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Fiery battle with Spanish Armada

The use of force to impose religious dogma was defeated.


Brits find support for freedom in newly translated Scriptures. King and people break with the religious authority of Rome. A Brit dies defending our right not to incriminate ourselves. Farmers resist the stealing of common land by unjust landowners. Burned alive, men and women uphold freedom of religious conscience. Common Law declares slavery cannot survive in England. Brits defeat the Spanish Armada and Inquisition.


Brits struggled for centuries to win the right of habeas corpus – to be expeditiously brought before a court for a specified charge or to be released from prison. During the reign of Henry VII (1485-1509) persons imprisoned by the King's Privy Council without being charged, and left to rot in prison, are able to assert their right to habeas corpus. The struggle continues case by case. By the early 17th century, habeas corpus will be recognized as a legal way to stop illegal imprisonment by courts or public officials. Parliament will enshrine the right in law in 1679 in the Habeas Corpus Act.


William Tyndale escapes by boat up the Rhine with partially printed copies of his new English translation of the New Testament just ahead of the agents sent by Henry VIII to destroy them. Within a month, copies of his translation, hidden in bales of cloth, are being smuggled into England. When agents of the King find them, they are burned, but copies escape, reaching even the "boy that driveth the plough," as Tyndale had hoped.

Henry VIII opposes both freedom of expression and freedom of religion. Tyndale fights for both, enduring poverty, shipwreck, and betrayal, and facing death with stubborn courage.

Reenactment of 16th century attack on castle with cannon

Henry VIII is one of the first kings to use cannons against his own people. The ability of powerful rulers to buy and use destructive weapons will make liberty harder to obtain, and costlier to defend.

Photo by Pomian


The history of freedom is partly a history of the Brits fighting their Kings.

Described as "axe-happy", Henry VIII rules from 1509-1547. He introduces interrogation in the Star Chamber, and establishes the Treasons Act, which makes denying his supremacy as the head of the Anglican Church an offence punishable by death. He executes two wives and Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, a poet and soldier who unwisely remarks he has a right to Henry's crown.

But Henry also loves music, supports composer and musician Thomas Tallis, and is responsible for founding Trinity College, Cambridge, and Christ College, Oxford. (To read about Holbein, who sketched and painted the vivid cast of characters at his court, go HERE ) Henry also breaks with an interfering Papacy and a Church which had become hated for its corruption, the oppressive laws of its ecclesiastical courts, and its heavy fees for marriages, wills, and burials.

In 1532-1533 Henry's major Reformation statutes repudiated Papal Roman claims over England, and made Papal writs impotent in Parliament. Many Brits applaud this independent step. They consider their country to be an empire – that is, in this early meaning of the word – a sovereign country that is not ruled by any other.

Green hills between the arches of a ruined priory in Wales

Henry VIII dissolves the monasteries and distributes their lands and wealth to his cronies, thereby destroying their hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, and schools for poor children. Henry insists that the English acknowledge him as the Supreme head of the Church in Britain. When the Abbots of Glastonbury, Colchester, and Reading resist his autocratic demands, they forfeit their lives.



Thomas Cromwell has justifiably received bad press. We would be remiss, however, if we did not record his reform of the major government departments of Signet, Chancery, and the Privy Seal. Not handsome or titled, a poor boy who had made good by dint of his administrative and financial talents, Cromwell reorganises these disheveled departments, makes them accountable, and makes them independent of the King's interventions. He leaves behind officers who would be cabinet ministers in our age, fully supported by professional civil servants.

It is in the areas of independence and accountability that he contributes most to the history of freedom, for it is in the very practical area of accountability that governments so often fail, and liberty and democracy are lost.


Henry's Act of Supremacy, which makes him, not the Pope, the Supreme ruler of the Church of England, is passed by Parliament, but it is not accepted by all Brits. Thomas More refuses to swear obedience. We would like to speak more glowingly about More, for he taught his daughters the Classics, and died bravely. Tragically, however, when More was in power, he executed Lutherans for standing by their faith.

Defying Henry's command, three monks of Charterhouse, whose monastery had taken care of the poor and ill for centuries, refuse to swear allegiance to Henry as head of the Church. Henry VIII orders them hanged, cut down then disembowelled while still alive. Given the chance to recant, the three monks refuse, and die. They bear extraordinary witness to freedom of conscience.

Sunny meadow, trees, and water in Norfolk, England
All over England where Brits farm common land, and graze and water their animals, the rich and powerful are seizing and enclosing the land that once belonged to all. In Norfolk, Brits fight back.



In the North, Brits resent Henry’s break with Rome and his tax increases. They face desperate poverty and starvation because landowners have been stealing the land belonging in common to all of them, enclosing it, and turning it into pasture for their flocks.

The northerners rebel, and capture the King’s Tax Commissioners. Under the leadership of Robert Aske, a barrister, nine thousand march on York in the Pilgrimage of Grace, and restore expelled monks and nuns to their religious houses. That they demand a return to papal rule is not well received, but their desire for a Parliament without a King will resonate with later generations.

Henry VIII promises a general pardon, and a Parliament in York to consider their grievances.  Aske agrees to negotiate, and the protestors disband, but Henry breaks his word. Aske and many others are seized and hanged.


In 1532, John Lambert is summoned before a religious inquisition. He is suspected of having become a convert to Protestantism, and the inquisition interrogates him on the faithfulness of his religious beliefs.

Lambert answers with candour all the inquisition's questions but one. He refuses to say whether he has ever before been suspected of heresy. "Even if I did remember," he tells his inquisitors, "I were more than twice a fool to show you thereof; for it is written in your own law, 'No man is bound to betray himself'."

According to the Gospels, Jesus remained silent before his accusers – he answered nothing (Mark 15:3). Remembrance of his actions may have influenced ecclesiastical and Common Law to develop the principle nemo tenetur edere contra se — no man is bound to accuse himself. This principle can protect people from torture, and give them respect and dignity against the power of the state.

When John Lambert is interrogated, the principle is not firmly established. He becomes the first person on record in England who lays a claim to the protection of the law that no man can be forced to incriminate himself. For his beliefs he forfeits his life. In 1537 he is chained to a stake in Smithfield, England, and, in a grisly account of his death, "roasted in flames." With his bravery he helps to win a fundamental right for us.


A positive note in Henry’s reign – the Welsh people obtain representation in Parliament.


Anne Askew had been married as a very young girl to a Lincolnshire knight. When she became a Protestant, her husband sent her packing, and she went to London to testify to her religious beliefs. These included unorthodox ideas about the Sacrament. Questioned by Henry VIII's council, she speaks in parables and refuses to declare that the Sacrament is the flesh and blood of Christ.

Richard Rich tries to extract from Anne the names of women supporters at court, so he can attack them. Totally disregarding Common Law, he racks Anne until every one of her joints is distorted, but she refuses to name any names. The Lieutenant of the Tower rushes to the King, to absolve himself of responsibility, and the racking is stopped.

Anne is promised she will not die by burning if she accepts orthodox views about the Sacrament. She replies simply, 'I have not come hither to deny my Master.' She is burned at the stake at Smithfield. She is remembered as a hero.


Wealthy landowners continue to steal common lands once shared by all, and enclose them for their sheep and cattle. This leaves farmers who depended on common lands and their families in dire straits. In Norfolk, farmers confront Robert Kett, a landowner who has enclosed land.

Kett recognizes the justice of their cause, pulls down his fences, and leads the farmers against unfair and greedy landlords. Twenty thousand join Kett, and draft a set of “Requests” that include stopping enclosures, restoring fishing rights, and establishing fair rents.  The government orders them to disband and go home.

Kett and the farmers set up a court under an oak tree to try men “charged with robbing the poor.” According to Churchill, “No blood is shed, but property acquired by enclosing common land is restored.”

Edward VI’s government sends 16,000 militia, and battle is joined. Almost 4,000 farmers are killed on the battlefield. Many hundreds, including Robert Kett and his brother William, are hanged.

They are long remembered.  It may be no accident that Oliver Cromwell, who will bring down a King and lead the Commonwealth a century later, hails from East Anglia.


The Privy Council of Edward VI condemns Joan Bochell (Joan of Kent) to death after Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, has been unable to convert her from a belief in a "celestial" Christ to the accepted belief in a divine and human Jesus Christ. She is burned at the stake.


Bloody Queen Mary wants Brits back under the thumb of Rome, and is willing to burn people to do it. Nicholas Ridley goes to the stake rather than renounce his reformed faith and obey the Pope. With him is Hugh Latimer, who some years before had been responsible for the deliberately slow and agonizing burning of an old priest, a torture stopped by outraged bystanders.

Little girl lights tapers in church

Brits hauled into court to answer questions designed to trap them as religious heretics bravely demand to know the identity of their accusers and the specific charges against them. They refuse to incriminate themselves or others. They assert their rights as Englishmen and women.
To hold your hand over a candle flame until the skin burns is painful. To die at the stake in a sheet of fire is painful beyond belief, but hundreds of Brits do so to uphold their rights and their children's rights.



On March 21, 1556, dressed in ragged clothes and a dunce’s cap, Thomas Cranmer, Henry VIII's former Archbishop of Canterbury, was led to St Mary’s, Oxford, to recant publicly his reformed faith. He had been a brave man sometimes, and a good man sometimes. He has also been a weak man. As archbishop he singlehandedly created the Book of Common Prayer still used by Anglicans and Episcopalians today. (His very beautiful language can be heard in Rite I.) He affirmed 1) that the Christian was justified by faith, not works, though works to help others were part of a Christian life, and 2) that the bread and wine of the Eucharist were not Christ's actual body and blood but Christ's spiritual presence.

The return to the Catholic faith in Queen Mary's reign saw Thomas Cranmer faced with recanting his reformed faith or being burned at the stake. He recanted a number of times, and was taken to St Mary's to make another public recantation in a church packed with people to watch his humiliation.

He kneels and prays the Lord’s Prayer, and the men and women in St Mary's knelt and prayed with him. Then he begins to speak. It is a minute before they realise that the old archbishop had changed his mind –

"And now I come to the great thing that troubleth my conscience more than nay other thing that ever I said or did in my life: and that is, the setting abroad of writings contrary to the truth.  Which here now I renounce and refuse, as things written with my hand, contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and written for fear of death, and to save my life. . .And forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished: for if I may come to the fire, it shall be first burned."

His guards are shouting. They force him outside, and rush him along Brasenose Lane to the front of Balliol College, where he is stripped of his clothes, to stand in his shirt, chained to a stake around which wood is piled. When the wood begins to burn, he held his hand in the fire, “crying with a  loud voice, 'This hand hath offended.' As soon as the fire got up, he was very soon dead, never stirring or crying all the while".

Many British men and women, both Protestant and Catholic, endure death by fire to bear witness to freedom of religious conscience. They were called martyrs, which comes from the Greek word that means witness-bearer.


Beautiful, brilliant, and cunning, the young Queen Elizabeth I declares that she makes 'no windows into men’s souls’. But she is terrified of a religious civil war, and asks Parliament to pass the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity, which establish the Anglican Church as the national church. Elizabeth does not want to know what a person feels inwardly. She simply wants outward conformity. The result is peace, but non-Anglicans and Catholics risk their lives when they protest on behalf of freedom of religion, and Irish Catholics are harshly punished with the first Penal Laws.

Elizabeth’s reign sees almost 200 Catholics die on the scaffold as witnesses to freedom of religious conscience.


During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a spectacular lawsuit, the Matter of Cartwright, is brought against a person for beating a man he had bought as a slave.

According to the court, "One Cartwright brought a slave from Russia and would scourge him; for which he was questioned," that is, charged with assault. The decision of the court, framed in a decidedly hopeful and lyrical style, makes a deservedly famous contribution to Common Law: “Resolved, that England was too pure an air for a slave to breathe in." The slave was freed.


An explorer and poet, Walter Raleigh establishes the Colony and Dominion of Virginia (which includes the present-day states of North Carolina and Virginia) at Roanoke Island. The first settlement fails, but paves the way for subsequent colonies.

Raleigh and his friends fund his voyages, and subsequent attempts to colonize Virginia. These will have an extraordinary impact on world history because they establish English settlement in North America and with the English came "the Common Law, respect for private property, continuous representative government, a culture that nurtures civil society and entrepreneurial enterprise" (James Bennett, Albion).

It has to be said that the property rights of the Indians to their lands, which they held collectively as tribes, were ignored, though not by William Penn in Pennsylvania. The fact that the Indians lost their lands does not diminish the fact that respect for individual rights would have a great and beneficial influence in America.


On May 28th, 1588, the 200-plus ships of the Spanish Armada sailed for the English Channel to pick up the Spanish Army in the Netherlands and invade Britain with 55,000 men. The Spanish intended to force the independent English to return to the Church of Rome, to end their support for the Dutch, who were fighting for their freedom from the Spanish, and to end private British raids against Spanish colonies. Like every invading army, the Spanish would have plundered and pillaged, executed and murdered, leaving a country destroyed and trade in ruins.

The Royal Navy has just one aim - to keep the Spanish from landing and invading England. John Hawkins had designed the Navy's small, speedy ships, and had armed them with technologically advanced, long-range cannon. Hawkins, Lord Howard, the Lord High Admiral, and Francis Drake contributed their own privateers to the battle. But the situation looked desperate. The Armada far exceeded the Royal Navy in numbers and firepower.

On July 19th, the Armada was sighted off the Lizard in Cornwall, and beacons were lit, blazing into the night sky to carry the news to London.

The 130 ships of the Royal Navy set out in pursuit. Meanwhile the Dutch, trying to undermine the Spanish, thoughtfully removed the sea-marks that indicated shoals and blockaded the Spanish army at Dunkirk.

The Armada anchored off Calais, not far from their army. They were in a tightly-packed, impregnable crescent formation.

At midnight, July 28th, Sir Francis Drake led fireships filled with pitch, gunpowder, and tar against the Spanish galleons. Terrified of fire, Spanish captains and sailors cut cable anchors and broke formation to escape the danger. But over the following days, slowly and inexorably the Armada re-formed.

The Royal Navy, which had faced a number of existential invasions in its history - against Vikings and the French - prepared to confront another. On August 8th 1588, the Royal Navy engaged the Spanish Armada at Gravelines.

Fiery scene of English ships routing Spanish Armada in painting by Philippe de Loutherbourg in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich

Royal Navy fights the Spanish Armada at the
Battle of Gravelines,
August 8th 1588

Painting by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg
free spins no deposit win real money© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

The Spanish loosed their heavy shot, but their guns were unwieldy, and their gunners had been trained to board ships, not reload. The Royal Navy closed, firing repeatedly and sending damaging broadsides into the Spanish ships.

Meanwhile, in England, a small force of 4,000 soldiers gathered at West Tilbury, Essex, to defend the estuary of the River Thames and London. On August 8th, Queen Elizabeth went to Tilbury to encourage them -

I have come amongst you as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved in the midst and heat of the battle to live or die amongst you all, to lay down for my God and for my kingdom and for my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust. . .

At sea, the Royal Navy had damaged but not defeated the Armada, and was running out of ammunition. With their shot lockers almost empty, the English courageously pursued, harrying the Spanish fleet in a desperate effort to keep it from reaching and loading the Spanish Army.

Unaware that the English had nothing in their lockers, the Armada fled north. Gales completed the rout. The Armada limped home to Spain via Scotland and Ireland, losing half its ships and men along the way.

The threat of invasion had passed. The use of force to impose religious dogma had been defeated. The history of the world was changed. It is doubtful there would have been a Pennsylvania, a place of religious tolerance, or an America with a Bill of Rights without this defeat.

Men who fight for their country are often forgotten after the danger has passed. The Queen did not bother to pay her sailors. But Lord Howard refused to forget them.

He "took an aggressive role in securing victuals for his starving men and arranging more sanitary accommodation onshore. . .paying for fresh wine and beer from his own pocket when he knew that there could be no possibility of reimbursement; and selling his personal plate to buy clothing for the men". He later wrote, if I had not had something to give the men, 'I should have wished myself out of the world’" (Oxford DNB).

English country – Gloucestershire

In these centuries Brits are creating a country where they and their children can live according to fair laws that protect freedom and innocence.

Loving their country, and the freedoms that their country protects, Brits are willing to die so their country and their children may live.

They take the long view. They establish universities and hospitals for their children and their fellow citizens. When they are faced with disaster, they stand together.

They are learning to be tolerant of every person's right to worship God - or not to worship at all.

View over the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire



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