Tudor succession: Protestant v.s Catholic

The monarch rules the church in England

Thomas CranmerWhen Henry VIII realised that the Pope would not grant him a divorce from his Catholic wife, Katherine of Aragon (so that he could marry Anne Boleyn), he took matters into his own hands. He declared that the Pope's rule did not extend over England and that he himself, and not the Pope, was Supreme Head of the Church in England.

Henry appointed Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury, and Cranmer used his authority to declare the marriage of Henry and Katharine annulled. Henry then married Anne Boleyn.

The new law is enforced

Henry ordered that everybody should swear an oath of loyalty to Henry confirming that:

  • Henry was Head of the Church in England

  • The children of Anne were his rightful successors.

There were severe penalties for refusing. Many loyal Catholics, most notably Henry's former Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, were executed.

A third attempt to secure an heir

Anne Boleyn failed to produce the heir that Henry wanted, and within three years of her marriage to Henry she had been beheaded on a charge of treason.

Henry had decided that it was time to try another lady-in-waiting as his wife. In 1536, eleven days after Anne's execution, Henry married Jane Seymour.

In October 1537, she produced the longed-for male heir – Prince Edward. Jane would presumably have remained as Henry's well-loved Queen, but she died shortly after Edward's birth.

Further marriages

Henry married three more times:

  • Anne of Cleves, whom he quickly divorced

  • Catherine Howard, who was executed for extra-marital affairs

  • Katharine Parr, who outlived him.

Henry died in 1547, and the ten-year-old Prince Edward came to the throne as Edward VI.

Religious turmoil

Shortly before Henry's death, he announced that in future all church services were to be in English, including Bible readings. However, the services were still the same as the Catholic Mass, so:

  • Roman Catholics who still professed loyalty to the Pope were executed as traitors.

See also Religious/philosophical context: The Reformation

Public differences of opinion

Shakespeare was writing at a time when many of the population would have had to adapt, under different rulers, to different aspects of the Christian faith, and would have held a variety of views – no matter what the current monarch, and current laws, expected them to believe.

Introduction of the Book of Common Prayer

Under Edward VI, son of Henry VIII, the Church in England became considerably more Protestant. In 1549, Archbishop Cranmer produced a new Prayer Book, based on a translation of the Mass, but incorporating Protestant ideas. An Act of Uniformity made its use compulsory in all churches. It was updated in 1552.

However, in 1553 Edward died.

There was a brief struggle for power – the sixteen-year-old Protestant Lady Jane Grey was briefly declared Queen, then executed, as Henry's first child, Mary, claimed the throne.

The (brief) return of Catholicism

Mary IMary I had been brought up as a Catholic by her mother Katharine of Aragon. During the five years of her reign, from 1553 to 1558, Mary reversed the movement to Protestantism in England. Those who refused to declare loyalty to the Pope and to Roman Catholicism (including Archbishop Cranmer) were burnt at the stake – giving Mary her nickname of Bloody Mary.

She married the Spanish King, Philip II, son of the Emperor Charles V, but died in 1558 without an heir.

Danger for the protestant champion

During Mary's reign, Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, was in considerable danger. As a Protestant, she was seen by Mary as a possible focus of Protestant rebellions. To avoid execution Elizabeth had to make some concessions to Mary's re-introduction of Catholicism.

However, as soon as Mary died in November 1558, Elizabeth was declared rightful Queen. She at once set about re-introducing Protestantism to England.

With the protestant Elizabeth I on the throne, services were again held in English and a new [3Book of Common Prayer3] (i.e. prayers to be used uniformly throughout the Church of England) was introduced in 1559. Throughout his life, therefore, Shakespeare heard the words of the Bible in English and listened to the scholarly and poetical language of the Book of Common Prayer, both of which had a considerable influence on his own written style.

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