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Martyrs and messy divorces: 500 years of Anglo-papal antagonism

By Paul Willis for CNN
The Queen and Pope Benedict had a great deal of history to reflect on during his papal visit.
The Queen and Pope Benedict had a great deal of history to reflect on during his papal visit.
  • Britain's fraught and often violent relationship with Roman Catholicism goes back 500 years
  • Henry VIII broke with Rome over a divorce and in his rein he burned Catholics and sacked the monasteries
  • Each Fall, Britons still celebrate the uncovering of a Catholic plot to blow up parliament on Guy Fawkes' Day
  • It was once illegal in England for Catholics to vote or own land

London, England (CNN) -- When the pope gets up to speak in London's historic Westminster Hall today we might forgive him a few nerves.

In agreeing to visit Britain he has, as some observers have noted, entered the lions' den. A strongly secular society, leading British celebrities and academics were falling over themselves to put down the pontiff ahead of the visit.

If the implacable Pope Benedict XVI's nerves are tested he is hardly likely to draw much comfort from the venue.

Westminster Hall, part of the Palace of Westminster estate which also includes the Houses of Parliament, has witnessed some key moments in British history and many of them paint a rather grim picture of papal relations over the years.

It was the venue for the trial of Guy Fawkes, who plotted to blow up parliament with gunpowder. When the conspirators were uncovered in 1605, Fawkes flung himself from the scaffold to avoid the agony of being hung, drawn and quartered.

Fawkes planned to assassinate the king and restore a Catholic monarch to the throne, and to this day Britons spend every November 5 burning effigies of the Catholic traitor on village greens and parks up and down the country.

If that wasn't bad enough, Henry VIII celebrated his coronation with a banquet at the hall. When it comes to the breakdown of Anglo-papal relations, Henry was the real villain of the piece.

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In 1527 Henry asked Pope Clement VII for a divorce from his wife Catherine of Aragon. When the Pope refused Henry had the marriage annulled by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, and married the pregnant Ann Boleyn in a private ceremony.

When Clement found out he excommunicated Henry. Undaunted, the king simply had himself made head of the church, sacking monasteries and stealing their wealth and helping himself to the church taxes.

Henry's actions were greeted with shock and anger by Catholics in Rome and in England, and when a group of priests refused to swear an oath accepting him as the head of the Church of England he had them killed, creating the first Catholic martyrs of the English Reformation.

The violence was not all one-sided. Henry's daughter, Mary, remained a devout Catholic and when she succeeded her father she turned the crown's fire on the Protestants, burning 284 of them at the stake including Cranmer.

After Mary's death, the reconciliation with Rome fizzled out as her sister and heir, Queen Elizabeth I reaffirmed the monarch's place as the head of the English church. In the late 1500s laws were introduced outlawing contact with the Roman church. Following the gunpowder plot, 1611 saw the publication of the King James Bible, the standard bible for the worldwide Anglican Church.

When Oliver Cromwell took charge after the English Civil War of the 1640s, a degree of tolerance was afforded to Catholics in England but the fiercely puritan Lord Protector imposed laws against them in Ireland.

By the 1700s it was enshrined in English law that the crown could not pass to a Catholic heir or anyone married to a Catholic. Yet towards the end of that century the authorities began to relax their position and the First Catholic Relief Act repealed the prosecution of priests and enabled Catholics to buy and inherit land.

The government's stance was not reflected in the population where an undercurrent of anti-Catholic sentiment still existed. This boiled over in 1780 when a mob of 40,000 marched on parliament to oppose the relief act, carrying banners saying "no Popery" and attacking members of the House of Lords.

In the 19th century, Catholics were granted the vote and were allowed to run for public office. Even so, simmering resentments persisted. These hostilities were stoked in the middle of the century by a group of Anglicans who felt that the Church of England was in "spiritual decay."

Known as the "Oxford Movement," these Anglicans preached a return to a more Catholic version of Anglicanism. Their leader, John Henry Newman, eventually converted. Newman's beatification is the reason for Pope Benedict's current visit.

By last century the tensions had abated enough that in 1960 Geoffrey Fisher became the first Archbishop of Canterbury for 600 years to visit the Holy See.

Vatican II, the modernizing church council that took place in the early sixties helped this process of conciliation, calling for a "restoration of Unity among Christians." This was followed by Pope John Paul II's pastoral visit in 1982 and the current papal trip.

These days, the main threat to the Church of Rome in Britain is less Protestantism but rather a general mistrust of religion in public life that has made politicians and prominent figures wary of public expressions of faith.

For instance, a journalist for Vanity Fair claimed former prime minister Tony Blair's then-press secretary Alistair Campbell once interrupted an interview to prevent his boss answering a question about about his Christianity with the words: "We don't do God."

Although it was known that Blair had been attending Mass for many years, he waited to the very end of his term in office before announcing he was converting to Catholicism. Still, at least he avoided the stake.

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