An Examination of the English Reformation from the

An Examination of the English Reformation from the Top

Wolfgang Riedel identifies politics and religion as “two spheres [that] are interwoven in Schiller’s work to their mutual disadvantage.”[1] But to address religion and politics as two separate spheres in Schiller’s historical drama is rather misleading. In 1587 England, the setting of Mary Stuart, politics and religion were one and the same discourse—as they would be for years to come, with secularism making only gradual gains over the next few centuries. Until then, religion typically dominated the political scene—particularly true in the decades leading up to and throughout the reign of Elizabeth I. Indeed, her father—and his insatiable desire for a male heir—would ignite the powder keg that came to be the English Reformation.

At the death of Henry VII in 1509, the king’s only living son ascended to the throne as Henry VIII (1491-1547; reigned 1509-1547). That same year, the young monarch married his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536). Due to terms outlined in scripture and canon law, Henry could not marry his deceased brother’s wife without papal dispensation. Granted by Pope Julius II, the order not only permitted Henry and Catherine to marry, but also, unwittingly, planted a seed for religious rupture in the not-so-distant future.

Though born six years after the conclusion of the Wars of the Roses, Henry was nevertheless “[r]eared on the memory” of civil war and “had been taught to believe that without a strong (read adult male) presence on the throne of England, those wars could break out again.”[2] By 1527, after nearly twenty years of marriage, Henry and Catherine had only one living child, a daughter named Mary (1516-1558). Given the queen’s age, it was increasingly apparent that Catherine would bear no sons for Henry. If he were to produce a male heir, Henry would need not just a fertile woman, but a fertile wife—an illegitimate son would not do. The king was forced to pursue a drastic course of action: divorce.

Now it should be noted that divorce was not so drastic a solution. Though conventional wisdom supposes that the Catholic Church has always been strictly opposed to divorce, in truth, Rome has a history of granting annulments for “inconvenient marriages” between important individuals.[3] That said, the international situation was not then favorable for Henry’s objective. Catherine’s nephew, King Charles V of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor, sacked Rome in the same year that Henry began to gather support for his cause. Under Spanish occupation, the sitting pope, Clement VII, could never give Henry his divorce. But Henry’s application to the pope was not likely to be well received regardless. He argued that his marriage should be annulled because Pope Julius II had no right to dispense with the marriage between his brother Arthur and Catherine; clearly God was withholding male heirs because He disapproved of Henry’s marriage to his brother’s widow. No pope would willingly surrender dispensational power by agreeing with such a reason.

At this time a strong Protestant faction, with the king’s mistress Anne Boleyn (ca. 1500-1536) at its center, emerged at court. Henry lent these anticlerics his ear, and in 1533 he finally broke with Rome through the Act in Restraint of Appeals–legislation that essentially made Henry the highest power in his own realm in matters of both church and state. In May 1533 Henry’s marriage to Catherine was declared null and void by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who had already presided over Henry’s secret marriage to a pregnant Anne Boleyn earlier that year. Crowned Queen Anne in June, she gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, in September. In 1534 Henry’s government passed an Act of Succession, delegitimizing Mary and legitimizing all heirs borne by Anne. But Elizabeth would be Henry and Anne’s only living child. Unlike her half-sister Mary, who was raised a devout Catholic, Elizabeth would follow in her own mother’s footsteps and become a Protestant. She would not, however, be raised with her mother’s guiding hand; by 1535 Henry had already begun to sour on his marriage, and took refuge in the company of Jane Seymour (1508/9-1537), one of Anne’s attendants.

In January of following year, Anne miscarried a deformed baby boy. Such occurrences were, in the sixteenth century, thought to have larger theological implications; it followed, then, that God objected to this marriage, just as He had to Henry and Catherine’s union.  Three months later, Henry’s advisor, Thomas Cromwell, began investigating Anne. She was accused of infidelity and, in 1536, was executed for high treason. Eleven days after Anne’s death, Henry married Jane. Parliament passed a Second Succession Act, delegitimizing Elizabeth as Mary had been previously.

The new queen consort was apparently conservative: she had been raised Catholic and had sympathized with the late Dowager Princess Catherine—a title bestowed upon the former Queen Catherine after her royal divorce. Indeed, Jane did much during her tenure as queen to restore Mary, Henry’s daughter by Catherine, to her father’s favor. Jane gave Henry what his previous two wives had not: a son, Edward. And like his half-sister Elizabeth, Edward would grow up without his mother; within two weeks of the prince’s birth, Jane died of postnatal complications. Despite his mother’s religious sympathies and his love for his eldest sister, Edward would be the first English monarch to have been raised Protestant, not Catholic.

Henry continued to make rather a mess of things. For diplomatic purposes—and because his advisor, the staunchly Protestant Cromwell, arranged the scheme—Henry agreed next to marry a German princess, Anne of Cleves (1515-1557). The match was meant to reaffirm the king’s Protestant agenda in 1540. But the king was displeased with Anne’s physical appearance, and he ended the marriage after six months on the grounds of nonconsummation. In the same month his marriage was annulled, Henry married yet again, this time to Catherine Howard (1523-1542). The niece of a great peer, Thomas Howard, 2nd duke of Norfolk, Catherine was Catholic, and during her tenure there was a Catholic resurgence at court. But the revival was short-lived due to Catholic plots in the North and Catherine’s own infidelity, for which she, like Anne Boleyn, lost her head in 1542.

Henry returned to the Protestant fold and, in 1543, married for the sixth time. His new, reform-minded wife, Catherine Parr (1512-1548), looked after the aging king and his three children. Shortly after the pair wed, Henry’s Parliament passed a Third Succession Act, this time restoring Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession. Should Edward die childless—and Henry and Catherine have no children of their own—Mary would ascend to the throne; and only if Mary, too, died without issue, would Elizabeth become queen. When Henry VIII died in 1547, he left behind tremendous problems for his three heirs—a Protestant, a Catholic, and another Protestant—including an ambiguous religious policy.

An astute reader may have noticed that little has been mentioned here about Henry’s Church of England. What were its doctrines? How was it organized? What did it look like? The answers to these questions are not clear. Henry’s Anglican Church was a mixture of Catholicism and Protestantism—a mixture that frequently fluctuated. In 1539 his Parliament passed the Act of Six Articles which, among other positions, reproached clerical marriage and upheld the doctrine of transubstantiation.[4] But by the mid-1540s, Henry’s foreign policy pitted England against its Catholic neighbors—France, Ireland, and Scotland—rather than seeking reconciliation or common ground. Furthermore, the regency council Henry organized for the child prince who would succeed him consisted of professed Protestants, which at least ensured that the next reign would be less hazy in terms of religion.

When Edward VI (1537-1553; reigned 1547-1553) ascended to the throne, he was nine years old. And though his father had set up a regency council for him, his uncle, Edward Seymour, 1st duke of Somerset, pushed his way into the position of Lord Protector of the Realm. Thus, he was invested with near-kingly power. Together, King Edward and Somerset enacted a vigorous Protestant policy. And when Somerset eventually fell from grace, he was replaced by John Dudley, newly made duke of Northumberland. Northumberland, too, pressed ahead with Edward’s Protestant agenda. But still a young man, a childless Edward fell ill with consumption. His health deteriorating, Northumberland urged him to leave the throne to a distant Protestant relative, Lady Jane Gray, in his will. Edward followed Northumberland’s advice but, after the king’s death, the scheme failed. After a nearly six-year-long Protestant reign, the Catholic daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon would ascend to the throne as Queen Mary I (1516-1558; reigned 1553-1558).

This Tudor queen is perhaps better remembered as “Bloody Mary.” In truth, she probably does not deserve the name, but “history is written by the victors and Mary’s Catholic restoration would not outlive her brief reign.”[5] Mary certainly made no secret of her attempts to return England to the Holy See. She married a Catholic prince who, later in their marriage, became King Philip II of Spain. Making this alliance and having previously revoked the Protestant legislation of her brother’s reign, Mary was taking huge steps towards the reestablishment of Catholicism in England. However, her many Protestant subjects were not prepared to concede without a fight. As for the “bloody” part of Mary’s dreadful nickname, the queen charged her opponents with heresy and burned almost three hundred Englishmen and women at the stake. That she executed so many in less than four years set the tone for a Protestant revival in the next reign.

At Mary’s death in 1558, the crown passed to the newly anointed Queen Elizabeth I. A shrewd observer of those who reigned before her, Elizabeth in her religious dealings adopted more of her father’s ambiguity than her siblings’ decisiveness. “After all, Elizabeth had grown up in a perilous environment in which overt commitment to one side or the other . . . could lead to disgrace, even death.”[6] Elizabeth was a Protestant but, like her father, she was attracted to certain aspects of Catholicism—namely, its institutional hierarchy. In an effort to refrain from alienating either group, Elizabeth prepared a compromise to settle England’s religious conflict. Her Church of England, established about 1559, would be Protestant in doctrine but Catholic in appearance: it kept much of the ritual and ceremony found in Catholicism, but lacked Roman “superstition.” An episcopal hierarchy was put in place, but all of the Church’s teachings would be based upon “the Word of God,” and not on priestly interpretations or traditions viewed as baseless.

This compromise worked for many but not all, and extreme minorities on either side of the spectrum—Puritans on the one hand, and Catholics on the other—remained. The Puritans demanded greater reforms; the Catholic extremists wanted to scale back concessions already made—and some were willing to resort to life-threatening measures in order to restore England to the “one true faith.” In the late-1560s and early-1570s, Catholic plots against Elizabeth began to materialize. One, called the Northern Rebellion of 1569-1570, was led by English peers; their plot failed, landing one duke in prison, running an earl out of England, and sending another to his death on the executioner’s block. The next year, the Ridolfi Plot, led by foreign powers in Italy, Spain, and Scotland, unraveled fruitlessly. These unsuccessful efforts only hardened England against Catholicism. In 1585 Parliament passed legislation banning Catholic priests from the country—the offense was deemed treasonable. The act effectively made it impossible to be a Catholic in England.

Sill, Elizabeth and her successors would continue to face Catholic plots for decades to come. Not least among these attempts was the 1586 Babington Plot. Its architect, Anthony Babington, a former page to the Queen of Scots, conspired to assassinate Elizabeth and replace her with her cousin Mary. Backed by Spain, he tried to garner support among England’s remaining Catholics, but his plans were discovered early on by Elizabeth’s spy, Sir Francis Walsingham.

Schiller’s Mary Stuart dramatizes the aftermath of this failed plot. And though the playwright takes great artistic license with his history, he remains true to the tragedy’s religious content. That Mary, in his play, is denied her request to receive the sacrament from a Catholic priest before her death demonstrates Schiller’s nuanced understanding of the period and setting. Mary’s servant Melvil risks a great deal when he comes to Mary as an ordained minister—he has to reveal this new status to his queen in secret. The element of danger and hostility that Schiller captures in the religious discourse of his play elevates the story to something more than a rivalrous squabble between the two ambitious women. Instead, it is part of a centuries-long conflict that transcends borders and defies categorization. It is political, social, and cultural. Indeed, it is, in some ways, universal.

—Brooke Sutter, a graduate of Loyola University, researched and wrote teaching resources for Mary Stuart as an intern with CST’s Education Department.


[1] Wolfgang Riedel, “Religion and Violence in Schiller’s Late Tragedies,” in Who Is This Schiller Now?: Essays on His Reception and Significance, ed. Jeffrey L. High et al. (Rochester: Camden House, 2011), 247.

[2] Robert Bucholz and Newton Key, Early Modern England, 1485-1714: A Narrative History (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 66.

[3] Ibid., 67.

[4] Ibid., 98.

[5] Ibid., 112.

[6] Ibid., 118.



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