Britain’s Religious Tug-of-War

In 1534, Henry VIII broke with the Pope over his wish to remarry, and the British nation entered into a religious tug-of-war. The three major contenders were:

  • traditional Catholics, who felt allegiance to the Pope in Rome
  • episcopal Protestants who supported the Church of England and its bishops
  • Puritan Protestants who wished to reform that church along Calvinist lines
These three groups vied for control until the mid-1700s. The country’s official church changed as new rulers came to power. Britain saw a Civil War and many insurrections. Religious dissenters, royal claimants, and even rulers were executed.

In the table below, the names in capital letters are the rulers of Britain—kings, queens, or Lord Protectors. The other names are rival claimants to the throne, or candidates whom plotters wished to install; many of them came to unhappy ends.
1509-1547HENRY VIII
1547-1553EDWARD VI
1553-1558MARY ILady Jane Gray (executed)
1558-1603Mary, Queen of Scots (executed)ELIZABETH I
1603-1625Arbella Stuart and Princess Elizabeth StuartJAMES I
1625-1649CHARLES I (executed)
1649-1658Prince Charles StuartOLIVER CROMWELL
1658-1659Prince Charles StuartRICHARD CROMWELL
1660-1685CHARLES II
1685-1688JAMES IIJames Scott, Duke of Monmouth (executed)
1689-1702James IIWILLIAM III and MARY II
1702-1714Prince James Francis Edward Stuart, called “the Old Pretender”ANNE
1714-1727“Old Pretender”GEORGE I
1727-1760“Old Pretender”GEORGE II
1760-1820“Old Pretender” and his sons Charles and HenryGEORGE III

In these same centuries, the modern British Empire began. England and Scotland united and conquered Ireland. British colonists settled along North America’s eastern coast, in the Caribbean, and in parts of India. The new empire had recurring wars with the Catholic kingdoms of France, Spain, and Austria.

Text copyright © 2007 by J. L. Bell and The Bostonian Society.