While all of that is going on in the early part of the period, the middle years are even more interesting. Not only do we have a continuation of the Catholic/Protestant morality play, but we also have added the English succession problems, partially defined by said religious issues, partially defined by the power play of Mary Tudor and the various factions that desired the throne as well. By the end of it all, when Edward VI (the only son of Henry VIII) and Mary I diewhen the great Elizabeth I takes the throne, England is broke, open to invasion, and has a rather weak military that is being pressed from the north, in Scotland, from the French. To top all of this off, the queen is trying to unite her kingdom politically and religiously by passing the Act of Uniformity and the Book of Common Prayer. She eventually does get both passed, but not without struggle. There is even an attempt on her life by Catholic sympathizers after she is excommunicated by the Pope (The Ridolfi Plot). She is dogged by marriage questions as well, as who she would marry would not only have significant influence in England, but also siginificant influence throughout Europe. Elizabeth chose not to marry. Methinks it was a rather wise decision except that it left England without an heir after 1603. James I (James VI of Scotland) acquires the throne, but no one is sure to this day if it was Elizabeth that chose him. Let’s also not forget that Charles V abdicates his throne in 1556, dividing it between his son (Philip II, and Ferdinand II, his brother)
The king of Spain by mid century, Philip II, didn’t have it much easier save for the fact that not only was he the richest monarch in Europe (due to the Spanish plundering of gold and silver from the New World), but was clearly Europe’s most powerful both in the military sense as well as religious. He was the true ardent defender of the faith, but created havoc in the Netherlands as a result. The insistence of Philip that the Dutch renounce all other religions but Catholicism, and his sanctioning of what essentially became the Spanish Inquisition – “Northern version” in the Netherlands, cost him money and a certain amount of prestige. It was Philip who agreed to wage war in 1588 against the rising English under Elizabeth. It was also Philip who would be defeated in that same year as well by the aforementioned Elizbeth. The Pacification of Ghent would also seal his defeat in the defense of his Catholic masters in Rome. Despite all of the money and power that flowed into and out of Spain, it was not to be sustained for Spain, for by the mid seventeenth century, Spain would cease to be the power she once was, in favor of the Dutch and English. The one saving grace, and quite possibly the point about Philip that is most often missed, is his great victory at Lepanto in 1571. It was that victory over the ever expanding Ottomans that preserved Christianity in the West, unlike the East where the Ottomans vanquished what was left of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 and by proxy, Imperial Rome. How history can turn. First, a villain, then a hero. I guess it all depends on one’s point of view.
In France, the power hungry Catherine d’Medici would ascend as her husband, Henry II perished in what can only be described as a death so gruesome that one would not think of imposing it on one’s enemies, unless the very thought of a large hunk of wood sticking out of one side of your face, through the eye socket is something you believe one of your enemies deserves. It would be the death of two of her young sons that would ultimately lead this Catholic queen (or more precisely – queen regent) to begin the infamous War of the Three Henrys. The idea that one would attempt to assassinate members of a wedding party on the sole basis of their religious preference would be almost unthinkable in our modern society (although in these days, maybe not so much), but was quite plausible and to some degree, acceptable in the turbulant sixteenth century. This event, known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre would have lingering effects as it would ignite a firestorm of religious death in France. No less than nine civil wars would take place un It wouldn’t be until Henry of Navarre (Henry IV) ascended to the throne in 1589 that there would be a semblece of order. It was he, however, the intended for assassination at the “massacre” and an avowed Huguenot (Calvanist) who would forgo that religion once he took the throne of France, saying that “Paris is worth a mass”. The Age of Religious Wars culminated in the Thiry Years’ War, which began in 1618 and ended in 1648.
These are but a few of the fascinating events in Europe during the time of the sixteenth century. If you would like to read further on any of the subjects mentioned here, here are a few suggestions:
Elizabeth I – Alison Weir (she has written many books on the Tudors…all of them are quite good)
The six Wives of Henry VIII – Antonia Fraser
A World Lit Only By Fire – William Manchester (A wonderful introduction to the period)
Bloody Mary – Carrolly Erickson
The Queen’s Conjurer: The Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee – Benjamin Woolley
Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death (written by Richard Marius – an athiest, he gives a great accounting of Luther’s life and thoughts)
Philip II – William Thomas Walsh