On the 17th November 1558, Elizabeth I succeeded her half-sister Mary to become queen of England. The last of the Tudor dynasty, Elizabeth’s reign is seen by many as a ‘golden age’ in English history. A period of relative political and religious stability, her reign saw unprecedented foreign exploration and expansion, while at home the English Renaissance brought about enormous cultural developments and the rise of one of the greatest playwrights ever to have lived – William Shakespeare.
Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and, despite being declared illegitimate following the annulment of her parents’ marriage, came to the throne as the next in line behind her Catholic half-sister under the terms of the Third Succession Act. Having become queen when she was 25 years old, Elizabeth relied heavily on a group of advisers led by Robert Cecil and is generally seen as providing stability through her long reign, in comparison to her two siblings.
Soon after assuming power she introduced the Elizabethan Religious Settlement consisting of two Acts of Parliament which resolved much of the Protestant/Catholic divide that had characterised the years before and after her reign. However, this did little to appease the Catholic Philip II of Spain who famously launched the Spanish Armada against England in 1588 but was defeated.
Elizabeth never married nor had any heirs, leading to her becoming known as the Virgin Queen. When she died, the lack of an heir led to the end of the Tudor dynasty and the beginning of the Stuarts after James VI of Scotland became James I of England.
On the 5th November 1605, the Gunpowder Plot was foiled when Guy or Guido Fawkes was discovered guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder that had been placed in an undercroft below the House of Lords in London. The failure of the plot and execution of the conspirators has since been commemorated in Britain on what is known as Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night, where effigies of Guy Fawkes are traditionally burned on a bonfire amidst large firework displays.
The Gunpowder Plot was conceived at a time of significant religious tension in the British Isles. Less than a century had passed since Henry VIII broke from Rome, and Catholics continued to be persecuted when James VI of Scotland was crowned James I of England. Led by Robert Catesby, a group of thirteen Catholics conspired to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of England’s Parliament, when James would be inside the building. Having killed the king, they would then initiate a revolt that would bring James’ young daughter Elizabeth to the throne as a puppet queen. However, the plot was revealed in an anonymous letter and the search of the undercroft was conducted late in the evening of the 4th November.
Most people know that Guy Fawkes, along with the other surviving conspirators, was sentenced to execution by being hung, drawn and quartered. However, what is less widely known is that he managed to leap from the gallows and break his neck. Fawkes was therefore already dead by the time the executioner began to carry out the more gruesome parts of his sentence.
On the 4th October 1582, Pope Gregory XIII implemented the Gregorian calendar. Although this calendar is now the most widely used calendar in the world, it was initially only adopted by the Catholic Church and the Papal States since to become a nation’s official calendar it had to be approved by the civil authorities. The only areas to therefore implement it on the specified date were the territories governed by Philip II of Spain, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Papal States.
Due to a drift between the Julian calendar, the lunar calendar, and the real moon, the date on which the church celebrated Easter had begun to move away from when it had been celebrated by the early church. The Catholic Church disliked this seasonal drift, and so decreed the papal bull Inter gravissimas in early 1582 to reform or – in the words of the Latin text to ‘restore’ – the calendar to align with that at the time of the First Council of Nicaea in 325.
Due to thirteen centuries’ worth of accumulated variations between the existing and new calendars, the change to the Gregorian calendar demanded the deletion of ten days. Consequently, in the territories that adopted the new calendar, the day after the 4th October 1582 became the 15th October – although the day of the week did not change.
Although most Catholic countries swiftly adopted the Gregorian calendar, Protestant governments initially rejected it. However, by the end of the 18th Century most of the countries of Western Europe – including the sizeable British Empire – switched to the Gregorian calendar to ease international trade.
The shortest papacy in history ended after just twelve days following the death of Pope Urban VII, shortly after he introduced Europe’s first smoking ban.
Giovanni Battista Castagna was elected as Pope on 15 September 1590 but died of malaria less than two weeks later. Despite his short reign, he was responsible for introducing a range of financial reforms that benefited the poor. Ranging from bread subsidies to public works projects, these were partly funded through restrictions on luxury items and partly from his own pocket.
As well as these charitable acts, Urban VII was also responsible for Europe’s first smoking ban. Tobacco had arrived in Europe less than a century earlier, and the new Pope threatened to excommunicate anyone who was caught “chewing it, smoking it with a pipe or sniffing it in powdered form through the nose” in the porchway of, or inside, a church.
An earlier smoking ban had been introduced by the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico in 1575, specifically prohibiting smoking inside churches. It was Urban VII’s ban, however, that gained most attention due to the growing popularity of tobacco in Europe in the 16th Century. It was later extended by Urban VIII in 1624 when he completely banned the use of snuff due to the sneezing it prompted resembling ‘sexual ecstasy’.
Urban VII’s ban on tobacco in churches and their porches stayed on the books until the early 18th Century, far outlasting the Pope himself. Following his death from malaria, which it is believed he contracted within two days of his election as Pope, Urban VII was buried in the Vatican. His remains were later moved to the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, near the Pantheon in Rome.
Born Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti, Pius IX’s election by the Papal conclave of 1846 came at a time of significant political unrest across Europe. A particular issue facing the 50 members of the College of Cardinals who attended the conclave regarded the future governance of the Papal States, which the new Pope would rule. A conservative faction wished to see the continuation of a policy of papal absolutism, while more moderate cardinals hoped for some liberal reforms.
Going against the general mood of the rulers of Europe who wished to see a conservative Pope, the moderate Cardinal Bernetti successfully persuaded other like-minded cardinals to vote for Mastai-Ferretti. The papal historian Valérie Pirie wrote that, as one of the scrutineers responsible for recording the votes of the conclave, Mastai-Ferretti therefore proclaimed his own election.
His appointment was met with enthusiasm from European liberals, and he was celebrated by English Protestants as a ‘friend of light’. Having named himself Pius after Pope Pius VII, the first years of the new Pope’s rule saw a number of liberal actions including the release of political prisoners and the beginnings of a constitution for the Papal States. However, the revolutions of 1848-49 and a number of nationalist terrorist attacks began to turn him away from this initially liberal agenda.
By the 1850s Pius IX had become more conservative, and he began to consolidate the power of the Church. The capture of the Papal States by the Italian Army in 1870, however, led to him declaring himself the ‘Prisoner of the Vatican’.
Two Catholic imperial officials and their secretary were thrown out of the window of the Bohemian Chancellery in the Second Defenestration of Prague.
Prague had witnessed its first defenestration (literally ‘the act of throwing someone or something out of a window’) in 1419, but it is the second event that is perhaps better known since it acted as a catalyst for the Thirty Years War.
Both defenestrations were rooted in religious conflict. The latter came after the newly elected Catholic king, Ferdinand II, encouraged his cousin Matthias, the Holy Roman Emperor, to order the construction of two new Protestant chapels in the Bohemian towns of Broumov and Hrob to stop. The largely Protestant population in Bohemia argued against the order as they believed that it violated the 1609 Letter of Majesty, issued by the earlier Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, which allowed them to freely practise their religion.
In the face of the Protestant opposition, Ferdinand dissolved the assembly of the Bohemian estates. However, this did not stop the Protestant leaders from gathering on the morning of 23 May. They made their way to the Bohemian Chancellery where they put the Catholic imperial regents on trial for disobeying the Letter of Majesty.
Two regents – Count Vilem Slavata of Chlum and Count Jaroslav Borzita of Martinice – were found guilty of violating the Right of Freedom of Religion. The two men, along with the regents’ secretary, were then thrown from the third-floor window. They all survived the fall with only minor injuries. Catholics claimed that they were saved thanks to divine intervention, while Protestants maintained that they fell into a dung heap. In the aftermath, both Catholic and Protestant forces began gathering for war.
Sir Francis Drake entered the Bay of Cádiz and attacked the Spanish naval fleet in an event known as ‘Singeing the King of Spain’s Beard’.
Tensions between Protestant England and Catholic Spain had steadily increased due to a combination of religious, economic and political factors. Alongside ongoing religious conflicts that saw the excommunication of the English ruler Elizabeth I in 1570, the Spanish were frustrated by repeated raids from English privateers against their territories in the West Indies and of English support for the Dutch Revolt against Spain.
These tensions led to the outbreak of the Anglo-Spanish War in 1585. The first months of the conflict saw Drake lead a series of attacks against Spanish possessions in the West Indies and the Americas, which prompted King Philip II of Spain to begin planning the invasion England and the restoration of Catholicism.
The Spanish king began to assemble his fleet, which was later to become known as the Armada, in the Spanish port of Cádiz and the Portuguese port of Lisbon. Meanwhile in England Queen Elizabeth put Drake in charge of a fleet that was to inspect and disrupt the Spanish preparations. He set sail on 12 April with four Royal Navy galleons and twenty smaller ships.
Drake’s fleet arrived at the Spanish port on 29 April and began to attack that evening. Having destroyed or captured numerous naval and merchant vessels Drake spent the next few weeks patrolling the coast between Cádiz and Lisbon and destroying every ship he encountered. Over one hundred ships in total were destroyed or captured, and Spanish plans for the invasion of England had to be put back for over a year.
On the 23rd March 1540, Waltham Abbey in Essex became the last abbey to be dissolved by Henry VIII. Henry had visited the abbey a number of times and is known to have stayed there with Queen Anne Boleyn in 1532. However, despite surviving for a number of years Waltham Abbey eventually succumbed to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. This caused an economic disaster in the town, which had grown prosperous as a result of pilgrims visiting the abbey.
The Dissolution of the Monasteries saw the more than 850 religious houses that existed in England at the start of Henry VIII’s reign disbanded and their property taken by the crown. Although only some of these were actual ‘monasteries’, England’s religious houses together owned between a quarter to a third of all the land in England. Furthermore, many of them were rumoured to tolerate decidedly un-monastic behaviour.
Having severed his ties with the Catholic Church in the 1534 Act of Supremacy, Henry was free to deal with religious houses without needing approval from the Pope. Within two years his ministers began to shut down religious houses on financial grounds, and by 1540 all the abbeys except for Waltham had been closed. Abbot Robert Fuller surrendered the abbey and its property on the 23rd March 1540, and within just a few years all the buildings except for the parish nave were demolished or collapsed due to neglect. The Dissolution of the Monasteries was completed in less than four years, but brought Henry significant income as well as suppressing political opposition from those who might have sided with the Pope.
On the 21st March 1556, Thomas Cranmer was executed heresy. As a leader of the English Reformation he had not only promoted Protestantism but had also established the first structures of the Church of England. Despite having signed a number of recantations or retractions of his Protestant faith, on the day of his execution he in turn recanted these recantations before being burned at the stake.
Cranmer’s early career had seen him present the case for Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Although his argument did not result in the Pope agreeing to annul the marriage, Cranmer was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by the King in March 1533 after which he quickly moved to declare Henry’s marriage to Catherine void. Within just a few years he also annulled the King’s marriages to Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard and had begun to work with Thomas Cromwell to promote the publication of an English Bible.
Cranmer’s actions led to him developing a large and powerful opposition, which only grew under the reign of Edward VI. His support for the Protestant Lady Jane Grey as Edward’s successor, rather than his Catholic older sister Mary, ultimately led to him being put on trial for treason in 1553. Cranmer’s execution in 1556 for heresy and was intended to act as way to discredit Protestantism. However, his eleventh-hour rejection of his earlier recantations against the Reformist movement meant that his death ultimately undermined the Marian Counter-Reformation.
He died at the stake having placed his right hand, with which he had signed his recantation, into the fire first as a punishment for being “unworthy”.
On the 13th February 1689, William and Mary became co-regents of the Kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland after agreeing to the Declaration of Right. On the 5th November the previous year William, the head of state of the Dutch Republic, landed at Torbay after being invited by a group of English Parliamentarians to invade England. His Dutch fleet and army went on to oust the Catholic King James II, his wife Mary’s father, in the so-called Glorious Revolution. James was allowed to flee the country and later took up exile in France.
The Declaration of Right, which became a Bill after it was formally passed on the 16th December, joined other documents such as Magna Carta and the Petition of Right as a central part of the uncodified British constitution. The Declaration placed limits on the monarch’s power and confirmed Parliament’s own rights, ensuring that it was free to function without royal interference. Furthermore, it banned Catholics from the throne.
Parliament originally only wanted to offer the crown to Mary, with William as Prince Consort, but the couple pressed for co-regency. Parliament agreed, and so on the 13th February the couple was declared king and queen. Their coronation took place on the 11th April.
The Glorious Revolution was not seen as such by everyone. The Bill of Right was both politically and religiously divisive, laying the foundations for generations of conflict. Beginning with the Williamite–Jacobite War that confirmed British and Protestant rule in Ireland, the Protestant Ascendancy established political, economic and social domination of the country for over two centuries.