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Protestants vs. Catholics in England

While plenty of people in England already wanted to break with Rome, there were also plenty of Englishmen who never imagined themselves as anything but Catholic. Therefore, whether the monarch required everyone to be Protestant or Catholic, there always existed a group who wanted option B. This helps explain why the country never really broke into civil war or even unrest when the national religion went from one to another seemingly overnight.

After Henry VIII’s “reformation” in England, the nation flip-flopped back and forth between Protestantism and Catholicism. When Henry died, his son Edward VI, 10 years old, took the throne. Henry’s first daughter, Mary Tudor, started licking her lips because she knew it wouldn’t be long before she had her chance to return the country to Catholicism. Edward died as a teenager and Jane Gray ruled as long as it took (nine days, to be exact) for Mary to gather her troops and take control of England.

Bloody Mary

Mary Tudor was determined to take the throne and return England to the true faith. Despite Protestant efforts to stop her from becoming queen, Mary and her supporters took control of the English court. The new queen and her advisors set out to return Catholicism to England and to squelch all Protestant voices. Mary’s ruthless persecution of the Protestants in England, including high-ranking Protestants like Thomas Cranmer (see Chapter 4), earned her the nickname Bloody Mary. With surprising ease, Mary succeeded in restoring Catholicism in England. If Mary hadn’t died when she did, England likely would have remained Catholic.

Mary’s life as queen was arguably a sad one. She deeply loved her husband, Philip II of Spain, but he never returned the affection. His absence left Mary deeply saddened if not depressed. The issue of children further complicated her life. It was common knowledge that Mary desperately wanted a child; not once but twice Mary believed she was pregnant. Each time, Mary’s court took her away into the countryside where all anxiously awaited a baby, yet she never delivered. After her second “phantom pregnancy,” as the condition often was called, Mary grew very ill. She never fully recovered and grew weaker and weaker. One of her dying wishes was that her half-sister would keep England Catholic. Upon Mary’s death, her half-sister Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, ascended to the throne as Elizabeth I (1533-1603).

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Mary had to make one major compromise when working with Parliament to fully restore Catholicism in England. Parliament agreed to fully commit to Catholicism only if Mary agreed not to restore all monastic lands that Henry VIII had taken from the Church and distributed amongst the English nobility.

The Virgin Queen

Elizabeth I took the throne—and returned England to Protestantism once again. In 1559, Parliament undid the Catholicism of Mary and reinstated the Book of Common Prayer. Parliament adopted the Thirty-nine Articles, the fundamental theological beliefs of the Anglican Church. Elizabeth also brought back the Anglican Church as the official church in England.

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Known as the "Virgin Queen" because she never married, Elizabeth probably did not want to sacrifice any of her authority as queen to a husband. The cunning queen also dangled her eligibility to suitors to keep them in line—potential suitors were not likely to cause problems for her politically.

A shrewd politician, Elizabeth learned from the mistakes of her predecessors. Rather than being aggressive toward Catholics the way Mary was toward Protestants, Elizabeth took a middle-of-the-road position concerning religion. Basically, she declared that Protestantism would be the official religion and then ignored Catholics as long as they kept quiet and didn’t make a scene. She made sure not to make enemies with Catholics at home and she tried to stay out of the way of the pope. She also made sure that theological debates were left to scholars, not politicians.

Nevertheless, the Church tried to do away with her and return England to Catholicism. One pope excommunicated her and another gave his blessing for assassination attempts. Neither tactic worked.

England grew angry with Rome and drifted farther and farther away. Elizabeth had successfully chosen a religion for her kingdom and made it stick without much resistance. Elizabeth’s moderate religious policies, known as the Elizabethan Settlement, pleased neither extreme Catholics nor extreme Protestants, but most of the country and many people in Europe felt pretty good about the arrangement.

Down with the Armada

Surely one of the main reasons Philip II wanted so desperately to hang on to the Netherlands was so he could use the ports to stage a major invasion of England once the opportunity presented itself. Shrewdly and wisely, Elizabeth I offered her support to the northern provinces partly to keep Spain occupied and partly to keep the provinces free of Catholicism for the good of England. Philip, who had been married, pretty much in name only, to Elizabeth’s sister Mary, never really had much of a problem with Elizabeth even after she took the throne, until she helped the provinces. He also resented the fact that Elizabeth appeared sympathetic to the Sea Beggars. As tensions mounted between Spain and England, Elizabeth authorized attacks on Spanish ships. Philip decided to send his Armada to help with the invasion of England in 1588.

Philip’s plan was for his invincible Armada to rid the English Channel of all English vessels and clear the way for the Duke of Parma to invade from the Netherlands. The Spanish battle plan was, like Philip, traditional and uncreative. The Armada planned to pull alongside the English ships, grapple the enemy ships, and fire upon them with artillery. The Spanish vessels, loaded with Spanish troops, planned to board the English vessels once the Spanish guns disabled the English ships. The English had other plans.

On July 29, 1588, the Armada, numbering about 130 ships, entered the Channel. English artillery were there to welcome them. Many of the Armada ships were relatively cumbersome supply and cargo ships designed more for the open waters of the ocean. The smaller, faster English vessels sailed circles around the Armada and sent them into disarray. Furthermore, because they had better artillery, the English could keep a safe distance and take advantage of their superior guns. The English fleet damaged a number of ships right away.

Unfortunately for the Spanish, the Duke of Parma wasn’t quite ready to invade when the Armada arrived in Calais, so the fleet had no choice but to anchor offshore of the Netherlands. Seeing a perfect opportunity for some mischief, the English launched several fireboats, or boats set afire to set enemy ships ablaze, toward the immobile fleet. As the fireboats drifted toward the fleet anchored in a secure formation, many of the Spanish captains took off with their ships. Those who didn’t flee were left exposed to the floating fireballs. The next morning, only a few Spanish ships remained to face the English fleet. Seeing the futility of fighting, the remaining Spanish ships fled to the North Sea. The English, completely out of ammo, bluffed and chased the Spaniards away. The English had defeated the invincible Armada, the most powerful navy in the world; less than half of Philip’s ships made it home. There would be no invasion of England.

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The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, coupled with the loss of the United Provinces, pretty much made Spain increasingly irrelevant in European affairs for the next four centuries. Spain had risen to “superpower" status by creating the world's premier fleet, so the loss of the Armada caused Spain's prowess to plummet.

It was during the Spanish retreat and subsequent return to Spain by circumnavigating the British Isles that the remaining ships of the Armada encountered yet another dangerous foe. Rather than facing more ships, the Armada faced a brutal storm that virtually finished off the remaining vessels. The English, upon learning of the storm and its effects on the Spanish ships, declared the winds an act of God.

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