• Nov 9, 2013

England, Scotland and the Protestant Reformation

By Maddie Gaw

Howard Brenton’s joins the long line of Tudor-related media, and also explores how King James VI of Scotland becomes King James I of England and tackles religious unrest. The England King James inherits owes everything to Anne Boleyn’s brief reign alongside King Henry VIII.


The Tudor family rose to prominence under King Henry’s father, Henry Tudor. The Wars of the Roses (1455-1487) was a series of dynastic battles to claim the English throne, fought between two rival factions, the Houses of Lancaster and York. Henry Tudor supported the Lancastrians and defeated the last Yorkist king, Richard III. To put an end to the conflict and to secure his rightful claim to the throne, King Henry VII married Elizabeth of York, uniting the two houses.

While peace had been made, the new royal house needed to secure succession to strengthen their position against pretenders to the throne. King Henry VII’s eldest son Arthur made a great match with Catherine of Aragon, princess of Spain, but Arthur died less than a year into their marriage. With special dispensation from the Pope, the alliance was maintained by Catherine’s marriage to Arthur’s brother Henry, the new heir apparent.

Catherine and Henry VIII had a genuinely loving relationship that was marred by countless stillbirths. With only a daughter, Mary, to continue the Tudor reign, King Henry was worried about losing the throne. In an era where powerful female monarchs in Europe were a fairly untested concept, Henry had reason to suspect that his older sister Margaret’s son, King James V of Scotland, might have a stronger claim. The aging Catherine could not give Henry a son—but one of Catherine’s ladies-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn, could.


At the turn of the 16th<th### sup=""> century, Western Europe had one religion: Roman Catholicism. With a monopoly on faith, the Pope and high-ranking clergymen exerted enormous influence over international politics—and amassed enormous wealth, charging people for the rites and sacraments they were told they needed to get into Heaven.

In 1517, Martin Luther, a German monk, wrote a list of criticisms and questions about the teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church, called The Ninety-Five Theses.  In essence, he argued against the notion that the Church and its leaders were the sole arbiters of salvation, since only a rich elite could afford said salvation. Luther wanted to take the power to find salvation through faith in God to the people—and out of the Church’s grip.

Luther’s beliefs were given the umbrella term Protestantism, and inspired people like William Tyndale and George Wishart to spread his teachings in England and Scotland, respectively. Early English and Scottish Protestants were tried and killed for heresy. When King Henry VIII—desperate to have his marriage annulled so that he could wed Anne Boleyn—challenged the Pope’s authority and declared himself head of the Church of England, it was finally safe for Protestants to curry royal and state favor.


In 1561, almost 30 years after England’s break with Rome, Catholic and Protestant factions were threatening to tear Scotland apart. Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, was a devout Catholic, but she demonstrated tolerance for the Protestants, who were quickly gaining ground.

One of the most significant figures of the Scottish Reformation was John Knox, who had previously been exiled to Protestant England. Knox supported the Presbyterian style of church governance, where members elect ministers and elders to moderate church meetings. Ministers and their congregation were equals, unlike bishops in the Roman Catholic Church. Knox famously met with Mary Stuart and admonished her for practicing now-outlawed Catholicism; monarchs, he said, were not above the law.

Mary was forced to abdicate in 1567. She was implicated in her Protestant husband’s murder, and was unpopular with both her Catholic and Protestant subjects. Her son James became heir, and was raised a strict Protestant. But James resisted Presbyterianism, whose anti-authoritarian attitudes undermined what he saw as his divine right to rule. When he came to London in 1603 and observed divisions amongst the Protestants, King James I of England made sure his new subjects understood that he would make the final decision on any theological debate.