Tag Archives: history

The Reformation’s 500th Birthday

Five hundred years ago this very day, on October 31, 1517, a young Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. He was hoping to generate an in-house theological debate over “Indulgences”–special dispensations granted (or sold) to people to shorten their time in purgatory. The practice went back to the time of the Crusades, when in 1095, Pope Urban II granted a special indulgence to the penitent who fought. By Luther’s time, Indulgences were being sold to pay for church projects, like the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther firmly believed the Pope would never approve such a practice, hence his desire to debate both the power and the efficacy of Indulgences. In his theses, Luther argued that true repentance comes from the heart, and cannot be bought, and no papal pardon can relieve anyone of the guilt of the least of his sins. However, Luther soon discovered that the Pope was not on his side. In making his argument, he couldn’t avoid statements that undermined the Pope’s authority. Following his arguments to their logical conclusion, with Scripture as his support, Luther became convinced that Scripture, not the Pope, the Church Fathers, or any one else, had authority over the consciences of people.

Thus began what we know today as the Protestant Reformation.

In breaking with Rome, Luther paved the way for the establishment of churches beyond papal control. Like-minded Christians gathered to worship according to their theological convictions–Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, etc. And while important secondary issues separate these denominations, all true Christian churches are united upon the principles of the Reformation: there is no authority higher than Scripture alone for Christian faith and practice; and salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, by Christ alone, to the Glory of God alone.

Some further reading on Reformation history and theology:

A History Moment: The Queen’s Sapphire Jubilee

This past Monday, February 6th, Queen Elizabeth II of England, my former monarch, celebrated 65 years on the throne. It’s a bittersweet celebration for the Queen since this also marks the 65th anniversary of the death of her father, King George VI. According to the people who determine these things, 65 years is a “sapphire” celebration. The Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee in 1977 (25 years, and I still remember our street party), her Golden Jubilee in 2002 (50 years), and her Diamond Jubilee in 2012 (60 years). She is, however, the first British monarch to celebrate a Sapphire Jubilee. Not even Queen Victoria managed that–she reigned a mere 63-and-some-months years. King George “I-want-my-colonies-back” III just missed his DiamondĀ Jubilee, spending 59 years on the throne. King Henry III (1216-1272) and King Edward III (1327-1377) both achieved Golden Jubilees, which is quite remarkable for monarchs in the middle ages!

A point of interest. Some books cite Queen Elizabeth’s reign as starting in 1953. As I understand it, most monarchs are usually crowned shortly after the death of the previous monarch, so their coronation year usually matches the year the title passed to them (the year of ascension). In Elizabeth’s case, her father died on February 6th, 1952, but she wasn’t actually crowned queen until June 2, 1953. Part of the reason for the 14 month delay was to properly observe a period of national mourning for the dead King. But 14 months seems a long time. Other than allowing time for the extensive preparations (which included the first time a coronation would be televised live), I’m not sure why it took so long. But that’s why some books say she has been queen since 1953–they’re looking at the actual coronation date, not the ascension date. Most historians go with the ascension date, making this year her Sapphire Jubilee year.

Given the Queen is 90 years old, and her mother lived to 101, she might yet get to Platinum (70 years). We’ll see… šŸ™‚

Our “street” (more like “cul-de-sac”) Silver Jubilee party in our
neighbor’s back yard. June, 1977. That’s me in the bottom left corner. šŸ™‚

In the Deep Bosom of a Car Park Buried…*

Earliest known portrait of Richard III

Last Monday (Feb 4), the University of Leicester, England, announced that the remains of the last English king to die in battle, Richard III, have been found and positively identified. The story of this discovery has received a lot of press in the UK, and rightly so. Up until last week, every English monarch’s remains since the 11th century had been located–all except for Richard III’s. As one who is very interested in English history, and particularly the history of the monarchy, this is quite exciting. But also as a writer, the story of his discovery is intriguing–the kind of story that inspires novels!

Some Background…
Richard was a Plantagenet, born into the Yorkist side of the Wars of the Roses. These wars were a series of conflicts between the Plantagenet houses of Lancaster and York that spanned a thirty year period (1455-1485), during which the English crown changed hands more than once. Richard’s oldest brother, Edward IV, seized the throne for the Yorkists, and teenaged Richard was called into service enlisting men and leading armies. When Edward died, the crown passed to Edward’s 12-year-old son, Edward V. Richard was appointed to be the young king’s Lord Protector. Supposedly fearing the family of his brother’s widow would try to seize power, Richard had the young heir and his younger brother, Richard, Duke of York, put in the Tower of London until the coronation. They never left, and were never seen or heard from again.

It has long been speculated that Uncle Richard never intended Edward V to see his coronation, hoping to fulfill his own royal ambitions without interference from his dead brother’s offspring. This, of course, may just be a vicious rumor circulated by Richard’s enemies to blacken his character–more about that in a moment.

It is true that Richard wanted the crown for himself, and to that end he declared his nephews illegitimate. His claim was upheld, and in 1483, Edward V was deposed and Richard crowned king. He ruled for two years, and by all accounts he was a just, fair ruler, and an exceptional tactician.

His reign was cut short when he was challenged on the battlefield by Henry Tudor, a Lancastrian on his mother’s side, who wished to assert his own claim to the English crown. In 1485, Richard was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in Leicester. After the battle, Richard’s body was paraded through the streets as proof of Henry’s victory. He was then buried without ceremony in a monastery owned by the Greyfriars in Leicester. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries about 30 years later, some said Richard’s body was carried out of the city and tossed over a bridge. Others believed the body still lay in the monastery grounds, but no grave marking remained, and no conclusive evidence supported the claim.

Our understanding of Richard’s character has been hindered greatly by the fact that, due to the circumstances of his death, his history was largely written by his enemies. Accounts of the his life, the Battle of Bosworth Field, and the aftermath, come to us mostly through Tudor sources. Even Shakespeare wrote under a Tudor queen (Elizabeth I). This means that the famous Shakespeare portrayal of a man with a hunchback, a withered arm, and an evil, conniving disposition has stuck for want of contradictory evidence.

An international group of Richard III sympathizers, known as The Richard III Society, has been working since the 1920s to rehabilitate the maligned king’s character. Their research has uncovered documents contemporary with Richard that have helped historians bring some balance to their understanding of Richard’s reign. They also favored the assertions that Richard’s body remained buried at the site of the Grayfriar’s monastery. For many reasons, the Society has for a long time wanted to locate Richard’s remains. Not only would they be able to see their hero get a proper burial, but perhaps his bones would belie Shakespeare’s claims of physical deformity, thus undermining the bard’s testimony to his character.

Last fall, the Society raised funds for an archeological exploration of the three most likely sites of the Grayfriars monastery. A team from the University of Leicester ArcheologicalĀ  Services began with a car park, the location preferred by the Richard III Society. A documentary on the dig showed Society member Phillipa Langley pointing to a parking space with a letter “R” on it, suggesting they start there. In a trench dug in that parking space, they found human bones. When they took the bones back to the lab, they found evidence of battle wounds, including a place where a chunk of the skull had been hacked off at the back–a fatal wound. It also appeared that this person suffered from a form of scoliosis: curvature of the spine, which might have exhibited itself externally as an unevenness in the arms. There was no evidence that either arm was withered, however, and the scoliosis was deemed to be progressive (i.e., it probably started in adolescence and was continually getting worse), but not at this point an impediment to full mobility of the limbs. Although this was not conclusive, it was enough to get people excited. Indeed, it was incredible that their first try should prove so profitable!

Further tests were done on the bones, including carbon dating (came back late 15th/early 16th century), and mitochondrial DNA testing using people whose lineage can be traced back to Richard III’s older sister, Anne (results: positive for a match). After months of examination and testing, the verdict was conclusive: this set of bones, the first to be found on this dig, under a parking space marked with an “R,” was, indeed, without doubt, Richard III.

After some wrangling, the various interested parties have decided to give Richard a formal burial at Leicester Cathedral early next year. Leicester City Council has also purchased a building opposite the car park which they intend to turn into a Richard III Museum.

Richard III’s head, reconstructed from a 3D scan of his skull (CNN).

There’s a lot more to both the story of Richard, and the story of his discovery; I encourage you to read further (Google “Richard III” and you’ll find all you might want to know–and more!). Henry Tudor’s victory at Bosworth was one of those pivotal moments in history–not just European history, but world history. Think for a moment: if Richard had won, we would never have seen Henry VIII, the English Reformation, Elizabeth I–and possibly not the explorations to the New World that came about in the Elizabethan era, which eventually gave birth to the American colonies. Food for thought!

* William Shakespeare, Richard III, Act 1, Scene 1… sort of. šŸ™‚

Nikolaos, Bishop of Myra

You all probably know that “Santa Claus” or “Father Christmas” finds his origins in the legends of Nikolaos, bishop of Myra (a city in ancient Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey). He is commonly thought to have been born in the latter part of the third century (around 270 AD). There’s not much historical certainty about his life–very little, if anything, exists of him in terms of written accounts. However, the fact that by the 500s churches were being named after him, and stories were circulating about his exploits, tells us something of his popularity and reputation.

While we can’t rely on them for historical fact, we can get a picture of this man from these strands of story and legend. The things we know of the history of the period also help us build that picture. Probably the most important fact to bear in mind is that for much of Nikolaos’s early life, Christianity was an illegal, persecuted religion. This situation came to a head during the notorious persecution by the Emperor Diocletian which began around 303, and officially ended with the signing of the Edict of Milan in 313. What does this tell us? First, that if it’s true his parents were rich Christians, they would not have kept this wealth by broadcasting their faith. Nikolaos would have been raised a Christian, but would have grown up under the scrutiny and pressure of the Empire. There were many leaders in the church who, under threat and torture, turned their back on their faith; for Nikolaos and his parents to hold firm says a lot about the strength of their convictions.

It’s possible, therefore, that Nikolaos was not as financially challenged as many of his fellow Christians. The legends speak of his generosity: leaving coins in people’s shoes, throwing money through the window of a house where the parents were about to sell their daughters into prostitution to save them from starvation, and so on. These are consistent with him being of means, but also of his wanting to keep under the Empire’s radar by giving in secret.

Under the Emperor Constantine, Christianity was recognized as a legal religion and the persecution ended. When the biblical doctrine of Christ’s divinity was challenged, Constantine feared the rift in the church would bring disunity to the Empire, so he convened a council of church leaders in Nicea. The year was 325, and it is believed that by this time Nikolaos had been appointed bishop of Myra. Though the accounts of the council don’t mention him, if our timeline is correct, then it is very likely Nikolaos was there. The stories tell of him being a staunch defender of the orthodox position. One even tells of him getting up during the council and slapping Arius for his denial of Christ’s divine status. These are later stories, but again, they are consistent with the character of a man who grew up clinging to his faith, watching fellow Christians give their lives for that same faith, while others succumbed to the pressure of persecution and recanted.

I read that in recent years, Bishop Nikolaos’s bones were exhumed for scientific examination. So far, scientists have determined that he was barely five feet tall, and had a broken nose. These bare facts leave a lot of room for the imagination, especially given the historical context of his life. While many Christians rightly decry the “Santa” of popular culture, let’s not discard the Nikolaos of history in the process. From what we know of this man, Christians the world over should honor him as an example of Christian fidelity, love, and generosity.

Facial reconstruction of Bishop Nikolaos based on his exhumed skull.


Queen for Nine Days

For a while now, I’ve been fascinated with the story and character of Lady Jane Grey. In case you don’t know, Jane is famous for being Queen of England for only nine days in 1553 at the age of 16 (or 17). Despite her youth, she was a scholar, studied in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Italian, and well-versed in the classics and theology. In fact, it’s said she preferred studying over hunting (cool!). Jane’s mother was the daughter of Henry VIII’s youngest sister, which gave Jane a royal connection. However, since Henry had three children of his own, Edward (from wife #3, Jane Seymour), Mary (from wife #1, Catherine of Aragon), and Elizabeth (from wife #2, Anne Boleyn), the throne of England was an unlikely prospect for her. And she was fine with that. The details of the intrigues that got Jane to the throne, and eventually to the Tower and her death are way beyond the scope of this brief article. So, here’s just the basics.

Henry VIII left the throne to his three children, then to his youngest sister and her grandchildren (not Jane’s mother). When Henry died, his young son Edward became king. It seems he was on very good terms with Lady Jane–possibly to the point where marriage might have been an option. But Edward was a sickly child, and was himself on his deathbed at age 15. One of Edward’s last acts was to draw up a “device” which named Jane as his heir, and proclaimed both his sisters illegitimate and ineligible for the throne. Why?

King Henry had usurped the power of the Pope and made himself head of the church in England. Much of the rest of the Reformation of the English church under Henry was superficial. He wasn’t interested in the Lutheran or Calvinistic (“Reformed”) type of reformation as had happened in Europe–his concerns were more to do with power than theology. His son Edward’s leanings, however, were more sympathetic to the Protestant cause, and perhaps even more “Reformed” than Henry would have liked. Certainly, far more than his sister Mary would ever want. As daughter of Catherine of Aragon (the initial wife Henry had wanted to divorce, but the Pope refused, instigating the whole break with Rome in the first place), Mary remained staunchly Catholic and loyal to the Pope. Edward and those who advised him, were well aware that if Mary should become queen, the Protestant Reformation in England could well be over. Mary had made no secret of her desire to return England to Papal favor and reinstate the Catholic faith. Lady Jane, on the other hand, had received a good Protestant education, and was certainly very sympathetic to the “Reformed” cause (she corresponded with Heinrich Bullinger, one of the leading lights of the Zurich Reformation). Edward and his advisers would rather Jane become queen than Mary, and Edward signed a document naming Jane as his heir and delegitimizing Mary and Elizabeth (though Elizabeth was a supporter of her father’s church, Edward couldn’t very well deligitimize one sister and not the other). King Edward died not long after this, and Jane was proclaimed Queen of England.

As was customary, Lady Jane was led by procession to the Tower of London to await her official coronation. She never left. Lady Jane’s in-laws (who were far more interested in the English throne than she was) and those on their side left one important detail undone in their plans for Jane: capturing Mary to make sure she didn’t rally support to claim back the throne. Which is exactly what Mary did. On top of this, while the English as a whole were not too happy with the thought of going back to Catholicism, they were all quite loyal to the rules of succession and, like it or not, saw Mary as the rightful heir to the throne. And to add the nasty cherry to the cake, Edward’s re-jiggling of the succession had never received Parliamentary approval, which was necessary for it to be legal. And Jane had already signed some documents as “Queen Jane.” Which, unbeknownst to her, was technically treason. Oops.

Lady Jane went from being monarch-in-residence in the Tower, to prisoner-awaiting-trial. After only nine days as queen she was deposed, and Mary took the throneĀ  that was legally hers (and that Jane was really all too happy for Mary to have, despite their theological differences). But Jane now faced trial for treason, which basically meant she was awaiting a date for her execution: the result of the trial was a foregone conclusion. Jane was beheaded on February 12, 1554.

One of the things I find amazing about this story is the fact that despite their intense theological differences, Jane and Mary, who were essentially cousins, remained on good terms. Jane never really wanted to steal the crown from Mary, and Mary sent her own chaplain to Jane in the Tower to try to convert her to Catholicism, which might have been Jane’s only hope for survival. To a degree, they were both victims of the machinations of others–Jane particularly.

If you want to read further on the story of Lady Jane Grey, there are plenty of books and online resources. One that may be of interest to YA fans is a book by Ann Rinaldi that I read recently called NINE DAYS A QUEEN. It’s a fictional account of Jane’s life told from Jane’s point of view. Most of it is historically accurate, with some embellishments for the sake of storytelling. I enjoyed it, and recommend it.

UPDATE: In honor of the anniversary of the death of Doctor Who actress Elisabeth Sladen, I should note that there was a story in season 4 of her spin-off series, The Sarah Jane Adventures that featured Lady Jane Grey. It was called “Lost in Time.” Check it out if you can (Netflix, DVD, etc.).

Eight English Edwards

Much like the Roman Catholic Popes, English monarchs get to choose the name by which they will be known. If or when Charles succeeds his mother, Elizabeth II, to the throne, he can be known as Charles III, or he could select a different name. Elizabeth’s father’s name was actually Albert Fredrick Arthur George, and prior to taking the throne, he was known as Prince Albert of York. On ascending to the throne, he decided to reign as George VI, hoping to provide a sense of continuity with his father, George V, especially after the abdication of his brother (see below).

Despite this, there are certain royal names that have been popular for one reason or another. There have been four Williams, six Georges, eight Henrys, and eight Edwards. Since today is E day in the A-to-Z Blogging Challenge, I have decided to take a very quick look at each of those eight Edwards. Books have been written on their reigns, but I will try to stick to a brief paragraph for each.

Edward I (reigned 1274-1307)

Edward was a powerful king, and tall at 6 feet 2 inches–an anomaly of the period that earned him the nickname “Longshanks”. Among his achievements was his subjugation of the Welsh (something others had tried with little success). He also built a number of castles, instituted Parliament, and campaigned against the Scots and their king, Robert the Bruce–for which he was known as the “hammer of the Scots.” On the negative side, he was known for his brutality toward the Scots, and also for expelling the Jews from England. His edict of expulsion wasn’t revoked until 1656. He suffered ill health toward the end of his reign, and eventually died of dysentery.

Edward II (r. 1307-1327)

Son of Edward I, but certainly not a chip of the old block. Despite the country being at war with Scotland, his interests lay more in entertainment and athletics. As a result, he reversed his father’s gains against Scotland, leading to the Battle of Bannockburn, where the English suffered a huge defeat at the hands of Robert the Bruce’s army. This was only one of a number of failures in his reign, both political and personal, which led to Parliament exerting power over the monarch and declaring him incompetent. At their persuasion, he abdicated in favor of his son. Edward was murdered later that same year.

Edward III (r. 1327-1377)

Edward was more like his grandfather than his father, and his reign is notable not only for its gains, but for its length, being only one of a few monarchs to have reigned more than 50 years. During his reign, Edward pushed back against the Scots winning some victories, but eventually signing a truce. He declared himself rightful king of France, triggering the Hundred Years’ War. Also during his reign, the Black Death ravaged Europe, resulting in millions of deaths–perhaps as much as 60% of Europe’s population died. By the time a stroke claimed Edward’s life, England was a powerful military state, the power of Parliament had grown, and confidence in the monarchy had been restored.

Edward IV (r. 1461-1483)

The feud between the Lancastrians and the Yorkists began with competing claims to the throne. From the reign of Henry IV in 1399 through to the deposition of Henry VI in 1461, the country had been ruled by Lancastrians. The Yorkists, however, believed they had a better claim to the throne, and rose up against the ruling family. Known as the Wars of the Roses (the Lancastrian heraldic symbol was a red rose, the Yorkist a white rose), this conflict extended through the reigns of six kings in the form of sporadic conflicts. Edward was the first of the Yorkist kings to take the throne. After some battles early in his reign, he was able to suppress the Lancastrian threat to bring relative peace to the land. His death came about perhaps as a result of illness, or due to an inactive and unhealthy lifestyle in his later years.

Edward V (r. 1483)

Edward was just 12 years old when he ascended the throne, and hence was under the protection of his uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as per his father’s will. Not long after his coronation, questions about his legitimacy surfaced resulting in him taking up residency in the Tower of London, along with his younger brother. With no better claimant to the throne coming forward, Richard was crowned Richard III. No-one knows for certain what eventually happened to the princes in the Tower. It is widely conjectured that they were murdered (especially given the spurious nature of the illegitimacy claim), and Richard is often fingered (among others) as the culprit.

Edward VI (r. 1547-1553)

Edward was Henry VIII’s only son, born to him by his third wife, Jane Seymour, who died not long after giving birth. Although Edward was only nine when he became king, and died at age 15, his reign was important because he first established the Church of England as a Protestant Church. While Henry VIII had separated from Rome, his main complaint was over the power of the Pope, not so much with Catholic doctrine. Henry was no fan of Martin Luther. However, Edward was much more Protestant in his thinking, as were those leading the Regency Council who governed on the young king’s behalf. Edward was always a sickly child, and when his last illness was deemed terminal, he drew up a decree of succession that named his cousin Lady Jane Grey as his rightful heir, and excluded his half-sisters Mary and Elizabeth. After his death, this declaration was challenged, Lady Jane Grey imprisoned, and Roman Catholic Mary took the throne, starting a tumultuous period for the church in England.

Edward VII (r. 1901-1910)

The oldest son of Queen Victoria, Edward was already sixty when he became king, thanks to his mother’s 63-year reign. His first name was actually Albert, after his father, but he chose to rule as Edward. During his lengthy stint as “heir apparent,” and especially after his father’s death when his mother withdrew from public life, Edward took on a number of public duties. The royal appearances that have become a part of royal life today started with Edward VII. As king, he was very involved in European affairs, which is understandable given that he was related to just about every other European monarch. His least favorite relative, however, was his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany (the Kaiser Wilhelm of World War I fame). He died after a bout of severe bronchitis and several heart attacks. (Click here to watch Edward VII’s funeral procession.)

Edward VIII (r. 1936)

On the death of his father, George V, Edward became king. Only a few months later, he proposed marriage to an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. The resulting constitutional crisis (it was an unwritten rule that monarchs were not to marry “commoners,” foreigners, or divorcees, and Wallis Simpson was all three) led to his abdication from the throne in favor of his brother, Albert, who reigned as George VI. In the film “The King’s Speech,” Edward is depicted as being indifferent to affairs of state, and more interested in parties and socializing. This may not be far off the mark, though he was known to meddle in politics, much to the frustration of the politicians. After his abdication, he visited Germany and met with Adolf Hitler. The Fuhrer certainly got the impression that the ex-king was a Nazi sympathizer. The former king expressed admiration for the way Hitler rebuilt Germany, and seemed to indicate a favorable attitude toward German fascism. The British government was concerned enough with him to exile him to the Bahamas. Edward died in 1972 after a period of declining health. (Click here for the audio of Edward VIII’s abdication speech.)

I know these articles are supposed to be brief, but it’s hard to pack a lot of information into a short space. Thanks for bearing with me!

Bonfire Night

Every November 5th, all across the UK, families gather around bonfires and watch fireworks crackle brightly against the night sky. Children wave sparklers, tracing lines of dancing light through the darkness. When I was a child, neighborhood kids would stitch together old trousers and shirts, stuff them with straw or some other cheap and suitable material, and attach a football, a melon, or a pumpkin to the top. They would then cart their creations from door to door in wheelbarrows begging “a penny for the guy”–monetary (or candy) rewards for their labor. Halloween was not a big deal for us back then, and I rarely saw kids going Trick or Treating. “Penny for the guy” was the closest we came. On the night of November 5th, this “guy” would be removed from his wheelbarrow and mounted atop a bonfire. We would gather and watch as the flames licked around his feet, consuming him slowly. “There goes his leg!” “Now his arms!” “His head!”

The British are seen as a bit wacky at the best of times this side of the Atlantic. But what kind of strange insanity is this? The thought of bonfires and fireworks on a cold November night may be appealing. But burning straw men? I’m not sure whether this is still done, but the practice of burning a guy lies at the heart of the origins of Bonfire Night. To explain, we need to jump into the TARDIS (I will make Doctor Who fans of you all!) and set a destination for London, November 4th, 1605…

The past 80 years had been some of the most tumultuous for the church in England. First, Henry VIII decided since the Pope wouldn’t let him divorce his wife, he would sever relations with Rome and set himself up as head of the church in England. Then, by his own authority, he could divorce and re-marry as he pleased. Henry’s secession from Rome came at a time when much stronger, and more theologically-based acts of rebellion against Rome were spreading across Europe–particularly Germany, Switzerland, France, and the Netherlands. This was the time of the Reformation, where states were deciding to break with Catholicism and subscribe to one of the new forms of emerging Protestantism. But Henry didn’t really take much issue with Catholic doctrine–he just didn’t want the Pope telling him how to run his church.

When Henry died, his son Edward VI came to the throne. He wasn’t even a teen yet, and he died before he reached twenty. But prior to his death, he had tried to set a course for a more thorough reform of the church along the lines of Europe. His death put an end to that, much to the relief of his sister Mary, a staunch Roman Catholic. She made it her mission to reverse the policies of her father and brother, to return England to Rome, and punish the Protestants. History remembers her as “Bloody Mary” for a reason–not just because a drink was named for her. Hundreds of Protestants were burned at the stake or were beheaded at her orders.

Mary died childless, and the crown passed to her younger sister Elizabeth. Red-headed like her father, Elizabeth I also shared her father’s desire for an independent church. She returned England to Protestantism, and reinstated laws prohibiting Roman Catholics from ruling, banning the Roman Catholic Mass, and imposing fines on Catholics for being absent from Anglican services (the Puritans and other non-Anglican Protestants also suffered for attending their own forms of church).

Elizabeth also died childless in 1603, so the crown passed to her closest relative, the Scottish king James VI, who became James I of England. Since his mother was the Catholic icon, Mary Queen of Scots, one might think hope kindled for the British Catholics. Indeed, there was talk that James had attempted to make peace with the Pope, and that he planned to abolish the tax on non-Anglicans, among other pro-Catholic measures. But this was not the case. While James had every intention of exercising toleration toward Catholics, his idea of tolerance was: I’ll put up with you if you side with me over the Pope and don’t try to convert anyone to Catholicism. He did suspend the taxation on non-Catholics, but reconsidered when large groups of Catholics took the toleration seriously and gathered for services, including the Mass. James had Roman Catholic priests banished, and the taxation reinstated.

With tensions between the King, Parliament, and the Roman Catholics in England such as they were, some kind of violent backlash was inevitable. English Catholic Robert Catesby had the idea that if the entire ruling body of England could be destroyed in one fell swoop, the English Catholics could seize that moment of anarchy to stage a revolt. And he knew just how to make it happen. He gathered a band of conspirators, dedicated to the cause of English Catholicism, and the destruction of the British monarch and Parliament. Guy Fawkes, one of the chief conspirators, showed them how to safely tunnel underground from their rented headquarters through to the foundation wall of the Houses of Parliament. The intention was to load up enough gunpowder there to bring the building down on November 5th, just as the King opened Parliament.

And they might have got away with it, if it weren’t for the fact that the conspirators decided they needed to warn some outsiders of their plan. They told a couple of Jesuits, who would be able to rally the English Catholics the moment the building went down. But they also needed to be sure there was a store of arms and horses ready, and for that they called on the help of some men of means to supply these needs. All of these men seemed sympathetic enough to keep the secret and help–all but one. A man named Tresham couldn’t stomach the thought of the destruction and loss of life that would result from this plot. He sought the counsel of his brother-in-law, the Roman Catholic Lord Monteagle, who echoed the concern and passed on a letter to the Government warning them of the danger they faced.

The Gunpowder Plot Conspirators

No action was taken against the conspirators until the last minute. Guy Fawkes was left to guard the lumber room where he was to set off the gunpowder while the others fled to the country, gathering Catholics to join the insurrection. At eleven o’clock on the night of November 4th, Fawkes was approached by a couple of strange men who knocked him to the ground and dragged him struggling from the lumber room. The other conspirators might have escaped if they had but fled, but instead they tried to gather support for a rebellion anyway. It was futile, and in the end, those that survived being beaten or shot at, were carted back to London where they faced trial and the death penalty for treason.

I’m not sure if Guy Fawkes was actually burned at the stake, or whether he was simply beheaded, but since that time, on November 5th, English children burn Guy Fawkes in effigy, and chant “Remember, remember the fifth of November.” A reminder of the plot that nearly brought down the entire British government and monarchy, and, I suppose, a warning in the form of the burning “guy” to those who might consider doing it again.

And yes, Dumbledore’s phoenix was named after Guy Fawkes. šŸ™‚

It Was 945 Years Ago Today…

On October 14, 1066, Harold Godwinson, King of England, met Duke William of Normandy on the field of battle near Hastings, England. The battle was probably one of the most significant and world-changing conflicts ever fought. In the space of a single day, and for the last time since, England was conquered. Every subsequent ruler of the country would claim lineage not to a Saxon noble, but to a French duke.

The story of the battle makes for fascinating reading. Much is shrouded in mystery. Did William have a legitimate claim to the English throne? For that matter, did Harold? Harold insisted the previous king had appointed him on his deathbed. But Edward the Confessor had grown up in Normandy, surrounded himself with Norman courtiers, and would clearly want the Norman duke to succeed him. Then there was the matter of the alleged oath Harold made when shipwrecked in Normandy, swearing the English throne in return for shelter and safe passage home. Would Harold have made such an oath? And if it weren’t for the fact that Harold and his army arrived at Hastings already tired from fighting his brother Tostig in York and marching from one end of the country to the other, might he have won?

If you want a story of mystery, betrayal, narrow defeat against the odds–they don’t come much better than this one!

Some links for further reading: