A sadder tale has yet been written, a feuding house whom tear innocence asunder. - Christopher Marlowe - 'Queen Matilda II'
The Wessex War of Religion was, on the surface a simple struggle between those factions in Wessex-Normandy who were Catholic and those who were or sympathised with Lutheranism and wished to overthrow the old order. In this way it was simply a continuation of other religious wars occurring across Europe and Leifia at the time. However its roots really lay in the rivalry between the two branches of the House of Blois; Somerset and Gloucester.
Toward the end of the War of Anglian Succession the future William III led the Anglian army to victory in the Battle of Stafford. William IV of Wessex was fatally wounded and would die a week later. His brother Hugh, became king. However, William's wife Isabella of Leon was pregnant and gave birth to his son, also called William, on Christmas Day. Given the Duchy of Gloucester by his uncle the young and dashing William was almost instantly a lightning rod for Hugh I's dissenters. He was often proclaimed as the rightful king while Hugh's supporters circulated rumours of Isabella's infidelity. Although he appeared not to pay much attention to this himself his son Henry did and slowly gathered an impressive array of informers.
Meanwhile Lutheran ideas were circulating in Britannia. Anglia initially appeared more receptive to them however they did attracted powerful supporters in Wessex and Normandy, mostly amongst nobles happy to undermine the scope of the church in their lands. Hugh II, though eager to halt the spread of Lutheranism used these lords as a counter-point to those allied to Gloucester. This brought him and his brother Edmund V into conflict with Rome which was desperately attempting to bolster defend Catholicism's lines in Europe. The Pope was only too willing to send assistance to the Gloucesterians.
The death of Edmund V in 1566 left his young daughter Matilda II as sole heir to the ruling House of Somerset. Twelve years old, she was placed under the protection of Edmund, Duke of Kent, a known Lutheran sympathiser immersed in his own battle with the weathly Archbishop of Canterbury. For several years the status quo prevailed but the question of Matilda II's marriage would tear apart the peace. Many pragmatists would have her marry into her cousin Henry of Monmouth's family reuniting the two Blois houses. Others favoured the Luxembourgs who would provide a powerful alliance. However it soon became clear that Kent was arranging a marriage with Albert of Brunswick, raising the distinct possibility that Wessex would be ruled by a Lutheran.
Henry of Gloucester's supporters had had enough. Goaded by papal envoys in a feverish May 1568 his supporters unleashed a bloodbath which stripped Kent of his eyes and ears. Finally Matilda was abducted from her manor in Sussex and brought to the Tower of Bristol. The war had begun.
The Early YearsFrom a relatively compact territory Henry of Monmouth, or Henry III as he now styled himself, was surrounded by hostile forces. To the West both Cornwall and South Wales rebelled.
To the north the Duke of Stafford, a Lutheran, was quick to condemn Henry's actions and pledged to destroy the usurper. To the East, Kent took control of London and was building an impressive army. Across the Channel the Norman barons, many of whom were Lutheran, generally sided with Kent though were reluctant to actually supply men and funds.
Henry and Kent clashed at the Battle of Andover on 27th September 1568. The loss of life was 'indescribeable' and many historians regard it as the bloodiest single day battle in history. Some 35,000 are supposed to have died in combat. Both leaders reeled from the horror and retired back to their respective heartlands. Several of Kent's most competant commanders were killed in the action and this possibly explains his cautiousness in later actions.
Stafford spent the first year strengthening his strongholds and reducing various outposts of Gloucester supporters. To the South many Norman barons simply went into open rebellion against Henry.
Execution and MassacreIn the spring of 1570 Henry's court outlawed all Lutherans and began the trial of Matilda. Found guilty of being Lutheran and diseminating heretical tracts she was executed in August.
Henry made a dash for Winchester to be crowned. Caught unawares Kent attempted to meet up with Stafford's forces but was forced into battle at Bicester before the two armies could unite. A messy defeat pushed him back while Henry continued northward to face Stafford.
Although Stafford had a considerable force, supplimented by Welsh and Manx levies he was untested in battle and under heavy cannon bombardment his army collapsed. It would take another three years before all the various rebellions, apart from Kent's were quashed. London fell without much trouble in May 1573. Kent's forces were soon coralled into several fortresses on the Channel coast. While lengthy sieges were started Henry's supporters began to crack down on Lutherans, or suspected Lutherans, within their fiefs leading to a wave of public executions and the notorious massacre of Exeter in which thousands were murdered by a Catholic mob. This on one hand was meant to strengthen Henry's rule at home, but it was also a warning to Normandy. By the time the last of Kent's fortresses fell in 1575 Henry was in complete control of Wessex. However the Norman lords were still in revolt and Kent still controlled the majority of the navy.
Although in open defiance of Henry III the Norman barons had no central figure to rally around. The execution of Matilda had deprived them of a legitimate monarch to support and as such authority splintered. Guy of Jumieges had probably the strongest ancestral claim on the throne but was a marginal figure. Kent controlled the navy but the loss of his fief deprived him of funds and authority. The naval force was engaged and crippled at the Battle of Dieppe in November 1577. Thereafter Henry's forces could land safely on the Norman mainland. The lords initially appeared to have the upper hand, defeating Henry at Montreuil but failed to press home their advantage. By the winter Rouen was under siege, Kent was on his deathbed and several prominent barons had re-embraced Catholicism. On 4th April 1580 the last Norman fortress fell ending the war.
The war effectively eradicated Protestantism from Wessex, as least from the nobility. The Midlands remained prone to lapsing and often the merest hint of repression would lead to families crossing the border into Anglia.
The seat of power in Wessex moved westward reflecting Henry's power base. Although kings were still crowned in Winchester the parliament relocated to Bristol. The war allowed him to essentially tear up the Magna Carta agreement and massively increase royal power and privileges. The anniversary of the execution of Matilda, 17th August, is often used by opponents of the regime as a date of 'national mourning' and a counter-point to the national days officially endorsed by the government.