A cheery welcome to 29 March 2019 – a date long embroidered on the pillows and silk handkerchiefs of Jacob Rees Mogg and Boris Johnston.
I’m sure we’re all pleased things have worked out so well for them.
Cheeringly there is a precedent for the chaos of Brexit – back in a time when a Catholic, like Mr Rees Mogg, might well have found himself tied to a stake and burned alive. I refer to the sixteenth century and the reign of that most portly of Tudor monarchs, King Henry VIII.
Now Henry, whatever his other failings, undoubtedly had a great affection for the institution of marriage. Connubiality would have been his middle name except that it was too long to fit on the royal seal. Generally, however, the notion of connubiality revolves around a strong affiliation to the same wife. Harry, however, seemed to just like marrying. Maybe he had a weakness for wedding ceremonies or, more likely, he wanted a son and heir and had limited patience with any of his queens who failed to provide same. Either way, he married six times.
There was a mythology in ‘ye olde Englande’ that Henry parted ways with the European Union of its day—the Holy Roman Empire—and the Pope himself, because of his disgust with the abuses and corruption that plagued the Roman Catholic Church and had been highlighted by Martin Luther. These included the sale of indulgences to facilitate entry into heaven for those who could afford them, and a clergy many of whom thought of priestly celibacy as a quaint optional extra.
While the Roman Catholic Church in general, and the Papacy in particular, was desperately in need of reform in the sixteenth century, that was not quite the reason Henry VIII split from Rome, dissolved the monasteries, and established the Church of England. He did it for those most elemental reasons of all, sex and money. Far from having an issue with the Church of Rome his 1521 work Defence of the Seven Sacraments was an anti-Lutheran polemic that supported the supremacy of the Pope and earned him the official title Defender of the Faith. The British monarchy still likes to rub the Vatican’s nose in that one, by keeping it on their coins.
But this was one of those moments where the club chairman makes a staunch case for the team manager and fires him three weeks later. When the Pope of the day, Clement VII, said ‘no, grazie’ to Henry’s request for a divorce from his first wife Catherine, so that he could marry the lovely Anne Boleyn (whom he later beheaded) Henry severed the Roman connection. Clement could consider himself lucky that the severing did not involve his cranium. Henry then declared himself head of the Church of England, with benefits. He set about realising the value of dozens of Catholic monasteries by asset stripping the lot and putting the proceeds into his Post Office savings account. Previously much of the surplus funds from the monasteries had been channelled towards Brussels … sorry, I meant Rome.
Had he split from the Vatican on the basis of a principled campaign against the venality of the 16thcentury church you might expect that he would shelter and support the English followers of Martin Luther. But Protestant reformers suffered just as much under Henry after the so-called ‘English reformation’ as did supporters of Pope Clement (perhaps let’s not call them Clementines).
So, did Henry VIII bring about a principled and morally sound separation from Rome in the 1530s because of rampant sleaze in the upper echelons of the Catholic Church? Sadly not. He took back control, but his motives were rather less exalted. To suggest otherwise is fake history.