Manuscript for "The Reformation and Religious Conflict in Britain"

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Picture 1

At the beginning of Henry VIII’s reign the Catholic Church looked as secure in England as anywhere in Europe. There were dissident voices, but they were neither as many nor as loud as, for example, in Holland and Germany. Churches at this time smelt of incense and were brightly decorated with paintings and stained glass. There were carved images of the Virgin and the priest wore embroidered vestments and sang the litany in Latin, just they did in France or Italy


The king had a keen interest in theology and even wrote a work condemning Martin Luther. It was for this that he was rewarded by Pope. He did his bit in the fight against heretics, chasing William Tyndale from the country for making an English translation of the Bible.


Picture 2

In fact, Henry VIII did not so much seek a divorce as an annulment of his first marriage. Catherine had originally married Henry’s elder brother Arthur, then the heir to the throne. When Arthur died in 1502 Henry, according to custom, “inherited” his brother’s wife when he acceded to the throne in 1509. Catherine actually bore him six children, but only one of these – Mary - survived infancy. Desperate for a son, Henry managed to convince himself that this was divine retribution for having married his sister-in-law and he sought therefore to have the marriage annulled. Catherine of Aragon was having none of this and got the support of her nephew, Emperor Charles V of France, to fight the annulment.


In the meantime Anne Boleyn was already pregnant with Henry’s child and he was impatient to make the relationship official. They were married secretly in 1533. Catherine of Aragon was now longer Queen – she was given the title Princess Dowager of Wales. The Pope, however, refused to sanction the new marriage. In the eyes of the Catholic Church, Anne Boleyn’s daughter Elizabeth – the future Elizabeth I of England – was nothing more than a bastard with no right to rule.


Picture 3

Some saw the break with Rome as an opportunity to criticise traditions like the celibacy of priests, and the idea of transubstantiation (that wine and bread actually become the blood and body of Christ). Henry was strongly opposed to any radical changes and was highly sceptical to the distribution of an English language Bible, fearing that it would open the floodgates to radical heresies. In 1543 he passed a law restricting its availability to the people of noble birth.


For Henry VIII the central tenet of the Church of England was that it was independent of Rome and that he was its Supreme Head. Denying Royal Supremacy became punishable by death. To this day the monarch holds the position of temporal head of the Church of England, also called the Anglican Church. But the spiritual head is the Archbishop of Canterbury. Interestingly, the Church of England regards itself as “Catholic” in the sense that it sees its history as being unbroken from the medieval period. Of all the Protestant denominations, the Church of England is perhaps the one that remains closest in its ceremonies and teachings to the Roman Catholic Church.


Much of the land that was confiscated from the Catholic Church was sold off to the aristocracy to finance wars in France. This had the added advantage of giving the some of the nobility a vested interest in supporting the new regime.


Picture 4

Anne Boleyn was accused not only of adultery – of which she may or may not have been guilty – but also of incest with her brother – of which she almost certainly was not. The outcome of her trial was a foregone conclusion and she was sentenced to death by beheading. After Anne Henry married four more times: Jane Seymour died in childbirth in 1537. Two years later a marriage was arranged with Anne of Cleves, daughter of the Duke of Cleves (Kleve) in Germany. Henry accepted the plans, having seen Anne’s portrait by Hans Holbein. But when she arrived at court he found that her actual appearance did not live up to his expectations! A wedding was performed, but the marriage was annulled on the grounds that it was never consummated.


Only three weeks after the annulment Henry married Catherine Howard, who, at 19, was 30 years younger than him. She suffered the same fate as Anne Boleyn – executed in 1542 accused of infidelity. Henry’s final wife was Catherine Parr, a twice-widowed and childless noblewoman. By this time Henry was old and sick, and Catherine Parr’s role was more of nurse than wife.


During Edward VI’s short reign the processes of change that had started under Henry gained pace. Stone altars and religious images – remnants of Roman Catholicism – were removed from churches and the Book of Common Prayer, written entirely in English, was published.


Picture 5

It was clear to everyone at court that Edward’s life would not be long. They also knew that Edward’s eldest sister, Mary, the next in line for the throne, was a passionate Roman Catholic. Fearing a Catholic backlash, they persuaded the young king to choose Lady Jane Grey, a distant relative, as his successor. In the event Queen Jane reigned for only nine days in July 1553, following Edward’s death. Mary’s supporters soon crushed what was seen as a usurpation of the crown and poor Jane, who had never been more than a pawn in a dangerous game, was executed.


Fears of a Catholic backlash under Mary proved to be well-founded. She abolished all the religious laws made during her brother’s reign and married the heir to the Spanish throne, Philip, a champion of the Catholic Church. At the age of 37 Mary was in a hurry to have a child as this would secure a Catholic heir. Such was her obsession that she even experienced a “false pregnancy”. But it was not to be. She died childless in 1598, leaving the way open for her younger, Protestant half-sister.


Picture 6

Mary’s epithet “bloody” is a little unfair, considering that the number of Protestant martyrs killed during her reign is more than balanced by the number of Catholics suffering the same fate under Elizabeth. All in all around 300 hundred English people were burned at the stake during the 16th century for their religious beliefs. They included priests and archbishops, but also ordinary citizens brave enough to insist on speaking their minds. The Book of Martyrs by John Foxe, first published in 1563 and republished right into the 19th century, catalogues the atrocities performed against Protestants during Mary’s reign and became a an important propaganda weapon in spreading fear of Catholicism. The picture is a good example of the shock tactics it used. It depicts the burning of Katherine Cawches from Guernsey and her daughters in 1556. According to the story, one of her daughters was pregnant and during the burning her belly burst open, throwing the unborn child clear of the fire. Onlookers picked up the child and gave it to the bailiff - who threw it back into the flames.


Picture 7

While her half-sister Mary had formed an alliance through marriage with the Spanish monarch, Elizabeth found herself at war with him. “The Virgin Queen” was in Spanish eyes “the Bastard Queen”. In 1570 she was excommunicated by the Pope who also absolved her subjects of any allegiance to her. This only served to reinforce the connection between Protestantism and English national identity and the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was a defining moment in England’s growth as a European Protestant power.


At home her cousin Mary Stuart (Mary Queen of Scots) was a constant thorn in her side. As long as Elizabeth had no heir, Mary Stuart was to be Elizabeth’s successor. Indeed, in Catholic eyes Elizabeth was illegitimate and the crown was rightfully Mary’s already. After Mary fled from Scotland in 1568, leaving the throne to her one-year-old son James, she lived as a political prisoner in England and was implicated in several plots to overthrow Elizabeth. Finally, and reluctantly, Elizabeth ordered her tried for treason. She was found guilty and executed in 1587.


Picture 8

The Church of England under Elizabeth chose a middle course between Roman Catholicism and a more radical stream of Protestantism called Puritanism. English theologians claimed that there had really been no break with tradition and that they were actually more “Catholic” than the Roman Catholics, who had corrupted the original intention of the Church through greed and superstition. But the Church of England was equally dismissive of the Puritan belief in the individual’s right and duty to relate directly to his Maker (through the Holy Scriptures). The ceremonies and sacraments of the Church, they argued, were an essential aid to salvation.


“The Old Religion” continued to live on across the country, particularly in the north-east. Elizabeth I was prepared to tolerate Catholic attitudes among her subjects provided they were discreet and did not turn into open provocation. To avoid the scrutiny of the authorities, at least an occasional appearance at the parish church was to be recommended.


Over the decades church-goers and also clergymen had become used to adapting to changes in theology and religious practice. One famous example is the Vicar of Bray who remained in his position from the reign of Henry VIII to the reign of Elizabeth I, bowing every new regime. He is celebrated (and gently ridiculed) in a song with the following chorus:

And this be law, I shall maintain

Until my dying day, sir

That whatsoever king may reign,

Still I'll be the Vicar of Bray, sir.


Picture 9

James I was already king of Scotland and his claim to the English throne was through his mother, Mary Stuart, who had been executed by Elizabeth only 16 years earlier.  James, however, was a Protestant. He was also a strong believer in “the divine right of kings”, believing that the monarch was above the law and answerable only to God. This was an ideology which was to bring the Stuart dynasty into conflict with its subjects on a number of occasions.


Although he was the target of the Catholic Gunpowder plot, James was far from being a radical Protestant. On the contrary, his emphasis on obedience to bishops and the rituals of the Church made him profoundly unpopular with some Protestants at the Puritan end of the spectrum. It was in his reign that the Pilgrim Fathers sailed from Plymouth in the Mayflower to seek religious freedom in the New World.


Picture 10

Charles I, who succeeded his father in 1625, shared his father’s belief in “the divine right of kings”. His demands for taxes to finance an army to put down a rebellion in Scotland led him

into conflict with the English parliament.. The rebellion was caused by the king’s imposition of a Scots Prayer Book on Church of Scotland, a book that, for Calvinist Scots, looked suspiciously Catholic. The English Parliament, where Puritan influence was growing, refused to help the king in his cause.


The English Civil War tipped to the advantage of the Parlamentarians (“the Roundheads”) when Oliver Cromwell took command of the New Model Army and turned it into one of the most disciplined fighting forces in Europe. In 1649 the King surrendered to the Scots who handed him over to the English. After three years he was tried and sentenced to death. He faced his execution bravely, and it is said that a groan went up from the crowd when his head severed from his body. Many rushed forward to dip their handkerchiefs in his blood – the blood of the “Martyr King”:


Picture 11

In Ireland Cromwell’s army crushed all Royalist and Catholic resistance. A large number of Catholic clergymen were imprisoned, transported or executed. The land confiscated from Catholic landowners was taken over by victorious army officers or by Protestants already settled in Ireland. As the map shows, Protestant landowners already dominated in the northern part of the island before Cromwell’s intervention.


At the sieges of Drogheda and Wexford in 1649 not only Royalist soldiers were slaughtered but also around thousand civilians when the New Model Army ran amok. Cromwell himself was not in command of these troops but justified their actions by referring to massacres of Protestants.


Picture 12

The picture shows James II. His Catholic sympathies might not have been a problem had he chosen to be discreet. But his Declaration of Indulgence in 1687, which removed restrictions on those who did not support the Church of England, were seen as being a first step towards reintroducing the Catholic faith. 


The final straw, however, for the Protestant parliament was the news that the queen (James’s second wife) had given birth to a son. Until then the Protestant succession had been secure, because Mary and Anne, James’s daughters by his first wife, were staunchly Protestant. Now the future was in jeopardy.  Parliament feared a plot. There was even a rumour that the new birth was false and that a baby had been smuggled into the queen’s bedroom in a warming-pan!


After a failed attempt to establish himself in Ireland (see next slide), James II spent the rest of his life as an exile in France, plotting a return to power.


Picture 13

The parades held on the 12th July every year by the Orange Order (orange to commemorate William of Orange) have been a source of conflict in Northern Ireland for many years. In the parades Orangemen, dressed in dark suits and wearing orange sashes, march to the accompaniment of brass bands. The most controversial aspect of the marches is that the organisers insist on marching also through Catholic areas. Celebrating as they do the defeat of Catholic forces and establishment of Protestant dominance, it is hardly surprising that the Northern Ireland’s nationalist community seen the marches as a direct provocation.


In recent years there has been an attempt to tone down the divisive aspect of the Orange Day parades and turn them into a family event and a celebration of cultural heritage. The Orange Lodges themselves (from which Catholics are banned from joining) are rapidly losing membership since the end of the so-called “Troubles”.


Picture 14

Bonnie Prince Charlie was a colourful figure in Scottish history and perhaps no other figure is more widely celebrated in Scottish song and legend. The speed with which he gathered support for his cause bears witness to a charismatic personality. On the other hand, it is clear that his bold plan to regain the crown for the Stuarts was badly thought through – and had disastrous results for the clans that supported him.


Picture 15

The Battle of Culloden is the last battle fought on British soil. It is often portrayed as a battle between English and Scottish forces, but in fact there were as many Scots in the 8000–strong British army led by the Duke of Cumberland as there were among the Jacobites. These were mainly Protestant Scottish Lowlanders. After the Jacobite army was defeated the British forces went on a killing spree, massacring not only the wounded and prisoners from the battle, but also burning down the farms and houses of anyone thought to have supported the Jacobite cause. It was the beginning of end of the Gaelic (and largely Catholic) culture that had once dominated the Highlands of Scotland.


Prince Charlie’s own fate is the stuff of legend. After the battle he fled and secretly made his way to the coast, hiding in barns and cottages on the way. On the Isle of Skye he was aided by local girl Flora MacDonald who dressed him as a maid and smuggled him out to a waiting French frigate. He spent the rest of his life an exile in France, drowning his sorrows.


Picture 16

The movement for Catholic emancipation succeeded in removing most of the limitations imposed on Catholics, but today the Church of England still retains a favoured constitutional position. The 26 bishops and archbishops with seats in the House of Lords are all Church of England. The monarch is head of the Church of England - and therefore cannot be Catholic. (Interestingly, neither can his or her spouse.) There is no law preventing a Roman Catholic from becoming Prime Minister, but in practice it would present difficulties since the Prime Minister plays an advisory role in appointing bishops. Tony Blair waited until he had left office before announcing that he was converting to Roman Catholicism.


In everyday life religious affiliation continues to play a role. Around 30% of schools are so-called “faith schools”, i.e. they are sponsored and run by a denomination (mainly Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church), although with state funding. In sectarian Northern Ireland children continue to grow up more or less segregated from children from the other community; 95% of pupils attend denominational schools (Catholic or Protestant).


In recent decades immigration has changed the religious landscape of Britain. Mosques and Hindu temples can be found in many cities and Muslims particularly are establishing their own “faith schools”.