Religious history

Another particularity of county Kent is that it holds a special place in the whole country's religious transformation, as it was the area where Christian missionaries first arrived from Rome, to convert the native population to what would become a unanimously adopted religion in Europe. Before Christianity, the region was dominated by paganism, which was polytheistic and included a number of deities.

Roman Catholicism

In 597 AD, during the reign of King Ethelbert and Queen Bertha, who was a Christian, a procession of monks arrived in Kent from Rome, setting up the first monastery in England, adjacent to Canterbury, now known as St Augustine's Abbey. It was named after their friar, St Augustine, who later became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. St Augustine's missionary work was intense and resulted in the conversion of a substantial part of the local population, if the reported numbers were accurate. Over the next centuries, a great number of churches and monasteries were built in England and religion became a central part of community life. Nonetheless, it was interconnected with wealth and corruption and the true religious message was inaccessible to the bulk of the population. Paradoxically, masses were often held in Latin, although most of the population attending them was not just unilingual but actually illiterate and could not understand a word. Protestant ideas of reformation then came from 15th century Germany, seeking to depose the clergy and the Vatican of its self-proclaimed divine authority.

The Church of England

The Church of England however did not emerge through popular revolt, but came into being in a rather peculiar manner, as it separated itself from the Vatican due to one individual's mere determination to divorce his wife. After Catherine of Aragon had not produced any male heirs, Henry VIII decided to divorce her in order to marry Ann Boleyn. However, there was a religious impediment to divorce and the Vatican would not grant him one, therefore, in his bid to father a male heir to the throne, Henry VIII went as far as putting the entire Church through a drastic process of reformation, which began in 1530 and lasted several years, until the separation from Rome was accomplished. Henry VIII proclaimed himself head of the Church and could therefore establish completely new rules. Between 1536 and 1541 he ordered the dissolution of all monasteries, mainly aiming to redistribute lands to a newly formed aristocracy whose loyalty he could later count on. The dissolution caused significant changes in Kent, where the oldest monasteries in England were located. Henry VII reformed the Church according to his own desires, eliminating many traits identifying with Catholicism, such as the worshiping of saints and relics, religious imagery and so forth, changes consistent with the Protestant ideology. Henry VIII's reign was followed by his son's, Edward VI, who was a dedicated Protestant and issued a number of laws further instating Protestantism. After his reign came that of Queen Mary I, who immediately restored Catholicism.

The Marian Prosecutions

The reign of Queen Mary I only lasted five years, between 1553 and 1558, yet in such a brief interval she managed to inflict death, torture and terror upon the whole country. After restoring Roman Catholicism and reconnecting with Rome, her relentless and psychopathic persecution of Protestants was not rooted in true Catholic fanaticism as much as it was in her loyalty to her mother's religion and dismay for the religion of Ann Boleyn, who had replaced Catherine of Aragon as Henry VIII's wife. The preferred execution method for heresy was burning people at the stake; it was often preceded by torture and marked one of England's darkest historical periods, if not attaining the superlative in the field. The known number of executions was of 283, which included people from all social categories, indiscriminately targeted for their religious beliefs. Accounts of such executions in Kent include that of miller William Allin and his wife Katherine at Fairmeadow, near Maidstone, along with five other people, in 1557.

The repeated shift between Protestantism and Catholicism

The infamous reign of Queen Mary I was followed by that of her half-sister, Elizabeth I, who once again changed her country's religion to Protestantism. She was not shy of executing people on grounds of heresy either, yet this is often overlooked in education when referring to her reign in order to glorify it as one of England's most prosperous times. Around 30 Catholics were executed for various reasons connected with their religious confession and the most notorious site for that was Tyburn in London. The Middle Ages were intensely religious (in fact, by far more dogmatic than truly religious) and such persecutions kept occurring on a frequent basis. The Stuart dynasty maintained the Church of England, until monarchy was overthrown by Oliver Cromwell through the Civil War (1642 - 1651) and a more rigid form of Protestantism was adopted. Oliver Cromwell's exacerbated dogmatism soon became extremely unpopular as he perceived religion with an intimidating sombreness, which he imposed on all his subjects. He was actually a puritan and suffered from a pathological sense of repression of any telluric need or enjoyment, to the point where he forbade any type of joyful celebration of Christian holidays, including Christmas. He also banned a number of artistic activities, for the same reason. In a sense he considered joy itself to be blasphemous.

Religious tolerance

The restoration of the Stuart dynasty, through Charles II, marked a definite change in law and mentality, through the Act of Toleration in 1689, which stipulated that Protestants who had broken away from the Church of England were free to worship as they chose, therefore eliminating the illegality of dissension, although it was a limited advancement as it did not apply to other faiths. Since then, many religious movements emerged and created followers, sometimes as factions of old faiths, such as the Quakers, Baptists, Methodists, Unitarians and so forth.

Present day

Today, according to the latest statistical data, nearly 75% of Kentish people state they are Christian. Minorities are comprised of Sikh, Muslim, Buddhists, Jewish and Hindu people. Aside from those who opted for mainstream religions there are those who have embraced alternative ones, the rest of the population consisting of agnostics and atheists. Religion and spirituality in general are still confusing subjects for many, faced with the paradoxes of modern life, which does not encourage introspection and meditation. Kent however remains a focal point not only for Christians but also for those with a passion for history. Its many cathedrals, historic churches and abbeys are an acknowledgement of every step of societal development and are valuable to believers and non-believers alike.