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The rulers' religions: 1534-1558

The principle of the ruler choosing the people's religion (cuius regio eius religio) is not officially formulated until the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. But by that time England has long been practising such a policy, and greatly suffering from it in a series of upheavals and reverses.

The changes under Henry VIII do not have a religious motive, but they affect religion in everyday life. Almost everyone lives near a priory, monastery, abbey or convent. Between 1536 and 1541 these buildings are destroyed, the monks are pensioned off and the nuns sent back to their families (but forbidden to marry). The Bible is made available in English in the churches; four years later, in 1543, it is mysteriously removed again.

Religion, again, is not the primary reason for the tyranny exercised by Henry VIII, who kills his colleagues with greater abandon than any other European ruler of the time. But there often seems a close link.

Thomas More dies because he will not deny the supremacy of the pope. Reginald Pole works in the pope's cause against Henry, but he is abroad and out of the king's reach. Henry's response is to execute Pole's brother and mother, easily available to him in England. These are acts against papal interference, not against papal doctrine. On one occasion Henry hangs a man for eating meat in Lent; and several Protestants are burnt as heretics for rejecting Henry's traditional Six Articles of 1539.

The Protestant years, in the reign of Edward VI, involve no deaths (the heresy laws are revoked) but there are great changes in people's lives. The mass, or communion service, is now in English rather than Latin; images and sculptures are removed from the churches; ex-nuns are encouraged to marry.

Under Mary, for five years, the pendulum swings again. The mass is once more in Latin; married ex-nuns, told now that they are living in mortal sin, are squeezed back into their habits (though not into their convents, which have been sold); and the nation witnesses the extraordinary sight of an archbishop of Canterbury being burnt at the stake as a heretic.

After all this, on the death of Mary in 1558, England is ready for an easing of doctrinal tension - and Elizabeth has the political sense to appreciate the need for tolerance. She is a Protestant queen, so the English prayer book is again the order of service. But at the start of her reign Catholics who refuse to worship in this form on a Sunday are penalized with nothing more severe than a twelvepenny fine for the benefit of the poor.

Public relief is intense. And happily there is a record of at least one nun who proves a natural survivor: she is ejected from her convent under Henry, she marries under Edward, she is separated from her husband under Mary, and she rejoins him under Elizabeth.

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