The happy couple looks not just fabulous, but very English as they make their way through the ceremonies steeped in tradition like a cup of very strong tea. A proper Royal Wedding may seem like a bit much to most people, including 80% of Brits according to one poll, but it’s much more than that. To me, it’s a cheap excuse for a history lesson – a reflection on not only what it means to be English, but what we as Americans inherited from the grand mess.
I have to warn you though – it’s not particularly glamorous.
To a large extent the UK as we know it dates from Henry VIII, who in 1534 separated England from the Catholic Church and declared himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England. It’s generally attributed to his desire to divorce his pious wife Catherine of Aragon, an act forbidden by the Pope. It also allowed him to seize the vast land held by the church after refusing a compromise of the deliverance of 24 parishes, their deeds sent in a pie shell (“Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie”). From then on, England was officially Protestant. But it’s much more complicated than that.
Henry was a terrible king in many ways, leaving his nation nearly bankrupt and with no clear heir. His eldest daughter Mary had first crack at it, but her attempts to restore Catholicism left the nation ripped apart (giving her the name “Bloody Mary”). A coup was arranged and the Protestant Elizabeth I was installed. All was well for a while. When she died without an heir in 1606 the Scottish king James VI became James I of the United Kingdom of England and Scotland. Protestantism was cemented throughout this larger land by his translation of the Bible into English so that everyone could read it.
Protestants, however, have never been an easy lot to lead. The more radical ones, called Puritans for their desire to purify the church, fled in part to America to start Massachusetts in 1630 to escape official condemnation. The ones who stayed behind kept organizing, and in 1642 started a civil war behind their top general, Olliver Cromwell. By 1649 they seized power and beheaded King Charles I, melted down the crown, and declared that Parliament would rule the lands.
Cromwell was ruthless in his efforts to root out ungodly behavior, especially in the nominally English controlled lands in Ireland where Catholicism was still very strong. His despotic and bloody rule held through his death in 1658, but within two years Charles’ exiled son came back to be Charles II. The monarchy was restored, but Parliament has ruled the United Kingdom ever since. Charles II was uneasy as a figurehead and came to loathe the Protestant majority of his kingdom. On his deathbed he converted to Catholicism.
Charles’ brother James took up the crown as James II, but trouble started immediately. James was unashamedly Catholic, which didn’t set well with most of the Kingdom. Another civil war erupted where the Protestants backed William, from the House of Orange in the Netherlands. James fled to Ireland to raise an army of loyal Catholics, but was cornered at the Battle of the Boyne on 12 July 1690. William III became King of the UK and Ireland was fully subjugated as never before.
During all this an astute young man owed a debt by the monarchy for support through the Cromwell years had enough of religious struggle. William Penn, himself a Quaker, asked for land in America and founded Pennsylvania on the principle of religious freedom. Shortly afterward Lord Baltimore founded a haven for Catholics just south of that called Maryland.
That still wasn’t the end of the religious and succession trouble for the UK, however. The Scots had a tendency to follow their own ideas about Protestant faith, called Presbyterianism, but they were tolerated as long as they didn’t get too uppity. Many were given lands in Ireland on the assumption that they would be more loyal than the Catholics and could help subjugate the land, especially in Ulster (Northern Ireland). The crown never did make completely good on their promises, staying wary of Presbyterians in general, and a few rebellions took place over the years – when many of the now-called “Scots-Irish” fled to America. Ireland was not formally absorbed by the UK until 1801.
The lack of clear heirs and the need for loyal Protestants steered Parliament to periodically scour Europe for distant relatives who would be pliable periodically. In 1714 George I was brought over from Hanover, and the crown has been held by German nobility ever since. The Royal Family changed their name during WWI from “Saxe-Coburg-Gotha” to “Windsor” to sound more English, but they are entirely German in descent.
Where does that leave us today? The UK has its figureheads who preside over elaborate ceremonies as if they are truly English, but they are not. The United States was a land built on religious turmoil and a need to get away from the nasty religious politics of the UK. Ireland won its freedom through the Anglo-Irish War in 1922, largely because of support from Irish ex-pats in the US.
Back where it all started, the ceremony and pomp continues as if everything is right with the world. That’s the power of a figurehead monarchy, after all. You can gloss over all the nasty bits and enjoy a good show, if you’re up for it.