned or killed.

But that’s not all… After Mary’s death, only a few years later, the crown fell to Henry’s daughter Elizabeth, now Queen Elizabeth I. Once again, a massive flip-flop occurred in the beginning of her reign: She restored Anglicanism. Eventually, Elizabeth reached an Augsburg-like compromise with the country’s Catholic-leaning nobility and population. (The Shakespeares are sometimes thought to be among these Catholic-sympathetic families, though this has been disputed.)

The Renaissance and Protestant Reformation served as a one-two punch to old-school values: the focus of society shifted to overcoming the problems here on Earth while here on Earth. The answers to these problems were… more questions, and more answers. In short, individuals came up with a variety of beliefs and approaches, in the spirit of the “Renaissance man” openness to all subjects. However, the Church and the secular powers (kings) of “old school” Europe saw the variety of new approaches as dangerous threats to maintaining tradition.

Nonetheless, the door of social criticism and individual questioning was opened with the Renaissance era. The Enlightenment era would only kick open the door further, as we’ll next investigate.