Sunday, 14 January 2018


Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, SURVIVED, BUT ONLY JUST !

     When the chronicle of Henry VIII's ill-used wives is related, the one who gets little mention is Catherine Parr. In the popular imagination she often features as an unglamorous coda, a dowdy middle-aged nursemaid who - patiently and uncomplaining - tended the sick and corpulent tyrant through his last few years. In fact she was only 30 or 31 when she married the king. She was a passionate woman who understood - and used - the arts of sexual allure. She was feisty, knew her own mind and wrote about the things that were important to her (the first Englishwoman to do so under her own name). Through her writing and through the considerable influence she had on Henry VIII's children her beliefs and ideals long outlived her. As late as the eighteenth century the narrative of her own conversion was being quoted in evangelical circles. Catherine was prominent among a coterie of female intellectuals and religious devotees that included Marguerite of Navarre, Margaret More, Catherine Brandon, and Anne Bacon, among others. As such she had a greater impact (and thus is more important to history) than the more 'romantic' of the second Tudor's unfortunate bedfellows. Not that her position was any less fraught with potential danger than theirs. In 1546 she survived execution - BUT ONLY JUST.

     And this is where the other remarkable woman enters the story. Like Catherine, Anne Askew belonged to that 'middle class' of English society, the rural squirearchy. Her family was just one of the many that central government relied on to maintain law and order in the shires. Anne had relatives and friends in the royal court but, unlike Catherine, she was not destined for the glamorous life of a lady-in-waiting to one of Henry's queens. But she refused to be debarred from the exciting world of new ideas swirling around among the fashionable set in Renaissance and Reformation England. She could - and did - read avidly, opening her mind to unorthodox concepts. Somehow, this Lincolnshire maiden who should have had nothing more adventurous to contemplate than marriage to some neighbouring gentleman's son and a life of conventional domesticity carved a place for herself in the nation's history.  Married Anne was - but not for long. Her husband, Thomas Kyme, was not, as far as we know, a cruel man but he tried to inhibit the free spirit he had married. It was not her place, he insisted, to go around PREACHING, particularly when what she was broadcasting to any who would listen was heresy. When the tension reached breaking point Anne chose obedience to God - as she saw it - to obedience to her husband. She continued, and extended her scandalous 'gospelling', eventually ending up in London. There she associated with like-minded people of the capital and the court. There she was investigated for heresy. There she stood up for her beliefs when challenged even by the Bishop of London and members of the royal Council. There she was interrogated, tortured and condemned to death by burning. There she, like the queen, ventured into print, smuggling out accounts of her faith and her personal story which would eventually find their way into John Foxe's Book of Martyrs and become an inspiration to countless readers down the centuries.

     And this was where the stories of these two quite extraordinary women converged in a dramatic and historic crisis. The enemies of reform were determined to remove wife number six from the royal bedchamber, and the Stalinesque tyrant who, by this stage, trusted no-one, was not averse to having Catherine's 'heresies' pointed out to him. Anne Askew was the chief weapon in the plotters' arsenal. If they could prove the link between a convicted heretic and the Queen of England they could halt Reformation in its tracks. It was a technique that had worked before when they wanted rid of influential enemies. But they reckoned without the determination of Anne and the ingenuity of Catherine. What happened was ...

The Queen and the Heretic will be published on 23 March and advance orders may be placed now.

Monday, 23 October 2017

95 THESES - So What?

One of the multitudinous uses to which people put the internet is to remind us of significant anniversaries - births, deaths, battles, treaties, etc., etc. Fine - but that word 'significant' does need unpacking. It might reflect the passion of the person who posts it. So, for example, someone emotionally engaged with the tragic life of Anne Boleyn might want to flag up 19 May every year so that we don't forget her death. Someone else - a devotee of Richard III or the Tudor regime - might want us to reflect on 22 August, when (in 1485) the Battle of Bosworth change England's royal dynasty. A campaigner for press freedom might want us never to forget that 1 January marks the birth of The Times newspaper (1785). We can all use dates as pegs on which to hang our own pet historical subjects. What no serious history buff would do, I hope, is to claim that all the anniversaries we mark are equally significant. One factor that influences our assessment of significance is the extent to which the events we choose to mark in the calendar resonate with our own contemporary culture. One anniversary almost upon us is Reformation 500. On 31 October 1517 Martin Luther openly declared his opposition to certain doctrines held by the Roman Catholic church. Well, how yawn-provoking is that? Who nowadays, in our secular age, cares a jot about Luther's protest against indulgences - assuming that he/she even knows what indulgences were?

Well, my argument for remembering 31 October 1517 arises immediately from that last sentence: the very fact that we are free to believe or not believe derives directly from Luther's challenge. Or to be more precise it stems from his identifying of a scepticism that was widespread but which no-one else had the courage (or effrontery) to express. Europe, in both its political and religious aspects, was government by autocrats working through hierarchies of power. In practical, everyday terms there was little difference between the rulers of church and state. The pope through his supporting cast of cardinals, bishops and abbots laid down Christendom's moral and theological rules and maintained ecclesiastical courts to enforce them. The Holy Roman Emperor and Europe's kings, princes and nobles controlled the civic lives of their subjects. By and large, it paid for the spiritual and temporal authorities to work in tandem. Cardinals' hats were distributed to members of prominent families. Kings negotiated such issues as the right to appoint bishops. All men in positions of authority shared a common fear - rebellion. 

When established powerful elites maintain themselves by controlling people's minds and crushing dissidents, they can get away with it for so long. In the late medieval period the Catholic machine dealt pretty effectively with Waldensians, Hussites, Wycliffites and other heretical groups who presumed to challenge official doctrine. Ordinary folk tempted to question the Church's lexis or praxis were held in check, not only by the temporal power of the papal hierarchy, but by its spiritual authority: step out of line and you would pay, in the next world, a horrible price for your presumption. But, ultimately, totalitarian regimes collapse under the weight of their own inconsistencies.

In Rome corruption had become an art form. The man wearing the shoes of the fisherman presided over a regime marked by territorial ambition and the pursuit of power and wealth, which employed intrigue, simony, nepotism, bribery, war and murder as its modi operandi. But you didn't have to go to Italy to be aware of the mismatch between the message of the Christian gospel and the lives of many who were supposed to represent it. The forthright Yorkshire shearman who asserted that he would not confess to a priest his seduction of a fair woman, 'for the priest would be as ready within two or three days to use her in the same manner', struck a common chord with many. Scepticism and cynicism were rife at all levels of society by the turn of the 16th century, from the outspoken villager, to the writers of such exposés as The Ship of Fools (Sebastian Brant) and In Praise of Folly (Desiderius Erasmus), to genuinely concerned churchmen like John Colet, Dean of St Paul's, who castigated his fellow clergy for being 'drowned in the delights of this world'. Yet, few men dared to challenge the pope and his minions as long as they were believed to hold the keys of heaven and hell.

On 31 October 1517 Martin Luther proclaimed, 'They don't'. His 95 Theses yanked the rug from under Catholic penitential ritual. He exposed the system of 'indulgences' for the money-making fraud that it was. Gullible people, he pointed out, could not improve their chances of reaching heaven by buying certificates offering reduction of the time their souls must spend in purgatory. What God had on offer, he declared, was free forgiveness to those who expressed their love for him by real repentance - i.e. a change of heart. He was soon backing this up with a new German translation of the Bible. Within a decade other vernacular versions of the Christian basic text were available all over Europe. Now people could read for themselves what the Church had on offer and decide whether or not to buy into it.

If freedom of choice in such a vital matter as eternal destiny was available, why might not such liberty be exercised in relation to lesser decisions in the mere here-and-now? The door was open, admittedly only ajar but open nevertheless, for the exercise of freedom in other areas of life - politics, social relationships, art, literature, morality. Martin Luther didn't invent individualism but, on 31 October 1517 it may be said to have come of age. That's why, whether we are 'religious' or not, this date is worth celebrating.
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Wednesday, 13 September 2017


In 1534 Henry VIII exited England from Europe - that is he severed the nation's links with Western Christendom by declaring that he, and not the pope, was Head of the Church in England. He didn't hold a referendum to consult his subjects' wishes. But that doesn't mean that he didn't care what they thought or that he took no steps to gain popular support. He knew he could count on widespread resentment at the Catholic ecclesiastical bureaucracy, its financial exactions and its interference in the lives of his people right down to parish level. Even so, he and his team of tame academics left nothing to chance. They cobbled together proof texts from any old manuscripts they could find and then put their own gloss on them (the mishmash of truths, half-truths and lies was called the collectanea satis copiosa). They bombarded the literate population with pamphlets and put up charismatic preachers in pulpits all over the land to stir up nationalistic sentiment. They bought the support of many of the nobility and landed gentry with promises of financial reward from the soon-to-be-confiscated lands of the Church. And they pushed their campaign through parliament in a series of statutes that took seven years to complete the divorce process. Yet, after all this effort, the result was a damned close thing. Within months the northern counties rose against Henry's religious policy and put an army of 40,000 in the field, which the king only managed to disperse with false promises and duplicity. When calm was restored over 200 rebels were left hanging from gibbets and church towers. But it was worth it to tell Johnny Foreigner where to get off.

All this was done for the good of the country. Anyone who still thinks that it happened so that Henry VIII could ditch his first wife and marry a younger bit of stuff who had caught his fancy does old Bluff King Hal a great disservice. England needed stable government and that meant a male heir to continue the Tudor dynasty. If, in the process, Henry became the richest king in Christendom, well that was just a bonus. Anyway, he needed the money. His policies had not gone down well with the major continental powers, France and the Holy Roman Empire (egged on, of course, by pestilential popes). That meant that the king had to spend all the lovely lolly from England's biggest ever act of nationalisation, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, on extensive coastal fortifications and a large permanent navy.

Still, he had made his point, hadn't he? Thanks to his hard exit from the Catholic fold, England was by the end of his reign, a proud, strong, united independent nation, able to look forward to a bright and prosperous future. Well, perhaps, not quite. One of his own ministers grumbled 'We are at war with France and Scotland, we are at odds with the pope and have no assured friendship with the Emperor ... Our war (Oh yes, I forgot to mention that Henry launched a futile invasion of France which cost many lives and gained nothing) is noisome to our realm and to all our merchants that traffic through the Narrow Seas ... We are in a world where reason and learning prevail not.' He might have added 'and we are stony broke', because Henry had been forced to subject his people to crippling taxation and had promoted hyperinflation by debasing the coinage.

But it was all worth it to establish a united Protestant nation with its own identity. Er ... well, Henry had discovered, much to his surprise, that his subjects wouldn't believe what he told them to believe. Some hankered after the old religion. Some embraced the new. Some even wanted to go further along the Protestant route. From top to bottom the kingdom was bitterly divided. Some say Henry lamented the state of the nation to parliament with tears in his eyes. Perhaps some well-chosen executions of prominent Catholics and Protestants would make the king's subjects realise what side their bread was buttered on. Nope, English men and women began to emigrate to escape persecution.

All this had a long, a very long aftermath. Edward VI pushed Reformation further. Results: trashed churches, popular rebellions, and top men jostling for power, more executions, Catholics fleeing abroad. Mary Tudor tried to put the clock back. Results: just under 300 Protestants burned at the stake, many Protestants emigrating, Henry's laws revoked, England tied into an unpopular Spanish alliance. Elizabeth I attempted a settlement. Results: many Catholics executed as traitors, many more continuing to worship in secret, England dragged into war with Spain, severe laws against Catholics. So it went on in this hopelessly divided kingdom. A hundred years after Henry activated his exit strategy England was embroiled in civil war.

Still it all turned out alright in the end, didn't it? We eventually came together as one united, happy nation when Catholics were restored to full citizenship once 1829. 

How comforting it is to know that history doesn't repeat itself.