Pope Julius II laid the cornerstone of the current St. Peter’s Basilica, one of Catholicism’s most sacred buildings.
St. Peter’s Basilica, whose enormous Michelangelo-designed dome makes it one of the most dominant features on the Rome skyline, is located on what Catholics believe is the burial site of Saint Peter, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ.
Emperor Constantine the Great had built an earlier basilica on the site of a shrine that was reputed to mark St. Peter’s burial place in the 4th century. However, this building had fallen into a poor state of repair by the 15th century and in 1505 Pope Julius II made the decision to demolish the 1,100 year old basilica and build an entirely new one.
Such an undertaking would prove to be incredibly costly but, with funds partially provided by the selling of indulgences, construction began on a design by architect Donato Bramante in 1506. A number of adaptations were made to the plans over the next few decades, although a large part of the current building was designed by Michelangelo after he took over the project in 1547.
It took over a century to complete St. Peter’s Basilica, which was consecrated by Pope Urban VIII on 18 November 1626. Judged by many as the greatest example of Renaissance architecture, the basilica is the largest church in the world. Even more than 500 years after its construction, the dome still remains one of the largest in the world and continues to tower over lavish decorations and unmatched pieces of religious art. Yet, despite its position as perhaps the most famous Catholic building in the world, St. Peter’s Basilica is not the mother church. This is rather St. John Lateran, the cathedral church of Rome and the official seat of the Pope.
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 for 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.
John Rogers became the first English Protestant martyr under Mary I after he was burnt at the stake.
John Rogers was educated at Cambridge, after which he became a Catholic priest. As the Reformation began to take hold, Rogers questioned his vocation and subsequently resigned his ministry. He moved to Antwerp in 1534 where he met William Tyndale who had published his English translation of the New Testament a few years earlier.
Tyndale was instrumental in converting Rogers to Protestantism, after which he married Adriana de Weyden with whom he had a number of children. Just a few months later his friend Tyndale was arrested and executed for heresy, and Rogers continued his friend’s work to produce a complete edition of the Bible in English. Rogers combined Tyndale’s New Testament with the parts of the Old Testament that he had been able to translate before his arrest, and used the translation of Myles Coverdale for the remaining books of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha.
The completed Bible was published in 1537 under the pseudonym Thomas Matthew, and immediately gained the support of Thomas Cranmer who managed to persuade Chancellor Thomas Cromwell to secure a license for it from King Henry VIII. Rogers stayed in Europe, including time at the University of Wittenberg, for a number of years afterwards.
He returned to England in 1548 but, following the accession of the Catholic Mary I, he became an outspoken proponent of Reformation principals. Having been sent to Newgate Prison in 1554, Rogers was sentenced to death the following January. He was burned at the stake at Smithfield, the first victim of the Marian persecutions.
Relations between Catholicism and Judaism cover a long, complex and violent history in which Christians revered the Jewish scriptures yet held Jews collectively responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. However, the murderous anti-Semitism of the Nazi Holocaust led to moves for reconciliation between the two religions in the second half of the 20th century.
A key milestone in relations came when the Second Vatican Council published Nostra aetate, (‘In Our Time’) in 1965. This document formally rejected the idea of collective Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion. Two decades later, John Paul II became the first Pope to visit a synagogue where he called Jews “our beloved elder brothers” and condemned anti-Semitism.
Despite these positive steps towards reconciliation, the diplomatic negotiations between Israel and the Holy See in the 1990s were still enormously complex. Significantly the Vatican maintained its call for Jerusalem to have ‘international status’ due to its unique position as a holy site for Christians, Jews and Muslims. Property rights and tax exemptions for the Church in Israel also featured heavily in the discussions.
The agreement was signed by Monsignor Claudio Celli, the Vatican Undersecretary of State, and Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin. However, it has never been ratified by the Israeli Knesset due to ongoing economic disputes over the legal status of church properties in Israel. Despite this, the Vatican appointed an apostolic nuncio to Israel in 1994 while Israel appointed an ambassador to the Vatican.
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.