Monday, November 9, 2015

“Twilight of the Tudors” – An English Theocracy

This piece appeared as a thread on Today in Alternate History. Here we've woven it together with speculation of the timeline.

November, 1534 – Act of Supremacy names English Pope

Henry Tudor, who finally settled generations of civil war in England as the unquestioned Henry VII, strove to create a lasting dynasty through his oldest son, Arthur. To add international political clout and a great deal of military might to this, he arranged Arthur’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The plan went awry, however, upon Arthur’s untimely death of an unknown ailment just six years after the two teens were wed.

One year after Arthur's death, Henry VII renewed his efforts of sealing a marital alliance with Spain by arranging for Catherine to marry Arthur's brother Henry, the new Prince of Wales. Catherine claimed that there had been no consummation of her previous marriage, so Pope Julius II annulled it. The younger Henry was opposed to the marriage, but in 1509 soon after ascending the throne, he determined to go forward with it. Catherine and Henry soon began having children of their own including several boys, but they all died young. Only their daughter Mary survived.

Henry was notably tortured by the passage from Leviticus 20:21, “If a man shall take his brother's wife it is an unclean thing ... they shall be childless.” With a potential male heir on the way from his girlfriend Anne Boleyn and Catherine growing old, Henry requested an annulment from the pope as Catherine had once gotten. Although Henry had been proclaimed “Defender of the Faith” by Leo X for his rebuttal of Martin Luther’s attempts at Reformation, Pope Clement VII refused. Henry’s arguments were feeble, and moreover Clement was virtual prisoner in the Vatican, that is, of his political master Charles V of Spain who controlled the Papacy for his own purposes.

To obtain the divorce Henry created an Anglican Church with its own pope that might grant him the annulment and thus (he hoped) save the royal line. Although he chose to rid England of Catholic Popery, indeed might even have done so for political reasons anyway, he was reluctant to assume Spiritual Leadership of an Anglican Church himself. He reasoned that no King or Emperor had ever expressed the slightest interest in actually being Pope, and, furthermore, there might arise questions of celibacy for spiritual purity, although that would be settled later by acts allowing priests to marry. In searching for a solution he prized upon the Avignon Papacy, a similar situation which had arisen from the conflict between the Papacy and the French crown. So, Henry saw it as being in his interest not to displace the Pope, but to make the Roman Pope irrelevant, at least temporarily.

The Act of Supremacy was the last of a string of acts by the “Reformation Parliament” that severed England from Rome and installed a new church based in Canterbury headed by the tame Pope-let Thomas Cramner. As the Anglican Church grew, so did Henry’s family by a daughter Elizabeth (by Anne Boleyn, who would soon be executed for treason), and later a son Edward (by Jane Seymour). Edward VI ascended upon his father’s death, but the teenager’s power was largely overshadowed by Pope Thomas, who instilled reforms such as the Common Book of Prayer.

Upon young Edward’s dead after only six years of rule, Catherine’s daughter Mary assumed the throne. She attempted to revive Catholicism in the country and return its attention to Rome, but this proved impossible due to the separation with the Crown, in fact it would have been far better for Mary if Henry VIII had made himself Spiritual Leader of a Church of England. Despite her marriage to Prince Philip of Spain, her military power could not circumvent the spiritual law set in place. Pope Thomas worked in his final years to pass over Mary’s anticipated pope Reginald Pole whose Catholic loyalty might restore Catholic authority and hold an election in 1556 to name England’s second pope, Matthew Parker. The political struggle ended with the death of Mary and the crowning of Elizabeth, who largely distanced herself from spiritual turmoil.

Not exactly known for having a low opinion of his own importance in the scheme of things, even Henry VIII could not imagine the succession crisis that followed his demise. If Edward VI had perhaps lived longer to come into his own and step beyond Cranmer’s power, history may have been different, but the crisis in fact affirmed the English pope’s position. During this period known as the "Twilight of the Tudors" a powerful theocracy rose and the crown for a century would be under the thumb of the Anglican Church, leading to bloody civil war in the mid-1600s and recurring revolts in Calvinist Scotland.

In the long-run, the enactment would encourage France to revive its own pope at Avignon, and even the Hapsburgs in Austria to name a pope in Vienna while Spain controlled the Vatican to take similar actions themselves for achieving greater monarchical rule. The Italian Peninsula would be torn apart for centuries as the Catholic heads of Europe attempted to seize Rome, despite ground lost to the north to Protestantism.


Author's Note: in reality Henry instituted a number of statutes that dealt with the relationship between king and pope and hence the structure of the nascent Church of England. Supreme Head of the Church of England was a title held by Kings Henry VIII and Edward VI of England, signifying their leadership, although Elizabeth I revised the Oath of Supremacy changing Supreme Governor of the church rather than Supreme Head, a move designed to be more inclusive of Catholics.

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