We’ve been looking in previous weeks about how Protestantism took hold in various European nations, but I think England might be the only case where it was instituted by a king, and for personal reasons at that. The monarch in question was Henry VIII, he was, he was; and he was known for marrying six times and having his wives executed. Actually, he only did that to two of the six, but that doesn’t make it all right. His first wife was Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, and the widow of his brother Arthur.
Henry was intent on having a son to carry on his line, but all of their children died in infancy except for their daughter Mary. When the Pope refused to grant an annulment based on the fact that Catherine had been married to his brother (although she insisted they never consummated the marriage), Henry started his own church so that he could get a divorce. Henry still held to most Catholic doctrines and practices, however; the main difference between the Church of England and the Catholic Church was that the King of England was the supreme leader of the faith. Therefore, he was able to grant himself a divorce, and marry Anne Boelyn, a lady-in-waiting to Catherine and daughter of the Earl of Wiltshire.
There is a popular legend that Henry, who was known as a composer, wrote “Greensleeves” for Anne, but music historians have dismissed this idea. Anyway, when Henry and Anne’s only surviving child was also a daughter, Elizabeth, the king eventually had her arrested on trumped-up treason charges and beheaded. He finally fathered the son he desired with his third wife Jane Seymour, a cousin of and maid-in-waiting to Anne, as well as the apparent namesake of the actress who played Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (whose real name is Joyce Frankenberg).
Jane died shortly after giving birth, and Henry then married Anne of Cleves for a grand total of about six months.
They apparently never consummated their marriage, and Henry was not eager to get caught up in Anne’s brother’s dispute with the Holy Roman Emperor. So they were also divorced, and Henry married Catherine Howard, who was a cousin of Anne Boelyn’s.
Talk about keeping love in the family! While the king presumably actually liked her, she was unfaithful to him, and was executed as her cousin had been. His last wife was yet another Catherine, Catherine Parr, who reconciled Henry with his daughters Mary and Elizabeth, and managed to outlive her husband. She was actually pretty good at this, already having been a widow twice over when she married Henry.
Some of the first steps toward distinguishing the Church of England from the Catholic Church occurred during the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI.
He was crowned at the age of nine and was only fifteen when he died, so he was never able to exercise full monarchical power, but he was known to be sympathetic to Protestant reformations. Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was instrumental in many of the reforms, including salvation by faith alone, government appointment of priests, and the denial of transubstantiation. These reforms did not all take right away, though, thanks to Edward’s successor Mary being a staunch Catholic who brought England back under papal authority.
She became known as Bloody Mary due to her frequent executions of Protestant leaders. While she died in 1558, I understand that she’s still making appearances in mirrors.
The next person in line for the English throne was Elizabeth, known to history as the Virgin Queen (which she might not have actually been, but it’s true that she never married) and Good Queen Bess, even though she also had a lot of people executed. I suppose history truly is written by the victors.
Overall, Elizabeth sought to bring back the Protestant reforms made under her half-brother, but tried not to go too far overboard in her changes, retaining a lot of Catholic trappings. And that’s essentially why today the Anglican or Episcopal Church is a Protestant denomination that still has bishops and priests. Interestingly, the Church has also, especially as of late, developed a reputation for being more liberal and tolerant than many denominations, allowing for individual members to practice in more Catholic or Protestant fashion as they see fit. It has also ordained both female and openly gay priests, although there are significant elements still present in the Church that oppose these measures.