16th Century England
King Henry Viii
King Henry VIII was a Tudor. The Tudors were a Welsh family, descended from Owain ap Maredudd ap Tydwr, a silver-tongued gentleman who caught the eye of the widow of Henry V, Catherine of France. The name Tydwr morphed into Theodore and then finally Tudor.
King Henry VIII was redheaded, athletic, and England's sporting hero when he became King at age seventeen in 1509. He was a tremendous archer, horseman, jouster, wrestler, and musician, with an insatiable appetite for enjoying himself. Henry married the gorgeous and prestigious Spanish princess, Catherine, his brother Arthur's widow, just before he was crowned.
Catherine produced a female heir, Mary, born in 1516, but then had a series of miscarriages and stillbirths. After ten years of marriage, Henry began to ponder why God was displeased with their union, since it had failed to produce a male heir to his throne. He found his answer in Leviticus 20: "If a man shall take his brother's wife, it is an unclean thing . . . they shall be childless." Catherine maintained that this Scripture did not apply, as her five-month marriage to the fifteen-year-old Arthur had never been consummated. Henry came to doubt her on this score.
By 1527, Henry had his eye on Anne Boleyn, a self-assured beauty with mesmerizing dark eyes. He was obsessed with producing a male heir but the pope would not grant him a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who had failed to produce a prince. The pope normally would have granted the divorce—for a fee—but Catherine was the aunt of the powerful Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (and close ally of the papacy) Charles V, of the Habsburg family. Therefore the pope could not disgrace her.
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey ran England for Henry with great skill and statesmanship for fourteen years. But Wolsey offended Anne Boleyn and was therefore disgraced. He was charged with treason and died from the shock. Henry took over Hampton Court, the magnificent palace Wolsey had built for himself.
Anne Boleyn gave Henry a copy of William Tyndale's book Obedience of a Christian Man in which Tyndale pointed out that the Bible made no mention of popes, bishops, or an institutional church at all. This book provided Henry with a solution to his "Great Matter." The King could grant himself a divorce, regardless of what the pope may think.
King Henry VIII of England had been a devout Catholic, and such a friend to the pope against the Reformation led by Martin Luther that the pope pronounced him The Defender of the Faith. He began to separate the English Church from the Roman Church in 1529. Parliament supported Henry's efforts to attack the privileges and property of the Roman Church in England, seeing immense material advantages to be gained. In 1532, Henry eliminated payments to Rome; in 1533 he cut Rome's ecclesiastical jurisdiction over churches in England; in 1534 he abolished papal authority over English Christians, naming himself Supreme Head of the Church of England.
The English were a devoutly Christian people in those days, with many attending mass every day. At the heart of the Reformation was the exhilarating idea that each person could communicate directly with God through prayer. This diminished the central role of the priest in religious life.
Henry questioned by what right did clerics control a vast infrastructure of earthly power and possessions, such as the huge amounts of land owned by monasteries? The Catholic Church was easily the largest landholder in England. Henry the VIII's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, sent crews of inspectors out to survey the 800 monasteries in England, who reported back that they were full of lazy, greedy monks and friars, about 7,000 of them; who were sexually sinful as well. These reports were used to justify the greatest land grab in English history in 1536.
The destruction of England's ancient system of education, employment and social welfare was not without protest. The northern part of the country saw 40,000 men rise in rebellion. The Duke of Norfolk was charged with putting them down, which he did mercilessly. Villagers were hung on trees in full view of their wives and children. By the time all Catholic lands had been taken in 1540, Henry the VIII had raised what would be $70M today by selling off some of these properties.
Ten days after Henry's execution of Anne Boleyn, he married the meek, submissive, soft-spoken, kindly, level-headed Jane Seymour. Jane had a son but died twelve days later from loss of blood and infection. She may have been the love of the King's life. Alone among his wives, Jane was given a glorious funeral after three weeks lying in state. Her name was on his lips when he died in 1547, and his will directed that he be buried next to Jane Seymour.
England was dangerously isolated when, in 1538, the pope issued a call to the Catholic powers of Europe to oppose Henry VIII. Thomas Cromwell sought an alliance with Germany through marriage. Cleves was an important duchy with its capital at Dusseldorf, and the sister of the Duke, Anne, was available. Without internet access, Cromwell dispatched royal painter Hans Holbein to do a quick portrait of the lady for the King to gaze upon. Henry loved the portrait and agreed to marry her, but when he met her he was sorely disappointed by her plain features. After their wedding night, Henry said, "I like her much worse, for I have felt her belly and breasts. I had neither the will nor courage to proceed any further in other matters." The word is that Anne stunk and that this deflated the ardour of the King.
In 1540, Cromwell himself was condemned of treason and sentenced to a dreadful death by being drawn and quartered. His sentence would be reduced to a mere beheading if he could find a way to annul Henry's marriage to Anne of Cleves, which he did. Ten days later, the King was married again, this time to Katherine Howard, nearly 30 years his junior. Katherine was the niece of his fierce general, the Duke of Norfolk, who was a Catholic and hated Cromwell. The Duke had been pushing for Katherine to entice the King, and plotting Cromwell's downfall. The new Queen was a sexpot and unfortunately this extended beyond the King. She had several affairs. The King wept when he found out. She was beheaded in 1542, along with three of her lovers and her lady-in-waiting, who had arranged many of the rendezvous.
Henry was by now a gross mountain of a man, with arthritis, ulcers, and serious royal hemorrhoids. He did marry one more time, to Catherine Parr. Finally, the King went the way of all men, to the grave. It was hard to imagine England without the lustful tyrant who had once been a beautiful young sportsman. He was surely immoral, he was not a good man, but he was a great King—maybe the greatest of English Kings. Though he ruled England with an iron hand, he did so without an army. He revolutionized the ownership of land, strengthened Parliament, and built the Church of England. His accomplishments were formidable.
Sir Thomas More
Sir Thomas More was executed by King Henry VIII for treason in 1535. What an end for a man whose friendship had been treasured by the King. Thomas More was learned and witty; a literal Renaissance man; and friends with Erasmus. He wore a hair shirt beneath his outer garments for most of his life. King Henry had coerced More into becoming his Lord Chancellor. More only accepted after Henry promised not to involve him in his divorce. Royal policy was determined by Thomas Cromwell, who pushed a new statute through Parliament that required all men to reject the rights of Queen Catherine and her daughter Mary. More refused and thus began his imprisonment, which ended at the scaffold.
In 1516 he wrote Utopia, an inspired combination of the Greek words for "no" and "place." It was a science fiction fantasy about a perfect society. Couples with many children gave a few away to the childless. Interestingly, lawyers were banned in Utopia and described as "those who disguise the truth." Thomas More's own wealth came from practicing law.
Ann Boleyn (1507-1536) was the daughter of an English Earl, a devout Christian, and a fervent studier of the Bible. She became part of the court of Henry VIII in 1521, along with her sister, Mary, who became the King's mistress. Anne Boleyn refused her King when he asked her to also become his mistress, saying, "I think your majesty, most noble and worthy king, speaketh these words in mirth to prove me, without intent of defiling your princely self, who I find thinks nothing less than of such wickedness which would justly procure the hatred of God and of your good queen against us."
The evangelical Boleyn family helped Thomas Cranmer, a convert to Protestantism, be selected as the archbishop of England in 1533. That same year, Anne Boleyn married King Henry VIII after Cranmer granted the King a divorce. She appointed evangelical bishops, and distributed English Bibles throughout the realm. Anne always discussed the Bible with the King during dinner.
Like King David, Anne Boleyn used poor judgment by living with, and secretly marrying, King Henry whilst he was already married. She and the King had one child together, the future Queen Elizabeth. Anne was a flirtatious woman, and this proved to be her undoing. Flirting caused suspicion of infidelity; men were tortured and confessions produced. A court musician pleaded guilty to adultery and Anne's brother charged with incest. Anne Boleyn was falsely accused of adultery and beheaded. Her last words were, "To Christ I commend my soul, Jesus, receive my soul."
When Henry VIII died in 1547, his nine year old son Edward VI became King of England. Six years later he died of tuberculosis and the crown passed to his sister, the foul-breathed Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry's first wife, Catherine of Aragon—and a devout Catholic.
During Edward's short reign, the language used for church services changed from Latin to English; communion was once again served with both bread and wine; purgatory, confession, and Mass for the dead were repudiated.
Mary's family and life had been ruined by Protestantism and she determined to bring England back into the Catholic fold. Protestantism was outlawed and back came vestments, altars, feast days, and processions.
Queen Mary was a pious woman. She was known to kneel down to wash, dry, and kiss the feet of poor women. She visited widows in disguise and personally gave them charity.
Bloody Mary burnt 300 Protestants at the stake, including Archbishop Cranmer, who had annulled her mother's marriage and proclaimed her a bastard. But the cheerful courage of the martyrs made a favorable impression on the huge crowds that gathered to watch. Burnings were well attended entertainments back in those days but the smell of the burning flesh of good men, tortured for their beliefs, turned the people against the Queen. Hostility to popery reached new heights. It is still present in England today, where it is against the law for a British King or Queen to marry a Catholic.
One prominent victim was the bishop Hugh Latimer (1487-1555). Latimer said, "The Author of Holy Scripture is God Himself; let God's Word direct us." As he was engulfed by flames at the stake he exclaimed to a fellow martyr, "Be of good comfort! We shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out."
Queen Mary married the heir to the Spanish throne, but died in 1558 before having children. Now the crown passed to Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn, who was openly called a bastard by Catholics.
In 1559, the red-haired, 25-year-old Elizabeth became Queen of England. Elizabeth was theatrical, flamboyant, vain, and hot-tempered.
Though the Catholics viewed Queen Elizabeth as a heretic and a bastard; she was deeply loved by her Protestant subjects. Queen Elizabeth declared the religion of England to be Protestant; yet she kept Catholic elements such as priestly robes, ornaments, saints' days, confirmation, the sign of the cross, and kneeling. This became known as Anglicanism, a middle way between Rome and Geneva. Elizabeth loved ceremony and felt it should be an important part of worship. Puritans complained about these dregs of popery, and half-baked reform. Elizabeth agreed with Luther, that robes and ornaments don't matter much either way. She saw her ideas as compromise, live and let live. As Francis Bacon said, "She had no desire to make windows into men's souls."
But a strong Puritan movement was swelling that hated everything Catholic, especially after the publication of Foxe's Book of Martyrs in 1563. This spectacular book detailed the burnings of true believers by the Roman Catholic Church over the previous two hundred years. News reached England about bonfires of vernacular Bibles in Catholic lands, adding fuel to the fire.
Mary Queen of Scots began to plot the overthrow of Elizabeth in 1586. Her plans were discovered and Elizabeth reluctantly allowed her execution.
Meanwhile the Puritan movement grew still larger. The Puritans did not believe in compulsory church attendance. They believed people should only go to church if they wanted to; that they should worship according to the Bible; and elect their own ministers. This became known as Congregationalism. They were persecuted and in 1593 many of them fled to Holland.
Near the foot of London bridge, grimaced a row of rotting skulls, the severed heads of traitors, some of them generations old. Twenty to thirty were hanged every day in 1599, for crimes such as treason, murder, manslaughter, rape, grand theft, witchcraft, highway robbery, desertion from the army, hawk stealing, the malicious letting out of ponds, committing homosexual acts, and bestiality.
Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, her sixty-nine-year-old face still plastered with the lead-based white chalk that killed her. All women of means in those days wore thick color and varnish on their faces, sometimes made from apples and hog fat. That new device, the mirror, had started the beauty business. Elizabeth dyed her hair red and plucked her eyebrows out of her head, which is why she never looked surprised. Elizabeth was the white-faced Virgin Queen.
Elizabeth had presided over one of the most glorious periods of English history. During her reign, the first English stock market was created. Sir Walter Raleigh said, "The Queen was a lady whom time had surprised."
The son of Mary Queen of Scots became King James of England, and every monarch since has been her descendant.
In 1588, King Philip of Spain, the most powerful monarch in Europe, launched the largest naval force in world history, the Spanish Armada, against England to punish her for piracy, Protestantism, and for locking up Mary Queen of Scots. King Philip and Queen Elizabeth were bitter rivals.
27,000 soldiers were aboard those 130 ships, along with hundreds of monks who were to restore Catholicism to England. More than half of the Spanish Armada was destroyed by faster, more maneuverable English ships; English naval skill; and God's Providence—manifested as winds which favored the English. The English also had twice the cannon power on their ships—Spanish ships were built to haul silver—and they deployed fire ships against the Spaniards. 17,000 Spanish soldiers perished in this humiliating defeat, that spelled the beginning of the end of the dominance of Spain. The English lost sixty men and not one ship.
Sir Francis Drake
Sir Francis Drake was an adventurer who saw piracy and plunder as his solemn Protestant duty, providing the captured vessels were the property of Catholic Spain.
By the 1580s his very name provoked panic among the Spanish.
Drake not only hijacked the King of Spain's silver in route from the New World, he daringly pillaged harbors and sacked Catholic churches in Spain itself.
Sir Francis Drake cemented his fame by sailing around the world during 1577-1580.
Mary Queen of Scots
Mary Queen of Scots was the granddaughter of the English King Henry VII. From the time she was six days old, she bore the title, Queen of Scots. In 1565 Mary married her cousin Henry Stuart (Lord Darnley). She soon began an adulterous affair with the Earl of Bothwell, and they blew up—literally—her bedridden syphilitic husband. She then married Bothwell, and was compelled to abdicate her throne. Thus her one-year-old son James was crowned King of Scotland, and would one day be King of England as well. Mary fled to England to throw herself on the mercy of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth. But the Queen of England was jealous of her reputedly much prettier relative, and placed her under house arrest. The two women never met.
In 1570 Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth and called on English Catholics to rise up and murder her. The papal decree would become Mary's death sentence. Elizabeth's spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, was convinced that England would plunge into a civil, religious war if Mary was allowed to live. He conducted a sting operation and caught Mary red-handed agreeing with a plot to kill Elizabeth. Mary was convicted of treason and her head was chopped off. Elizabeth was stricken with grief, and enraged at the news because she had not signed the final execution order yet. Apparently her aides had itchy axe finger.
Sir Walter Raleigh
Sir Walter Raleigh was a soldier of fortune.
He was handsome, well built, rich, a flashy dresser, and a proper gentleman.
Queen Elizabeth named him Captain of the Guard.
She also granted him exclusive control over the sale of tin, playing cards, and liquor licenses.
Raleigh brought the potato and tobacco to the English court, the former considered an aphrodisiac and the latter a healthy medicine.
He proposed that the land where these plants grew should be named in her honor—Virginia.
The Water Closet
Sir John Harrington invited Queen Elizabeth to try out his new invention, the first modern water closet, in 1592. Most folks of those days used a hole in the ground, with moss or leaves as toilet paper. But this device had a lever by which you could flush water down from a cistern above. The Queen loved it and installed one in her palace.
To prepare this article I used the following books: Europe by Norman Davies; Great Tales from English History by Robert Lacey; and From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun.