CHAPTER 23.—IT TURNS OUT THE PROTESTANT REFORMATION LEFT SOME UNFINISHED BUSINESS.
It would be very easy to skip this chapter. One would simply say that Europe, beset by religious squabbling, descended into anarchy; by describing the conditions of any period in history as “anarchy,” historians absolve themselves of the duty of sorting it out.
Part of the problem was that many of the rulers of Europe had, politically speaking, a bad case of multiple-personalty disorder. King Charles I of Spain, for example, was also Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire. He was also Duke Charles II of Burgundy and Holland and a bunch of other places, King Charles IV of Naples, Count Charles III of Flanders, and a number of other kings, counts, dukes, archdukes, and margraves. Before he signed a document, he would have to ask a trusted minion, “Am I I, II, III, IV, or V here?”
Meanwhile, the pope was spiritual head of the Church, and as such was infallible; but he was also the temporal ruler of a large part of Italy, and as such was subject to beating up just like any other temporal ruler who got in the way.
The Holy Roman Empire was an unholy mess by the middle 1500s. It had never been very tidy, to be sure: if you want to give a cartographer nightmares, ask him for a map of the Holy Roman Empire in, say, 1450, and tell him you need it by Tuesday. But it was worse now because a large number of the kingdoms, principalities, duchies, electorates, cities, boroughs, school districts, and Amway territories that made up the Empire had turned Lutheran.
As Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V (that is, Charles I, or Charles II, III, or IV) was very keen on upholding the Catholic Church and stamping out the Lutheran heresy. But he was also keen on maintaining and expanding his authority over the various territories that sort of more or less acknowledged his sway. (The German princes never reliably acknowledged the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor; he was a principle, like “justice” or “rule of law,” that the various German governments felt free to disregard when it became too inconvenient.)
So when it happened that Pope Clement VII, as temporal ruler, allied himself with Charles’ inveterate enemy Francis I of France, Charles had to beat him up and sort of accidentally destroy Rome.
Martin Luther, of course, attributed the whole thing to the divine will. “Christ reigns in such a way that the emperor who persecutes Luther for the pope is forced to destroy the pope for Luther.” If anyone is foolish enough to believe that Jesus has no sense of humor, let it be noted that Luther is on record as holding the contrary opinion.
The sack of Rome left Clement a quivering wreck who would do anything Charles said, and that would have some very important effects way up in England.
The Protestant disease infected every corner of Europe, but some corners were more resistant than others. In Spain, for example, the Inquisition was a ready-made immune system. The Spanish Inquisition had originally been set up mostly to figure out who was still secretly being Jewish or Muslim in a nefarious manner, but the mechanism worked just as well on suspected Protestants, who burned just as brightly as Jews and Muslims did.
In France, it looked as though the country might end up split into Catholic and Protestant halves, just as the Holy Roman Empire was. After a bracing round of massacres, Catholics gasped when the Edict of Nantes granted toleration to Protestants; fortunately it was followed quite some time later by the Edict of Just Kidding.
All these things are largely irrelevant, however, because we are coming to the point where History cares mostly about England.
Henry VIII was king of England at the time of the Protestant Reformation. He was the great friend of Catholicism who had written the anti-Lutheran treatise that earned him the title Defender of the Faith, and whose friend Thomas More had carried on the dispute with Luther involving the various shades of excrement as applied to theological disputation.
But Henry was not quite satisfied with the wife he had married and wanted to return her for a refund. Here, however, is where the quivering wreck that was Pope Clement VII put his foot down—although there has been considerable speculation that the foot was in fact put down for him by Charles I II III IV V VI, who was the nephew of Henry’s wife. The pope refused to annul the marriage, although, in typical fashion, his refusal took the form of burying the request in the Vatican bureaucracy forever.
Huh! Here was Henry, who had defended the faith when it most needed defending, and what did he get for it? The one time he asked the pope for a little favor, the pope slammed the door in his face.
Well, if the pope wasn’t going to do this one little thing for him, Henry would go into the poping business himself. To the loud clatter of jaws dropping all over Europe, Henry declared himself head of the English church. He annulled his own marriage and married Anne Boleyn.
She didn’t last long, either.
Henry had rather bad luck with wives, and English schoolchildren still have to put quite a bit of effort into remembering exactly what happened to each of them: in order, divorced, beheaded, died of natural causes, divorced, run over by a streetcar, shot from a cannon, eaten by stoats, ran off to join the circus, disappeared without a trace, and survived. Many of these favorable outcomes would have been impossible under the old popish regime.
Only one of these wives produced a son, and that was only the sick and wispy Edward, who looked like the sort of boy who would never amount to anything. All those women, and every one defective! What rotten luck.
Eventually Henry died of severe bloat, and his son Edward VI succeeded him. He was nine at the time and weight about five pounds. After a while, Edward blew away in a stiff breeze, and he was succeeded by his sister Mary.
Mary was a thorough Catholic who brought England back to the Catholic Church and expected people to like it. Those who disliked it were burnt at the stake, which created a strong incentive for liking it. Mary chose Prince Philip of Spain, a good Catholic boy, to be her husband, so that she could have children and keep her nasty Protestant sister Elizabeth from the throne. Philip was a rather serious fellow. Some people thought that Philip had no sense of humor whatsoever, but they were proved wrong many years later when, on hearing of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (look it up in Wikipedia—we can’t do everything for you), Philip actually laughed for the one and only time in his life. He did have a sense of humor after all; he had just been waiting for enough Protestants to die at once to make it really worth his while to laugh.
Mary died of the flu before she could disinherit Elizabeth, so Elizabeth succeeded to the throne after all. Immediately England was Protestant again, and everybody had a good chuckle at all the Catholics who were caught without chairs when the music stopped.
The reign of Queen Elizabeth was the golden age of English literature: it was the age of William Shakespeare, Sir Philip Sidney, Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, Ben Jonson, and—actually, you should just close this book and go read one of those guys.
It was also the golden age of English music, with William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, John Dowland, Orlando Gibbons, and a large number of other great composers you’ve never heard of, because our schools teach us that no one ever got any further in music than humming “Three Blind Mice” to himself before Johann Sebastian Bach.
History, unfortunately, cares very little for Shakespeare and Byrd, because they never massacred anybody to speak of. But Elizabeth also made England a big deal among the nations, and history cares quite a bit about that.
Philip, Mary’s widower, was now king and emperor: he already controlled Spain, Italy, the Low Countries, and Germany, insofar as anyone could be said to control Germany. England was just sitting there, and he might as well add it to his collection. The pope gave his blessing, declaring Elizabeth an infidel usurper, and Philip the legitimate king of England.
So Philip gathered together an enormous fleet, which, on account of its being an armada and coming from Spain, was called the Spanish Armada. With it he prepared to invade England. Queen Elizabeth got on her horse and told her valiant soldiers that she would knock Philip’s block off herself if he set foot on English soil. It was not necessary, however. Sir Francis Drake defeated the Spanish Armada by circumnavigating the globe, coming up on the Spanish from behind and scaring the willies out of them.
Defeating the Spanish Armada made England definitely a Great Power, which meant that one of the Great Powers of Europe was Protestant, which meant that religion would definitely be a matter of politics for the next few centuries, and if you could find a way to invest in the massacre business you were sure to make a killing. So to speak.
Catholics fared rather badly under Elizabeth, as Protestants had done under her sister Mary. Considering the relative lengths of their reigns, we must give Mary the palm for efficiency in creating martyrs, but it is true that Elizabeth treated Catholics as traitors. Considering that the pope had declared her deposed and made it the duty of every good Catholic to overthrow her, it would have required a fairly nuanced understanding of religious liberty for her not to treat groups of clandestine Catholics as terrorist cells. In general, we may say that Catholics did all right if, like the composer William Byrd, they contributed to the queen’s amusement, and very poorly if they had political talents that made her feel stupid.
Since Elizabeth died childless, and since she had outlived or killed everyone who had a nearer claim, the throne went to her cousin King James VI of Scotland, who thus became James I of England, another of those multiple personalities who infested the thrones of Europe in those days.
King James loved to think of himself as an intellectual. Actually, he was a sort of anti-Renaissance-man. He could do any number of things very badly, and he was appallingly ignorant in a broad variety of fields.
James was particularly proud of being a published author. Real writers, by the way, live in awe of plumbers and architects and other sorts of people who contribute something genuinely useful to the world; but James thought it was really something to have written a book. His proudest accomplishment was his treatise on demonology, a little book that set rational thinking back about nine hundred years. He wrote it in the form of a dialogue, just like Plato, if Plato had been a superstitious moron.
King James’ most famous legacy is the King James Bible, so called because James had nothing to do with it beyond being king in its general vicinity.
Nevertheless, James tended to conduct himself as if he were the guy who wrote the Bible. He was a big booster of a fashionable political theory called the Divine Right of Kings, under which the king could do anything he liked and Parliament just had to lump it. The argument went something like this:
1. God, who orders events according to his will, must have appointed me king, because I sure as hell didn’t get the position on merit.
2. You people in Parliament, on the other hand, were chosen by your constituents, presumably on the grounds of your superior wisdom, experience, and ability, which are all human standards.
3. Therefore, pthhhhhhht.
James also presided, figureheadatively speaking, over one of the most momentous events in history: the colonization of Virginia in 1607. The first settlement was called Jamestown in his honor, and it set in motion the train of events that would ultimately shift the focus of history from Europe to North America. These events are so momentous, however, that there is no room for them in this chapter. Sorry.
When James died, he was succeeded by his son Charles, who was even more thoroughly convinced of his own divine right than his father had been.
Charles spanked Parliament and sent it to bed without supper, but his discipline did not have the desired effect. Some members of Parliament openly began to suggest that the king himself was the problem. Not all of them, of course. There were members of Parliament who believed very strongly in the divine right of kings. After all, the more authority the king has, the less work there is for a member of Parliament to do, and how can that be a bad thing?
But there were some fanatics—many of them Puritan extremists who thought that people were having entirely too much fun, and the king seemed to be having more fun than anybody—who believed that the time had come for Parliament to assert the rights of the people, whether the people liked it or not. The only thing to do, of course, was to get rid of all the people’s representatives who were not properly representing the people. The remaining fanatics could then get down to the business of defying the king.
So the English had a civil war again; but the colorful Middle Ages were over. It was an entirely more prosaic era. Instead of giving it a lovely romantic name like “Wars of the Roses,” the English could think of nothing better to call this fight than “Civil War,” which just sounds like a bunch of people killing each other.
Actually, if we wanted to put an allegorical interpretation on the English Civil War, we could describe it as the war of the Modern Age against the remnants of medievalism. Specifically, it was the war of everything that was colorful and stupid about medievalism against everything that was dull and efficient in modernity. The royalist fighters were called the Cavaliers, which sounds all colorful and romantic; the parliamentary fighters were called the Roundheads, which sounds like bureaucrats-at-arms. The Cavaliers rode stately horses, wore shining armor, and fought under colorful streaming banners. The Roundheads blew them to bits with cannons. Guess who won.
At last King Charles himself was captured; the remains of Parliament tried him and cut off his head, which ushered in an age of democracy and freedom, which is to say an age of Oliver Cromwell.
Oliver Cromwell was a champion of Liberty, which is a technical term in politics meaning “the right of unhindered oppression.” Under his benevolent rule, the Puritan Taliban finally had the right to squash those evildoers who laughed on Sunday or ate a Christmas goose. England was free at last from the tyranny of people enjoying life; now the people were blessed with the liberty of doing what they were told and being afraid to smile.
As Lord Protector of England, Cromwell had a lot of protecting to do. He had to protect England from the royalists, who were always trying to sneak the son of old King Charles back into England to be king. He had to protect England from the Irish, who were over there in Ireland being Irish in a suspicious and provocative manner. He had to protect England from Parliament, which rather foolishly thought it had won the Civil War. There were days when it seemed quite likely that he would have to protect England from Oliver Cromwell.
On the whole, he was pretty good at the protecting business. You didn’t see any massive Irish invasions, did you? Not many, anyway.
Meanwhile, the “legitimate” king of England (meaning the one who had the properly decadent aristocratic ancestry) was over in France in the court of King Louis learning to live a royally decadent life. King Charles II, whose official titles named him King of England and France, lived for many years as the guest of a man whom he technically considered a mere usurper. One wonders whether Charles, when he recited his titles, mumbled with polite unintelligibility when he got to the “and France” part, or whether Louis sometimes humored him late at night by letting him park his royal pantaloons on the throne of France just for a minute.
Eventually, of course, Cromwell had to die, whether he liked it or not. Cromwell left his son Richard in charge, but no one had much confidence in Dick Cromwell. It seemed as if the Cromwell line had gone through the complete course of royal decadence in one generation.
But there was a perfectly good King of England over in France just waiting for someone to text him, “All 4 given come back 2 rule.”
So the English people, which is to say their representatives, who had outlived most of the people who elected them, brought Charles II back, and he set up a very jolly and immoral court that was the perfect antidote to dull grey puritanism.
The only problem with Charles II was that he was a closet Catholic. He was always conspiring with his old buddy the King of France to sell England back to the papists. Nothing ever came of it, except some bloody wars against the Dutch for no reason at all other than that Charles thought Louis might like it if he beat up on Holland for a while.
But then Charles died and his brother James II became king—and James was out of the closet. Everyone knew he was Catholic. The English people tried to accommodate him for a while, because after all having an acknowledged Catholic as head of the Church of England was not the greatest absurdity in the constitution of that august body. But when James proclaimed religious toleration for papists, England had had enough. Toleration for Catholics struck at the very root of English liberty.
It was time for a Glorious Revolution, so the leading figures of both English parties invited William of Orange, who was married to James’ daughter Mary Stuart, to come and take the throne. William had been very successful in fighting the English when they invaded Holland, which, according to the usual custom, made him an English national hero. William brought an army and navy with him to England, but he could have come with his upstairs maid and his charwoman and still won the throne—James ran screaming before he got close.
Thus William and Mary became England’s plural sovereign, and English liberties were restored—especially the liberty dearest to English hearts, the freedom to persecute Catholics.
The Catholic Stuarts did not give up without a fight. It was a pathetic, feckless, doomed-from-the-start fight, but it lasted for decades, and it did give Sir Walter Scott a start in the novel-writing business. We owe the Stuarts that much. Forever after, there was always some pretender from the House of Stuart claiming to be the legitimate King of England. Even today, Alvin “Stu” Stuart of Greensboro, North Carolina, grants free titles of nobility to anyone who buys four tires with lifetime alignment.
All these changes had effects far across the sea in North America, because England had planted a bunch of colonies over there. So it looks as though we’re going to have to go back in time yet again and sort all that out, doesn’t it?
The chapters previously published:
FROM THE CREATION OF THE UNIVERSE TO THE DAWN OF CIVILIZATION.
THE DEFINITION AND CHARACTER OF CIVILIZATION.
THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS, FURNISHING AND DECORATING THE AFTERLIFE SINCE 3150 B.C.
THE LESS MARKETABLE ANCIENT CIVILIZATIONS.
THE ISRAELITES DISCOVER MONOTHEISM AND SPEND MOST OF THE REST OF THEIR HISTORY TRYING TO BACK OUT OF IT.
THE ANCIENT GREEKS LIVE THE EXAMINED LIFE.
THE ANCIENT GREEKS INVENT HISTORY.
ALEXANDER RUNS OUT OF WORLDS TO CONQUER.
WHILE ROME CONQUERS THE WORLD, GREECE CONQUERS ROME.
CHRISTIANITY RUINS EVERYTHING.
THE ROMAN EMPIRE DECLINES AND FALLS FOR 1500 YEARS STRAIGHT.
CIVILIZATION DESTROYS CIVILIZATION.
NOTHING HAPPENS IN THE DARK AGES.
CHARLEMAGNE TURNS ON THE LIGHTS.
MORE FUN WITH BARBARIANS.
WHAT THE MIDDLE AGES WERE IN THE MIDDLE OF.
THE CRUSADES ARE WHOLESOME FUN FOR EVERYONE.
FRANCE CONQUERS ENGLAND; OR, ENGLAND CONQUERS FRANCE.
EUROPE PRESSES THE RESET BUTTON.
THE REFORMATION ELIMINATES EVIL FROM THE WORLD.
EUROPEANS DISCOVER AMERICA; AMERICANS DISCOVER EUROPEANS.