The European Continent Was Intended To Function As One Christian State
With the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century A.D. came the beginning of a long period now known as the Middle Ages. Over the next seven centuries, until the beginning of the Renaissance, the European continent was intended to function as one Christian state, with the Catholic Church playing the central role in governing the lives of its people. In 1231, Pope Gregory IX officially formalized the mission of the Holy Office, or Inquisition, to deal with heretics against the church, as well as moral crimes. Though it eased up in Europe after the 14th century, the Inquisition was kept alive for a period in Spain, where it targeted Jews and Muslims who had converted to Catholicism after a royal mandate in 1492. Some of the interrogation devices traced to the inquisitors include the heretic's fork, the Judas cradle and the headcrusher.
Perhaps no other event resonated as much over the following centuries as the Spanish Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition cast a long shadow over the following centuries, as thousands lost their lives in the name of religion. Although the most famous, the Spanish Inquisition was not the first inquisition. In 1231, the Church established an inquisition against the heretical Cathari and Waldenses. This inquisition sought to combat heresy and unchristian activities, such as witchcraft. In the mid-13th century, Pope Innocent IV authorized the use of torture to obtain information and confessions by the Inquisition.
When Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon began consolidating their Iberian possessions in the late 15th century, they not only sought to unite their people politically, but under one religion, too. However, many Muslims and Jews, and converts from these faiths to Catholicism, considered Isabella and Ferdinand's realm their home. At the request of the two monarchs, Pope Sixtus IV gave authorization for the Spanish Inquisition in 1478. However, this was something he came to regret. The first Spanish inquisitors were so severe that Sixtus tried to intervene, but to little avail, for the Spanish viewed this as a Spanish court, not as a religious one.
Tomas de Torquemada, confessor and advisor to Isabella and Ferdinand, became the first grand inquisitor in Spain. The Spanish Inquisition was modeled in part on its medieval predecessor, with autos-da-fe (public acts of faith) and public ceremonies. However, much of what happened behind closed doors created terror, something the Inquisition saw as a useful weapon in its arsenal. The encouragement of informants, the use of torture and lack of legal recourse for victims made the Spanish Inquisition a fearful institution. Torquemada viewed Jews and Marranos (Jewish converts), Moriscos (Islamic converts) and Moors, as threats to the unity that was so desired. As grand inquisitor, Torquemada used torture on his victims and had some 2,000 people burned at the stake.
In part for their support of the Spanish Inquisition, Isabella and Ferdinand were given the title of the "Catholic Monarchs", by the Borgia Pope Alexander VI. During the Protestant Reformation and the Counter-Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Spanish Inquisition continued to be a powerful and feared institution. Even today, the propaganda surrounding the Spanish Inquisition makes it hard to tell fact from fable, and is still an emotional subject.
Struggles between Catholics and Protestants continued throughout Europe. Catholic Spain continued as the dominant power during this period. The Spanish military fought Protestant rebels in Spanish-controlled Netherlands and Spanish King Philip II wanted a return to Catholicism in England. Philip sent the Spanish Armada, the largest fleet of its kind at the time, to invade England. The defeat of the Spanish Armada caused Spanish power in Europe and around the world to suffer a serious blow from which it never fully recovered.
In England, many Catholics were executed for their beliefs. Several plots failed to rescue the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots from her English captivity. Francis Throckmorton, who conspired with Spain's Phillip II, was executed after a failed attempt to rescue the queen. Anthony Babington, after whom one plot was named, was executed after he exchanged letters with the imprisoned queen. These letters were intercepted by spies of Queen Elizabeth I, who forged a postscript to one of Mary's letters that gave Babington permission to assassinate Elizabeth. These letters were enough proof to have Mary executed.
In France, the struggles between the Catholic Church and the Protestant Church flared when Catholic Henry III declared the Huguenot Henry of Navarre the heir presumptive to the French throne. The Holy League, a French association of Roman Catholics led by Henri, Duke of Guise, protested the proclamation. This resulted in The War of the Three Henries. Henry III had the Duke of Guise assassinated in an attempt to reduce the power of the League. Henry III was himself assassinated in 1589, making Henry of Navarre king. The League only accepted his kingship after he converted to Catholicism.
During the captivity of Mary, Queen of Scots, in England, several attempts were made to place her on the English throne. The most significant of these was the Babington Plot, which ultimately led to Mary's trial and execution in 1587. The person for whom the plot was named was Anthony Babington. Raised in England as a Catholic, Babington devoted his life to returning England to Catholicism. As a child, Babington served as a page to Mary's jailer, the Earl of Shrewsbury. This is when his devotion to Mary began.
As a young adult, Babington conspired with other Catholic Englishmen and the Catholic king of Spain, Philip II, to rescue Mary and reestablish Catholicism in England. This plot failed and numerous of its conspirators were arrested, but Babington convinced Elizabeth that he was a devoted Protestant and was accepted into her court.
In 1586, Babington met John Ballard, a Catholic priest who also wanted Mary on the throne of England. Ballard placed Babington in charge of English Catholics organized to remove Elizabeth from the throne. Babington began to write his own letters to Mary. Written in cipher, Babington's letters explained his plans to rescue her and reestablish Catholicism in England. But the plot did not only include Babington and Ballard. Catholics all over Europe wanted to rescue Mary and remove Elizabeth. Philip II promised to send troops when the assassination of Elizabeth had taken place.
What Babington and Mary did not realize, however, was that their letters were being intercepted by Elizabeth's spies. Elizabeth knew of plots to place Mary on the English throne. Elizabeth's secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, had been aware of the Babington plot for quite some time. Walsingham tried to convince Elizabeth that the throne and her life were in danger and it would be necessary to have Mary executed.
Elizabeth had always refused to have Mary assassinated. Walsingham was convinced that if evidence existed that Mary was plotting Elizabeth's assassination, Elizabeth would then order the execution of Mary. Walsingham found such an opportunity with the Babington Plot.
Walsingham hired Gilbert Gifford, an exiled English Catholic, as a double agent. Gifford was to reestablish contact with Mary. Letters between Mary and her supporters, including Babington's letters, were sent via a beer keg supplied by a brewer. By using Gifford, correspondence could be maintained and intercepted without raising suspicions amongst Mary's supporters. While in his possession, Walsingham had the letters deciphered and copied. In 1586, Babington wrote a letter outlining the details of the plot to rescue Mary. In the letter, Babington asked for Mary's permission to assassinate Elizabeth.
Mary responded and agreed with the plans, but did not authorized the assassination. That did not matter however, because Walsingham's spies intercepted the letter. The letter was deciphered and copied but this time a postscript was added. According to the new letter, Mary authorized the assassination. Walsingham had his proof. In August 1586, Ballard, the Catholic priest, was arrested and tortured. He named Babington in the plot. Babington, who begged Elizabeth for mercy, was tried and executed in 1586. Mary was tried on the basis of the forged evidence and executed in February 1587.
For many, the dawn of the Renaissance around the 13th to 15th centuries showed the failure of the church to provide a satisfactory framework for all of Europe's diverse citizens, and monarchies, nation-states and national languages were gaining ground. The term Middle Ages was coined by Renaissance scholars, who saw themselves as rediscovering and reviving the humanist values of ancient Greece and Rome and leaving behind the culturally dark ages of the years in between.
Life during the Middle Ages was dominated by the feudal system. There was little central authority (aside from the church) and individual noblemen or lords owned and governed all land. They parceled their land out to dependents, or vassals, in the form of "fiefs," which the vassals would then work in order to make a living and keep the agricultural economy going. Vassals would also pay homage to the lord, even fighting for him if required to do so. The feudal system rigidly separated the different members of society into royals, knights, noblemen and peasants, with hardly any mobility between the classes. Religion played an enormous role in medieval life, and days of worship, feasts and holidays provided the most consistent schedule for peasant and lord alike.
The death of Queen Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudors, in 1603 ushered in a century of domestic conflict in England. The new Stuart monarchy clashed with Parliament, Puritans clashed with the Church of England and Catholics continued to be persecuted. Civil war broke out in 1642, spearheaded by the military leadership of Oliver Cromwell, and King Charles I was executed in 1849. Cromwell declared a Commonwealth and protectorate and divided the country into military districts governed by his own generals, which ended up turning the people against him. Royalist sentiment, fueled by resentment of Puritans and the military, grew ever stronger, and after Cromwell's death, the dead king's son returned from exile and was crowned Charles II in 1660. The new regime, and especially the policies of Parliament during this time, moved away from the strict moral codes of Puritanism and an increased repression of non-Anglican Protestants and Catholics. After Charles' Catholic brother, James, was crowned king in 1685, the country headed straight toward revolution, as James' opponents enlisted the king's own son-in-law, the Dutch prince William of Orange, to invade England and take the throne in 1688. As the century ended, William and his wife Mary ruled England jointly, as William sought to assert himself militarily over the territorial ambitions of France's Louis XIV. With order (if not harmony) restored, England began to reclaim its position as one of the strongest military and economic powers in the world.
Despite the bitter struggles between Anglicans, Puritans and Catholics, life for many Englishmen was improving during the 17th century. New methods of agriculture had been introduced, the population was growing steadily and the development of colonies in North America and the West Indies meant that England was increasing its reputation as a trading power. A strong banking industry also developed over the century, culminating in the founding of the Bank of England in 1694. Even as these changes greatly improved life for nobles, merchants and the yeoman farmers who owned their own land, a great mass of the population--particularly the tenant farmers and laborers--continued to struggle to make a living. England's towns and cities were growing rapidly, and despite efforts to improve plumbing and transportation, they were dirty and unsanitary. Plagues broke out in London in 1603, 1636 and 1665, killing large numbers of people, mostly in the city's poorer sections.
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