It may have been one of the most fascinating centuries of human existence…ever. Think about it. On one hand, you have what seemed like the eternal struggle with religion that permeated Europe both during and prior. On the other, this great permeation of thought via the humanist movement that was pushing human beings to think for themselves, to realize that what once was accepted practice in virtually every area, should be open to questining. The first sparks of truly human greatness, as espoused by such luminary writers as Pico Della Mirandola were coming to the forefront. While this flowering of the human mind was in the seedling stage, people were being burned to death, strangled, assassinated, and any number of horriffic ways to die in the name of preservation of religion, or at least religion in its growing myriad forms. Luther was questioning, and quite effectively questioning, all that was accepted throughout Christendom. He did it by quoting scripture, analyzing that scripture with the original Greek texts as resources, and then challenged the presupposition of the Church and Church hierarchy with factual information based on scripture.  While he may not have wanted to admit it, it was humanism in motion. When it was demanded that he recant by no less a personage than Charles V, the true master of Europe by virtue of his titles in Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, the Netherlands (Burgundian Inheritence) among others, he simply said that he would recant if it could be proven through scripture that he was wrong. Needless to say, the Church fathers nor Charles himself really had a leg to stand on. They could not counter Luther’s arguments on the basis of scripture alone. No less then the great Erasmus himself, possibly the preeminent mind of his time sided with Luther. There were disagreements between them, to be sure. Erasumus was a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic, someone who would defend the Church but also someone who was willing to be critical of the Church and the problems that it had (see The Praise of Folly). Of course, in order to write about it, he had to leave the continent where he would have been brought before a tribunal of sorts, more than likely tried as a heretic, and executed. Imagine that…arguabley the greatest mind of the time, the most ardent defender of the Church, executed because he was critical of it. It should be noted here that being critical of the Church was not, in itself, a bad thing. Generally speaking, the papacy would overlook such criticism provided that critical writings were in Latin. The commoner could not read Latin, and therefore, the Church was protected. It was only when such criticism crossed into the area of the vernacular, which Luther’s criticisms did, that there would be trouble. Luther wrote much in German, therefore making his ideas accessible to many more people. The printing press didn’t hurt, either. Erasmus wound up in England, under the protection of Henry VIII, himself a devout Catholic. He was devout until he needed a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. When he wasn’t granted one, he, through a series of deft political manouvers, severed ties with the Pope and the Catholic church, proclaiming himself the head of the Anglican Church of England, and as the head of it (as declared in 1534 via the Act of Supremecy) announced his divorce from Catherine and married Anne Boylen, who would give birth to the future Elizabeth I. It was the Protestant movement that gave him the impetus to do such a thing. Are you getting the picture here? The sixteenth century plays out something like a soap opera, does it not?
     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