April 22, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Imperiled Church: Anti-Catholicism grows in England

John F. Fink(Second in a series of columns)

Last week, I wrote about the way England became Protestant after the death of King Henry VIII, especially during the 45-year reign of Queen Elizabeth I. She was determined to destroy the Catholic Church in England.

England wasn’t the only part of the British Isles where Catholics were besieged by Protestant-led governments. In Scotland, the Protestants were led by John Knox.

Then a tragic figure appeared on the scene: Mary Queen of Scots, as she was known. Mary Stuart was the daughter of Scotland’s King James V, who was the nephew of King Henry VIII. Mary grew up a Catholic and, at age 16, married the man who was to become France’s King Francis II.

When Francis died, Mary returned to Scotland, where she was the rightful queen. By this time, though, Knox had triumphed. The Scottish Parliament adopted Presbyterianism as the state religion, and prohibited the celebration of Mass, or even attending one, under penalty of death.

Mary then married Henry Stuart, the great grandson of England’s Henry VII. He was murdered in 1567, and Mary married the profligate earl of Bothwell. Soon a rising of the Scottish nobles forced her abdication, and she was imprisoned. Her infant son, James VI, was crowned king.

Mary managed to escape from prison and tried to take refuge with her cousin, Queen Elizabeth of England. Elizabeth, though, had no love for her cousin, and Mary was imprisoned in England for 19 years. During that time, Catholics repeatedly tried to get her out of prison, but were unsuccessful. Finally, in 1587, to make sure she could not claim the throne of England, Elizabeth had her put to death.

Elizabeth had no children. When she died in 1603, she was succeeded by King James VI of Scotland, the son of Mary Queen of Scots. He became both King James VI of Scotland and James I of England. Although his mother was Catholic, James had been forced to sign a profession of faith in Protestantism while he was in Scotland. So both England and Scotland remained Protestant.

In 1605, an attempt was made by 10 Catholics to blow up the Parliament building while King James was there. Labelled the Gunpowder Plot, the plan was to assassinate King James so his 9-year-old daughter Elizabeth would be installed as a Catholic head of state. The plot failed when, the night before, Guy Fawkes was discovered guarding 26 barrels of gunpowder. The conspirators were hanged, drawn and quartered.

The plot succeeded only in causing another outbreak of anti-Catholic violence, including the execution of two Jesuits. Anglicans commemorated Guy Fawkes Day with anti-Catholic sermons, parades and bonfires in many places throughout the world, including in the United States.

King James was succeeded by his son Charles, who tried to impose a high Anglican spirituality on the Church of England. When he was opposed by the Puritans and the Scots Presbyterians, a civil war ensued, with Oliver Cromwell at the head of a parliamentary army against the royal forces. Cromwell won, and King Charles was executed in 1649. Cromwell now ruled England. †

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