The portly gentleman stood on the terrace and huddled against the damp chill of the night air on this February evening. The full moon was just above the horizon, and it cast eerie shadows across the elaborate garden-maze below. The screams of agony echoing through the castle corridors sent shivers of a different kind down the spine of this lone figure.
“Nooo! I’ve had enough!” the woman screamed in sheer pain. “Oh, God! Please, I beg you—make this suffering end!”
But God had already devised the plan eons before, and there was nothing He could do now but let the course of events unfold. The woman shrieked again, sweat profusely pouring down her face.
“Make it stop—please!” she wailed in misery.
And then, as if God had finally decided to intervene on the woman’s behalf—there was deathly silence. The gentleman standing outside suddenly tensed, nervously waiting for what came next—if anything. And then it came . . . the wails of a newborn baby.
The baby’s face was illuminated by the glow from the mother’s own, a blush that shone as bright as the moon on the white marble pavers in the garden outside.
“Your Highness,” a young assistant called out, walking briskly toward the doorway leading to the terrace.
The figure slowly turned his attention inward, glancing past the shoulder of the approaching aide toward mother and child in the distance, before redirecting his attention to receive the verdict. “Yes?” he anxiously replied.
“It is a girl, Your Highness!” Bessie happily declared.
The proclamation was politely received, and a subtle smile was returned, acknowledging the relief that both patients appeared well. “Thank you, Bessie,” he nodded, before slowly turning his attention back to the shadows sprawled out across the lawn. He contemplated the pronouncement for a few moments, and then gathered his thoughts and glanced up at the moon to convey his sentiments.
“Damn, a girl,” he bemoaned.
A girl indeed! And a rather strange response to what should have been a proud moment for the father—perhaps it was. But, as the saying goes, “on such trivial matters rests the fate of nations.”
The date was 18 February 1516, and the parents were King Henry VIII and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. The occasion was the birth of Mary, their third attempt at producing an heir to the throne. Katherine would give birth to six children between 1510 and 1518, but Mary would be the only surviving child. The first two births and the last three resulted in stillborn deliveries or infant death. Prince Henry, the second of Katherine’s children, survived only 52 days.
A female heir was unacceptable because there was no precedent for a woman’s ascent to the throne. The last time it had been attempted was when Henry I had appointed Empress Matilda, his only daughter, as heir. After Henry I’s death, Empress Matilda’s cousin, Stephen of Blois, preemptively claimed the throne. The result was a nineteen-year-long civil war known as The Anarchy. Henry VIII was keen to avoid a repeat of this disastrous period in English history.
Henry VIII fathered a son in 1519 with his mistress, Bessie Blount, so it became increasingly clear in his mind that Katherine was the reason for the failure to bring forth a male heir. English law would not permit the ascent of his illegitimate son, so a new wife was the solution. By 1526 Henry VIII had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn, the sister of a second mistress, Mary Boleyn. Thus began a long political and legal battle with Pope Clement VII, whom Henry VIII had begun to petition for an annulment of his marriage to Katherine so that he could marry Anne.
Pope Clement VII had refused to grant the annulment, in part because it was contrary to Catholic teaching. Henry VIII then tried a different strategy. In 1531, he banished Katherine to Ludlow Castle and refused to let her see their daughter Mary unless Katherine renounced their marriage. Katherine refused.
More decisive action became necessary in 1533 when Anne Boleyn became pregnant. Henry VIII coerced the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, to marry him and Anne Boleyn, and also to annul his marriage to Katherine. The archbishop responded favorably to the coercion, which soon thereafter brought sentences of excommunication from Pope Clement VII upon the archbishop and Henry VIII.
Undeterred, Henry VIII did what any good dictator would do—he nationalized the churches. Property and wealth that had previously belonged to the Catholic Church in Rome now belonged to the Crown of England, through what is still known today as the Church of England.
In 1534, the Parliament of England passed the Act of Supremacy to legitimize Henry VIII’s confiscation of the churches. This Act specifically recognized Henry VIII as “the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England,” and that the king “shall have and enjoy all honours, dignities, preeminences, jurisdictions, privileges, authorities, immunities, profits, and commodities to the said dignity.”
To enforce the Act, the nobility in England were required to swear the Oath of Supremacy, recognizing the king as head of the church. As further enforcement, the parliament passed the Treasons Act, which made it treasonous—punishable by death—to disavow the Act of Supremacy.
Sir Thomas More—a lawyer, author, and statesmen who is credited with coining the word “utopia,” which was a name he gave to an ideal island nation in his book of the same title—would not recognize Henry VIII as the supreme head of the church and instead remained loyal to the pope. He refused to take the Oath of Supremacy, an act of defiance that sent him to the Tower of London where he lost his head on 6 July 1535. The Catholic Church repaid the loyalty four hundred years later in 1935 when Pope Pius XI canonized Sir Thomas More as a saint.
Anne Boleyn fared no better. Her pregnancy resulted in the birth of . . . you guessed it, a daughter, whom she named Elizabeth. A few other pregnancies ended in miscarriage. As a result, by 1536—only three years after her marriage to Henry VIII—Anne Boleyn found herself in the Tower of London on trumped-up charges of adultery and incest. She was separated from her head on 19 May 1536.
Katherine of Aragon spent the last five years of her life in forced seclusion and was never allowed to see her daughter, Mary. It was speculated that Katherine was poisoned at the behest of Henry VIII or Anne Boleyn, but later scholars hypothesized that she died from heart cancer. Katherine never renounced her marriage, and remained resolute to her death that she was the true wife of Henry VIII. She died at Kimbolton Castle in 1536.
Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour, finally begot the male heir to the throne that Henry VIII so desperately sought. This son, Prince Edward, became king at age nine, after Henry VIII’s death in 1547. However, Edward VI never ruled; he died from tuberculosis six years later at age fifteen.
In an odd twist of fate, the next crowned monarch was none other than Katherine’s daughter, Mary. Queen Mary I became the first queen of England, excluding the short and civil war-torn reign of Empress Matilda. Queen Mary I had remained a catholic and set about crushing the Protestant Reformations, which had been started primarily by the council of Edward VI. One of her first actions was to repeal the Act of Supremacy.
Queen Mary I also appeared to harbor ill-will toward those who had treated her mother wrongly. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer became one of her first victims when she had him burned at the stake. Archbishop Cranmer had annulled the marriage between Mary’s mother and father and subsequently presided over the marriage of Anne Boleyn. Queen Mary I’s reign lasted nearly five years before she died. In her attempt to reestablish the supremacy of the Catholic Church, she victimized the Protestants in what is known as the Marian Persecution. Many Protestants fled England, but nearly three hundred were burned at the stake. Queen Mary I earned the nickname “Bloody Mary.”
In a further twist of fate, the next monarch was Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth, who was a devout Protestant. Queen Elizabeth I and her parliament went about legislating for Protestantism with the monarch as the titular head. She had the Act of Supremacy reinstated and also passed the Act of Uniformity, which made it a legal requirement to attend church every Sunday or face stiff fines. Every public official was required to recite the Oath of Supremacy as a precondition for holding their office.
What began as a trivial matter, Henry VIII’s desire to have a male heir, launched a chain of enormous events in the history of world affairs; the Catholic Church lost its possessions in England through the nationalization of its churches; England repeatedly swung back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism in the course of one human generation; and the English and Scottish Reformations were unleashed, causing countless hundreds to lose their lives in the Tower of London or at the burning stakes as various people sought revenge or jockeyed for positions of power.
It is no small wonder then that on 6 September 1620—a mere seventeen years after Queen Elizabeth I’s death—one hundred two passengers boarded the Mayflower in Plymouth, England to begin a voyage in pursuit of religious freedom in a land that would eventually become known as the United States of America.
But the story of Henry VIII’s obsession with a male heir did not end when the pilgrims came ashore near present-day Plymouth, Massachusetts. An additional chapter was written one hundred seventy-one years later in December 1791, when the Founders of the United States of America incorporated this statement into the opening clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” (Note: read the post “We The Government?” on this website). Yes indeed, on such trivial matters rests the fate of nations—including nations that were not yet born when Henry VIII embarked upon his personal crusade to ensure continuity to the House of Tudor.
Now you have a good understanding of the history behind the religious establishment clause in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Part II in this series, titled, “It’s An Establishment Clause, Stupid” will explain how the Federal Government is using this First Amendment to undermine our founding principles and impose a different kind of tyranny upon the citizens of this great country—a “creeping despotism” that seeks to undermine the very fabric of our society.
Read Part II, It’s An Establishment Clause, Stupid!