“the risk of a despotism freed from every fetter”

The other day I stood at the place where King Henry VIII was born.  I recall the exhibit at the British Library a couple years back for the centenary of the coronation of that King.  On the way into the exhibit a blurb on the wall described him as a “monster”.   Among the items in the exhibit were Cromwell’s list of things-to-do (More’s and Fisher’s names were checked off) and St. Thomas More’s final letter to the King about to have him beheaded.  St. Thomas wrote:

‘I shold onys mete with your Grace agayn in hevyn, and there be mery with you.’

At American Catholic I spotted this quote from Winston Churchill:

Here are the words of Sir Winston Churchill on More:

“The resistance of More and Fisher to the royal supremacy in Church government was a heroic stand. They realised the defects of the existing Catholic system, but they hated and feared the aggressive nationalism which was destroying the unity of Christendom. They saw that the break with Rome carried with it the risk of a despotism freed from every fetter. More stood forth as the defender of all that was finest in the medieval outlook. He represents to history its universality, its belief in spiritual values, and its instinctive sense of otherworldliness. Henry VIII with cruel axe decapitated not only a wise and gifted counselor, but a system which, though it had failed to live up to its ideals in practice, had for long furnished mankind with its brightest dreams.”

A nice little montage was posted over there, by the way, made of clips from The Tudors, a dreadful show in some few but important respects, but in the balance pretty fair to the Church.  I am guessing that since it was made in Ireland, the makers hated the Henry and the English more than the Church, so they treated the Church pretty well.  The depiction of Sts. Thomas and John Fisher were very good.

I am digressing.  Montage…


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. SemiSpook says:

    Right on with the Tudors, Father! My wife and I watched the entirety of the series on Netflix recently, and while some things I could rather have done without (no need to rehash the obvious), it did portray the Church in a fairly neutral to favorable light. I think part of that was due to the political intrigue of the day, where Charles V controlled Rome, and the King of England wanted to annul his marriage to Charles’ aunt, Catherine of Aragon. That, combined with the fact that the marriage already had another Indult upon it (with the death of Arthur Tudor in 1509), Rome wasn’t going to rock the boat over Henry’s desires, given his defense of the Church against Luther and his support of Rome. When they portrayed the split and then went into the eventual execution of Anne Boleyn, I turned to my wife and said, “Was that really worth it?”

    Absolutely loved the portrayal of St. Thomas More, as well, though I still prefer “A Man For All Seasons” as the quintessential media on him.

  2. Mariana says:

    Love St. Thomas More, what a gracious man!

  3. Supertradmum says:

    The Anglicans are bipolar about Henry VIII. He destroyed the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham by sending in his thugs to burn the Augustinian Priory and, also, the Franciscan Friary in Little Walsingham. Both are still in private hands, but not the same families who got them for a song in order for Henry to pay his debts for wars abroad. (By the way, all the families who either were given, stole, or bought cheaply the monastic and church lands all eventually died out on the male side). Henry VIII is amazingly in the window of St. Mary and All Saints, the beautiful, Anglican parish church in Little Walsingham. I asked someone why he was in the window, created after the fire in the 1961, exactly forty years ago, and I was told, “because other kings who visited the original shrine are there in the window.” Duh. The man responsible for destroying the original shrine is in the church in glory, a church, which was Catholic and is now Anglican. One can hardly get one’s head around the incongruities. (St., I wish) Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn both visited the shrine. Poor Anne was the reason for the destruction, really, as Henry’s temper tantrum at the Church for not accepting the marriage caused the storm, which swept through England.

  4. pewpew says:

    Does anyone know what “onys” means? I’m sorry for the silly question, I’m dutch.

  5. Paul says:

    I believe “onys” would be written “only” in modern usage.

  6. For a very good history of the Tudor dynasty, I highly recommend The Tudors by Gerald Meyer. This book, which was published in 2010, HAS ZERO RELATION with the HBO series of the same name. It is both wonderfully researched and wonderfully written. We published a review of it, by Dale Ahlquist, in Gilbert Magazine last year, which I will happy post on our website (www.chesterton.org). I promoted the book last December, here: http://www.chesterton.org/wordpress/2010/12/new-book-on-the-tudor-dynasty/

    And I agree with Supertradmum, above: Catherine of Aragon’s Cause should be opened.

  7. AnAmericanMother says:

    We would say, “I shold onys agayn mete with your Grace in hevyn, and there be mery with you.” — “I should once again meet with your Grace in heaven, and there be merry with you.”
    The rhythmic balance is better in the original, but it sounds strange to our ears.
    C. S. Lewis notes More’s “rightful place as a major English author” – he rates a lengthy section in Lewis’s volume of the Oxford History of English Literature, with many quotes and examples (“ensaumples” he would say). As always, Lewis is brutally frank in his judgments – although to be hammered by Lewis is almost a compliment that he took notice of you in the first place –

    We think of More, and rightly, as a humanist and a saintly man. On the one hand, he is the writer of the Utopia, the friend of Erasmus, the man whose house became a sort of academy. On the other, he is the man who wanted to be a Carthusian, who used a log of wood for his bolster and wore the hair, the martyr who by high example refused the wine offered him on his way to execution. The literary tragedy is that neither of these sides to his character found nearly such perfect expression in his writings as they deserved. . . . What is actually expressed in most of his work is a third More, out of whom both the saint and the humanist have been made and with whom (that is both his glory and his limitation) they never lose touch — the Tudor Londoner of the citizen class. However high he rises he remains unmistakably rooted in a world of fat, burgher laughter, contentedly acclaiming well-seasoned jokes about shrewish wives or knavish servants, contemptuous of airs and graces and of what it thinks unnecessary subtleties; a world not lacking in shrewdness, courage, kindness, or honesty, but without fineness. No man even half so wise and good as Thomas More ever showed so little trace of the cuor gentil. There is nothing at all in him which, if further developed, could possibly lead on to the graces of Elizabethan and Jacobean literature. It might have led to things which some would prefer, but very different things.

    English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (excluding Drama) – p. 181
    It’s a great read and worth getting – a master in full cry.

  8. Helena Augusta says:

    Shrewd perceptions from Lewis, and more than a little condescension, perhaps.

    I thought the The Tudors was mostly awful, with the gratuitous female nudity characteristic of cable TV, which exposed a good deal of non-sixteenth century body waxing, and it twisted history in rather amusing ways. It was also harder to maintain interest after Sam Neill as Wolsey and Maria Doyle Kennedy as Katharine of Aragon were out of the picture.

    On the plus side, I was pleased with the generous screen time given to Aske and the Pilgrimage of Grace and its terrible aftermath – a first for television or film, as far as I’m aware.

    The old BBC “Six Wives” series with Keith Michell’s magnificent Henry was also generally sympathetic to the Catholic and conservative point of view – in fact, as I remember it was harsher than The Tudors, with Cromwell and Cranmer depicted as scheming time-servers and Anne Boleyn as a vicious shrew. Still, it’s a much better show, more loyal to the known facts and far better acted, although viewers accustomed to a more active camera and less dialogue may find it talky and static.

  9. Matthew the Publican says:

    The Tudors was one of the more accurate portrayals of the English Reformation showing that neither the Catholics or the Protestants were happy, and the only actual “Anglican” in the land seemed to be Henry himself. It also spent a good time more dealing with Bp. Stephen Gardiner, a man oft forgotten and eventually redeemed under Mary Tudor’s reign. Gardiner made the mistake of so many thinking that one can be a Catholic apart from the Church. He realized his folly later on.

    I took St. Thomas More as my patron upon my entrance into the Church from Anglicanism.

  10. ContraMundum says:

    “Onys” is definitely “once”. Spelling was not nearly as uniform then as it recently was. (I started to say “is now”, but then I remembered the generation growing up now with Twitter and texting, and I had to reconsider that.)

  11. Charles E Flynn says:

    In some comboxes, you can get into a bit of trouble for referring to Henry VIII as a serial wife murderer. This puzzles me, because he murdered his wives, serially. I suppose one could argue that the wives were not murdered, but lawfully executed by the state, but I doubt the wives would find that persuasive.

  12. jaykay says:

    Well, it was filmed in Ireland (a lot of things have been over the years, as we have pretty generous grants etc. to encourage this) but otherwise there was no Irish connection at all, in terms of financing, direction etc. I think it’s actually a Canadian production. So any sympathetic portrayal of the Church doesn’t come from any Irish influence. If anything, a native Irish production would have been more likely to have produced a gross travesty of the Church, given current opinion among what passes for our literati and media “elite” over here.

  13. mike cliffson says:

    I mistrust ANY TV or other production on Henery Tudor and his bastards which in any way humanizes them and makes one feel one would like to have them to tea. Godsend I get to heaven myself, and as Saint Thomas says , meet them merrily there , but, until then, spare me the glossing over of mass murder of whole villages , the burnings of whole libraries ( Ok Oxford university’s was burnt in his son’s name), the slaughter of maybe 100thousand innocents , perhaps one person in twnety or so…, let alone the fruits echoing to our day.

  14. irishgirl says:

    St. Thomas More is the patron of our little TLM chapel! He’s one of my favorite Saints!
    I’ve never seen The Tudors-don’t have TV, let alone cable-but I have seen the old ‘Six Wives of Henry VIII’, starring Keith Michell. He did a remake of the same series, which I saw on YouTube. It was done on film rather than on tape, as the original series was.
    I’ve been to the Tower of London, but was not able to see the Bell Tower, where More was imprisoned. However, I have heard that his cell is now open and can be visited.
    On my first visit to Canterbury in 1987, I went to St. Dunstan’s Anglican Church, where tradition says that St. Thomas More’s skull is buried, in the Roper vault with his daughter Margaret and her husband William Roper. I took pictures of the glorious stained-glass windows which depicted More and scenes of his life.

  15. AnAmericanMother says:

    Helena Augusta,
    That was one of Lewis’s kinder opinions. He likes More. You should see him take off after John Studley or one of the minor pamphleteers of what he calls “the Drab Age”.
    I think what modern Americans (with their history of egalitarianism plus the horrid levelling that has taken place in academia) think of as “condescending” is actually just a professor called upon to sit in judgment on the merits of literature . . . and doing exactly that. Lewis does it memorably and with style. And when he praises highly (as with several of the Scots poets that are often overlooked in 16th c. anthologies) it’s like a trumpet fanfare (and you know he means it).
    Not a book you can devour at one or even ten sittings — but it will last you a long time.

  16. Charlotte Allen says:

    I have a question for Fr. Z and any commenters who might have the information: Has the Benedictine nun Elizabeth Barton (the “Maid of Kent”) been canonized? It was onto her bill of attainder that the names of John Fisher and Thomas More were attached. I did a little Google research on her but was unable to determine whether she, clearly one of Henry VIII’s martyrs and a courageous and outspoken opponent of Henry’s divorce from Katharine of Aragon, was ever officially made a saint. She died on Tyburn Hill, and as she was a commoner, the form of execution was probably ghastly.

  17. jaykay says:

    mike cliffson: not forgetting, of course, that Queen Mary (much traduced by Foxe and his pernicious tribe) wasn’t actually a bastard :)

  18. mike cliffson says:

    Exactly : Mary was legit, not a bastard.Ive had abellyful of pro henry -8- and- his- bastards apologetics, and antiMary propaganda. I don’t know about canonization, but there is no doubt her mother , Catherine was a good, cheerful faithful catholic wife, and queen, who was separated cruelly from her daughter(who nonetheles kept her faith). Perhaps a bit too worldly gungho for sainthood : some time before Anne and Anglicanism came on the scene: hubby was abroad at war (quite right, the best place to defend yourself is on somene else’s real estate, forward defence, Parliament is usually happy to fund that- for a while-,but he’d gone ott on resource assignment) not very sucessfully, and the sneaky French, it really wasn’t cricket, stirred the Scots up, with free weapons and French officers, into invading the North. Queen Cath on regent duty back home, with parliament. Problem: hubby had emptied the kingdom of trained fighting men, war horses, and arms. Cath threw together, and trogged north with, a hastily imptrovised grandads’ army of hobbling veterans and beardless callow youths, armed and mounted anyhow, led on the field by the 80yroldlord marshall, still full of piss and vinegar apparently , and inspired them to fight -and win!
    That later she never even considered defending herself from her husband except at alegal minimum of maintaining her true marriage doesn’t mean she was the modern idea of a medieval female catholic wimp and COULDNT have: she had the form, she had the connects, she had the military and popular support : she just thought it would be wrong. That restraint was surely heroic sanctity, imitable by by any catholic spouse being divorced today.

  19. Helena Augusta says:

    Henry was more than a little worried that Katharine would lead a rebellion against him. She formed a kind of loyal opposition, like Aske, but in that time there was no such concept.

    Thank you, AnAmericanMother. I must read all of Lewis’ book and not go by excerpts. I happen to like the Chaucerian warmth of More’s humor, so I bristled a bit.

    Whether Mary was a bastard or not depends on where you’re standing. (My sympathies are entirely with Mary, who had an awful time.) Henry bastardized both his daughters at one time or another and he actually did have a case in canon law in regard to his marriage with Katharine, although he chose to stake his legal fortunes on other arguments.

  20. Supertradmum says:

    There was no canon law problem with Katherine, as her first marriage was not consummated and therefore, easily annulled. Henry married his brother’s widow under these circumstances; the Pope gave the annulment and the marriage was canonically valid. Katherine, in my mind, is a saint and should be canonized, as a great woman of suffering and a model for faithful women who pray for their erring husbands to the day they die.

    As to the Maid of Kent, she was never canonized, as the “visions” were never declared as positively from God, or spiritual, just as today there are numerous visionaries whose visions have not either been affirmed, nor denied, by the Church. More was extremely careful of his dealings with her, as a good lawyer, and a sensible man. In this age of good people racing after literally thousands of visionaries, we should also be rational and cautious.

  21. Helena Augusta says:

    Supertradmum, Julius’ bull addressed the diriment impediment of affinity, but there was another diriment impediment of public honesty that presented itself if the marriage was unconsummated. Later on the two concepts would be merged, but at the time they were separate and quite distinct. Not all commentators think this approach would have worked for Henry, but it was a stronger case in canon law than the one he did choose (and one Clement could have accepted without having to say that Julius had messed up). Henry had his reasons for staying with his chosen path, however.

    So a possible alternate history suggests itself. The marriage is deemed invalid and Henry is free to sire as many male heirs as he can manage and still stay in the Church. Terrible outcome for Katharine, slightly less bad one for Mary, but kings had done such things out of dynastic necessity before. It was the way of the world. Since the English Reformation was very much a top-down affair, you wonder how far the anticlerical movement would have gotten without royal stimulus, and in the end although there is a great deal of religious tumult, England stays Catholic. I’m not saying it would have ended that way, of course.

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