In 1534, England broke from the Catholic Church, forever altering its national identity, and ultimately affecting the complexion of the entire world. The break from the Church came as a result of a rather improbable set of coinciding circumstances. Caught in the center, was a young woman named Anne Boleyn.

Just a few years earlier, however, such a religious separation would not have seemed at all likely in England. The Protestant Reformation had begun to spread from the German provinces in 1517, challenging Catholic orthodoxy, but England proved rather well insulated from its effects. In fact England's King Henry, for his part, was so passionate in his Catholic faith that he took it upon himself to personally write and publish a theological treatise defending the faith against Protestantism.

But it happened that Henry's wife, Queen Catherine, was advancing past the age of fertility, and she had not yet successfully born a male heir to the throne. Henry became convinced that an heir would only be possible through remarriage, and soon his attention turned toward a young woman and relative newcomer to the royal court named Anne Boleyn. Young Anne resisted Henry's initial efforts to take her as a mistress, but the king grew determined to make her his wife.

In order to dissolve his existing marriage, however, Henry would need to secure papal approval. Under normal circumstances, an annulment from the pope may have been a possibility. But it just so happened that circumstances for the pope were about to become far from normal.

It jusat so happened that in the same year, over in Italy, a giant mercenary army was milling around, waiting to be paid, and growing restless. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, had commissioned this army of mercenaries to expell the French from Italy, and so they had. Now they expected to be paid, but Charles delayed.

Had Charles V been more timely in his payment, history may have turned out very differently. But he was not. Instead, as Charles continued to defer, the soldiers took matters into their own hands. The band of mercenaries began plundering around the Italian peninsula. It was not long before the army descended upon the city of Rome in May of 1527.

The papal city was caught by surprise, and utter devastation ensued. Upwards of forty thousand Roman inhabitants were slaughtered. The Pope himself was forced to take refuge in a fortified Roman castle, and could only watch the brutality as it unfolded around him.

And so in an improbable turn of events, King Charles V, himself a Catholic, had accidentally unleashed widespread destruction in the very seat of Catholicism. Charles expressed embarrassment for his inability to control his forces, nevertheless he took the opportunity to extract concessions from the pope, and Clement VII was henceforth particularly careful not to defy Charles. Furthermore, as it turned out, King Charles had been the nephew of the sitting Queen Catherine of England, the very same queen, the very same marriage for which Henry was presently seeking annullment. Whatever remaining possibility of securing an annulment from the pope all but vanished under such circumstances.

Without cooperation from the pope, Henry sought another way out. His team of legal scholars managed to hammer out a justification by which King Henry VIII could transfer religious authority to himself, and his marriage to Catherine was anulled. By 1533, the new royal couple wedded. But as fate would have it, Anne too failed to produce a son, and by 1536, Anne Boleyn was beheaded. Henry would marry several more times, finally producing the son he desired.

The ramifications of England's break from Catholicism can hardly be overstated, and it did not take long for its impact to radiate around the globe. To take but one example, the religious tension between Catholic France and Protestant England would loom large in North America during the 18th century, as both nations jockeyed for position, culminating in the Seven Years' War, which set the stage for the American Revolution.

Source: Gregory, Brad S. Stanford University. The History of Christianity in the Reformation Era. The Great Courses, 2001.

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