Father Richard Barrett answers readers' questions
As AN ANGLICAN reader of your paper I have often been struck by the different version of reformation history which it offers. I was also shocked at your somewhat negative portrayal of the revered reformer Martin Luther. When I was at school we were taught that Henry VIII's reform of the Church was necessary because of widespread abuses in the Church. Isn't this the way the matter is still seen today among historians?
WRILE ROWING to Windsor bridge recently with Tempora, a model who is studying history at the moment, this precise question cropped up after T had announced that Eton College was founded under one of Henry VIII's holier predecessors, Henry VI, in honour of Our Lady. The mention of holiness and Henry VIII in the same breath rather surprised Tempora who is a product of a much less roseate view of the Henriclan schism, as it should really be called, than the one aired by the reader. The reader's version, much touted in secondary school history lessons up and down the country since the day Henry VIII threw Becket's bones into the same river, may be regarded as an exercise in The Ladybird Guide to Nice but Misunderstood Kings.
Needless to say, neither I nor Tempora found the AG Dickens' apologia pro rege, very convincing too much rationalisation of too
few facts. We stopped above the bridge, tied up, and proceeded up the bank and around the keep to Windsor Castle, and into the Chapel of St George, where Henry VIII's bones apparently lie under a brass plaque in the choir. Tempura turned and said: "I think it had nothing to do with women he was really after the money and the lands of the monasteries."
I suggested that getting the royal hands on Cardinal Wolsey's prettier palaces could well have been a part of the story. But, it does no harm to recall that Henry had begun his reign as a rare phenomenon, the theol ogianking, and even attacked the reader's "revered reformer" in his first theological opus, the Assertio septem sacramentorum (1521).
Thomas More in fact denied writing A Pleading for the Seven Sacraments for the precocious Henry and sonic historians believe Fisher had more than a hand in it. Still Henry was a theologian-king and its style and argument were not beyond his reach. Maybe he felt this text justified his proclaiming himself head of the Church in this country (caput supremum ecclesiae). By this time, however, one little feature of Classical Christianity, over which Becket had strenuously fought Henry II, had become a serious inconvenience, the reservation of marriage cases involving sovereigns and other high office holders to the Court of St Peter. The idea was then and remains so today to
protect local tribunal personnel from bribery and threat. Tempora thought this made a lot of sense and chirped up: "So Henry's reformation was really about overcoming a safeguard against judicial corruption?"
"Among other things, yes, my dear," I confirmed. With the spoliation of the monasteries, the King's Visitors found any reason to confiscate their resources. Unfortunately their actions dismantled England's first welfare state, for the monasteries went where no king had been before, into the hovels and stripfarms of the poor.
Tempora added, much to my surprise, that in her history course Eamon Duffy's Stripping of the Altars is now required reading: "It clearly shows that the Church in this country was in pretty good shape," she whispered within the hearing of a verger.
I suggested she also try Rex, Haigh, Scarisbrick. Harper-Bill, Hutchinson, Shaw, even Collinson and of course John Bossy, all of whom question the value of the Reformation. Haigh and Collinson are not Catholics. Haigh and Duffy identify England as a jewel in the crown of Christian Europe not just because its cathedrals rivalled those of Italy (until the King's luddites got going around 1541) but also because the rank and file clergy did their job quite faithfully instructing the young, preaching sermonettes on the creed and commandments, explaining the Gospels and encouraging the piety of the faithful through frequent Massattendance and the popular passion play.
"It was all in Latin" is now the stuff of Ladybird history lessons. So too the conspiracy theory of a literate clergy keeping the people in the dark and pouring compost over them, another myth of Ladybird historiography.
Also a myth is the old chestnut of ribald monks running drunken orgies
in the cloister. There were 30 monasteries of the period shut down, by Wolsey, and this for financial efficiency. So the Church itself exercised the functions of vigilance it did not need a couple of avaricious knights riding around cloisters screaming: -Where's the collection, Reverend Mother!"
THE REAL significance of Henry's schism lay in his actions at Canterbury Cathedral, where he ordered the destruction of the greatest and most popular shrine to a bishop in Europe. the tomb of Thomas a Becket.
This was the first and the most telling act of the king's schism and it tells us that his was no renewal of a jewel-encrusted Church but the calculated control of spiritual freedom.
Like the panting Sheriff of Nottingham in the film Prince of Thieves, Henry was not interested in honourable marriage with the Church but in a rape a fact which most of the bishops realised only on their death beds.
Fisher and More stood out from their generation because they were both lawyers who could see beyond their own pensions. Eventually the schism under Henry became a reformation under Elizabeth. Elizabethan Britain came to take its inspiration not from a bilious German friar with a penchant for lavatory humour but from the much more alarming Calvin and his puritanesque Geneva.
The result? Wholesale vandalism the scarring of chisels can still be seen around the sorry walls of our churches and cathedrals. Classical Christians, finally, would not presume to play the reformer of course without some attendant sanctity "I will make all things new," remains the prerogative of Christ not of avaricious monarchs or intemperate friars. The reader did ask for history hagiography of course is for saints.