Henry VIII: petulant, lustful greedy - but never protestant

It is odd to stand outside Barsham Manor – now owned by a pop star – its brickwork mellow in the sunshine, and to reflect that Henry VIII stood there, taking off his shoes in order that he might walk the two miles to Walsingham in bare feet. In the 1520s England was wholly Catholic - nobody could imagine it being anything else. The visit of the king to the great shrine of Our Lady in Norfolk was something at once impressive and normal – impressive because whatever he did as king, he did in style and the festivities at Barsham and the procession to Walsingham were on a suitably splendid scale, and normal because praying to Our Lady in gratitude or in supplication was something absolutely woven into everyone’s lives, king and commoner alike.

I discovered – while walking barefoot myself along that lane and studying the history – that this Norfolk shrine plays its own tragic part in the Reformation story. Henry had gone there to give thanks for the birth of a son to his wife Catherine. By the time he had got back to London – communications being slower then – the child was already dead. Did he, one wonders, harbour ever afterwards a special grudge against Walsingham? Certainly, along with all the abbeys and priories in England, it came in for savage treatment. In April 1537 the shrine was destroyed, some of the monks paid off and others (who refused submission) were hanged, the statue on which Henry had hung a golden circlet was taken to London and burned by the Thames, at the bottom of Thomas Cromwell’s garden at Chelsea.

The Reformation in England was composed of events that were unique. It was not – despite the message put across by later propaganda – essentially a revolt by the common people against the corruptions of the Church, much less a call for a change to “purer” doctrines. It had its roots in the personal life of the Sovereign – a Sovereign initially wholly dedicated to the Church and to the end a staunch attender at a daily Latin Mass with all the traditional trimmings – and in his petulance, lust, avarice and greed.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the coronation of Henry VIII. His reign marked the greatest single upheaval that Britain has known – because it was a spiritual and cultural upheaval as well as a social and political one. No other single event, not even the industrial revolution of the 19th century, or the two World Wars of the 20th, has had quite the profound impact of the Reformation. We see its effects everywhere – in the way we view history, in the rural landscape with its (often very beautiful!) ruined abbeys, in the way we take for granted the notion of churches of different denominations in our towns and cities.

Certainly, however, the events in England cannot be seen in isolation. In 1534 and 1535 when the king’s “great matter” – his planned annulment of his marriage to Catherine and his marriage to Anne Boleyn – were being played out, it was against a backdrop of ferocious religious ferment in Europe. Martin Luther had been hauled into court in 1518 to defend his arguments on indulgences. In 1521 he wrote his letter to the Pope, von der Freiheit des Christenmenchen, and events were set in train for his excommunication which happened later that year. Despite its title, his famous document was not concerned with freedom as we today would understand it –it no prototype for a United Nations declaration on religious liberty. On the contrary, it is a set of affirmations on what the Church ought to say and believe. It rests on a whole range of ideas – still at that stage being worked out – concerning man, his free will, God’s plans, salvation, punishment, how we obtain God’s mercy, and much more.

But what really resonated with people was not really Luther’s doctrinal ideas – which then and later were confused and not particularly popular. What resonated was a general sense that the Church needed some cleansing. There was corruption and greed. There was an indefinable inability to engage with a changing world.

It is ironic – and a tragedy – that among those who would die as martyrs for the Catholic cause in Britain were leading supporters of authentic reform within the Church. Thomas More, the Chancellor of England, and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, both saw an urgent need for change. Long before he clashed with the king over the latter’s demands for support in abandoning his wife and marrying his mistress, Fisher was pioneering reforms in the education of clergy – he effectively established the Library at the University of Cambridge in a modern form – and in their pastoral training. There are touching accounts of him visiting the sick and dying, showing his priests by practical example how they should minister. Thomas More, as a leading layman, denounced clerical greed and ignorance. Both men died on the scaffold at the Tower of London for opposing the King’s break with Rome.

Henry VIII’s lust and greed ensured that the crucial events of the Reformation in England centred on his own personal needs. Other issues did not emerge until later. He never intended to create a Church of England as it later came to be seen and understood. He always thought of himself as a Catholic, never knew the Book of Common Prayer, would have been baffled by the Protestantism of later generations with teetotalism and Baptist chapels and the Salvation Army.

Henry’s divorces produced tragic children: the mistakes and tragedies of Mary’s reign when she sought to reunite England to the worldwide church and people were cruelly executed for heresy, the tortures and executions of Elizabeth’s reign, the use of the rack and the rope and the dungeon.

Later centuries saw good come out of tragedy: the Protestant denominations born out of confusion and division nevertheless produced men and women who came to know and love Christ and contribute hugely to English history: William Wilberforce, General William Booth, Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Fry. The Catholic Church survived persecution to soar again in the nation’s life, and today no town is without its Catholic church and its (usually much sought after) Catholic schools.

Today we stand on the brink of a new era: ecumenism is taken for granted, there is genuine goodwill between Christians of different denominations, and we face new challenges. Perhaps our biggest problems are lack of deep Christian convictions and of the courage to stand by them in the face of those who seek to deny a place for God in public and community life. But old divisions are no longer running sores. Many Protestants recognise the value of a church structure with some kind of authority. Many Catholics see and admire the vibrant faith of Evangelicals. Henry VIII’s arrogance, lust and greed shaped history in his day, but we can shape the events of today and tomorrow.

Joanna Bogle writes from London.


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