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La Réforme

King Henry VIII tried to secure the Pope’s permission to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon. When the Pope did not co-operate, Henry took over jurisdiction of the English Church in 1534. The subsequent ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’ greatly reduced the power of the Church. Steps were taken to reform doctrine, and royal permission was granted for a vernacular version of the Bible. The introduction of Protestant ideas, however, had to wait for his son, Edward VI. An English Prayer Book was produced to define the sole legal form of worship, which became progressively more Protestant.
Edward VI died young and was succeeded by his Catholic half-sister Mary, whose unpopular efforts to restore Catholicism earned her the epithet ‘Bloody Mary’. Elizabeth, the new queen, came to the throne in 1558. Though Protestant, she was also a pragmatic traditionalist. She led the Anglican Church down what would later be called the via media : Catholic and reformed, but neither Roman nor Calvinist. The ‘Elizabethan settlement’ was not secure for another century, but it marked the distinctive character of English religion and culture.
In Scotland, the Reformation took a different path. John Knox had studied in Geneva and the Scottish church rejected bishops in favour of a presbyterian structure. Wales had been peaceably incorporated into the realm by the Acts of Union under Henry VIII. Ireland remained a problem : fiercely tribal, loyal to the Catholic Church, it resisted all attempts to impose Protestantism. Elizabeth was unwilling to see an independent Ireland under Spanish patronage and sent the army to subjugate the country.
Under Elizabeth, Britain became more than just an island off the coast of Europe. Exploration, colonisation and victory in war (notably the defeat of the Spanish armada in 1588) brought growing world importance. The arts flourished : this was the age of Shakespeare, Marlow and Bacon. By the time of Elizabeth’s death in 1603, Parliament – the voice of the landed classes – was gaining in influence.

D 11 septembre 2012    ADavid Voas

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