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2.3: Europe in the Age of Discovery - England and France

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    In the period before contact with the Americas, England and France, as they appear on the map today, had only recently taken shape. For much of the Middle Ages, both regions faced invasions by Germanic tribes (sometimes called the barbarians) from northern and central Europe. When those invasions ended, monarchs in England and France worked diligently to consolidate their power, between the twelfth century and the fifteenth century, which in turn led them to consider New World exploration and colonization. However, they lagged behind the Portuguese, the Spanish, and the Dutch because of the almost constant state of war between the two countries as well as the emergence of the Protestant Reformation in the early sixteenth century.

    England and France at War

    During the reign of Henry II of England (r. 1154-1189) and Phillip II of France (r. 1180-1223), the history of England and France became closely linked. The two countries fought for control over Normandy, a region in northern France directly across the channel from England. Henry’s son, John, lost control of the province in 1204. For the remainder of his reign, John tried to regain the lost territory. His actions upset the English nobility, who objected to his less-than-scrupulous means to finance the war, which included raising court fees and inheritance taxes beyond what most people could pay and selling government appointments. Several northern barons led a rebellion against the king that quickly spread to the rest of the country. In 1215, after several months of negotiations, John agreed to address the nobility’s demands. The resulting Magna Carta tackled specific grievances and suggested that all English citizens, including the king, lived under the rule of law. Future generations of Englishmen based their concept of justice and liberty on the principles of the Magna Carta. Political differences between England and France continued through the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries at a time when Europe also faced famine and disease.

    While the Black Death (the plague) ravaged Europe in the fourteenth century, England and France descended into the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) which was fought over who would succeed the childless Charles IV of France after he died in 1328. The lengthy war had a significant political impact for both sides. In England, it strengthened Parliament’s role. Edward III (r. 1312-1377) and his successors had to call Parliament into session more frequently to raise funds to fight the French. As these meetings occurred, the House of Lords and the House of Commons began to take shape. After the war, the English began to see a representative government as the most enlightened form of government in the world. A corresponding national assembly did not appear in France because Phillip VI (r. 1328-1350) and his successors considered it repugnant. While the French people began to form a common identity because of the war, the nation’s regional assemblies did not want to give up their power. Therefore, the French built their national government on a strong monarchy.

    The Hundred Years’ War also brought on a period of domestic strife in England as the Duke of York and the Duke of Lancaster fought to control the young Henry VI who ascended to the throne in 1422. The War of the Roses finally ended when Henry Tudor defeated his rival in 1485. In the Tudor dynasty, the monarchy became the main political force in England. Henry VII (r. 1485-1508) preferred to rely on a royal council composed mostly of men from the middle class instead of on Parliament. He used diplomacy, not war, to smooth over problems with other nations. Therefore, he did not have to call Parliament into session to secure funds for his ventures. His actions undercut the influence of the English aristocracy. Henry VII’s governing council also dealt with recalcitrant nobles by using the Star Chamber, which was a judicial body that undermined traditions of English common law, and by promoting the interests of the middle class. In the Tudor dynasty, the monarchy became the main political force in England.

    During Henry VII’s reign, England made its first foray into overseas exploration. In May 1497, the king allowed John Cabot, a Venetian mariner living in London, to sail under the English flag in an attempt find a northern route to Asia. Cabot reached land, what he called Newfoundland, in June and claimed it on behalf of Henry VII. He made a second voyage in 1498, funded in part by the king because he expected to reap the financial rewards of the journey. However, after Cabot’s death, his crew, led by his son Sebastian, failed to find any precious metals, so Henry VII lost interest in overseas exploration. Though Spain and Portugal began the process of colonization, England found itself in the midst of a political and a religious crisis for much of the sixteenth century. Events at home took precedence over any further state-sponsored oceanic voyages. However, Cabot’s voyages gave England claim to the North American mainland when the English began to think about colonization in the New World.

    Religion and Politics in the Sixteenth Century

    Through most of the medieval period, secular leaders in England and France had relied on a connection to the Roman Catholic Church to underscore their legitimacy. By the early sixteenth century, however, the church had come under fire. The intellectual currents of the Renaissance played a role in this change, but so too did the practices of the church, including clerical immorality, clerical ignorance, and clerical absenteeism. The church’s failings led Martin Luther to touch off the Protestant Reformation in 1517. Luther, a Catholic priest in Germany, hoped to prompt a reform movement within the church when he posted his theses on Wittenberg’s church door. In his early years, Luther struggled to grapple with the church’s teachings about salvation, especially the idea that by doing good works, or purchasing indulgences, people could earn their salvation. In an effort to force the church to clarify its teachings on salvation, Luther wrote the ninety-five theses. He also called into question the authority of the pope. Church authorities subsequently sent Luther a letter giving him two months to recant his statements. Luther burned the letter, thus assuring his excommunication from the church. In spite of the church’s hope that excommunication would quell the unrest, Protestant sects appeared throughout Europe, including in England and France. The decision to become Protestant or remain Catholic in many cases had as much to do with politics as it did with faith.

    The English Reformation began officially when Henry VIII (r. 1509-1549) asked Pope Clement VII to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. To marry Catherine, his dead brother’s wife, Henry had had to secure a special dispensation from Pope Julius. During the course of their marriage, Catherine had six children, but only one survived, a daughter named Mary. Henry convinced himself that marrying his brother’s wife prevented him from having a male heir. Henry VIII’s request put Clement in a bad situation because reversing Julius’s decision would suggest papal fallibility. At a time when the church was already under fire from the Protestants, such a move would further weaken it. Moreover, Catherine’s nephew, Charles V of Spain, had recently taken control of Rome, the papal seat of power. Thus, Clement refused Henry’s request. However, Thomas Cranmer, appointed the archbishop of Canterbury in 1532, harbored Protestant sympathies. He therefore granted the annulment in spite of the pope’s previous decision. In 1533, Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn; their daughter, Elizabeth, was born the same year. When that marriage failed to produce a male heir, Henry tried again with Jane Seymour. She gave birth to Edward, in 1537. After Jane died in childbirth, Henry went on to have three more wives but no more children. Meanwhile, Parliament passed a series of succession acts, which made Edward the rightful heir followed by his older sisters, Mary and Elizabeth.

    While Henry VIII’s quest to produce a male heir played out, he also moved to separate England from the Roman Catholic Church. Relying on the advice of Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell, Henry decided to break with the pope, a decision leading Parliament to pass the Act in Restraint of Appeals and the Act of Submission of the Clergy. The first measure made the king the head of the Church of England. The second measure required all priests in England to swear allegiance to the king’s church. Doctrinally speaking, the Church of England, called the Anglican Church, made few changes. However, Henry VIII dissolved all the monasteries in England and confiscated their wealth as a means to build his treasury.

    The fate of Protestantism ebbed and flowed under Henry’s children, Edward VI (r. 1547-1553), Mary I (r. 1553-1558), and Elizabeth I (r. 1558­ 1603). Edward was strongly Protestant and wanted to make significant changes that would mirror the religious changes on the continent. Mary, on the other hand, was strongly Catholic. She pushed Parliament to repeal the legislation that created the Church of England, and she executed several hundred Protestants. When Elizabeth succeeded Mary, she sought to achieve a balance between the Protestants and Catholics in England. Her policies leaned toward Protestantism, but she asked only for outward conformity from her subjects. The Church of England retained the ceremony of the Catholic service, but the priests said mass in the vernacular and could marry. Her compromises brought a certain amount of stability to the country. They also led to the rise of the Puritans in England who would play an instrumental role in English colonization in the New World in the seventeenth century.

    The French monarchy had little political reason to turn to Protestantism in the early sixteenth century. In 1516, Francis I (r. 1515-1547) and Pope Leo X signed the Concordat of Bologna. It made Catholicism the official religion of France but also gave the French king the right to appoint church authorities in his country. Unlike Henry VIII, Francis I did not need to break with Rome to exert his control over the church or its financial resources. In fact, given the religious stability in the 1520s, Francis looked for possible ways to catch up with the Spanish in the realm of overseas exploration and colonization. In 1524, he sponsored a voyage by Giovanni da Verrazzano to stake a claim in the New World and discover the Northwest Passage. During his voyage, Verrazano explored the Atlantic coastline from modern-day South Carolina to New York. A decade later, Francis sponsored two voyages by Jacques Cartier. While he failed to find a northern route to Asia, Cartier surveyed the St. Lawrence River and made valuable contacts with the native population. Nevertheless, the discoveries did not inspire Francis to support a permanent settlement in Canada at that time.

    The connection between the state and the church established in 1516, however, did not prevent Protestant sentiments from growing in France during the tenure of Henry II (r. 1547-1559). The weakness of Henry II’s sons led to a civil war in France that had religious undertones. Some members of the French nobility became Protestants in order to show their independence from the crown. The Catholic-Protestant split in France led to a series of religious riots, the worst of which occurred on St. Bartholomew’s Day, August 24, 1572. Shortly after the marriage of Margaret of Valois to Henry of Navarre, Catholics led by Henry of Guise viciously attacked Protestants in Paris. After the so-called Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, three factions vied for control during the War of the Three Henrys—Henry III, Henry of Guise, and Henry of Navarre. A group of Catholic moderates finally ended the strife when they concluded that domestic tranquility was more important than religious doctrine. Moreover, the deaths of two of the Henrys left only the Protestant Henry of Navarre standing. After he ascended to the throne, Henry IV (r. 1589-1610) joined the Roman Catholic Church. Then, he issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which granted French Protestants, the Huguenots, the liberty of conscience and the liberty of worship. Henry IV’s tentative nod to religious toleration brought stability to the country. Relative peace at home paved the way for future French exploration.


    During the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Era, England and France took shape as nation states. When the barbarian invasions stopped in the twelfth century, English and French rulers sought to consolidate their control. While they managed to exert greater influence over their subjects, they also found themselves frequently at odds with one another and facing religious strife at home as the Protestant Reformation took hold in Europe. By the late sixteenth century, England and France, both of which had only flirted with overseas exploration to that point, had become sovereign states under the rule of strong monarchies. Thus, as the new century dawned, both seemed posed to start their colonial ventures and carry their rivalry to the New World.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    1. The principle implied in the Magna Carta (1215) was

    a. that democracy would replace monarchy.

    b.that the king was above the law.

    c.that the people ruled the monarch.

    d.that all people, even the king, were subject to the law.



    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    2. Henry VIII’s religious reformation in England occurred

    a. mostly for political reasons.

    b.strictly for economic reasons.

    c.mostly for diplomatic reasons.

    d.strictly for religious reasons.



    This page titled 2.3: Europe in the Age of Discovery - England and France is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Locks, Sarah Mergel, Pamela Roseman, Tamara Spike & Marie Lasseter (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.