This week we looked at the English Reformation, beginning with Henry VIII, and culminating with Elizabeth I. Wherever the Reformation took root, it did so for slightly different reasons and took different forms. Some say that the English Reformation was driven more by personality and nationality than theology, and there may be truth to this. In time, Anglicanism would develop a distinct theological voice, but in the beginning the marriages of the monarch determined much of the course of events.
When we think of Henry VIII we often think of a domineering and abusive man, perhaps too much in love with his own power. This may capture much of the truth of who Henry was, but he did not necessarily begin that way. He had great intelligence. He spoke fluently in perhaps three different languages. He was an accomplished musician and dancer. He wrote a legitimate and scholarly work on the sacraments. He had a love for crowds and spectacle, and England adored him in the early years.
When we see him as a young man . . .
we may wonder how eventually he became this man. . .
But I think both pictures share something in common. We often think of Henry as all confidence and show, like this. . .
But I wonder if this last picture shows Henry “protesting too much.” The first two pictures to me show a lurking insecurity. The man in the first two pictures is not at ease with himself or his place in the world. Perhaps I go too far in psychological speculation, but the image above with him jutting out his chest seems to reinforce this idea of insecurity. If we see Henry this way, his near obsession for a son begins to make sense to us. Strong as Henry wanted to appear, his theological views depended greatly on those who he surrounded himself at a given moment in time. Perhaps this is why many assert that Henry’s last wife, the evangelical Catherine Parr (here below giving her best “Excuse me, will you please keep your children quiet — this is a library!” look) may have been his most important. She tutored Henry’s son Edward, and had the strength of will to get her vision of Anglicanism imprinted on England. To outlive Henry (the only of his wives to do so) she must have been a strong woman!
Six years after his death, his oldest daughter Mary assumed the throne. History knows her as “Bloody Mary,” because of her persecution of Protestants. In many ways she deserved this epithet, but we must try and sympathize with her. Henry unjustly divorced and banished her mother Catherine of Aragon. She had little contact with Protestants, and plenty of time to nurse a grudge, to plan to right the wrongs of the past. We might understand better if we we realize that she thought that Henry had “ruined the country,” and God placed her in authority to bring England back to a godly foundation. We can imagine becoming president where your predecessor had done everything against your most deepest convictions. You would want to set things aright.
To this psychological motivation we should add that neither Henry or Mary’s mother lived very long. What if she felt that she had precious little time to accomplish her goals before her death? As the saying goes, “Beware of an old man (or woman) in a hurry.” In this image to the right we see the same gnawing insecurity her father could not hide. Like Henry she knew she needed a son if her attempt at reform would last, but as an older woman nearly past childbearing years, she had little hope of a suitor actually appearing. We can lament the tragic nature of her life without condoning her actions.
After Mary’s death the stage was set for her half-sister Elizabeth to have a glorious reign. Yet she too had reason to fear. The pope had declared Henry’s marriage to Anne illegitimate, which meant that Elizabeth herself had no right to rule. After Elizabeth, the closest to the throne was her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, niece of Henry VIII. She stayed Catholic, and so remained the focus of Catholic plots to unseat Elizabeth.
Matters got more complicated when Mary fled to England for refuge after some accused her of murder. Personal letter between the two reveal a long friendship between them, but almost immediately after her arrival in England, Elizabeth imprisoned her. Eventually one of Elizabeth’s spies uncovers evidence of Mary implicating herself in a plot to overthrow Elizabeth. The trial is a foregone conclusion — she’s guilty of treason.
We know that Elizabeth agonized over the options about what to do with her friend and cousin. Many believed that England and Elizabeth could never be safe as long as Mary lived. Now that Mary had committed treason, Elizabeth had every right to deal with the problem once and for all. Elizabeth had a few options:
- She could execute her
- She could keep Mary imprisoned, knowing that plots could still arise
- She could exile Mary, but in exile she could still raise an army and return
- She could ignore it altogether and hope it would not happen again. But what head of state can ignore treason?
Neither option appealed to Elizabeth. Sometimes we don’t have good choices, only a series of bad ones.
Some students wondered astutely if Elizabeth could escape all these choices by marrying herself. If she had kids, her place on the throne, and the future of Protestantism, would be much more secure. As to why she never did marry, my theory is the Tudor love of power. If she married, she would still be queen, but someone else would be king. This image below shows Elizabeth, like her father, perfectly comfortable in the role of outsized, grand monarch.
Next week, the Spanish Armada.