Henry VIII had broken with Rome , he had quarrelled with the Pope over his divorce and established himself as head of the Church of England. He had also closed the monasteries and sold the lands that had belonged to the Church to noblemen and squires. About 560 monasteries were destroyed between 1536 and 1539. This is a huge number. These acts made it clear that Roman Catholicism was no longer Britain’s religion. However, during Henry VIII’s reign many people still believe in the main ideas of the Catholic church. People did not change religion immediately. It took some time for Protestantism to spread among the population. Let’s also point out that the first Bible in English was printed in 1535. Bibles used to be written in Latin and the Roman Catholic church wanted mass to be said in Latin too. So publishing a Bible in English was quite daring.

After Henry VIII’s death in 1547, things were not that simple. Henry VIII had three children but none of them had the same mother. You probably remember that Henry VIII had eight different wives. He had three children : Edward, Mary and Elizabeth but none of them had the same mother. Edward VI was Jane Seymour’s son, the mother of Mary I was Catherine of Aragon while Elizabeth’s mother was named Anne Boleyn.

When Henry VIII died in 1547, Edward ascended to the throne, became king of England but he was only ten years’ old. Other people, called regents, governed on his behalf. His reign was quite short since he died in 1553. Under his reign England became more strongly Protestant. Protestantism spread and established itself as the main religion. It was now perfectly legal to believe in Protestant ideas. Edward VI himself was a strong Protestant. There was a new Prayer Book in 1549, telling people how to pray and how they should worship. This prayer book contributed to making people more familiar with Protestantism. There was a second consequence : throughout the country idolatrous images like sculptures of saints, paintings representing the holy family or the Virgin Mary were suppressed. Protestants wanted their relationship with God to be more direct and more sober. They rejected the lavish ornamentation that characterises Catholicism. They wanted things to be much simpler. Edward VI’s reign is also remembered for the plunder of parish churches.

The destruction of idolatrous images, the destruction of monasteries and the plunder of churches had some unlooked for consequences : these attacks made the Reformation unpopular. People were growing hostile to the Reformation, all the more so as the government was reputedly corrupt. The British people was highly discontent with the king.

When Edward died in 1553, Mary ascended to the throne. Mary Ist was Queen from 1553 to 1558. When she was crowned she was very popular with the people of England. Edward had been e Proestant but Mary, on the contrary had been brought up as a strict Roman Catholic. She was a devout Catholic. She possessed genuine religious convictions. Religion really mattered in her eyes.

Mary completely reversed the changes brought by Edward VI. Her prime goal, what was most important in her eyes was to restore Catholicism. She was determined to bring back Roman Catholicism to England. Protestantism had only been the official religion for a few years so the change seemed rather simple. Under her reign all the priest had to be Catholic and the Catholic Mass was restored. The Pope was made the head of the church again. As you can see the religious situation in England in the Tudor period was very unstable. This instability was a problem because it prevented England from developing its economy and from having a consistent foreign policy. The other powerful European nation at that time was Spain. The relationships between England and Spain were ambiguous. This is why Mary married Phillip II of Spain in 1554. The English disapproved of this union. This marriage was very unpopular because most English people feared the power of Spain. People were afraid Philip might try to control England. The people had no wish to be governed by a foreigner and there were many racial tensions in London. Spain was the most dangerous commercial rival and a political enemy. The merchants resented Mary I’s marriage, they though it was bad for the English economy and trade and predicted England would be subordinated to Spain.  Anyway this was an unhappy marriage and Mary died with no children.

The situation became even worse in the late 1550’s because of a military defeat. Mary had joined Phillip in a war against France. Spain and Britain were thus at war with France. In 1557 the English lost the city of Calais. Calais was England’s last possession in France. This failure made Mary even less popular. She was even called ‘Bloody Mary’ because of her attitude towards Protestants.

The situation within England was also rather preoccupying. As a matter of fact, Mary had decided to impose Roman Catholicism, which was her own religion. To impose her view, she led a very severe policy against Protestants. Mary was extremely suspicious of others and believed Protestants were plotting against her. There were naturally some people who refused to change their religious habits and convictions. To clarify the situation, in 1555 Parliament set an act of Heresy  laws that made it a crime to be a Protestant. If you were Protestant, then, you were considered a criminal. Protestantism was no longer tolerated. All those who refused  to convert to Catholicism were burnt. Those who were hostile to the changes were burned at the stake. An estimated 300 people died this way. They were considered as heretics. Mary’s nickname ‘Bloody Mary’ implies that she was hated throughout the country for the wholesale burnings of Protestants. The most prominent Protestant churchmen were persecuted, some of them managed to flee but many died.

The development of Protestantism in Northern Europe gave birth to what is known as the Counter Reformation. There were some reformers in Rome, a society of priests called the Oratory of Divine Love but they received some helped from abroad. In England Thomas More, Erasmus or St John Fisher wanted to reform the Catholic Church from inside. New orders, like the Jesuits, led by St Ignatius of Loyola were founded. You probably know that The Council of Trent was the central event of the Counter Reformation.

After Mary’s death in 1558, Henry VIII’s second daughter, Elizabeth, became Queen of England. She’s a highly important figure in English history. She gave her name to one long and prosperous period, the Elizabethan period.

Elizabeth I is generally described as an intelligent person. She was indeed very well educated and had a soft spot for languages and literature. She could speak Latin, French and German. She could also be said to be moderate, unlike her half sister : Elizabeth tried to find a balance, an equilibrium between the two religions, Protestantism and Catholicism, hoping to stop the problems that religion had caused in England. She tried to find some ‘middle way’. She was not particularly interested in religion, what she wanted above all was to achieve peace and prosperity.

Elizabeth wanted England to have peace and not to be divided over religion. Her first aim was political and religious stability. She created the Church of England that mixed both Protestant and Catholic ideas. In 1559  Elizabeth and her government imposed a Protestant religious settlement. The Anglican Church was a compromise to seduce Roman Catholics.

Religion was a vital component in the lives of the English people, it was really important for people and the 16th and 17th centuries were religious ages. The bulk or the majority of the population remained catholic. Church attendance was part of the social bond between people. When people went to church, they met the other members of the community and it created some kind of social life. Sacraments (communion, baptism, marriage) were also highly important in people’s minds.

Once, the religious problem was settled, Elizabeth tried to improve the economic situation of the country. Trade was to be encouraged at all costs. As England was rather poor at that time, Elizabeth supported privateers, licensed pirates who pick off Spanish treasure ships and contributed part of their booty to the public purse.

Obviously, the Spanish reacted to this new rivalry.