The time of the breakdown of Europe’s religious unity in the 16th and 17th centuries was a truly dramatic period. The depth of the divisions and the cruelty of the conflicts and executions still disturb us today when we return to them to better understand our history and to share in sincere dialogue, lasting reconciliation and peace.
One of the theaters of the drama was England, where from the time of Henry VIII the conflict developed not so much in the doctrinal dimension as in the clash between the authority of the king and that of the pope, forcing the people to experience an irreconcilable conflict between loyalty to the monarch, symbolic expression of the unity of the state and a national Church, and loyalty to the pope, embodiment of the universal unity of the Catholic Church.
It was a complex and anything but straightforward affair, in which religious reform was used to impose monarchical absolutism, and confessional contrasts were interwoven with international politics. The external enemies were gradually identified, to the fore the pope of Rome, along with the Spanish Empire and its threatening Armada, the Queen of Scots and Catholic Ireland. The reigns of the first two Tudor sovereigns who broke with Rome – Henry VIII and Edward VI – were followed by the reign of Mary, who tried to re-establish Catholicism without shying away from violent and odious methods, such as the burning of “heretics.” But her reign ended in a very few years, while the following reign of Elizabeth, who re-imposed the reforms, would be incomparably longer and more effective in significantly curtailing Catholicism.
Thomas More and John Fisher were the first famous victims of this conflict. Their loyal dedication to the good of the country and their respect for the authority of the sovereign cannot be questioned, but their fidelity to their religious conscience led them to pay the ultimate price, for their martyrdom they would be recognized as saints by the Catholic Church. Many others would come after them and the ranks of the English Catholic martyrs became numerous. It was one of the great streams in a river of blood. Brad S. Gregory calculates that between 1523 and 1680 the number of those condemned and executed on religious grounds in Europe amounts to about 5,000.