In 1534, England broke from the Catholic Church, an event which forever altered its national identity, and ultimately affected 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 young 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 the king of England had proven steadfastly opposed to its effects. England's King Henry VIII had been so passionate in his Catholic faith that he took it upon himself to personally write and publish a theological treatise defending Catholicism against Protestant encroachment. However, it happened that Henry's wife, Queen Catherine, was advancing past the age of fertility, and though she had born Henry sons, none of them had survived past infancy. Convinced that a male heir would be necessary for the survival the royal line, Henry became convinced that remarriage was necessary. The king soon began to focus his interest and attention on a young Anne Boleyn, an intelligent and fashionable member of the royal court who had drawn many admirers. It is said that Anne resisted Henry's initial efforts to take her as a mistress, and the king grew determined to make her his wife. Dissolving his existing marriage, however, would require papal approval. Under normal circumstances, an annulment from the pope may have been a reasonable possibility. Indeed, Henry believed that he could make a legitimately compelling case for annullment, since Catherine had previously been married to Henry's brother (Though Catherine insisted that the marriage had never been consummated). Unfortunately for the king, circumstances for the pope at that time were far from normal. [Pope Clement's Situation.] In the year 1527, over in Italy, a giant mercenary army had been biding their time after completing a mission, and they were growing restless. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, had commissioned this army of mercenaries to expell the French from Italy, and they had successfully accomplished this task; 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 payment, the soldiers took matters into their own hands. The band of mercenaries began plundering around the Italian peninsula, and it was not long before the army descended upon the city of Rome in May of 1527. The papal city was caught utterly unprepared; 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 it wsa that in an improbable turn of events, Catholic King Charles V, had inadvertantly unleashed widespread destruction in the very seat of his own Catholic faith. Charles expressed embarrassment for his inability to control his forces, nevertheless he took the opportunity to extract concessions from the pope. Henceforth, Pope Clement VII was particularly careful not to defy Charles. Adding an unfortunate twist to the situation, as far as Henry VIII was concerned, was the fact that this very same Charles V of Spain who now held his thumb over the Pope, just so happened to be the nephew of his own wife, Catherine of Aragon. Whatever hope for annullment might have existed for Henry, had vanished under such unlikely circumstances. Without papal permission, Henry sought another way out. The king's team of legal scholars managed to hammer out a justification by which Henry VIII could transfer religious authority to himself, and his marriage to Catherine was anulled. By 1533, the new royal couple wedded. [Short-lived Anne Boleyn/ Long-lived daughter, Queen Elizabeth.] But as fate would have it, though Anne did manage to bear daughter Elizabeth to Henry VIII, she too failed to produce a son, and by 1536, after more miscarriages, and as King Henry became infatuated with another member of the court, Anne Boleyn was beheaded under the pretense of conspiracy and adultery. Henry VIII would marry several more times, finally producing the son he so desired (in addition to beheading another wife). And yet despite all of the effort invested in producing a son (not to mention the violence committed along the way), Henry's son Edward would only manage to sit on the throne for a brief period during his youth before succumbing to illness. Against long odds, and through an ironic twist of fate, it would be Anne Boleyn's daughter Elizabeth, who would make her way to the throne in 1558. Anne's daughter Elizabeth would rule as monarch for more than four decades, overseeing a golden age of the British Renaissance (during the life and works of William Shakespeare) and tipping the balance of power away from Spain. In contrast to her father's many marriages, Elizabeth would be celebrated for her purity and virginity, never marrying and never bearing cildren. The "Elizabethan Era" would prove profoundly influential in terms of national identity. Ruling until 1603, the reign of the Virgin Queen would ably deliver Great Britain right to the precipice of exploration into the Americas. [Historical Contingency and Legacy] In hindsight, the ramifications of England's break from Catholicism can hardly be overstated, and the prominent role played by unlikely happenstance makes it difficult not to wonder how easily things could have turned out much differently. If Rome had not been spontaneously stormed by mutinous mercenaries in 1527, would Pope Clement have endulged Henry VIII in his request for annullment? And if Henry VIII had never felt compelled to break from the Catholic church, how much different would the world be today? 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 in the New World, culminating in the Seven Years' War of 1756, which set the stage for the American and French Revolutions. How much differently would this scenario have played out if France and England had not viewed themselves as religious opponents? Personifying this whirlwind of historical contingency was Ann Boleyn, a tragic and sympatheic figure caught in the middle, in the center of England's religious break, and ultimately a cataclysm in world politics. Ann embodies the fickle, tragic, and often ironic twists of history in many ways. Desperately desired only to be carelessly discarded, Ann's daughter Elizabeth was at one time removed from the line of succession, only to become one of the most influential queens in England's history.
Source: Gregory, Brad S. Stanford University. The History of Christianity in the Reformation Era. The Great Courses, 2001.