(Early 1500s to Mid 1600s)

We are very pleased to be listed by  as one of the top ten Web Pages for:
History: Church & State: Church & Reformation


Religious purists in the agrarian hinterland of the West objected strongly to the new secular or materialist spirit growing up with the Renaissance. One of these was the German professor-priest Martin Luther who in 1517 issued a challenge the church over this new interest in worldly affairs. He wanted the church to return to the pure (spiritual) ways of the early church--and back away from all this recent interest in power and wealth--which was rapidly corrupting it.  Also, he wanted faith initiatives to be returned to the individual believer. Priesthood belonged to the believer--not to the religious hierarchy. To press home this challenge, Luther translated the Bible into German--to give the common people access to all priestly authority: the Word of God.

Irritated, the church told him to cease his challenge. But he refused to yield. When princely political interests came to his aid--his rebellion exploded. The "Lutheran" movement began spreading across the north of Germany.  It would soon overtake Scandinavia.  Medieval Europe, or what was left of it, began rapidly to fall into a state of civil war.

But the challenge to the church came from another direction as well: from the newly rising European urban middle class. This was a prosperous, free-thinking and literate group. Eventually their position seemed to be galvanized around the teachings of the Genevan reformer, Calvin. Taking essentially the same position as Luther, Calvin began to assemble protestant scholars and teachers who would take the movement back to their home provinces. During the second half of the 1500s his "Reformed" movement was well planted in the towns and cities of England, Scotland, Netherlands, France, Western Germany, Bohemia, Hungary--and even parts of Poland and Spain (where it later got eradicated by the Catholic counter-reformation).

(1300 to 1500)

John Wycliff (1320-1384)

At Oxford university, John Wycliff by 1370 stirred up controversy in teaching the freedom of religious conscience of the individual believer, who stood in faith directly before God. He attacked a multitude of practices and features of the church--especially its wealth.

Wycliff's followers, contemptuously called "Lollards," from a Dutch word of derision meaning "mumblers" (originally directed at the Beguines), preached reform in England. Also, Wycliff's movement made much of the Bible available to the masses in its English translation from the Vulgate. Wycliff's Lollard movement was eventually suppressed--but so was the intellectual ferment of Oxford university where his teachings had been widely accepted.

The Reform Councils and the Council of Pisa (1409)

The institutional church was trying to unify and reform itself--and at the same time bring independent voices of reform under submission--through the conciliar movement, a series of church councils called to unify the papacy and reform the church.

The Council of Pisa, in order to end the embarrassment of having two contending popes claiming to be the sole head of the Catholic church, deposed the two contenders, Gregory XII and Benedict XIII.  This reform was undertaken even by the cardinals of both popes--who elected a new pope, Alexander V.  But when the two popes refused to step down, there were then three contending popes!

John Huss (1374-1415)

Huss being condemned at the Council of ConstanceWycliff's teachings reached Bohemia after his death and were picked up by John Huss, at the University of Prague, in the early 1400s. Huss translated Wycliff's works into Czech and gave life to the reform ideals to the people. This stirred fear in the hearts of church officialdom.

In 1414 Huss was called (under the Emperor's promise of safe conduct) to the Council of Constance to explain himself. But he was arrested by the Council and burned at the stake in 1415--sparking revolt in Bohemia.

Attempts to put down what had become a popular national revolt failed; finally a compromise was reached with the Hussites.

The Council of Basel (1431-1449)

The council initially made progress toward reconciliation with the Hussites. It defied a papal order to move to Bologna, claiming superior authority to that of the pope (Eugenius IV: 1431-1447).

But its subsequent efforts at reform of the ecclesiastical hierarchy caused it to overstep its true power--and Eugenius used this to his own advantage. Also, the pressing problems of the Turks and the need for closer relations with the Eastern church, provided the occasion for the pope to split the council's power bringing a portion of the council to Ferrara while the remainder carried on in Basel. Its decision in 1439 to elect a pope in opposition to Eugenius undermined most of the council's residual authority. In the meanwhile, the papacy in Rome emerged as an ever-stricter defender of its ecclesiastical authority.

Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498)

Savonarola was an apocalyptic Dominican monk-preacher who was both a very popular figure among the poorer classes of Florence and a thorn in the side of the Florentine aristocracy. He led a grand effort to clean up the morals of Florentine society. But the populace was turned against his influence and he was hanged in 1498.


A Sense of Growing Decadence in the Church

The profound corruption of the church--from popes down to parish priests--was a source of major frustration to the faithful--who had a profound sense of God's judgment over His people, the Christian community. Judgment would fall on this New Israel as surely as it did the Old Israel.

A Growth of Independent Personal Judgment

Combined with this sense of frustration with the church was a growing independent-mindedness on the part of a new humanist intelligentsia. The church no longer held a monopoly over the thinking of scholars and teachers. The new printing presses had put in their hands a wider range of reading that had ever been available previously. Some of it was pagan, most of it was Christian. But in any case it opened up a world that was not automatically sifted through the scrutiny of the religious hierarchy.

Oddly, one of the most unsettling elements of this new literature were the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments that became widely available. The new Biblical scholarship that this engendered not only pointed out (minor) flaws in the Latin Vulgate--but gave the new scholars a sense of personal judgment superior to that of the official church. The age of the individual conscience was being born!

The church could no longer expect automatically to command the thinking of its Christian subjects. Within the context of this independent and very critical mood--at least on the part of a new breed of humanist scholars--"business-as-usual" on the part of the church was bound to create a massive reaction.

A Major Shift in the Traditional Political Order of Medieval Christendom

For centuries, the whole of the medieval Christian order had been a single piece--understood to be ordained and supported by the will of God.  It was the widely understood principle that all the social orders, from kings and popes down to the vast multitudes of peasants, all had their respective "place" in that medieval political, economic, social, cultural, religious, spiritual order--such places determined by God's natural ordering of all people.  A person was placed into that order by the logic of his or her birth--and that by the will of God.  It was God that determined who would be born a king, who would be born a peasant.  This being God's righteous decree, there was little further thought that could be given to a rearranging this larger medieval social or political order.

True, kings and bishops, who both belonged to the upper aristocratic orders, had been battling among themselves since the 1100s for dominance over this larger medieval social order.  But such disputes did not involve the masses of European peasant farmers.  They simply awaited the outcome of such struggles to see how marriages, political alliances, wars would move them from the domain of one lord (priestly or princely) to another.  They themselves had no say in such matters.  Their job was to till the soil and pay the lord their feudal dues.  They always prayed that God would set over them a fair or just lord.  But they themselves had no voice in the matter of who ruled over the land that they worked with their labors.

The Rising Urban Power Base of the Renaissance

However the rise during the 1300s and 1400s of European commercial wealth--in competition with the traditional wealth of rural landholdings--was bound to upset this arrangement.  Bankers, merchants, industrialists--who congregated along key trade centers--did not fit easily into this older social order.  Though certainly their guilds and unions attempted to formalize their wealth, in fact their wealth was dynamic and always subject to a rapid shift in fortunes.  The success of their labors was related to the wisdom of investment decisions that they made.  To prosper, they needed a free hand--and a mind open to new and ever changing opportunities.

During the 1400s this group sat uneasily under the traditional rule of medieval church and crown.  Medieval feudal dues in the form of agricultural and military service owed the lord were cumbersome and at times counterproductive to the larger success of this new urban entrepreneurial class.  It was inevitable that these towns would become centers of resistance against the medieval land-based social system.

Indeed, in case after case these rising towns and cities were able to receive from the traditional local princely or priestly lord new charters which granted them (that is, the commercial elite or oligarchy that ran these towns) a tremendous degree of self-goverment--in exchange for the payment of taxes in currency.  This was because money was becoming more important than land in undergirding the military might of a local ruler--and the princely and priestly rulers in fact preferred monetary payments over land service from their vassals.  While land assessments and service obligations might feed their courts and fill their armies with men-at-arms--only money could buy them the new luxuries--and the new military technologies--that traditional land-based service could not.

Reconstructing a Moral-Legal Order around This Newly Rising Order

But the independence of these towns--in keeping with their real power--did not provide the air of legitimacy that they needed to feel secure in their liberties within the newly rising order.  At any time these urban charters might be revoked by the local prince or bishop by any whim or fancy (or suspicion).  There really was no "right" of their own that the towns could hold up to these lords in order to demand equitable treatment.  At least not until the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s gave them the sense that they had the right to accept or reject political authority in accordance with what their own consciences dictated.   There was no power on earth, only God alone, who had the right to judge them in the matters of conscience, even political conscience.


Martin Luther (1483-1546) by LucasCranach,theElder,
1521 - Uffizi, FlorenceThe 95 Theses

The explosion finally came around the matter of the financing of the lavish building program of Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome.  As an untended spokesman for this critical mindset, in 1517 Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenburg castle church protesting, for theological reasons, the sale of indulgences to finance the pope's schemes.

Behind this defiant action was a long personal pilgrimage of Luther, one based on an deep desire to unburden himself of a profound sense of guilt and personal condemnation before God's judgment. For Luther, a personal breakthrough occurred as the message sank into the head of this Augustinian professor concerning Paul's teaching (Galatians and Romans) about divine Grace and forgiveness received through the simple faith of the believer--and not through the demands of any religious law or requirements of a religious system. So "liberated" was he that he felt that his discovery had to be brought to the world. The occasion of the sale of indulgences brought this desire to the fore. With this action of challenging papal authority, Luther, unaware of where this would eventually take him, uncorked an explosive force among fiercely faithful Christians. It also excited the political interests of the German princes who saw in this theological revolution an economic/political opportunity they could not pass up.

For Luther the reform movement was related to the matter of a sinner's personal justification before God.  Luther showed little interest in making broader changes within Christianity beyond the throwing off of Roman spiritual authority--with its traditions of works-righteousness.  Substantial changes in worship, for instance, were of lesser interest to Luther.  Also the episcopal form of church government (rule by bishops) was kept by Luther--though with the understanding that the bishops were answerable to the local princes--not to Rome.

The pope's ability to reply to Luther's challenge to ecclesiastical authority was greatly limited by the protection that Frederick, imperial elector, placed around Luther. Meanwhile, in Luther's debates with the papal opponents sent to silence him, he was gradually drawn more deeply into a position defiant of Rome. By 1520, Luther's defiance of Rome was total. To Luther, Rome was the anti-Christ. At the end of that year Luther boldly and publicly burned the papal bull requiring his submission. Luther, and much of Germany with him, was in full religious rebellion against Rome.

Emperor Charles V Fights Back

The newly elected Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (ruler of: powerful Spain and its wealthy American colonies, the commercially energetic Netherlands, and Austria and much of Italy), now took up the issue on the side of the Roman church. Luther, now excommunicated but still under the protection of Frederick and widely popular in Germany, was called by the Emperor to an Imperial Council at Worms to give account of his views. Here Luther stood firm in his views against the Roman church. Under an Imperial guarantee of his freedom, Luther was able to get away from the Council before the guarantee was retracted. From then on for the rest of his life, Luther remained in seculsion--publishing works against the papacy and bringing forth his German translation of the Bible.

In the meanwhile the Emperor found himself preoccupied by an on-going war with France over control of various cities and principalities in Italy. Thus the Emperor was seriously distracted in his effort to quiet Luther. Then the Turkish threat to the Emperor's Austrian holdings rose up again. Luther was relatively safe.

The Peasant War

Meanwhile the spiritual rebellion of Luther against Rome soon spread as a mood of political rebellion of the German commoner against princely authority. The autonomy of the individual religious conscience gave over easily to the idea of the autonomy of the individual political conscience. But in this, Luther proved to be no rebel. In fact, he stood strongly on the side of the princes against the German rebels (Karlstadt and Müntzer) who took up the political cause of the German commoner against their rulers. In the peasant rebellion of 1524-1525, Luther came down harshly against the peasants. The peasants and their leaders were put down cruelly (6,000 peasants lost their lives alone in the one-day battle of Frankenhausen).

The result of the Peasant War was to move real power over to the various German princes. Thus in Germany, the rule of the church was not a matter either of local congregational power--nor of the power of popes and bishops. Rather, it was the ruling prince in each of the many principalities that made up Germany who determined each in his own territory its particular Christian character. Some remained loyal to Rome (the southern German princes), some followed the Lutheran line (the northern German princes). But in any case it was the local princes who made that determination. The dependence of church on state was thus set as the characteristic feature of German Christianity--a feature lasting down into the 20th century.

Furthermore, because of Luther's deep conservatism and the limitation of his vision of reform solely to the context of an ongoing, though theologically reformed, agrarian medieval religious order, Luther's movement remained confined to a highly rural, still medieval north-central Europe--and had almost no impact in any of the rapidly developing European urban areas.


Ulrich Zwingli

In Zurich, Switzerland, meanwhile, a young priest was being drawn toward Luther's reform movement. In 1522 Ulrich Zwingli began to make his moves to establish Scripture as the sole religious authority for the Christian. He opposed the Lenten Fast, citing the lack of Scriptural warrant for the practice--a position which was supported by the Zurich civil government. The bishop of Constance tried to suppress this innovation--but lost out to the Zurich government, which moved to take control of ecclesiastical matters within its jurisdiction.  Zwingli supported this shift in authority--claiming that the civil government, under the Lordship of Christ and guided in its work by the dictates of Scripture, was the legitimate voice or conscience of the believing community.

Meanwhile the Reformation began to spread to other parts of Switzerland: most notably to the cities of Basel (where Oecolampadius had been leading the reform movement), Constance and Bern. It also made its way down the Rhine River to Strasburg--where under the leadership of Zell, Capito and Bucer the reform movement there took on the more thoroughgoing Swiss character (as distinct from the more conservative Lutheran variety).

But the conservative rural cantons of Switzerland remained firmly opposed to the Zwinglian reforms. Relations grew bitter and hostilities resulted--with Zwingli himself being wounded and then put to death in a losing battle against the rural cantons in 1531.

The more gentle-natured Heinrich Bullinger took over the Zurich reform movement.

The Split within the Protestant Ranks

Meanwhile, the reform movement was beginning to move in different and opposing theological directions.  For Luther the reform movement was more narrowly related to the matter of a sinner's personal justification before God.  Luther showed little interest in making broader changes within Christianity beyond the throwing off of Roman spiritual authority--with its traditions of works-righteousness.  Substantial changes in worship, for instance, were of lesser interest to Luther.  Also the episcopal form of church government (rule by bishops) was kept by Luther--though with the understanding that the bishops were answerable to the local princes--not to Rome.

But to Zwingli and the Swiss reformers (identified as the Reformed party) there were strong interests in restructuring the organization and practices of the church around its original constitutional base: Scripture.  There was a stripping away of every feature of Christianity that could not be supported by Scriptural warrant.  This was in keeping with Zwingli's humanist background--and its focus on the Greek and Hebrew origins of the church, and the sense that everything that was a departure from this classical age was a perversion of an original purity undergirding the church.

This would not probably have kept Luther and Zwingli from working closely together--except that one portion of Zwingli's reforms were violently opposed by Luther:  Zwingli's treatment of the celebration of the Lord's supper.  Zwingli (for whom the sermon, not the celebration of the eucharist, was the central point of Christian worship) interpreted Christ's words concerning his presence in the wine and bread as purely symbolic.  To Luther, this was a shocking diminution of the power of the real presence of Christ in the elements of the eucharist.  The gap was, in both their minds, unbridgeable by the mid 1520s. Others of both parties tried to effect a compromise.  But Luther, even after Zwingli's death, would not hear of compromise. Lutheranism and the Reformed faith split permanently.

John Calvin

John Calvin (1509-1564) In the meantime in France, John Calvin (1509 to 1564), as a young jurist, was trying to convince the French king, Francis 1st, to give sympathy to the reform movement.  In 1536 he published his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

This not only failed to convince the king, but also identified Calvin as a voice of religious dissent, not tolerated in France.  Calvin was forced to flee France.  In coming to Geneva, Switzerland, the protestant reformer Farel prevailed upon Calvin to stay in the city and help him with the reformed movement which was growing rapidly there. But for Calvin, this proved to be a stormy proposition.  Geneva was an unruly city, and Calvin's natural bent toward orderliness and discipline made him many enemies in the city.  In the spring of 1538 Calvin and Farel were banished from Geneva.  He fled to Strasbourg, where the Reform movement was well established.

But in 1541, the old group partisan to Calvin urgently requested his return to Geneva.  Calvin somewhat reluctantly decided to make his return--but on his terms.  Upon his return, Calvin organized (accepting many compromises with the city Council) the religious life of the city around his new Ordinances--the foundation of Reformed polity.  Geneva in turn became identified under Calvin's leadership as the model Christian city, the "New Jerusalem" of Protestantism.

Calvin was an urban European, steeped in the bourgeois mindset of the rising European urban "middle class."  Calvin's interest in reform of the crumbling medieval moral-legal order involved importantly a vision of the new urban order as central to a purified Christianity.  And his interest in reform did not limit itself merely to matters of religious doctrine--as was the case for Luther.  Calvin truly was interested in a comprehensive reordering of every aspect of post-medieval life:  political, economic, and social as well as theological.

Importantly, he gave a theological rationale for the independent-mindedness of the urban commercial class--arming them with Scriptural justification for going their own way within God's creation.  Indeed, he encouraged them to establish purified political-economic-social orders as a way of purging Christendom of its corruption and of bringing glory to God in Jesus Christ.  He made their soul-searching independent-mindedness a matter of the greatest importance in their standing before God.  They not only had the right to be accountable to God alone as sovereign over them--they had the Christian duty to see that this was the case.  The supposition was that any earthly lord who positioned himself between them and God was going to be problematic in their "purified" relationship with God and their covenantal life in the purified Christian commonwealth.

The followers of Calvin attempted to convince the rich and powerful kings of Europe that their movement had no treasonous instincts--and that they planned to be good citizens in the realms where they lived.  The kings were not convinced.  And rightly so.  Everything about Calvinism pointed to the idea of these people being accountable to no earthly ruler but to God alone.  Switzerland, which was the birthplace of Calvin's Reformed Movement was well recognized for its independent mindedness and refusal to acknowledge the rule of any princely lord over the land.  No, Calvin's Reformed Movement, or "Calvinism" was destined to bring a clash with traditional princely and priestly rulers who claimed to rule by "divine rights."  That was exactly what the Calvinists claimed for their own "self-rule":  self-rule by divine right--even by divine imperative.   There was no way these two mind-sets were going to work cooperatively.

For more information on Calvin

John Knox

We must at this point mention one of these "Calvinists":  John Knox, the great Protestant reformer of Scotland.  Knox not only helped direct Scotland to Calvinist Protestantism in the mid 1500s, but also left a powerful political legacy within the Calvinist or Reformed branch of  Protestantism, a political legacy we call "Presbyterianism."  Knox's Presbyterianism not only deternimed the organization of the Church of Scotland but also layed the foundations for the growth of  representative democracy in the American middle colonies (from New Jersey to South Carolina) in the 1600s and 1700s.

As with many Protestant reformers, Knox began as a Catholic priest, highly discontent with the moral and spiritual corruption that had overtaken the Mother Church.  He was attracted to the Lutheran teachings of the early Scottish reformer, George Wishart; was appalled when in 1546 the Catholic cardinal had Wishart burned at the stake as a heretic; and then joined the group of rebels who moved to overthrow the hand of the Catholic church over Scotland.  This put him in opposition to the pro-French party that ruled Scotland--and when French troops in 1547 crushed this Protestant rebellion in Scotland, Knox was led off  to captivity as a French galley slave.  His release was finally secured by the pro-Protestant English King Edward VI, leading Knox to come to England to be a Protestant pastor and then chaplain to the King.

But when Edward died in 1553 and Catholic Mary Tudor ("Bloody Mary") came to the throne, Knox left England and made his way eventually to Geneva Switzerland where he joined a community of English expatriates living and studying under the direction of the great Genevan reformer, John Calvin.  Knox took a great liking to both Calvin and his teachings and subsequently became a major voice in the English/Scottish reform movement not only in Geneva, but through letters, to a growing Protestant movement back in Scotland.

He returned briefly to Scotland in 1555, became pastor of the English church in Geneva, and then finally in 1559 he returned definitively to Scotland to take over the spiritual leadership of the Protestant rebellion against the French-Catholic regent of Scotland, Mary of Guise.  Seeing that things were not going well in Scotland for the Protestant party, Queen Elizabeth of England came to their aid against the French in Scotland.  But when Mary of Guise died suddenly in 1560, the French Catholic cause in Scotland was dead.  Scotland was now won for Protestantism.

At this point Knox and his supporters began to reshape the Scottish church--not only theologically along the lines of Calvin's Reformed Faith born in Geneva, but also politically in a way that was Knox's special contribution to the Protestant cause.  Knox took the idea of representative government characteristic of Calvin's reformed churches (communities lead by elected elders or "presbyters"), and applied it locally, regionally and nationally in total reversal of the top-down or hierarchical fashion of Catholic or "episcopalian" government.  Thus local councils ("Presbyteries"), regional councils ("Synods") and national councils ("General Assemblies") that presided over the faithful were made up of representatives not of the political rulers over the church but of the people themselves.  Thus was born "Presbyterian" or representative church government--the source of inspiration for the new Democratic or Republican forms of government that led eventually to the Constitution of 1789 underpinning the new American Republic.

Despite success in the Protestant takeover of the church Scotland, the continuing existence of a Catholic monarchy in Scotland under Mary of Guise's daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, made life still highly problematic for Protestant Scotland--and for John Knox personally as the two locked wills in on-going battle.  But eventually Mary's poor diplomacy proved to be her undoing and in 1567 she was forced to flee to England, where Elizabeth put her under house arrest, where she remained for the rest of her life.

In any case Knox, worn out and sickly, died from his labors in 1572.  But his work in  Scotland was carried forth faithfully by others, notably Andrew Melville.

For more information on Knox


The papal party finally realized the seriousness of the challenge to its moral authority--and finally in 1546 called a Council at Trent to answer the Protestant charges of ecclesiastical corruption and theological deviation. Rigid discipline was reimposed over the priests who remained loyal to Rome.  Luther's teaching on divine grace and justification alone by faith was condemned. A campaign was readied to wipe out any "heretics" not ready to return to Roman discipline. The war was thus on.

The Roman church, championed by the most powerful ruling family in Europe (the Spanish Habsburgs)--well-financed from their plunder of South and Central America--fought back--cruelly, trying to stamp out the fires of the Protestant revolt. They succeeded in many places--and might have been fully successful had not the Muslim Turks attacked Vienna--the Eastern center of Habsburg power--during the height of this struggle. With the Habsburgs thus distracted, Protestantism dug in.


By the mid 1500s the breakdown of the unity of Christianity and the weakening of the hold of the medieval church on the political hearts of Europe were affording a number of rising princes and kings a new opportunity:  the immediate accumulation of vast amounts of wealth through the confiscation of church lands.  Many of these new rulers got involved in the Reformation seemingly only for the opportunity it gave them to grab land and wealth from the church, even to make themselves the head of the church in their own lands.

Decline of the Italian City States

Italy, however, remained divided into small city-states, including the lands belonging to the Vatican. This weakness gave outside rulers--such as the Spanish--great power over the peninsula.

Undoubtedly the biggest cause of the decline of the once-great Italian city-states was the shifting of the major East-West trade routes from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.  Disruptions in the Asian overland routes plus the discovery of sea routes to the East around Africa by Portugal and Spain left the Italian city-states by-passed and forgotten as key middle-men in the lucrative East-West trade.  Weakened by their loss of commercial revenues, the city-states (Venice, Genoa, Florence, Milan) declined rapidly in power during the 1500s--and soon became merely the play-things of larger powers such as France and Spain, whose armies played out their war games in a defenseless and rapidly declining Italy.

Also (as in Germany) the Roman church remained very influential in Italy--though being largely Italian, it tended not to be seen as an alien influence, as it was seen in Germany.  In any case the church served only its own interests in Italy--acting merely as yet another fierce competitor for the dwindling wealth of the peninsula.

Philip II (1527-1598)Spain (1500s)

The greatest European power of all during this century was the Spanish monarchy of Charles I (1516-1556) and his son Philip II (1556-1598)--possessors of fantastic plunderings of gold and silver from the mines of their lands in newly discovered America.  These two monarchs made Spain the power of Europe during the 1500s.

Feeling more threatened by the Protestant movement than by the now-powerless Roman pope, both Charles and Philip took the Catholic church under their wing as protectors and fought to restore it against the Reformation. And they might have succeeded had Charles not been so hard-pressed by the Muslim Turks who were trying to conquer his Christian holdings in Eastern Europe--and by the intrigue of other European kings who wanted Philip's power curbed.


England:  The Tudor Monarchy

Henry VIII.  The Protestant Reformation got a toe-hold in England when King Henry VIII (1509-1547) began to undermine the position of the Catholic Church in England in order to pursue his own personal political (and matrimonial!) goals.  He had no particular theological argument with Catholicism, but in fact thought of himself as a kingly "Defender of the Faith."  Henry's attack on the church had more to do with his desire to secure the legitimacy of his fluxuating matrimonial decisions--and to get his hands on the vast wealth in property, labor-services and monies of the Church.

Through a policy of unrelenting confiscation, Henry transferred vast sums of wealth from the Church to the royal coffers--or to his supporters, who were coming rapidly to reconstitute themselves as a new gentry or nobility of wealth.  They were in close league with the King, buying up Church lands with their vast wealth earned through manufacture, mining, commerce and banking--probably entirely for reasons of social status, though they put these new acquisitions to work as sources of new capital undergirding their ever-increasing wealth.

In any case, this new urban, capitalist nobility ultimately became supporters of the Reformation out of a  fear that the restoration of the Church's position would have entailed the loss of their own.  Also they probably understood how throwing countless numbers of monks and nuns out onto the labor market did not hurt their labor costs any--not to mention that closing the abbys likewise gave the poor no refuge except to go to work at a slave-wage rates for these new industrial-commercial elite.

From 1547 to 1558 England shifted back and forth in politics between the Protestants and the Catholics.  Under Edward VI (1547-1553), England veered toward Protestantism.  Under "Bloody" Mary I (1553-1558), the Catholics seemed to be in ascendancy.  Indeed, during the brief reign of Mary, who married Spanish King Philip II,  it even appeared that England might be brought into the Habsburg holdings as a new Spanish-dominated province.  The English were outraged.

ElizabethI(1558-1603)Elizabeth (1558-1603) carefully plotted a "middle" course largely designed to keep herself secure in her position as queen.  During the first part of her reign she succeeded through diplomacy in neutralizing the influences of the pope and Catholic Spain.  At home her natural sympathies were with the Protestant position--though not with the more radical "Puritans" among them.  She also rebuilt the alliance her father had established with the newly emergent commercial/industrial lords--encouraging an industrial revolution during her reign.

But during the second part of her reign, Catholic hostilities both at home and abroad began to mount.  Catholic Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland--who also had good claim to the throne of England--became a rallying symbol for English Catholicism, especially after Mary was forced to resettle in England after a Protestant revolt threw her out of Scotland in 1568.  By the 1580's there were continual Catholic plots to assassinate Elizabeth--brought under some degree of control only after Mary's beheading in 1587.  Meanwhile Elizabeth's efforts to help the Protestant rebellion in the Netherlands against Catholic Spain's rule there, plus the authorizing of English privateers to attack Spanish shipping, only pushed Spain beyond the possibilities of any diplomatic solution.  In 1588 Spain sent its "invincible Armada" to punish England--only to have this Spanish navy destroyed by the English navy, and by a series of natural disasters which greeted the Spanish survivors as they tried to make their way home.  This by no means ended the Spanish danger--which only seemed to enlargen across the channel as Philip persisted in his efforts to manipulate religious policies and royal succession in neighboring France.

In her last years Elizabeth faced problems at home that taxed her powers:  drought and poverty in the English countryside; an empty royal treasury and a huge tax burden placed on her people brought on by her diplomatic/military efforts to keep England independent; a more aggressive Protestantism which looked to Parliament rather than the monarchy as the real power in English politics.


Even while the power of European monarchs was increasingly dramatically across Europe, Calvinism had been making its way into the very wealthy urban centers of the coastal Netherlands (Holland).  But this was also the very birthplace of the Hapsburg rulers of Europe--Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor.  Charles did not like this Calvinist spirit at all--and in the name of protecting the "true church" of Rome, proceeded to try to crush the whole protestant venture--both Luther's and Calvin's.  However, the Turkish attack on Hapsburg Vienna in Austria proved to be an awesome distraction for Charles--and gave the reformed movement some breathing space to grow.

The Duke of AlvaBut Charles' son, Philip II of Spain, resumed the crusade, unleashing the cruel Spanish general Alva upon the Netherlands in an effort to destroy Calvinism there.  Alva succeeded only in part--in the southern Netherlands (Belgium). By cruel force of arms he returned the southern area to Catholicism--destroying the economic-social fabric of the region, and ending Antwerp's era of commercial supremacy in the Netherlands.

The Northern Netherlands of the Dutch escaped Alva's cruel grip by undertaking drastic self-defense measures--but forged a powerful, though small, independent mercantile nation in the process.  Though it would not be until the middle of the 1600s that Dutch independence was finally formally recognized, in fact by the late 1500s the Calvinist Netherlands were entirely "self-ruling."  This was the beginning of European democracy.

The Netherlands failed to become a "purist" Calvinist theocracy--largely because of the problems of survival.  The Netherlands could not afford to alienate any potential support for its cause--even royalist (such as the English monarchy and even the Catholic French monarchy which in its opposition to Spain from time to time threw support to the Dutch).  Thus the Netherlands became a haven not only for talented entrepreneurial Calvinists escaping Catholic oppression elsewhere in Europe, it began to receive Jews and other religious minorities escaping the Catholic Inquisition.



(1618 to 1648)

A tendency of the monarchs to line up on one side or another on the issue of the Protestant Reformation--for political more than religious reasons reached its height in the 1600s.  Indeed, the wars of religion between Protestants and Catholics, and among the various European kings and kingdoms reached horrible proportions during the "30 Year's War" of 1618-1648.  These wars caught all of Europe in massive devastation.

In Germany, for instance, huge portions of the population were wiped out by war, disease, and depredations of the wandering mercenary soldiers. People were put to the rack and stake--tortured and killed for their faith.

But eventually Catholic Habsburg Spain was running out of plunder from America and could not easily maintain its armies.  And Catholic France was more interested in containing Catholic Spain than in fighting European Protestantism (except in France itself).  Also Protestant England and the Protestant Netherlands were becoming quite successfully a major nuisance to both.

Finally, it was becoming clear that religion was losing its primacy as the force behind European political, cultural and intellectual affairs. Indeed, the people were becoming very, very tired of the whole religious question.

Thus in 1648 a truce was declared.  It was reluctantly agreed that England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and large parts of Switzerland and Germany would stand as "Protestant" lands.  The rest remained Roman Catholic.

(1640 to 1660)

James I Stuart(1603-1625)James Presses the Theory of "Divine Rights" of Kings in England

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603) there had been a moderately tolerant working relationship between the Queen and the Protestant (Calvinist) reformers.  The burghers of London and other English cities were for her an invaluable source of financial and other support for her rule--which was continually on the defensive against the likes of the "Catholic" defender Philip II of Spain.

Lacking an heir of her own, it became apparent that Tudor rule would eventually pass into the hands of the Stuarts of Scotland.  Though Mary Stuart had been an ardent Catholic, her son James had been raised in Protestant (Calvinist) circles.  In 1603 when Elizabeth died and indeed James came to the English throne as James I, it might have appeared that the going would henceforth be better for the Protestants in England.

In many ways James played to the Protestant reformers.  He sponsored a new English translation of the Bible (the venerable King James version!)--which pleased the reformers.  He also was himself strongly opposed to the re-opening of England to Catholicism--though mostly for political reasons than for reasons of religious conscience.

But he also was a thorough royalist, strongly supportive of the "divine rights" theory of monarchy by which the claim was put forth that kings were responsible to God alone--and not to any human agency (such as Parliament).  Unfortunately, he would soon discover that Parliament had a mind of its own and expected the king to share rule with Parliament.  Little by little tensions began to mount as the King and Parliament came into conflict.

Part of his difficulty would be over the matter of religion.  He had during his earlier days as King of Scotland tired of the "upstart" behavior of the Scottish Calvinists.  He was now prepared to rule directly over the Christian community in England--through an episcopal (hierarchical) system that linked all the Church of England to his personal rule.  Thus was he much opposed to the idea of presbyterial government (rule by leaders among the commoner or burgher class) at the local level.  During his rule he actively discouraged the growth of independent or "separatist" communities and congregations--that is, local communities and churches that tried to work outside of the episcopal system.

Overall, this was not a position all that different from Elizabeth's--except that he lacked her political insights and thus found himself in trouble on a number of fronts at the same time.


Cambridge University was at this time a hot-bed of protestant (Calvinist) and even separatist religious thinking in the early 1600s.  Sons of prosperous English burghers came to this venerable institution to explore a world of widening economic, intellectual and spiritual opportunities.

Here at Cambridge young men began to fashion a purist or "Puritan" vision of a newly emerging society, one operating directly under the sovereignty of God (making the place of the sovereign king a bit problematic).  This was sort of a theory of "divine rights" of burghers--in counter to the "divine rights" theory of the monarchy.  These independent-minded scions of the burgher class came to see themselves not as essentially subjects of the English crown, but as subjects of God.  According to their Protestant or Puritan mindset, individuals were to be led in living out their lives only by their own scripturally disciplined minds and their own prayerfully cultivated Christian consciences.  Nothing was to stand between themselves and their beloved God.  Not even an English king.

It was not long before there was a clash between royalist and puritan views--especially separatist views.  One such group of separatists led by a Cambridge trained minister finally decided early on to leave England entirely and resettle themselves in Holland where they could live in a Christian community that operated in accordance with their Puritan principles.  Some of this group would later (1620) make yet a second move as "pilgrims" in pursuit of their dream, this time to the new world--to Plymouth, Massachussetts.

Charles I of England by Anthony Van Dyke -
Louvre,ParisCharles I

When James died in 1625, his son Charles I (1625-1649) came to power. Generally, policies continued much as they had under James--except that the debate over royal power was now widening and deepening in intensity.  On the continent the doctrine of royal absolutism (all power rightly belongs to the king) was being aggresively put forward in the French and Spanish courts. Inevitably the issue came to England.

Charles immediately upon his accesion to power brought an even more aggressively royalist and aristocratic (or "cavalier") mood into English politics.  Charles favored the old landed familes (many of whom had Catholic sympathies) over the new independent-minded burgher (urban middle class) families in his appointments to the royal court.  In partcular, he allowed himself to come under the almost controlling influence of Buckingham, one of his father's advisors.  Buckingham was very much a royal absolutist--one who was inclined to make no compromises with the burgher interests of Parliament.

Charles also stirred considerable political resentment by immediately putting aside all the laws that had blocked Catholicism from English politics.  Likewise--his diplomacy of befriending Catholic kings on the continent (even marrying his son to a Spanish princess) was interpreted as the precursor of even reestablishing Catholicism in England.  This was not something that the Puritan majority in the House of Commons would take lying down.  The stage for violent confrontation was thus being set even from the outset of Charles' rule.

Charles tried for 11 years to rule without Parliament--which meant also ruling without the financial support of this powerful group of English merchants.  This forced him to take very contrived and largely unsuccessful measures to raise his own monies in order to maintain his royal courts and armies.

Charles simulataneously tried to engage in foreign ventures he hoped would rally the English to his side.  But tensions only mounted with the gentry who would not play into his programs.

Rapidly Deteriorating Political Conditions

Charles eventually turned more and more to William Laud, archbishop of Canterbury, for ideological support.  The appointment of  Laud, a self-professed Arminianist, as Archbishop of Canterbury angered the Puritans enormously--who saw this as a move against their own position (which it was!).  Further, Laud's efforts to put the entire Christian community in England under episcopal rule and in total conformity to the Prayer Book only drove the wedge deeper between the royal court and the Puritans in Parliament.

When a rebellion in Ireland flared up, the issue of who should control the army came to the fore.  Pym, leader of the more reformist members of Parliament, narrowly succeeded in a vote to place the army under Parliamentary authority.  But Charles refused to yield.  With this, England found itself in a state of deep political division between King and Parliament.

Finally, when Laud also tried to impose the Prayer Book on the Scottish church, an explosion in Scotland, his home country, occurred.  Charles sent  his ill-paid royal army into Scotland to force acceptance of this decree--only to meet disaster.

The Long Parliament

Charles now was forced to come to Parliament to raise funds to try to recover his collapsing position in Scotland.  But when Parliament put forth its own demands for the undoing of Laud's episcopalian reforms in exchange for its cooperation--the King dissolved Parliament (the Short Parliament) immediately.

But the king's situation only deteriorated and soon he had to call Parliament (the Long Parliament) back into session.  This Parliament would not be dissolved until 20 years later.  It was about to become the effective ruler of England.

Parliament set about getting rid of some of the hated royal ministers, such as Strafford (who was immediately executed) and Laud (who was arrested and then executed 4 years later)--with Charles forced to accede to these moves.  Parliament also passed laws which made it impossible for the King to dissolve Parliament without its own consent.  It also placed severe restrictions on the King's abilities to raise revenues for royal expenses.

At this point Parliament fell into dissention as to how much further to push the King.  Parliament's success had begun to draw out the various differences that existed within the Parliamentary forces.  Some were willing to stop with these reforms.  Others wanted to press on with more Parliamentary reform.  Others yet wanted a radical overhaul of English government--including the church.  Others seemed to want to rebuild English society from ground up.

The King, unfortunately misinterpreted these disputes as a breakdown in Parliament itself and attempted at this point to move personally against the Parliamentary ringleaders.  This only reunited Parliament and now drove the moderates into the camps of the radicals.  The country was now split into two mutually hostile factions.  The stage was now set for the beginning of the English civil war.

The English Civil War

Though the ensuing conflict has long been called the English Civil War, in fact it was not a civil war--in that the vast majority of English were neutral in the struggle.  The Civil War was really a war between two ruling factions within the higher reaches of English politics.  On the one side were ranged the Cavaliers, drawn mostly from the traditional aristocracy.  On the other side were the leading burghers, wealthy merchants of London and the eastern coastal cities--sometimes called the "round-heads" for the close-cropped haircuts they wore (in distinction to the long curls of the Cavaliers).

Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper
-Drumlanring Castle, Dumfries-shireBoth sides possessed their own armies:  the royalist armies of Charles and the burgher armies of Parliament.  The War began in 1642 when Charles attempted to move his army on to London, to capture that city and collapse the Parliamentary cause.  But his army, though superior in size, proved timid and gave the Parliamentary army an opportunity to organize itself.  Also, the Scottish army in 1643 came into the struggle on the side of the English Parliamentary forces.  Finally, in 1644 the very capable Oliver Cromwell began to make his way forward as a military leader.  He mixed Puritan spiritual discipline with incredible military discipline to produce a New Model Army--which proved itself to be a powerful fighting instrument on behalf of Parliament.  In 1645, the entire Parliamentary Army, reorganized along Cromwell's lines, met and crushed the royalist forces at Naseby and Langport.  The King escaped to Scotland, surrendering himself to Scottish authorities, only to have them in the following year, 1646, turn him over to the English Parliamentary authorities.

At this point a split occured within the ranks of the Parliamentary coalition.  Most of the Protestant members of Parliament were "Presbyterian" in persuasion and were willing to free the King in exchange for the establishment of the Presbyterian form of church government throughout England.  But many of the English Protestants, numerous in the Parliamentary army, were "independents" or "congregationalists" and wanted local congregations to have the right to organize themselves as they saw fit.  This discord within the ranks of the Parliamentary coalition encouraged the King to escape captivity and return to Scotland--promising the very Presbyterian Scots to institute Presbyterianism in England in exchange for support by the Scottish army.

Now the character of the Civil War shifted--the struggle now being between the English Parliamentary Army under Cromwell and the Scottish Presbyterian Army, supporting Charles.  In 1648 the two armies met at Preston--and the Scottish army was destroyed.  Cromwell then proceeded with elements of his army to London--and expelled the Presbyteran members of Parliament (Pride's Purge).  This left only a "Rump" Parliament of Iindependents supported solely by the force of Cromwell's army.  Fearing that the King and the Presbyterians might work together to create a pro-royalist Presbyterian Parliamentary army, Cromwell and the Rump Parliament quickly brought Charles to trial and in early 1649 had him beheaded.  The nation was shocked--but subdued by this show of power.  In any case, this effectively removed the rallying cause for opponents of Cromwell and his army of Independents.

The Commonwealth and the Protectorate

The Rump Parliament now moved to abolish the monarchy and the House of Lords, declaring England to be a Commonwealth directed by a Council of State.  Actually it was Cromwell and his army which were in effective control of England at this point.

Cromwell faced considerable opposition from the royalist nations abroad--who were aghast at the murder of England's rightful king--and insurrectionists at home.  But the foreign monarchs were busy fighting among themselves and unable to address themselves to the English question.  Cromwell used this opportunity to meet his most serious domestic challenge: rebellion in Ireland where Catholics, Episcopalians and Presbyterians had joined forces against rule by his new English Commonwealth.

Cromwell's tactics were ruthless:  he slaughtered off captured Irishmen by the thousands--included captured priests by the hundreds--claiming to be the avenging arm of God.

Revival of the Stuart Monarchy

The Stuart monarchy was restored in 1660, but soon overplayed its pro-Catholic hand.

The Glorious Revolution (1688-1689)

Thus the monarchy got once again overthrown--in the relatively bloodless "Glorious Revolution" of 1688-1689.  A Protestant monarch, William of Orange, was called in from the Netherlands to rule as co-regent with his Protestant wife, Mary Stuart--under the guidance of Parliament.  This made the (largely Protestant) Parliament the effective ruler of England.

(Early 1500s to Late 1600s)

The Spanish Conquests and Settlements

The Portuguese Settlements

The French Settlements

The Dutch Settlements

The English Virginia Colony

The Pilgrims and Puritans in Massachussetts/New England

The Middle Colonies


Discovery and Reformation (Hooker: Washington State U)

Continue on to the next section: The European Enlightenment (Mid 1600s to Late 1700s)Continue on to the next section: The European Enlightenment (Mid 1600s to Late 1700s)

Return to
the Home Page: The Spiritual PilgrimReturn to the Home Page: The Spiritual Pilgrim

  Copyright © 2002 by Miles H. Hodges. All Rights Reserved.