Religious tolerance in Henry’s England

First, I am no expert on Medieval life but have become intrigued by the era. I am reading books which, according to the sleeve notes, were written by academics in this area under a pseudonym. Therefore my observations may seem naïve to an expert but may serve to get others interested in the day to day life of a subject of Henry VIII.

O.K. Brief history of the reformation. Henry VIII succeeded his father Henry VII to the throne of England. His brother was called Arthur and should have inherited the throne but predeceased his father. Arthur had married Catharine of Aragon but died 5 months later in 1502.  Shortly after Henry was betrothed to his brother’s widow at the age of 11. It was a political arrangement and nothing further happened except a rejection of the marriage by Henry when he reached 14.

In an about turn after his accession in 1509 he did indeed marry Catharine. Now we reach the part that concerns this post. Catharine was much older and failed to produce a  surviving male heir although she did give birth to Mary later Mary I or bloody Mary.

Portrait of Catharine of Aragon

Following a pattern which was to last all his life Henry eventually became enamoured of Ann Boleyn. He was always flirting with the younger ladies of the court and this was largely ignored until Ann. She demanded marriage or nothing and Henry tried several tactics to rid himself of his wife, including non consummation and accusations that she was unable to carry live male children. Catharine was asked to enter a nunnery which would nullify her marriage and Henry would effectively be a widower. If she had accepted England would still be Catholic. In  the end, and despite being a staunch catholic in his younger days, Henry did what he would go down in history for. He made himself head of the Church in England. Thereafter he wavered between being a great reformer and swinging back to Catholic practises. And of course he divorced Catharine and married Ann.

Portrait of Ann Boleyn

Henry was now head of a divided country. Essentially the church would never be the same, worship of saints and relics, and statues of the Virgin were all banned. The idea of priests making money by promoting the idea of Purgatory and charging to say masses for the dead was also banished. In line with the King’s changes of mind, Catholics were persecuted one year and Radical protestants the next. There are details of his many wives, his accident at a joust and his bloody reign as a tyrant on wikipedia but it is the lives of his subjects after the break from Rome which interests me.

So, Henry was Head of the Church and, as far as he was concerned, God spoke through him and the English bible. Imagine if you will being a peasant, your life is dirty, you work hard every day (Average life expectancy  40’ish!) but you have been told that you will be spared Hell if you pray to the Virgin. Saints were still worshipped and there could be a shrine near you if you are lucky. There may be relics which you can buy. If you are disabled you could go to one of the shrines in the hope of being healed and the local Priest could hear your confession and absolve you of your sins every week. this system had been in place for centuries.

Now you are a wealthy Merchant and you are 30 odd. Maybe you have been told you have a growth or plague is predicted. You fear for your life but you are also concerned as to your soul afterwards. As well as all the things that the peasant can do you can pay for a Priest to say masses for a given period of time and this would shorten your time in Purgatory before admission to Heaven. You may also be able to buy a better class of relic.

Now all these things are outlawed. The monasteries, which often provided the only Medical Care, solace and education to the poorer classes, were dissolved and their wealth taken by the treasury. Monks were unceremoniously sent from the only home they knew into a world which they had no preparation for and often turned to begging. The shadier characters who made money from selling fake relics and Pardoners (Who did what the name suggests for money.) were out of work.

But for me it is the peasants who had had this doctrine drummed into them all their lives and who were suddenly told it was all lies that I feel sorry for.The richer and more literate could read (Or have read to them.) the new Bible but the peasants were at the mercy of the local Priest to preach his version of the new belief.

While the catholic Church was no stranger to Inquisition witch hunts to ferret out heretics, under Henry’s regime heresy was what the King said it was. There were the recusants who refused to attend the new services and Catholic die hards who were burnt at the stake. However the King’s reforms did not mean he rejected all Catholic Dogma, for instance transubstantiation. There were various radical Protestant groups (Lutherans, Lollards and Anabasptists to name a few.) and these groups felt the reforms did not go far enough. They were hunted at certain times when Henry was backsliding into conservatism. Therein lay the problem. In this period the King, aided and abetted by his ministers, would swing from reformer to conservative on a regular basis so no one on either side could ever be 100% safe.

Anyone arrested for religious crimes could also be tortured for information on his fellow heretics.

Of course this led to informers, spies and anyone with a grudge to pass information to the authorities and it was also a good way for the King to dispose of his enemies. Thomas Cromwell is a case in point. The slightest comment could be misinterpreted. In short life must have been a nightmare when a Monarch who swung wildly between belief systems could also execute any one who disagreed.

Of course Henry died and was succeeded by his son who was Protestant, then by his daughter who tried to reintroduce the old religion and was as keen on executions as her father. Then of course came Elizabeth I who introduced a system of religion which was more tolerant and only invoked religious prosecutions when the state was affected. This laid the foundations of religious tolerance in England.

So fast forward to the present. Christians of all types are accepted, Mosques are appearing all over the place and many people reject religion in favour of Science. Some may believe in a God but see the Church as irrelevant. The Catholic Church is facing criticism of various issues but definitely not heresy.

Whatever faith you follow or if you follow none thank the deity of choice that you are free to follow it without some faceless man telling you it is wrong and that you could be executed if you disagree. I for one would hate to live in a world where your beliefs had to conform to those perpetuated by the state. I would say I am an Atheist so I would be tied to a stake in a trice. No doubt my neighbours or an enemy would have informed on me and burning is a very unpleasant death I imagine. But I am free to say it openly and loudly if I wish and I am grateful for it.

And to those who still believe in religious intolerance, one day you will learn the lesson of history………that no man should presume to have the sole right to interpret the words of his God or to kill those who don’t agree with him.