We concluded the last article with Henry VIII near the end of his life. He was head of the Church of England, having broken with Rome and the Catholic Church. Before his death he had authorised the use of two Bibles, The Great Bible of 1539 and the Matthew’s Bible of 1537. This now allowed the people of England to read the Bible in English without fear of persecution. Both these Bibles drew heavily from the translation of Tyndale. We now look at one of the most turbulent times for England, the period from Henry’s death in 1547 through to the reign of James I.

Although “the sword of the Spirit … the word of God” had been made available in German through Luther’s work and in English largely through the work of Tyndale, it certainly did not bring peace to Europe. It was not long before the two major religious parties, the Catholics and the Protestants, took up the literal sword against each other. In Europe the struggle was between the Catholic Holy Roman Empire and the German Protestant Lutherans. In 1555 the Peace of Augsburg agreement was drawn up between Charles V as Emperor for the Catholic Holy Roman Empire and the forces of the Schmalkaldic League, an alliance of Lutheran princes. This agreement allowed each prince to decide the religion of his territory, Catholic or Lutheran. This peace was short lived and the religious struggle finally escalated into the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) which saw the death of 15% to 30% of the population of the German States. This struggle between Catholics and Protestants drew into this war theatre most of the rulers and countries of Europe. It was during this conflict that the Pilgrim Fathers migrated to America in the Mayflower in 1620. This bitter religious struggle reminds us of the Lord’s words: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword” (Matt 10:34). As we follow the events in England leading to our King James Bible we must keep in mind the fact that England, as part of Europe, became deeply entwined in this religious struggle.

Henry VIII’s legacy to the nation

Henry severed his relationship with the Roman Catholic Church only in name and authority. He remained faithful to the teachings of Rome and had them embedded in the foundation of the Church of England. He was keen that the spirit and teaching of the Reformation would not take a foothold in England, and so proclaimed a statute titled Six Articles (1539) in which the doctrine of Transubstantiation remained, with death being the penalty for the first infraction. At Henry’s death England was still Catholic in teaching but Church of England in name, with the ruling monarch being its head.

One particular act of Henry that removed the possibility of the Church ever regaining its historic power over the nation was his confiscation of Church lands. Monasteries were confiscated and the enormous land holdings of the Church were either given to court favourites or sold by Henry so that by the end of his reign it was estimated that over 40,000 families had interests in those lands that the Catholic Church once held. Any attempt to have these lands given back to the Catholic Church would guarantee that the holders would claim to be staunch Protestants!!

Henry’s concluding act embroiled England in five decades of turmoil. He did this by having Parliament approve that the throne would pass first to Edward (a Protestant). If Edward had no successor then the throne went to Mary (a Catholic), and if Mary had no successor then Elizabeth (a Protestant) took the throne. As history records, none of Henry’s children had offspring of their own, so the throne passed to all three in succession – an event that brought some of the most bitter religious struggles in English history.

Edward VI – the boy king

Henry died in 1547 and Edward, his only son, though youngest child, took the throne. Edward was 9 when he came to the throne and so the kingdom was under the hand of a Lord Protector. Edward’s reign lasted only six years. Being convinced, no doubt by his councillors who had their own agendas, that England was ready to move forward with Reformation principles, he abolished both mass and the use of Latin in the Church services. Edward entrusted much of this work to Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, who drew up the first Prayer Book of the Church of England in 1549. He also divested the communion service of ‘the real presence’ – a step designed to remove the Catholic teaching of Transubstantiation, thereby effectively abolishing the mass. At the age of 15 Edward became terminally ill and Henry’s succession plan stated that Mary, a staunch Catholic and daughter of the Spaniard Catherine, was to take the throne. A number in Court, fearing reprisals would take place against those who supported Protestantism, urged Edward to make a will appointing Lady Jane Grey (a Protestant) as the next monarch. Edward died in 1553 and these plans failed, as the people of England supported Mary’s right to the throne on Edward’s death.

Mary – ‘Bloody Mary’ of the Reformation

Mary was 36 when she came to the throne and reigned for five years. She came with a mindset of restoring the Roman Catholic Church as the religion of England. She had seen her mother Catherine repudiated and scandalously treated by Henry, and she herself declared illegitimate because Henry claimed his marriage to Catherine was against Canon Law and therefore wrong. Mary had thought through her goals, and now as Queen she was prepared to execute them. The first was to re-establish the Roman Catholic Church as the one true faith of England. She repealed the religious laws that Edward had made to remove Catholic worship in England. She then moved to have England reunited with Rome. To achieve this, the Papal Legate, Cardinal Pole, came to England and Mary had Parliament repeal ecclesiastical laws and beg that their sin of separating from Rome be pardoned. Pole accepted their submission and England was again subject to Papal obedience.

Another goal was to develop a strong relationship with Catholic Spain, the major power in Europe at the time. The king of Spain, her cousin Charles V, was also the Holy Roman Emperor. What better way to bring England into the fold of Rome than for Mary to marry his son! Mary married Philip II of Spain, creating some serious concerns throughout England as they feared that a Spanish monarch might ultimately inherit the throne. Mary desperately wanted a child from this union to take the throne of England, but no child arrived and after a sad and disappointing life a despondent Mary died in 1558 aged 42, leaving the vacant throne to her half sister Elizabeth.

Mary’s ‘burning’ ambition

The fires that consumed the Protestant ‘martyrs’ at the stake remain the monument of Mary’s reign. Mary had Parliament reintroduce the ‘heresy’ laws and by these laws heretics (those who for conscience opposed the Roman Catholic faith) were examined and if found guilty burnt at the stake. This period saw many intellectuals such as John Foxe and John Knox flee from England. Some moved to Geneva in Switzerland, where Calvin was instilling Protestant thinking into the minds of those there. In this period the Geneva Bible, an English translation, was printed, preceding the King James Version by about 50 years. The Geneva Bible had many marginal notes and was the first English Bible to have verse divisions. It was the Bible used by William Shakespeare, Oliver Cromwell, John Milton, John Knox, and John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress.

In England Mary’s persecution of heretics got seriously underway. The first ‘martyr’ was John Rogers at Smithfield in 1555. Rogers had used the pseudonym “Thomas Matthew” for his translation of the Bible into English, and hence it is known as the Matthew’s Bible. This was the firstBible authorised in 1537 by Henry VIII. Though prominent men such a Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley were burnt during the Marian Persecutions, it was the burning of the common people that brought the greatest revolt against Mary. It was their simple faith, based upon their understanding of God’s Word that they could now read, that compelled them to stand firm against Catholicism. In the three years from 1555 some 283 ‘martyrs’ were burnt publicly at the stake, an average of two a week. As news spread throughout England, people were turned against Mary and the Roman Catholic Church and these Persecutions earned for Mary the sobriquet ‘Bloody Mary’, by which she is now known in history.

Elizabeth – or Good Queen Bess

On Elizabeth ascending the throne at the age of 26 her most pressing problem was to settle decisively the question – was England to be Catholic and subservient to Rome, or Protestant? It was not just a matter of religious preference for Elizabeth – it was a matter of life or death. No Roman Catholic would acknowledge that Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was legal – to them Elizabeth was illegitimate. If England continued subservient to Rome as Mary had arranged, then obviously the Pope would ensure that Elizabeth would be removed one way or the other. The Marian Persecutions proved to be in Elizabeth’s favour, as people began to realise that the Protestants were mainly genuine and honest folk. Also the Bible in English opened people’s eyes to the blatant abuses of the Roman Catholic Church both in practice and teaching. Providence had brought a queen to the throne so that God’s plan for England would be accomplished. England is to be no part of the ten horn-kings who give their power to the beast on which the woman sits. British Tarshish has no part to play with that power group at the time of the end. Her role will be totally different, and so here in Elizabeth’s reign we see the basis for separation from Europe and the Papacy coming to the fore.

On her ascension to the throne, Papal power in England was abolished and the Act of Supremacy declaring the Queen to be ‘supreme of all persons and causes ecclesiastical as well as civil’ was passed in 1559. Also an Act of Uniformity regarding religious practices following those established by Edward VI was passed. There was no severe penalty for Catholics who still kept mass at home, apart from a fine of a shilling for not going to Church plus the cost of the priest who conducted the mass. Elizabeth was wise and cautious in allowing things to settle. The cost of a shilling plus priest’s fees was not an insignificant amount in those days and so to become a Protestant was economically sensible! So England was Protestant, but this caused her to be at loggerheads with most of Europe. In Europe the Jesuit Order emanating from Spain had been formed to win back heretics, and much had been done by the Counter Reformation in Germany. The Counter Reformation was now to concentrate on England. France at the time, though Catholic, was not of the Counter Reformation party, and France was a considerable force in Europe.

Elizabeth proved to be a very capable procrastinator with a clear perception of what was being aimed at. For example, coming to the throne at 26 and single, the key question was who she would marry. The first suitor was Philip II, the husband of Mary her dead sister and the king of Spain. She held him dangling ‘trying to decide’, while she confirmed that England would be Protestant. This held off the threat of war with Spain for a time. Then she indicated that she could possibly find a suitor in Catholic France, knowing that a French/English coalition would hold Spain at bay.

One other development during her reign was the growth of England’s naval power and their pirating exploits. These pirate activities of Englishmen in the Spanish area of the West Indies brought wealth to Elizabeth and England and fury to the Spanish, so much so that Spain put the equivalent of $6.5 million on the head of the notorious Francis Drake. Englishsailors embarked on exploration around the world, with Drake circumnavigating the world and returning in 1580. These naval journeys ultimately spread the British power to many distant lands, leading to the British Empire encircling the world.

Major events in Elizabeth’s reign

There are a number of events in Elizabeth’s reign that ensured that England would remain Protestant. The term ‘Protestant’ included both the Church of England and those who were becoming known as Puritans. The Puritans wanted a more ‘biblical’ approach to church structure, calling for the abolition of Episcopacy and the creation of a Presbyterian system of church governance. That means the removal of Bishops (episcopacy) and replacing them with elders (presbytery) in each community. The Presbyterian system (based on the word presbytery) had been introduced into Scotland by John Knox, replacing Roman Catholicism there.

  • 1563 John Foxe published his Book of Martyrs, or its fuller name Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days. The woodcut of Tyndale being burnt at the stake in the last article was taken from Foxe’s book. His book was an instant ‘must read’ and swept through the country in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign. It deals with martyrs throughout history but concentrates in detail on those martyred by Mary. It gives accounts of the trials and conversation between the interrogators and those suffering for conscience sake. It tells the sad tales of not only men but women and mothers who suffered agonising deaths after long and horrible imprisonments for conscience sake. It was a moving power urging the Reformation forward in England.
  • 1568 the Jesuit Order with its Counter Reformation set its sights on infiltrating England and bringing people back to the old faith of Rome. Schools for English Jesuits were set up in France, in Douai and Rheims. A few years later both cities gave their names to the Catholic English translation of the Bible – the Rheims/Douay Version printed in 1610 and sent into England the year before the King James Version of 1611. Many Jesuits came to England at the risk of their lives, working undercover, knowing that if found they would be arrested, tried and executed for treasonable plotting – as a number were.
  • 1572 St Bartholomew’s Day massacre This event of the brutal slaughter by Catholics directed against the Huguenots, French Calvinist Protestants, was a salutary warning to all Protestant England that they could never tolerate the Roman Catholic Church back in the country. It is difficult to know how many died in this horrible butchery as it spread from Paris through France, but some estimate that over 50,000 perished. This was another nail in the coffin stopping the resurrection of Catholicism in England.
  • 1588 The Armada of Spain This was the ‘last ditch’ effort to overthrow the Protestant power in England and place a Catholic on the throne. Philip II of Spain planned to invade England, using a mighty fleet of ships to achieve this goal. The plan was fully supported and blessed by Pope Sixtus V who allowed Philip to collect crusade taxes and granted his men indulgences. History records the failure and defeat of the Armada and how bad weather also helped in the final destruction of many of the ships. Protestants in England and across Europe saw it as the hand of God defeating the Catholic plot of Spain and the Pope. In England a commemorative medal was struck bearing the inscription, “He blew with His winds, and they were scattered”. Though its destruction was in the plan of God, it should alsobe noted that the British sea-power far exceeded the Armada’s capacity in battle – more ships of Spain were lost in the battle than the actual number of British seamen killed!

The words of Pope Sixtus V after the failure of the Armada were: “She is only a woman, only mistress of half an island, and yet she makes herself feared by Spain, by France, by the [Holy Roman] Empire, by all.” If the Pope is infallible why didn’t he know that would happen?

The ships and merchants of Tarshish

It was under the reign of Elizabeth that the expression “the ships of Tarshish” took onsignificance worldwide, for it was in that period that those ships became the dominant naval power in the oceans of the world. It was not just the naval power that developed in that era but also British merchant shipping. Near the end of Elizabeth’s reign the British East India Company was founded, thereby taking British interests to India, the Eastern Tarshish. Gradually the world felt the impact of “the merchants of Tarshish” from Asia, through India and Africa to America. Though this naval power in Elizabeth’s days played a decisive role in keeping England free from Papal submission, yet we know that it will not be long and again those ships will be involved in a very different work as Isaiah foretells: “Surely the isles shall wait for me, and the ships of Tarshish first, to bring thy sons from far, their silver and their gold with them, unto the name of the Lord thy God, and to the Holy One of Israel, because he hath glorified thee” (Isa 60:9).

Little more need be said about the reign of Elizabeth, but let us not be so distracted by what happened that we miss the overshadowing hand of God in these events in Europe and England. This period again confirms the truth that “he changeth the times and the seasons: he removeth kings, and setteth up kings”. In 1603 the days of Elizabeth came to an end at the age of 69. As Elizabeth never married there was no descendant to take the throne, so the closest blood descendant of the Tudor family was sought who could now take the throne of England. We will see as we conclude this series that this person was James VI of Scotland, but better known to us as James I of England, the one who gave his name to the King James Bible.