Review: The British monarchy’s fraught (and sometimes bloody) history with Catholicism
After Queen Elizabeth II took the throne following the death of her father King George VI in 1952, the coins of the realm that soon bore her head were also struck with the Latin abbreviations: “DG, Reg, FD,” or “by the grace of God, Queen, Defender of the Faith.”
In Defenders of the Faith: The British Monarchy, Religion, and the Next Coronation, a new study exploring this relationship between religion and the English monarchy from the time of the Tudors, Catherine Pepinster, the former editor of The London Tablet, has written a delightful book that explores the impact Elizabeth II and the monarchs that preceded her have had on the Church of England as well as on other faith traditions in their realm, particularly Catholicism, with which the monarchy has had a fraught and sometimes bloody relationship.
The book, published shortly before Elizabeth’s death last September, also looks at how religion has (or has not) influenced the private lives of Britain’s kings and queens. It also considers how the next monarch, King Charles III, might exercise his role as “Defender of the Faith” for a nation whose populace finds itself increasingly unconnected to religion, a reality particularly true for the Anglican Church, of which the monarch remains as “Supreme Governor.” (At the time of his break from Rome in 1531, King Henry VIII had forced an English ecclesiastical parliament to recognize him as “Supreme Head” of the church. When in 1558 his daughter Elizabeth ascended the throne, she changed this title to “Supreme Governor,” rightly recognizing that St. Paul had reserved this former title to Christ alone.)
Pepinster considers how the next monarch, King Charles III, might exercise his role as “Defender of the Faith” for a nation whose populace finds itself increasingly unconnected to religion.
The book opens with a close study of the biblical roots of the notion of sacred kingship, beginning with the leaders of ancient Israel, particularly Solomon, whose vocation as a wise king has had the greatest impact on the British understanding of the sacred character of its monarchy. Evidence of this can be found as early as 973 A.D., when Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury, crowned and anointed Edgar as Saxon king with explicit references to the I Kings account of the anointing of Solomon.
Vibrant biblical images and sacred rituals have remained important parts of the coronation ceremonies of English monarchs ever since. While retaining many deeply Christian elements, the ceremonies have by no means remained static. For example, during the 16 months between Elizabeth I's becoming queen and her coronation, Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, set up a committee to recommend any changes to the religious parts of the ceremony. Ultimately it was decided to put greater emphasis on its sacramental nature by rearranging some elements of the service. The centerpiece of the ceremony remained Elizabeth’s anointing on her head, hands and breast (performed privately under a canopy). After the completion of these anointings, the queen was next dressed in garments usually associated with a priest (such as an alb and stole), which again helped to point to the sacred character she was also taking on in her new vocation as monarch.
While all the monarchs who were anointed before this year’s coronation began their reigns with such highly symbolic ritual, after the pageantry they soon had to get down to the brass tacks of governing. This was particularly difficult in terms of religion, as a peaceful and lasting settlement on this question still lay far in the future. While each struggled with the question of religion publicly as a state issue, they also had to deal with it privately in their personal lives, and often enough the two, public and private, bled into each other.
For example, by the time Charles I became king in 1625, England had been firmly ruled by Protestant monarchs for more than 60 years, yet his marriage to the Catholic Henrietta Maria, sister of King Louis XIII of France, alarmed many who feared his marriage might lead to an easing of restrictions against Catholics. Suspicions only deepened with the queen’s refusal to attend her husband’s coronation because it was taking place within a Protestant ceremony.
Things went from bad to worse for Protestant fears by the time of the reign of Charles’ son, James II, who had converted to Catholicism before his accession to the throne in 1685. With the birth and Catholic baptism of his son in 1688, England now seemed poised to return firmly to the rule by a Catholic monarch and thus most probably reverse the Protestant reforms then in place for more than a century.
That was too much for many leading Protestants, and James was quickly overthrown. His Protestant daughter, Mary, and her Dutch Calvinist husband, William, were installed in his place. In 1701, Parliament passed the Act of Settlement, which prevented Catholics or anyone married to a Catholic to from ascending to the throne (though in 2013 the prohibition against Catholic spouses was removed). While the question of a Protestant now seemed settled, the rights and place in society of Catholics and other dissenters in England (and after 1707, Great Britain) remained a vexing problem for successive monarchs even as they began to yield power to parliaments and their prime ministers as time went on.
For some time in the Vatican, Queen Elizabeth II was known as the “last Christian monarch.” Only time will tell if that assessment was accurate.
Public and private issues on the question of religion came to a head during the reign of King George III, when in 1785 his son and heir, the Prince of Wales, secretly married a Catholic woman with whom he had fallen madly in love. If or when this was made public, not only would this have disbarred him from the throne, it would have also caused a political disaster for his father. As it turned out, the marriage foundered due mostly to the prince’s womanizing, drinking and lavish spending, and he eventually married a Protestant.
A few years before this secret marriage, the king had supported the easing of some restrictions on Catholics, largely to enlist more soldiers to fight against the Americans in their War of Independence. This did not endear George to his more stalwart Protestant subjects, and news of his son’s marriage to a Catholic would have made an already difficult situation worse. Upon his father’s death in 1820, the prince became King George IV, and while he once was in love with a Catholic, his attitude toward Catholicism afterward proved far less amicable. It would take the political genius of great British statesmen such as Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington to convince him to sign the Catholic Relief Act of 1829, which removed many historic penalties against Catholics which prevented them from fully participating in the political and social life of the nation, as he feared this violation of his coronation oath.
As Charles settles into his new role, the future viability of the monarch as head of state as well as its relationship to the Anglican Church will be in his hands.
As the book’s subtitle suggests, Pepinster devotes the last half of her study to this important and timely topic of “the Next Coronation.” She begins by taking a close look at religion in the public and private life of Elizabeth II. At her coronation, the new queen promised “to maintain the Protestant Reformed Religion to her utmost power.” But as the years went on, it became clear that the queen’s commitment to her Christian faith was more important than her commitment to the Anglican Church.
According to the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, it was Elizabeth who finally and definitively broke the centuries-old rivalry between the crown and the papacy. As monarch, she met five popes, and welcomed two to Great Britain (John Paul II in 1982 and Benedict XVI in 2010) even in the face of firm opposition from some Protestants, particularly before the first papal visit.
While the queen’s regard for Catholics was genuine, it had its limits. Ever conscious of the oaths she made at her coronation, she attended Mass only once (for the funeral of the Belgian king in 1993) and on another occasion thwarted plans for then-Prince Charles to attend Mass with John Paul II in his private chapel in the Vatican. Despite her many genuine overtures to Catholics, for the Supreme Governor of the Church of England (or the one next in line), to attend Mass seemed a bridge too far.
Similar to his father, Prince Philip, King Charles III has long demonstrated an intellectual curiosity about Christianity as well as other religions, particularly Islam, and an openness to an updated understanding of what it means to be “Defender of the Faith.” But when he said in a 1994 interview that the time may soon come for the monarch to be seen as the “defender of faith” (against a rising tide of atheism), there was a strong negative reaction by some, principally within the Anglican Church. Since then, Charles has backed away from this sentiment, though his interest in interreligious dialogue has remained strong. As Charles settles into his new role, the future viability of the monarch as head of state as well as its relationship to the Anglican Church will be in his hands.
For some time in the Vatican, Queen Elizabeth II was known as the “last Christian monarch.” Only time will tell if that assessment was accurate not only for the recent past but also for the future of the British monarchy. And in her new book, Catherine Pepinster has delivered a tour de force to examine these weighty questions.
Correction, May 8, 2023: The relation between James and Mary was corrected, as well as the name of the Archbishop of Canterbury during Elizabeth I's reign.