Thursday, June 22, 2017
A short note on the feast-day of the martyr-saints John Fisher and Thomas More: I believe that the spiritual biography of Henry VIII has yet to be written, and may never be. There are a number of good secular and political biographies, and those are important and worthy. To understand the deep tap-roots of Henry's part in the English reformation, however, would in my view require a treatment of his spiritual degeneration. Perhaps syphilis and kingship and the Tudor character explain it all. Perhaps, however, something worse was at work.
Consider the nature of Henry's rage. When Paul III made Bishop John Fisher a Cardinal, seeking to protect him -- what decent Christian would lay hands on a Prince of the Church? -- the effect was the opposite of the intention. As the Catholic Encyclopedia recounts, "Henry forbade the Cardinal's hat to be brought into England, declaring that he would send the head to Rome instead." Who, or perhaps I should say what, could speak with such flippancy and relish of beheading a venerable priest? Who or what is so wicked and yet so childish?
Another example: I remember vividly a tour of Christchurch Priory in Dorset, the former domain of the Countess of Salisbury, a peeress in her own right, relative of kings and the last of the great Plantagenets. She is perhaps better known to Catholics as the Blessed Margaret Pole, gruesomely martyred by Henry in the Tower for refusing to abjure her son, Cardinal Reginald Pole, the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury. (I do not say "for the crime of refusing to abjure" because Henry in his urgency bypassed regular judicial procedure). The Countess was seventy years old, was hacked to death, and was buried in the Tower graveyard because Henry refused to allow her to be buried in her own chantry chapel at Christchurch Priory. Who or what could be so bitterly vengeful against an old lady, whose great fault was to be a faithful and loving mother?
Indeed, our tour guide at Christchurch Priory showed us the Countess' partially despoiled chantry chapel, and recounted -- English localities have very long memories indeed -- that Henry's men had come with specific orders to deface the decorations within the chapel, even the ones not visible from the ground. (The tale is confirmed by a letter from the King's Commissioner). Who or what would care to deface what is visible only to God? "What rough beast, its hour come round at last..."
The spiritual biography of Henry, then, would have to comprehend the nature and source of the malevolent rage that consumed him. A model might be Patricia Snow's explanation for the cold gleeful fury at the heart of Hilary Mantel -- and the Culprit might well turn out to be the same in both cases.