England became a largely Protestant country during the 16th century when the Protestant Reformation was sweeping Europe. The Reformation began in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his famous "Ninety-five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences" to the church door in Wittenburg, located in present day Germany. Indulgences were a form of paid absolution for sin. In England, the Reformation really began with King Henry VIII in 1534.
King Henry VIII
Henry VIII is notorious for having six wives. Because his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, did not bear a male heir, Henry wanted his marriage to her annulled. He wanted to remarry with the hope of producing a male heir. Pope Clement VII refused, and in 1534 King Henry declared himself the head of the English church. Henry promptly annulled his marriage to Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn. Although annulment and remarriage were the catalysts to England's break with the Catholic Church, Henry also closed many monasteries, seizing their wealth for his coffers, and allowed for a vernacular translation and publication of the Bible.
When Henry VIII broke with the Papacy and declared himself head of the Church in England, a large proportion of the population embraced the idea of church reform. The church was very wealthy and the people of England were not. In addition to the sale of indulgences which angered many, the Church made significant money off peasants who could ill afford it by charging for weddings, baptisms, and funerals, while popes, priests, and many monastic orders enjoyed wealth conspicuously.
Following King Henry's reign, his son Edward VI ascended the throne as a minor. Though he was a child, he continued Protestant reforms in England, including the use of English rather than Latin in services, instituted the use of The Book of Common Prayer, abolished Mass, and allowed priests to marry. Before dying at age 15, he and his advisors attempted to keep England Protestant, naming Lady Jane Grey his successor, rather than either of his half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth.
Mary I of England
Lady Jane ruled for just 9 days before Mary, with a significant force of Catholics behind her, managed to depose Lady Jane and imprison her in the Tower of London, before eventually having her beheaded. Mary became Queen of England in 1553, and married the Catholic Philip of Spain. During her reign Mary reversed the Protestant reforms of her father and brother, although powerful interests kept her from returning monastic land. Beginning in 1555, she presided over a brutal persecution of Protestants, earning her the sobriquet, Bloody Mary. Because Mary never bore a child, her half-sister Elizabeth succeeded her on her death in 1558.
Queen Elizabeth I of England
Following Elizabeth's ascension to the throne of England, one of her first acts was to restore Protestantism, formally establishing the English Protestant Church. The Elizabethan Religious Settlement of 1559 comprised two acts of Parliament, the Act of Supremacy and the Act of Uniformity. Together the settlement established the Church of England's independence from the papacy and named Elizabeth the Supreme Governor of the church (a role all English monarchs have held since), reestablished the use of The Book of Common Prayer, and gave priests back the right to marry. Elizabeth's long reign from 1558 to 1603 established Protestantism permanently in England.
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