Tudor England and the English Reformation
In the historical context of the Protestant Reformation throughout Europe, and the English Reformation at home, Elizabeth’s life and reign were characterized by continual conflict between Catholics and Protestants.
King Henry VIII Breaks with the Catholic Church
For personal and political, rather than religious, reasons, King Henry VIII launched the English Reformation when he instigated England’s break with the Catholic Church. From 1527 to 1533, Henry VIII tried unsuccessfully to obtain from the Pope an annulment of his first marriage, to Catherine of Aragon. Henry VIII wished to dissolve the marriage in order to marry Anne Boleyn. In 1533, Henry VIII obtained an annulment from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. That year, Pope Clement VII excommunicated Henry VIII from the Catholic Church. In 1534, Henry VIII named himself, rather than the Pope in Rome, head of the Church of England, by the passage of the Act of Supremacy. This break was by no means religiously motivated on the part of Henry VIII, who had always been opposed to the Protestant Reformation launched by Luther in Germany. Nonetheless, Henry VIII inadvertently brought the Protestant Reformation to England, thereby creating a rift between Catholics and Protestants in England. Between 1536 and 1540, the monasteries throughout England were legally dissolved, a policy which inspired acts of rebellion on the part of adherents to the Catholic faith.
The Protestant King Edward VI
Because Henry VIII’s three children were from three different mothers, they each had different religious affiliations and orientations. Edward VI was a devout Protestant, although his youthful age during his reign meant that he had little effect on the policies of the nation. Nevertheless, during the reign of Edward VI, from 1547 to 1553, those in charge of the English government enacted stricter enforcement of Protestantism throughout the land. These policies sparked further uprisings by Catholics against anti-Catholic religious policy.
Bloody Mary and the Persecution of Protestants
When Mary I ascended the throne she was determined to make England once again a Catholic nation. Mary earned the name Bloody Mary because she oversaw the burning of some 300 Protestants during her reign. Because her half-sister Elizabeth was Protestant, Mary I feared plots against her by Protestants to place Elizabeth on the throne. A Protestant insurrection against Mary I in 1554, led by Thomas Wyat, was put down and the instigators executed. Although it seems Elizabeth engaged in no such conspiracies, Mary kept her imprisoned for the rest of her reign. Despite these religious differences, however, Mary I named Elizabeth her heir to the throne.
Queen Elizabeth and Religious Conflict
Upon ascending the throne in 1558, Elizabeth immediately took action to restore England to Protestantism. In 1559, the Act of Supremacy and Act of Uniformity once again named the monarch as head of the Church of England, and imposed adherence to government religious policy upon all citizens. Elizabeth, though Protestant, was not a deeply religious person, and had an aversion to religious extremism. She understood the political need to enforce Protestantism throughout the nation, in order to maintain any rebellious impulses on the part of Catholics. Fines were imposed on those who did not attend Protestant church services on Sundays; however, Elizabeth was not concerned with the true inner beliefs of her citizens, as long as they maintained an outward appearance of complying with the Church of England. At the other extreme, Elizabeth was equally opposed to extremist Protestants, and considered the Puritans a threat to her sovereignty over religious matters within the church.
Throughout her reign, Elizabeth struggled to contain both Catholic and Protestant opposition to the Church of England. In 1569, a rebellion of Catholics in the north of England was put down. In 1570, Elizabeth was...
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