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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Romans in Britain
Anglo-Saxons & Vikings
Lancaster and York
Henry VII and Henry VIII
Children of Henry VIII
     English Reformation
     Mary I
     Ten calming years
     New perspectives
     Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots
     Spain and England
     Spanish Armada
     Religion and war
     Virgin Queen

Charles I and Charles II
Civil War, Commonwealth
Restoration, Revolution

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The English Reformation: 1547-1662

Although Henry VIII severs the church of England from Rome in 1533, religious reform does not begin in earnest until after his death in 1547. Indeed in 1539 parliament passes, at the king's behest, an Act of Six Articles outlawing Lutheran notions such as the marriage of clergy, or any interpretation of the Eucharist differing from that of Rome.

But in the six-year reign of Henry's son, Edward VI, two successive regents of the young king (the dukes of Somerset and Northumberland) press ahead with reform in the Calvinist tradition. This is the time when English cathedrals and churches first have their sculptures and stained-glass windows smashed, and their murals defaced.


On the positive side the period produces two versions of the Prayer Book (1549 and 1552) which are largely the work of Thomas Cranmer. Though modified in some respects in later reigns, Cranmer's superb prose provides the basis of the Book of Common Prayer which becomes accepted from 1662 as the order of service of the church of England.

But the English Reformation has to pass through fire before it is tempered into its final form. In her five-year reign Edward's sister, Mary I, forcibly reimposes Roman Catholicism on England. Protestant martyrs burnt at the stake bequeath to the Anglican church two abiding characteristics - a dislike of religious fervour and a hatred of Roman Catholicism.


Mary I: 1553-1558

Mary inherits the English throne in 1553, on the death of her young brother Edward VI. Her reign begins with an attempted coup d'état by her brother's unscrupulous mentor, the duke of Northumberland. The innocent victim of his treason is the 15-year-old Lady Jane Grey. Within ten days of Northumberland's grab for the throne, Mary is safely proclaimed queen. It is possibly the last occasion on which the majority of her subjects are on her side.

Mary is passionately faithful to the memory of her ill-treated mother, Catherine of Aragon, and to the Roman Catholic religion. The central theme of her reign is the restoration of England as a Catholic kingdom under the authority of the pope.


Mary's first step in her chosen direction is profoundly unpopular in England. She announces in November 1553 that she will marry her Spanish cousin Philip, son of the emperor Charles V. The news provokes an uprising in Kent in 1554, led by Sir Thomas Wyatt, which is only narrowly defeated in the outskirts of London. The crisis seals the fate of the unfortunate Lady Jane Grey, altering Mary's previous intention to spare her life.

Parliament accepts Mary's marriage but will not allow Philip to be crowned as her consort. In similar mood it passes legislation for the return of Roman Catholicism, but only with the proviso that no layman will be expected to hand back church property acquired under Henry VIII.


This very practical response to Mary's zeal demonstrates how difficult it is for her to reverse the English Reformation. Only in the purely religious context can she show real progress. She applies herself with vigour to the task of rooting out heretics.

The arrival of Cardinal Pole as the pope's legate, in November 1554, signals the return of England to the papal fold. The investigation of heresy begins immediately. In February 1555 prominent Protestants begin to be burnt at the stake. John Hooper, the bishop of Gloucester, is among the first. Subsequent martyrs include the bishop of Rochester (Nicholas Ridley) and the archbishop of Canterbury (Thomas Cranmer).


The English Protestant martyrs number fewer than 300 - far less than the victims of sudden massacres elsewhere (such as St Bartholomew's Day in France) or the persistent losses suffered by the Anabaptists. But the steady procession of ordinary men and women to the stake in Mary's reign, alongside a minority of distinguished clerics, leaves an indelible memory in England - and one kept alive by the gory details in John Foxe's Book of Martyrs, an immensely popular work published in several English editions from 1563.

Mary is thirty-eight when she marries Philip, eleven years her junior. She is desperate to give birth to an heir who will displace from the inheritance her Protestant sister Elizabeth.


A few months after her marriage Mary, believing herself to be pregnant, orders thanksgiving services to be held. A similar false pregnancy and disappointment occurs in 1558, in the forty-second and last year of her life.

On her deathbed Mary is no doubt well aware that her dogmatic efforts have been in vain. They earn her the nickname Bloody Mary in English popular history, but they also provide the context for the mood of reconciliation which characterizes her sister's policy. More than anywhere else in Europe, England has experienced a disastrous see-saw of creeds resulting from the contemporary convention of the ruler choosing the kingdom's religion (see The rulers' religions).


Ten calming years: 1558-1568

When Elizabeth I comes to the throne, succeeding her sister Mary peacefully in November 1558, England is in need of calm on several fronts. The religious friction of the past two reigns must be resolved, though it will not be made easier by large numbers of Protestant exiles hurrying home from Zürich or Geneva and eager for their turn.

Peace has to be made with France and her ally Scotland, with whom England has been at war since 1557 as a result of Mary loyally supporting her husband, Philip, in yet another French and Spanish conflict. The war has greatly damaged English self-esteem, because early in 1558 the French have taken the opportunity to seize Calais.


Elizabeth makes peace with both France and Scotland, accepting terms for the loss of Calais. But a year later she responds forcefully when there seems a danger of French troops controlling Scotland. An English army, sent to help John Knox and the Protestant rebels, forces a French withdrawal in 1560.

On the religious front the queen attempts to achieve a moderate climate which will neither inflame the Puritan element nor exclude, and possibly drive into rebellion, the Roman Catholics. A new Act of Supremacy is passed in 1559, affirming that like her father she is head of the English church. Even so, Elizabeth avoids an open break with Rome until 1561.


In the economy steps are taken to improve the coinage and to boost trade. Sir Thomas Gresham builds the Royal Exchange (1566-68) as the first meeting place for London's bankers.

In all these activities Elizabeth has an ideal partner, a man who has looked after her own personal affairs since 1550. Now, on her accession in 1558, he becomes her principal secretary; and he holds the informal role of chief minister for the remaining forty years of his life. He is William Cecil, created Baron Burghley in 1571.


Elizabeth and Cecil run the administration, as Henry VIII did, through a small privy council. But they also follow the example of Henry VIII in making use of parliament to ensure support for their actions, enlisting the power of the commons as a counterweight to that of the nobility.

The nature of Henry VIII's rule guaranteed a compliant parliament. Elizabeth cannot rely in the same way on cooperation. Puritan voices increasingly make themselves heard in the commons, often to her displeasure, and she summons parliament only infrequently (thirteen times in forty-four years). But in times of crisis the queen's personal ability to win the backing of parliament often proves invaluable, as in her famous 'Golden speech' to members in 1601.


New perspectives: 1568

By the year 1568 it is becoming plain that England's foreign policy is undergoing a major shift. For centuries France has been England's main enemy. During the early 16th century, a period dominated by the rivalry between France and Spain, this traditional alignment gives Spain the role of England's natural ally - a state of affairs reflected in the marriage of Henry VIII to Catherine of Aragon, and of Mary I to Philip II.

But two circumstances are beginning to alter the situation.


One is the increasing threat to Spanish interests in the Caribbean from English sea captains, who at best infringe Spain's trading monopoly and at worst will rob any Spanish vessel they can overpower. Prominent among them is John Hawkins.

The issue becomes topical in September 1568 when Hawkins, commanding ships carrying merchandise and fifty-seven African slaves, is surprised at Vera Cruz by a Spanish fleet. The Spanish seize all but two of the English ships (one of them belonging to the queen herself), together with most of the sailors and all the merchandise and the slaves.


The queen herself is not above a little piracy of her own. In December of this same year Spanish treasure ships, laden with gold to pay troops in the Netherlands, shelter from a storm in English harbours. Elizabeth keeps the gold in England, even though ostensibly at peace with Spain.

The other reason for a change of policy also derives from an event of 1568. Elizabeth's cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, arrives in Carlisle, escaping from her Protestant enemies north of the border. She has always maintained that she is the rightful queen of England (Elizabeth being a bastard if her father's divorce from Catherine of Aragon was invalid). It suits Catholic Spain to help Mary win Elizabeth's throne.


Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots: 1568-1587

The arrival of Mary in the north of England, where the nobility is still largely Roman Catholic, prompts the most dangerous rebellion of Elizabeth's reign. In 1569 the earls of Westmorland and Northumberland, with a force of about 6000 men, enter the city of Durham - where they hear mass in the cathedral and publicly burn the Book of Common Prayer and the English Bible. But their uprising fizzles out when they fail to reach Mary, by this time held as far south as Coventry.

The two earls escape to Scotland. Elizabeth brings swift punishment to followers in their northern territories, where some 800 suspected rebels are hanged.


This is the last attempt at armed uprising in Elizabeth's reign. Subsequent plots envisage the assassination of the queen herself, followed by an invasion of Spanish troops from the Netherlands. Mary, in secret contact with the Spanish authorities, is actively involved in these conspiracies.

The first is coordinated in 1571 by a Florentine banker, Roberto Ridolfi. Mary writes to the Spanish ambassador in London: 'Tell your master that if he will help me I shall be queen of England in three months.' When the plot is discovered, parliament in Westminster demands that Mary be put to death. Elizabeth refuses.


Meanwhile Mary lives in some style. Although a prisoner, moved around England for security's sake, she is treated as a queen, is allowed the management of her own dowry, and is attended by her own court of about thirty people. But this is not the court she dreams of.

The next plot, after a gap of twelve years, follows the arrival in England of the first Jesuit missionaries; they influence Francis Throckmorton, who plays the central organizing role of the conspiracy discovered in 1583. Another member of the secret circle around the Jesuits is Anthony Babington. His name is usually given to the conspiracy of 1586 which seals Mary's fate.


Elizabeth's subtle spymaster, Francis Walsingham, contrives to see letters passed between Mary and Babington in 1586. They strongly imply Mary's connivance in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth (though she denies this), and they prove sufficient to bring her at last to trial and conviction for treason. Even so, it is three months before Elizabeth signs the death warrant.

Mary is beheaded in February 1587 in the great hall of Fotheringay castle, in a scene where her courage and dignity profoundly impress the onlookers. The almost certain heir to Elizabeth's throne is now Mary's son, James VI.


Spain and England: 1568-1588

During the years when Philip II plots secretly against Elizabeth, a more public clash of interests is steadily pushing Spain into a position of open hostility. After Elizabeth's appropriation of Spanish gold on its way to the Netherlands in 1568, relations between Spain and England are formally severed for five years. By 1585 Elizabeth is actively supporting the Dutch rebels in the Netherlands. She sends 6000 men to their aid in that year under the earl of Leicester.

Meanwhile English incursions into the rich Spanish territories of Latin America have been escalating since the pioneering efforts of John Hawkins.


The main English voyages of plunder have been carried out by Francis Drake, a relative of Hawkins. Sailing from Plymouth to the Caribbean in May 1572 with just two small ships and seventy-three men, he spends more than a year depriving the Spanish of their precious metals, taking gold and silver from captured ships, from treasure houses on land and even from intercepted mule trains.

During his voyage round the world, in 1577-80, Drake goes one better - surprising the Spanish on the previously safe Pacific coast, where in 1579 he captures a fat, defenceless vessel, the Cacafuego, carrying 26 tons of silver, 80 lb. of gold and 13 chests of money. (The captain of a Spanish ship later provides an interesting glimpse of life On board the Golden Hind.)


So far these adventures have had the quality of piracy. But Drake's departure from Plymouth for the Caribbean in 1585, with a fleet of about thirty ships, looks much more like an expedition of war. He and his men spend several months plundering Spanish settlements, burning houses, sinking ships, destroying whatever they cannot profitably remove.

Coinciding with Elizabeth's despatch of troops to the Netherlands in the same year, this provocation finally persuades Philip that he must invade England. His pious wish to bring his first wife's country back to Roman Catholicism coincides now with the need to protect his territories.


Even so, he has to suffer one more affront. While Philip assembles his fleet in Cadiz in 1587, Drake sails into the crowded harbour and burns or sinks some thirty ships (an impertinence which becomes known in England as 'singeing the king of Spain's beard'). Much of the fleet being assembled consists of galleys, the standard Spanish warship of the time.

Drake's ability to manoeuvre at Cadiz affects the forthcoming expedition, because it convinces Philip that he must use sailing ships. By May 1588 he has assembled a fleet of galleons.


Spanish Armada: 1588

The encounter between the Spanish Armada and the English fleet in the Channel in August 1588 is the first of a new kind of naval battle, and one in which the English tactics suggest the way forward.

The Spanish have been accustomed to fighting at sea with galleys, as at Lepanto only seventeen years previously. A galley imposes a certain pattern on a battle. Guns can only point forward from the bow, where the main weapon, the ram, is also located. Assault consists in rowing straight at the enemy. Once at close quarters the ideal is to sink the enemy ship, with the ram. Next best is to grapple it and swarm aboard for hand-to-hand combat - in a technique going back to the Roman navy and the 'raven'.


The Armada (or in full Flota Armada Invencible, Armed Invincible Fleet) is the first Spanish war fleet to consist of sailing vessels, but its composition implies the use of galley tactics. The Spanish galleons are heavy; their guns fire large cannon balls, devastating at close quarters but of limited range; and the sailors on board the warships are more than twice outnumbered by soldiers, valueless in a sea battle unless ships come alongside.

The English fleet, consisting of smaller and swifter vessels, is armed with cannon which fire a lighter ball over a greater range. And the ships are almost entirely manned by trained seamen, with only a handful of soldiers.


Compared to later grand battles at sea, the fight with the Armada is strung-out and scrappy. The English, under the command of Lord Howard of Effingham, attack off Plymouth on July 31, off Portland Bill on August 2 and off the isle of Wight on August 4. Their light cannon reach the Spanish ships but do little damage. The fleet safely reaches Calais, where the plan is to pick up an army from the Netherlands and to ferry it across the Channel against England. But the army has not arrived.

During the night of August 7 the English send fire ships in among the anchored fleet, causing the Spanish to cut their cables in disarray. The next day the only real engagement takes place, off Gravelines.


The Spanish run out of cannon shot first, whereupon the English sail in close enough to do serious damage. At least three ships are sunk and a great many more severely battered before the English too run out of shot. The Armada escapes into the North Sea. The Spanish commander, the duke of Medina Sidonia, cannot now return through the Channel. He attempts to take his shattered fleet round the north of Scotland and into the Atlantic.

Ships founder or are wrecked on Scottish and Irish coasts. Of the 130 vessels which sailed from Corunna in June, only 67 limp back to Spain. The English, with a very much easier return voyage to their home ports, lose not a single ship.


Religion and war: 1570-1603

Elizabeth is by nature a pacifier. Her inclination has been clear in the first ten years of her reign, when the essentially moderate nature of the English Reformation is firmly established in the doctrines of the Anglican church.

But from 1570 such a policy becomes steadily more difficult. In that year the pope excommunicates Elizabeth, dangerously splitting the loyalties of her Roman Catholic subjects. In 1574 the first Catholic missionary priests arrive in England; they have been trained at Douai where William Allen, in the energetic mood of the Catholic Reformation, has established a college to train English priests for this purpose.


In 1580 the Jesuits add England to to their fields of endeavour, sending over a small group of missionaries which includes Edmund Campion. In July 1581 Campion is arrested when preaching in Berkshire. He is interrogated, tortured, and accused of having conspired with others in Rome to dethrone the queen.

On being found guilty of treason, Campion puts the issue with admirable clarity: 'If our religion do make us traitors, we are worthy to be condemned; but otherwise we are and have been as good subjects as ever the Queen had.


The dilemma pinpointed by Campion becomes increasingly relevant during the 1580s, with religion and politics ever more tensely interconnected. The main enemy to England as a nation is now Catholic Spain. The main rival to Elizabeth as queen is the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots.

Even if the missionaries keep to their official brief and restrict their teaching to religion, their excitable converts are often interested in politics. Both Throckmorton and Babington, prominent in the two plots against Elizabeth's life in the 1580s, have links with the Jesuits. In such circumstances it is difficult for a nervous government to distinguish between religious and political dissent.


As a result, the relatively mild measures against Roman Catholicism in Elizabeth's first decade are drastically revised in the 1580s. In 1581, the year of Campion's death, the fine for not attending an Anglican service on a Sunday goes up from one shilling a week to a massive 20 a month, nearly a hundred-fold increase.

And now once again, as in Mary's reign, there is a steady stream of religious martyrs. More than 200 Catholics are executed between 1574 and the end of the reign. Their offence is said to be not heresy but treason - of which a minority are certainly guilty. For the rest the irrelevant charge makes the injustice even greater.


At the same time war is distracting Elizabeth from her purposes and draining her purse. The English defeat of the Armada fails to end the conflict with Spain, which drags on until the queen's death. In the 1580s she sends troops to assist the Protestant cause in both France and the Netherlands. In her final years an uprising by the Catholic chieftains of northern Ireland, with Spanish support, requires expensive intervention.

The only neighbouring region which provides no trouble during this period is Scotland - largely as a result of the Virgin Queen keeping quiet about her plans for the succession.


Virgin Queen: 1558-1603

The question of a marriage for the queen is of absorbing interest to her subjects for most of the reign. At different periods great dynastic alliances are discussed, varying with the political situation. A Habsburg archduke is considered in the 1560s when France is the enemy. Two French princes are allowed to hope in the 1570s when Spain is the shared threat.

Elizabeth herself seems disinclined to any foreign match, partly from the memory of her sister's unpopular marriage to Philip II and partly from a wish to preserve her independence. Her affections attach themselves rather more easily to her English subjects, among whom she has a succession of favourites.


The favourite who comes nearest to marriage is her first, the earl of Leicester. Handsome, intelligent and charming, Leicester is the same age as the queen (they meet as teenagers at the court of Edward VI). In the early 1560s enquiries are made of the Spanish ambassador about possible support for such a match. But the plan comes to nothing.

Subsequent favourites are Walter Raleigh in the 1580s, and the earl of Essex in the 1590s. Some twenty-five years younger than the queen, Essex behaves like an over-indulged child, even to the point of mounting in 1601 a petulant and half-hearted rebellion for which he is beheaded. Meanwhile there is one obvious candidate for the succession - James VI, son of Mary Queen of Scots.


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