Henry VIII and The Church of England
A century before Macbeth was published, England was a Catholic country… an identity shared with every other country that identified as “Christian”. In fact, Catholicism was the only denomination of Christianity until Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of a church in Germany. Religion in England is historically a confusing and twisted timeline, and the 1500s show just how difficult maintaining a religious identity was.
King Henry VIII ruled England during an incredibly turbulent time in European history. After taking the throne in 1509 Henry witnessed a rise in religious persecution and division of beliefs. Henry managed to actually wade out into the chaos and use the evolution (or in some ways revolution) of religion to his own political advantage. Henry married Catherine of Aragon in 1509, however by the 1520s he was still lacking a male heir which threatened the continuation of his reign. Catherine gave birth to a daughter, Mary, in 1516 and in the following decade would suffer several miscarriages and stillbirths. Panicking without a male heir, Henry searched for ways to get out of his marriage to Catherine. He thought he found a solution in asking the Pope to reverse the dispensation originally granted to allow Henry to marry Catherine after her previous husband, Henry’s brother, passed away. While this seemed the perfect solution, Henry realized that if God had wanted Catherine to be his wife surely God would have given them a male heir, and furthermore he wondered how the Pope had the authority to grant such heavy dispensations in the first place. From 1529 to 1532 Henry would be engaged in a debate over the future of England from both a political and religious perspective.
By the spring of 1532 Henry declared himself the head of the Church of England. His argument was that the English people should not owe loyalty to anyone over their king, and the loyalty Catholics owed the Pope violated this principle. All of Henry’s subjects were absolved of their duties to the Pope and should turn to the King in all matters regarding politics and religion. Turning the Church into a department of the State allowed Henry to not only divorce Catherine but then marry Anne Boleyn.
Problems of Inheritance
While this seemed to solve all of Henry’s problems, Anne was also unable to produce a male heir. She gave birth to a daughter Elizabeth in 1533, but could not have a son and furthermore had gained a bit of a reputation for being outspoken. Henry’s response was to accuse Anne of infidelity, considered treason at this time, and she was then executed in 1536. One of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting named Jane Seymour quickly became Henry’s third wife. Jane finally gave Henry his true wish, she gave birth to his only legitimate son, Edward, although sadly Jane died from complications with childbirth. After Jane’s death Henry would go on to marry three more women before his own death, leaving him quite infamous in English royal history (in 2018 the musical “Six” was written where each of the six wives of Henry tell their story through pop music).
As the only male heir, Edward VI ascended to the throne in 1547 at the ripe age of nine. The boy-king implemented more Protestant reform in the English Church, however just a few years later he caught tuberculosis and died in 1553. Since he died at just fifteen years old, Edward had no heirs male or female. Therefore, Mary I took the throne as the eldest child of Henry VII and technically next in line, making her the first official female monarch in English history. With her new power as the Head of the Church and of State, Mary was determined to reinstate Catholicism as the national religion of England. Since Catherine of Aragon (Henry’s first wife) was her mother, Mary was raised Catholic and as a result was actually sent into exile during her Protestant brother Edward’s reign. In order to return her Kingdom to Catholicism and the Papacy she mandated that everyone must go to mass and renounce Protestantism or they would be burned. Her violent reign earned her the nickname “Bloody Mary”, though her reign was cut short when she fell ill in 1558. Without a male heir of her own, she proclaimed her sister Elizabeth as her successor before she died.
When Elizabeth took the throne, she certainly had her work cut out for her. Mary left the country nothing short of a theological mess, and consequently the people of England did not have the greatest reception to another female monarch. At the beginning of her reign, Elizabeth refrained from declaring herself either Catholic or Protestant which allowed her to work with both sides of the religious divide. She would reform religion in England until she had created a Church that held Protestant ideas while also retaining some visual culture and structure of Catholicism. In 1559 she created the Church of England and declared herself the Supreme Governor. Within a few decades of taking the throne, Elizabeth had healed the religious divide and most English citizens were content within the new Church.
Elizabeth’s relationship with her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, James’ mother, was contentious at best. Elizabeth actually had Mary executed over alleged involvement in an assassination attempt… but what’s English history without a little family drama? This family feud originated because of a problem with succession. Elizabeth I, as Queen of England, was the most powerful person in the country. She knew that if she married someone it would lessen her power, but she also recognized that marriage was a strong political playing card for other European rulers. Her solution was to rely heavily on state-sponsored symbolism that she was “married” to the people of England. Ruling as the “Virgin Queen” was an incredibly strong political power move on her part. However, not taking a husband meant that she had no clear successor for the throne, and Elizabeth actively refused to name a successor herself because she was afraid whoever she named would become part of a political plot to overthrow her.
One of the strong contenders for the crown was Elizabeth’s cousin and daughter of Henry VII’s sister, Mary Queen of Scots. Mary and Elizabeth were opposites in quite a number of ways— most notably that Mary was Catholic while Elizabeth was Protestant, and Mary was a Stuart while Elizabeth was a Tudor. There were several plots to overthrow Elizabeth, many of which dealt with people wanting to restore a Catholic monarch to the throne. In 1586. Mary was arrested for conspiring to murder Elizabeth after a letter in which Mary had consented to the murder of Elizabeth was discovered and Mary was beheaded in 1587.