Reformation Paths: England, France, and Spain
While studying the paths of the Protestant Reformation and seeing the varying reactions in different European countries, I am firmly convinced that God’s hand was the guiding force. The “situation on the ground” was far too difficult and convoluted to just happen by “chance.” In particular I have been comparing England, Spain, and France. It constantly amazes me how the Reformation was perceived so differently in each nation. Spain remained blindingly Catholic and violently intolerant toward Protestant thought; England eagerly adopted Protestant thought and gazed warily upon Catholics; and France, while remaining mostly Catholic, was filled with thousands of Protestants.
I have my own personal theories as to why each country adopted or repelled the Reformation, though of course, they are just that . . . personal theories. I may be missing some elements that have not yet occurred to me. First, I think the Reformation’s reception must have had a lot to do with the monarchy at the time. In France, King Francis I was ruler through the 1520s and 1530s when Reformation (particularly Calvinist) thought was spreading rapidly.
At first Francis was unusually tolerant of Protestant ideas. Years of relative peace would have given believers plenty of time to marry and have children who would carry on the faith. By the time Francis I turned on his Protestant subjects and took up a campaign of intolerance in 1534 after the Affair of the Placards, the ranks of the Huguenot faithful had already swelled. It is amazing to ponder what must have been accomplished in the span of a few years.
In England’s case, we know that Henry VIII’s personal life had much to do with his reception of the Reformation. At first it was a separate issue; news spread across Europe that there was a “New Thought,” and many embraced it. Some became “gospelers,” a term denoting those who had committed a large amount of the Bible to memory. When Henry VIII wished to divorce his first wife so he might marry a second, he found the Catholic Church an obstacle. So he created a state church, the Church of England, to accommodate his personal desires. There were many more elements, of course, but that was the gist of it.
During the reign of Henry’s son Edward VI, Protestantism flourished. Englishmen became accustomed to the “New Religion” and cherished it. The “Devise for the Succession” written by members of Edward’s council made it impossible for a Catholic to inherit and thus set the tone for the “no-Catholics” rule among the English monarchy. England had gotten a taste for “grace and faith alone” and liked it. There was no going back. Even when Mary I came to power and began burning Protestant believers, the fire of faith could not be quenched. England had broken free from Rome’s power and had no intentions of turning back the clock. Elizabeth I agreed more with Protestantism and further fortified England as a Protestant nation in the eyes of the world.
Studying King Philip II of Spain, it is obvious why the Reformation never flourished during his reign. He was one of the most fanatical zealots that the religion-torn 16th century ever saw, and he took a no-quarter-given approach to even the tiniest pockets of Protestantism in Spain. There are two particular events throughout his reign that I think really demonstrate his stance. First, in 1565, having received news that 245 French Protestants had been unjustly executed by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in Florida, Philip wrote the following: “Say to him that, as to those he has killed, he has done well.” And after the horrendous St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in which thousands of French Protestants died, Philip supposedly “laughed for the only time on record.” The Lutherans, Huguenots, Anglicans, and Anabaptists of Europe would have been better off in the lion’s den than in Philip II’s presence.
I also think that the printing press (and the degree in which its fruits were suppressed) must have been involved in each nation’s number of Protestants or lack thereof. In Spain, ‘unorthodox’ Scripture traditions were banned before they could be distributed. The 1551 “Inquisitorial Index of Valentia” forbade common folk from reading Spanish Bibles. In France, however, there existed many pamphlets decrying Catholicism, and by the mid 1530s the Bible had been translated into French. In England there had been previous attempts at translating Scripture into English, thus the 16th century “Geneva Bible” was finally accepted.
I have also wondered why France suffered eight terrible Wars of Religion, while England, a Protestant nation with many dissatisfied Catholics, never saw such violence. I think it must have had to do partially with Queen Elizabeth I’s penchant for diplomacy. I often imagine that England was especially compelled to remain Protestant while at war with Catholic Spain . . . seeing the propagandized savagery of her enemies, England would have desired to stay as far away from that image as possible.
Another difference in warfare is that France had a large number of Protestants willing to defend themselves. Unlike in Spain, where groups of believers were immediately crushed, Protestant influence in France was vast. Over time the French monarchy found it necessary to decree various edicts that would give the Huguenots at least a few rights, a concession that Spain never granted. There were some events in England’s history that probably could have served as a springboard for religious violence if the time was right, such as the Catholic Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Yet all that came of such events was enmity between England’s Protestant majority and Catholic minority.
All-in-all, it is fascinating to compare these three nations and they course they took.
(c) 2012 Joyously Saved