(PROTESTANT REFORMATION to 1600 – continued)
The power of the Roman Catholic Church was largely cultural and diminished by kings whose power derived from their military. This diminished power was evident during the reign of Pope Clement VII, who became pope in 1523 at the age of forty-five, while Lutheranism was spreading in central Europe.
Clement was the second pope from Florence's most wealthy and powerful Medici family. He looked after the interests of the papacy and the Medici and was aligned with Charles V, who was both King of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor. With warring in Italy between France and and Charles V, Clement changed his alliance from Charles to France and Venice (Roman Catholics all), believing that Charles had become too powerful in Italy. The French force was driven back to France and Pope Clement became a prisoner in the Castle of St. Angelo in Rome, from which he could hear the screams of his flock as men, women and children were butchered. After six months he bought off some Imperial officers and escaped disguised as a peddler. He returned to a depopulated and devastated Rome within a year, in October 1528.
Pope Paul III had the power of excommunication. Henry VIII a different power.
England's King Henry VIII had reigned since 1509 at the age of eighteen. Loyal to Catholicism he suppressed Protestantism with his standard brutality – while making his court a center of Renaissance erudition. By the time he had turned forty-two he had come into conflict with Pope Clement regarding marriage. His queen, Catherine of Aragon, had not given him a son who had survived, and Henry, who was accustomed to having mistresses was smitten by Catherine's unusually intelligent and fascinating lady-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn. Henry wanted his twenty-four years of marriage to Catherine annulled. Pope Clement refused to annul the marriage, and Henry responded by assuming supremacy in his realm over religious matters.
Henry I believed he was competent enough in theology to head the Church of England and he made himself the "Supreme Head in Earth of the Church of England." In 1533 Henry declared his marriage to Catherine invalid and he married Anne on the judgment of the clergy in England.
Henry stayed with Catholic doctrine and ceremony. In 1534, the Parliament of England accommodated him with the Treasons Act, which made it high treason, punishable by death, to refuse to acknowledge the King as head of the Church of England. His old friend Thomas More, another of Europe’s famous humanist scholars, refused to sign the document that made Henry head of the Church of England, and Henry had More beheaded.
Clement died in September 1534 and was succeeded by Paul III, and Paul used his power of excommunication against Henry, followed by his rescinding Henry's title as "Defender of the Faith." England's parliament declared that title still valid. Pope Paul had to watch – powerless – as Henry "nationalized" all Roman Church property in England into his personal ownership and sold off these properties to the highest bidders among the aristocracy and the gentry. Roman priests in England were dismissed unless they swore an oath of conformity to Henry's new Church. Those who would not were dispossessed of their positions and livelihood, or if they made too much political noise they executed as "recusants" – dissidents.
The brilliant Anne Boleyn, from a commoner family and ambitious, in becoming Henry's queen, had stepped into trouble. Henry was genuinely religious, including superstitions common to the sixteenth century, and when Anne miscarried a deformed male fetus it was seen as God's punishment for a terrible sin. Henry got rid of Anne. Torture and a confession led the case against her. She was charged with high treason, incest and adultery, with having slept with numerous men, including her brother – charges that one might expect with the circumstances. Four men and her brother were executed. Before Anne's execution she made her confession to a priest, saying:
I solemnly swear on the damnation of my soul that I have never been unfaithful to my lord and husband, nor ever offended my body against him.
She was executed on 19 May 1536," a victim of the husband she chose to marry and the age in which she lived. (Queens in Europe by the 21st century had reason to feel more secure.) The day after Anne's execution, Henry became engaged to Jane Seymour, who had been one of Anne's ladies-in-waiting. Anne was survived by a daughter, Elizabeth, born to her in 1543, eight months after she had married Henry.
Henry executed various Catholics and Protestants, and among them, on October 6, 1536, was the gifted linguist William Tyndale. Tyndale, in addition to creating the Bible into modern English and gaining the wrath of the Catholic Church, had gained the wrath of Henry regarding his marriages. Tyndale was tied to a stake and, given his popularity, he was strangled as an act of mercy before being set afire. He is said to have regained consciousness and to have uttered the final words: "Oh Lord, open the King of England's eyes."
Copyright © 2003-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.