Guest post by author Samantha Wilcoxson
On 31 October 1517, a monk nailed ‘Disputation on the Power of Indulgences’ to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. He had no way of knowing a notice of discussion regarding Catholic Church practices would cause his name to go down in history.
Some historians question whether Martin Luther really posted his 95 Theses on the eve of All Saint’s Day. However, the changes that resulted from Luther’s actions cannot be denied, even if some myth is blended with history. Thanks to the boldness of one German monk (and the innovation of the printing press), what it meant to be a Christian changed across Europe.
Following these events, Henry probably would have balked at the idea that the reformation would take root in England through his own actions. While Luther was a voice calling for an end of corruption in the Catholic Church, Henry split with Rome for reasons that were more personal but no less far reaching.
Henry’s 1534 Act of Supremacy made the king’s word the highest in the land on matters of religion, making Henry’s Church of England a form of Catholicism with the king’s authority taking the place of the pope.
The ‘little monk,’ as Henry had called Luther in his ‘Defense’ did not hesitate to respond. Luther publicly questioned Henry’s authorship of the treatise and said it should not be taken seriously. In typical Henry VIII style, the king used Luther’s accusation later when he wished to dissolve his marriage with Katherine of Aragon, claiming that it was Cardinal Wolsey who had defended of the sacrament of marriage. Luther gave his support to the devoutly Catholic Katherine and, in his booklet ‘Against Henry, King of the English,’ accused Henry of being ‘a fool,’ ‘effeminately querulous,’ and ‘stupid.’
“Henry…did not hesitate to respond…”
Reginald Pole, Catholic cardinal and cousin King Henry VIII, also chose to write vehemently against him in his book, De Unitate. Pole had not intended it for publication. He expected it to be a personal communication between himself and his cousin. Pole believed the fire and brimstone call to repentance was necessary to get through to the tempestuous king.
Pole understood better than most the passions and beliefs of both Catholics and Protestants and was known to have sympathized with many of the reformers’ arguments, such as the need to abolish corruption among the clergy. For England to break with Rome was a devastating blow to church unity and Pole was devoted to reconciliation. He thought all should, “Believe as firmly as if your salvation depended upon faith alone; act as if good works were all sufficient.”
In De Unitate, Pole chose not to argue for the authority of the pope but appeal to Henry’s responsibility as the spiritual leader of his people. At least one friend warned that the work was too harsh, but Pole retorted that flattery and compromise had brought them to this point. He vehemently refused to support Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn or the legalized murders of Fisher and More.
He also included warnings that Charles V stood ready to rescue the Princess Mary, who would never be excluded from the succession on Pole’s watch. Henry feared union between Reginald and Mary and did not take the warnings well.
Pole was attainted in absentia, charges that were reversed when he returned to England to serve as Mary’s Archbishop of Canterbury. The king also sent assassins after Pole, but their attempts were unsuccessful. Henry demonstrated no willingness to consider any of the guidance provided in De Unitate. Henry was Head of the Church of England, and no one was going to convince him otherwise.
Henry continued to distance himself from the Catholic Church. The Dissolution of the Monasteries caused an immeasurable loss of history and religious life, and acts such as the destruction of Thomas Becket’s tomb horrified Christendom. Before the king’s death in 1547, Pole was convinced he was a predecessor of the Antichrist.
Once Henry’s break with Rome had been made, it was easy for his son, Edward VI, or advisors acting with his authority, to usher in full Protestantism and ban the Catholic mass. A new Book of Common Prayer was written for Church of England worship, priests were allowed to marry, and churches were stripped of their elaborate splendor. Masses for the dead were no longer said, and veneration of saints was discouraged. Some reformers wanted to see full Lutheranism or Calvinism adopted, while others held tight to their ancestral Catholicism. Edward did not live long enough to settle these issues. When he died at age fifteen, his older sister became queen.
Mary immediately began returning the country to Catholic worship. Her relatively short reign was spent striving toward a goal that is difficult to comprehend with a modern worldview that firmly separates church and state. Mary felt responsible for her subjects’ salvation and passionately believed she was doing the right thing with her attempt at counter-reformation in England. As Eamon Duffy states in his Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor, “No sixteenth-century European state willingly accepted or could easily imagine the peaceful coexistence of differing religious confessions.” Even Mary’s sister, Elizabeth, who would later claim “no desire to make windows into men’s souls” ruthlessly persecuted Catholics.
During Mary’s first Parliament, the marriage of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon was validated, erasing Mary’s illegitimacy if not the mental scars her father had caused. Edward’s religious reforms were overturned, allowing Mary to reasonably believe the counter-reformation would occur quickly and easily.
Not only did she have vast popular support, but Mary had her cousin, Cardinal Reginald Pole. He had almost been elected to the papacy in 1550, and his support seemed to assure England’s smooth transition to the ‘true faith.’ Pole published sermons for those too young to remember the old faith that they might embrace it. However, reformed teaching occurred at some of the highest levels in the church, and to secure the salvation of her subjects, Mary outlawed Protestant books and teaching. When some reformers resisted, the burnings began.
Mary is chiefly remembered for the 284 people burned for heresy during her reign. Burning heretics was meant to provide a foretaste of hell in the hope that heretics would recant and be saved. Better to suffer a finite time on Earth than an eternity in hell. However, Mary and her counter-reformers were surprised to find that many convicted heretics held firm to their beliefs, becoming witnesses of Protestantism rather than examples of recantation.
Mary and Reginald both died on 17 November 1558, knowing that Elizabeth, Mary’s half-sister and heir, would reverse their efforts. Mary may have failed in restoring England to Rome, but she did leave her sister a kingdom and demonstrated that it could be ruled by a woman.
Elizabeth quickly took charge and ensured that Mary became remembered as ‘Bloody Mary’ for the Protestant burnings. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs included inaccurate versions of events, such as Latimer allegedly saying to Ridley as their fires were lit, ‘Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as shall never be put out.’
Elizabeth proved a better politician than either of her siblings. She returned the country to Protestantism while claiming that she would not make religious decisions for her subjects. Instead of burning for heresy, Catholic priests were hanged, drawn, and quartered for treason. Elizabeth ruled much longer than her siblings but downplayed the focus on religion, and she is better remembered for other events. Although she is less identified by her religious beliefs, it was Queen Elizabeth I who secured England’s place in history as a Protestant country.
Samantha Wilcoxson writes historical fiction and a history blog. Her works include the Plantagenet Embers series and Luminous: The Story of a Radium Girl. Samantha is passionate about history and exploring the personal side of events. In her writing, she urges the reader to truly experience what it might have felt like to live through a moment in history. She is currently working on the publication of her first nonfiction work, Women of the American Revolution, and a novelization of the life of patriot Nathan Hale.
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