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  Western Christianity in the 11th thru 17th centuries

By Cairril Mills

To understand the Pilgrims, and indeed to understand the significance of the founding of the United States as a secular state, one must first have an understanding of the extent of church/state entanglement in medieval and later times. What follows is a discussion of Western church/state history, with a big plug for Elizabeth I at the end.

From around the 11th to the 16th century, there was a growing battle between "temporal princes" and the papacy for ultimate power over Western Europe. Because church and state were intertwined, the pope had powers which are hard for secular Americans to conceive of today. Popes could (and did) excommunicate rulers who disobeyed them, dissolving any bonds which citizens of those kingdoms had to their kings. On the other hand, kings had popes kidnaped or rigged elections in order to get a pope who would conform to their will. The "Babylonian Captivity" was a period of about 200 years where popes were literally held captive in France in order to ensure their compliance. Within this time occurred the Great Schism, a period of almost 40 years when there were two and sometimes three popes at once due to political wrangling.

Ruling a kingdom in the Middle Ages was a spiritual affair. When Henry II of England inadvertantly had Thomas á Beckett murdered on the altar of Canterbury cathedral in 1170, he had to beg the pope's forgiveness. He put on a hairshirt and made a pilgrimage on his knees to the cathedral in order not only to make peace with his god, but also to regain political power in his kingdom.

Cardinals led armies, kings appointed bishops, and the centers of power from London to Paris to Rome were awash in political skullduggery which would look very familiar to us today. With one important distinction, however: Because there was no separation of church and state, anyone who did not share the official (state) beliefs could be considered not only a heretic but a traitor. Both crimes carried the death sentence. Heretics were burned at the stake (though sometimes strangled beforehand), while traitors were hanged, drawn, and quartered.

The Crusades against the "infidel" in the Middle East helped to rid Western Europe of its surplus landless sons who knew nothing but warfare. But once a "holy war" was justified in the East, it became easier to justify one in their own back yard. The Albigensian Crusade of the 13th century was the first holy war called by the pope against Europeans (the Albigensians, who were Christians but "heretics," were concentrated in the south of France). It was a sign not only of the dangers of political power in the hands of the Church, but also what lengths rulers were willing to go to in order to enforce conformity of belief.

This boiling pot of intrigue, murder, power politics, and piety creates a fascinating but bloody tapestry of history. Pope Innocent III, who held sway in the 13th century, was the most powerful pope the world has seen. After his reign the papacy's power declined as kings more successfully held their own and more people began to resent the corruption of some of the clergy.

By the 16th century the Roman Catholic Church was no longer powerful enough to call Crusades against those who deviated in thought. Criticism of the Church came from all quarters. On 31 October 1517 Luther tacked up his 95 theses to the cathedral door at Wittenberg and signalled the start of a revolution. What ensued was a bloody struggle for political and religious power, known as the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. It also gave us the "Witch Burnings," which were more often than not the judicial murder of a Catholic by a Protestant or vice versa. Injustice and atrocities were done on all sides, by both Protestant and Catholic church and state.

England never suffered the intensity of these religious conflicts as deeply as did the rest of Europe (or indeed, as Scotland to her north did ). However, England's Reformation took a unique turn in the 16th century, when she was ruled by the tyrannical Henry VIII.

History classes often give the impression that Henry VIII broke with the Catholic church simply so he could divorce his wife of 20 years (Catherine of Aragon) in order to satisfy his lust with Anne Boleyn. While this certainly was part of the reason, Henry also wanted the power of the Church. Beginning in 1534, Henry relentlessly pursued the Church's power, lands, wealth, and prerogatives. He had himself declared the head of the church. (Ironically, the royal title "Defender of the Faith" dates from Henry, who had been given the moniker by the Pope, when, in his earlier days, Henry wrote a theological treatise criticizing Luther.) He turned monasteries inside out, forcing monks and nuns who had never known any other life to wander the roads of England instead. This in turn upset the fabric of the nation, whose community life was centered around the church. It also left the poor and homeless without anyone to turn to when they were starving and needed help. Henry also had no qualms about executing his dear friend Sir Thomas More in order to find a more compliant Archbishop of Canterbury.

The final indication of Henry's absolute power in his realm is when he had the tomb of Thomas á Beckett, the most rich and important pilgrimage shrine of the Middle Ages, stripped bare of all its offerings. The fact that Henry was able to get away with this without even a riot erupting demonstrates the extent of his power. By the end of his reign he held all power, temporal and spiritual, in his hands.

No matter what Henry may have said against the Church, he essentially kept much of its structure, just substituting himself for the pope. He did not change much of the theology of the new state church, being something of a traditionalist. He persecuted Catholics and Protestants equally and passed such laws as the "Act for Abolishing Diversity of Opinion," constantly extending his power while maintaining a generally Catholic creed. However, he did draw on zealous Protestants to fill the ecclessiastical courts, knowing these radicals would be keen to uphold his interests in order to impose their own views on others.

Henry's despotic power went the way of all such things when he died in 1547. His sickly son Edward VI took the throne; or rather, his regents did, as Edward was only 9 years old. The regents were of the Protestant persuasion, and tended towards the fanatical. Feeling the bit in their teeth, they embarked on a campaign of doctrinal purification. Catholics, finally free to take action now that the dread Harry was gone, staged revolts. With the historian's lens, it is easy to see how Henry's domineering personality was the only thing holding together this roiling cauldron of tension and fanaticism.

Edward died in 1553. Protestants who feared the accession of the Catholic Mary (daughter of Catherine of Aragon) placed poor Lady Jane Grey on the throne instead, who "reigned" (against her will) for nine days before Mary and her troops took her place. Those rejoicing that the lawful claimant had won the throne were soon disabused of any fantasies they may have had concerning Mary. This is the "Bloody Mary" of history, who burned 300 Protestant children, women, and men as heretics in the six years of her reign. Whereas radical Protestants had flocked to England during Edward's reign, they now fled in terror back to the Continent.

Mary attempted to return the country to the papal fold, but as she lacked the support of the majority of the people (who generally by now preferred a native church to the Roman one) and many key nobles, she was doomed to fail. She was also something of a ninny, and too fanatical to be able to hold the country together.

All this time there was watching a remarkable young woman named Elizabeth Tudor, daughter of Anne Boleyn. Unlike her half-brother and -sister, Elizabeth was a pragmatist who could learn on the fly. She was also interested in keeping her throne on her own terms, unlike her predecessors, who slaced religious extremism before all other considerations. When Mary died in 1558, Elizabeth came to the throne determined not to repeat Mary's mistakes. In her 45-year reign, she upheld the Church of England but allowed limited freedom of religion to Catholics. She firmly believed that the church should serve the ends of the state, and the state should in some part serve the people. She spent her reign fighting extremists on both sides to keep her church comfortable, moderate, and popular. She penalized anyone who threatened the stability of her realm, regardless of their religion. In this way she was able to set out a moderate state religion for the majority of her subjects, while allowing limited religious freedom to those who disagreed. (This is all the more remarkable when one considers that in a similar period, France underwent 9 civil wars and the horrendous St Bartholomew's Day Massacre, which murdered 10,000 Huguenots in Paris alone.)

Many of the English who were part of the Pilgrim experience were born in the latter years of Elizabeth's reign. By this time Protestantism was established in all European countries, with the Low Countries and parts of Germany officially Calvinist or Lutheran in outlook. Upon Elizabeth's death in 1603, the Scottish king James IV (James I in England) came to the throne. It was in the early years of James' rule that the Scrooby congregation fled to Holland.

Copyright 2008