Chapter 3. God and Government

Henry VIII was king of England in the early 16th century. He was handsome and clever. He loved sport, music and dance. No king was ever more popular with his people.

But he was worried. He didn’t have a son to follow him as King. In the half-century before Henry’s rule, England suffered terribly as two families fought for control of the country. Now these wars were finished and Henry’s family, the Tudors, were in control. But the wars could easily start again after his death. For Henry, a son was very important - more important even than his people’s religion.

Catholic Britain

From the 7th century, almost everyone in Britain was a Roman Catholic. By the time of Henry VIII, the Catholic Church was very powerful. In those days, only a few people reached the age of fifty. Life after death was very important to them, and for this they needed the Church. Even the poorest farmers gave the Church 10% of the food that they produced. They also worked on Church land without payment. Rich families gave large amounts of money. Everyone believed that they were buying a better life after death. The Church became very rich — much richer than the King of England.

Henry VIII: two women, two churches 


Katharine of Aragon was a Spanish princess. She was married to Henry’s older brother. He died young and Henry, as the future king, decided to marry Katharine. She was useful to England because Spain was one of the most powerful countries in Europe.

A Christian couldn’t usually marry his brothers wife, but the head of the Catholic Church, the Pope, gave special permission.
Henry VIII and Katharine of Aragon had only one child — a daughter, Mary. When no son came, Henry looked for a reason. He decided that his marriage to his brother’s wife was wrong. As a punishment, he and Katharine had no sons.
Henry was always interested in other women, but now he fell completely in love with a young Englishwoman, Anne Boleyn. She was much younger than Katharine. She was clever and funny and maybe she could give Henry a son.
Henry sent his assistant, Thomas Wolsey, to Rome to ask the Pope for an end to his marriage with Katharine. But the Pope was the prisoner of one of Katharine’s relatives. He couldn’t agree to Henry’s request.
Wolsey went back to England and told his king the bad news. Henry was very angry. He put Wolsey in prison.Then he made a decision that changed Britain for ever. The Pope was head of the Catholic Church, and he was being difficult. So in 1534, Henry closed the Catholic Church and started a new one, the Church of England, with a new head — the king. A few politicians and priests spoke in disagreement against this, so Henry cut off their heads.

Henry was the writer of a book which attacked the religious ideas of the Protestants. But now his new church followed these Protestant ideas. The Bible* was read in English in church, not in Latin, and there were no pictures in church of anyone except Jesus. For people in the 16th century, these changes were very serious. But to Henry they didn’t matter, because he was only interested in one thing. His new church gave him permission to end his marriage with Katharine. Then he married Anne Boleyn.
Henry soon realised that his power as head of the Church was useful in other ways. He needed money, and the Church had lots of it. Monasteries owned large areas of land, and gold and silver too. So he decided to close them. Henry took everything. Many beautiful buildings were destroyed, and 11,000 religious men and women suddenly lost their homes. You can still see the broken walls of old monasteries in many parts of Britain today.

Henry’s other wives

Sadly for Henry, his new church didn’t solve his marriage problems. When Anne Boleyn gave Henry a daughter, Elizabeth, but no son, he cut off her head. He finally had a son with his third wife, Jane Seymour, but she died after the birth of the baby.
His fourth wife was Anne of Cleves, a German princess who he chose from a picture. In real life she was very ugly, and he ended their marriage after six months. He didn’t make the same mistake again. Catherine Howard was a beautiful English girl of sixteen when she married Henry, a fat 49-year-old. But Henry- learnt that she had a lover. He cut off her head. His sixth wife, Catherine Parr, was luckier than the rest: Henry died before her.

Edward VI

After Henry VIII’s death, his nine-year-old son became king. Edward VI was an unhealthy but very intelligent boy, and he had strong ideas about religion. He started to make England even more Protestant than under his father. But he only lived to the age of fifteen. There was nobody who could become the next king. So Edward’s older sister Mary became queen.

Mary I

Mary, Katharine of Aragon’s Catholic daughter, threw out all the Protestant changes that were introduced by her father and brother. Most people in England were happy about this. They didn’t like Protestant ideas very much. But then Mary killed lots of Protestants. In three years, 280 men and women were burned in front of crowds of people. Mary became very unpopular.

She was thirty-eight and unmarried when she became queen. She hated the idea of Anne Boleyn’s Protestant daughter, Elizabeth, as the next queen, so she really wanted a child. She married King Philip of Spain. Twice she thought she was having his baby. But she had a stomach problem - and it killed her. The return of the Catholic Church in England died with her.

Elizabeth I

When Mary’s sister Elizabeth became queen, she tried to find a middle way for religion. She wanted a Church of England that Protestants and Catholics could accept. But this was impossible.
First, the Puritans didn’t like it. The Puritans were Protestants who wanted simple churches and simple clothes for their priests. To them, the Church of England wasn’t different enough from the Catholic Church. And they didn’t want the Queen as head of the Church. Elizabeth thought that their ideas were dangerous. Many Puritans were put in prison or killed.

Second, the Catholics didn’t like it. The Pope told the people of the Catholic Church to end Elizabeth’s rule. ‘Henry VII Is marriage to her mother, Anne Boleyn, was wrong,’ he said. He secretly sent European priests to England to start a Catholic war against the Queen. So Elizabeth made Catholicism against the law. People had to pay lots of money if they didn’t go to a Protestant church on Sunday. Lots of Catholics were put in prison, and a few were killed. Catholic priests continued to travel around the country secretly, but it was very dangerous. There are still many big 16th-century houses in England with ‘priest holes’ - secret places for Catholic priests to hide. 

Mary Queen of Scots

Elizabeth’s closest relative was her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. In 1567, Mary made the people of Scotland very angry when she married her husband’s murderer. She had to escape to England, leaving her baby son James as king of Scotland. Elizabeth wanted to make her welcome. But to Catholics, Mary was the true queen of England, because Henry VIII’s second marriage wasn’t real. So Elizabeth had even more problems with her Catholic enemies. Mary lived as a prisoner in England for nineteen years. Finally, Elizabeth’s spies proved that Mary was making plans against Elizabeth. Elizabeth sadly ordered her death.


William Shakespeare

Elizabeth’s rule was a time of danger for some, but many other people enjoyed life. Flays became very popular, and England’s first real theatre was built. The greatest writer for the theatre was William Shakespeare. His father was an ordinary trader and he only went to school, in Stratford- upon-Avon, until the age of fourteen. Later he worked in London as a writer and an actor. Some of his thirty-seven plays were watched by the Queen at her palace, and they are still enjoyed around the world today.


Hie Spanish attach England

The next danger for Protestant England came from the most powerful country in Europe: Spain. In 1588. the Spanish king, Mary Is husband Philip, sent 27,000 men in 130 ships to the English coast. England had little hope of defeating them.
Philip’s ships tried to join a Spanish army from the Netherlands. But luckily for England, the wind, and an attack by English boats, made this impossible. The Spanish ships were defeated and decided to return home. But they hit a terrible storm, and half the Spanish ships were destroyed.
Spain and the Catholics lost some of their power in Europe and England continued to be a Protestant country. When Elizabeth died in 1603, after forty-five years as queen, most of her people were strongly Protestant.

Religion after Elizabeth

Later in the 17th century, Britain had a Catholic king, James II. But by then it was impossible to bring the people of Britain back to the Catholic Church. After only three years, he had to leave Britain and a new, Protestant king was chosen.
Today, Christianity doesn’t have the same importance in Britain that it had in earlier centuries. The numbers of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs are growing, and a large part of the population doesn’t believe in God. But there are still many more people in the Church of England than in the Catholic Church.

* Bible: the religious book of the Christian Church

God and Government - A History of Britain