Sunday, 1 October 2017


       If God has given grace to some good women, revealing to them by his
      holy scriptures something holy and good, should they hesitate to write?
                                                                      -  Marie Dentière

It would be difficult to overemphasize the transformative impact of the Bible on sixteenth century European society and, in particular, on the place of women in that society. Invention became the mother of necessity. The movable-type printing press was a conveyor belt rolling out books by the wagon load. Books made reading, once a skill learned by the privileged few, available to the many. Demand encouraged the development of standardised vernacular languages. Men could see in print the words they were accustomed to speaking. It seemed like magic. But even more wondrous were the worlds now opened up to the imagination - romantic legends, tales of chivalry, chronicles, theological treatises, descriptions of newly-visited lands, bestiaries, almanacs, guides to practical husbandry, but, above all, the Bible. Incidents and personalities that had hitherto only been available to most people through occasional sermons, the visits of strolling players and the polychromed images in paint or glass in their churches now became parts of a connected and magnificent narrative - a world-changing narrative. One of the challenges the Bible presented was that of reconsidering the position of women in society. As newly-educated wives and mothers explored the Church's foundation document for themselves they encountered Ruth and Esther and Mary Magdalene. They discovered the important roles played in the Gospel story by members of their own sex. They read the words of St Paul: 'There is now neither male nor female but all are one in Christ Jesus.' And they questioned why a male-dominated hierarchy had kept this information from them. Some of them flouted convention by taking on new roles. I'll be telling the stories of some of these pioneers in the next few posts.

1.  The Writers

                            Fools that we are! to fear the civil law,
                           Popes and kings and city councils,
                           Torture, gibbets and prison fetters.
                           Through such fear we really commit treason.
                           Let us raise our eyes to our (divine) election.
                           We will no longer fear the condemnation
                           That man can pronounce against us ...
                           Believing that man has no power
                           Save that which is allotted him by (God's) will.

This is one of many poems to come from one of the most original minds of the sixteenth century. It's remarkable for several reasons. It was written by a queen. It expressed opinions officially condemned as heretical. And it was published. That last point is the most mould-breaking of all. Women did not presume to have books printed and circulated in their own name. They lacked the wisdom, the scholarship, the imagination for their works to appear beside men's on the bookstalls - everyone knew that. Well, not quite everyone. Certainly not Margaret of Angoulême (1492-1549), sister to Francis I of France and wife to Henry II of Navarre. She presided over the most cultured salon in Renaissance Europe north of the Alps. She gathered around her several of the finest writers and thinkers of the day including François Rabelais, the poet Clément Marot and the Bible translator Jacques Lefêvre d’Étaples. Margaret's own literary output was varied. As well as numerous poems, she wrote a book of risqué stories in the style of the Decameron and a spiritual autobiography The Mirror of the Sinful Soul. Margaret would not have got away with such audacity if she had not been the sister of one of the most powerful men in Europe.

Her initiative opened the way for other women who believed they had something to share with the world. In England Catherine Parr (1513-1548), sixth wife of Henry VIII, not renowned for allowing his womenfolk a meaningful degree of independence, read Margaret's moving apologia and ventured into print herself.  Her published works were the first by an English woman writing under her own name. She wrote psalm commentaries and collections of prayers before she, too, issued a personal confessional - Lamentations of a Sinner

It would be an exaggeration to say that these royal ladies opened the floodgates for female literary endeavour but they certainly encouraged other pioneers. The contemporary Italian noblewoman, and friend of Michelangelo, Vittoria Colonna (1490-1547) did not hesitate to lambaste male leaders of church and state in her poems:

                  When the breath of God that moves above the tide
                  Fans the embers of my smouldering state
                  And the winds of God begin to dissipate
                  The foetid stench of the church, his bride,
                  Then the swaggering knight prepares to ride.
                  The war begins.

Of more humble origin was Marie Dentière (c.1495-c.1561) who came from humbler origins. Two facts make her of special interest: she enjoyed the patronage of Margaret of Navarre and she was a follower of the teaching of John Calvin, whom we do not normally think of as pro-feminist. Marie ventured fearlessly into the realm of political religious controversy. In pamphlets defending Calvin and his origination of the church in Geneva she argued, en passant, for her right to air her opinions and to claim for this right some impressive forebears: 

            What preacheress has done more than the Samaritan woman, 
            who was not ashamed to present Jesus and his word, confessing
            it openly before the world ... Or is anyone other than Mary 
            Magdalene ...  able to boast of having had the first revelation
            of the great mystery of Jesus' resurrection.

And was it a man or woman, she demanded, who had betrayed Jesus to the Jewish authorities? Fighting talk.

Next time:                          Women in Power

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.

Monday, 7 August 2017


I've been asked surprisingly often whether I think Donald Trump is some kind of re-incarnation of Henry VIII. My first reaction is that it's absurd to set the Trump mouse alongside the Tudor lion. My second reaction is that I'm no psychoanalyst, nor do I set much store by psycho-history. However, the nature of tyranny and the rise and fall of despots are certainly subjects grist to the historian's mill. So it may be worth considering whether the antics of the current U.S. president throw any light on those of the 16th century English king, and vice versa.

What 'every schoolboy knows' about Henry VIII is that he had six wives and disposed shamefully of four of them. Trump is only on his third at the moment. There are many reasons for failed sexual relationships but self-love is certainly one of the basics. Henry flaunted his masculinity - in the tiltyard, the tennis court and various displays of athletic prowess. He believed (or, at least, liked others to  believe) that he was no end of a stud. What other message was being conveyed by the best-known painted image of the king, with its thrusting codpiece? Women existed, first and foremost, for his pleasure. Although there was a dynastic purpose behind his marriages, his choices of bride were always based on sex appeal rather than policy. The French king sourly compared Henry to a coper at a horse fair who expected eligible princesses to be paraded before him for his appraisal. Only once, as far as we are aware, did Henry fall in love. His passion for Anne Boleyn is revealed in the oft-quoted love letters he wrote to her. Love involves vulnerability and also seeking the pleasure of the beloved above one's own. That's why egotists are bad at it. There is some evidence that the king was no great performer in bed. One reason for Anne Boleyn's fall was her ill-judged private mockery of her husband's sexual prowess. Trump has made no secret of his attitude towards women. His public references to them have gone beyond adolescent, laddish boasting. If we are to take him at his word, it would seem that sexual relationships exist to provide him with pleasure and boosts to his own self-esteem. Is he, too, a poor lover? I haven't the faintest idea but, as I have suggested, many egotists are.

Henry's ruthlessness extended to his ministers. Few monarchs have been served by more faithful and talented advisers. Wolsey, More and Cromwell were all remarkably accomplished and their service to the regime is beyond question but they were thrown aside when their royal master thought they had exceeded their usefulness. Loyalty, in Henry's book, was a one-way street. As well as being bad for the development and implementation of consistent policy, this encouraged political in-fighting among rival councilors. It was enough to cast doubt on the reliability of a trusted adviser for the king to remove his support. Then, the victim was doomed. In this department of Machiavellian politics Henry does seem to be outclassed by Mr President, who. I guess, learned stony ingratitude running the family firm. Trusted aids go in and out like yo-yos. The atmosphere in the court of King Donald must be toxic. An egotistical ruler needs fall-guys. It is inconceivable to any self-obsessed despot that he can be wrong. So, when policies come unstuck it has to be someone else's fault. When Henry passed the buck to his aides they they did not dare protest (it was, perhaps, a small price to pay for the considerable perks of high office).

What the despotic Tudor king got away with is quite eye-widening. Few opponents were brave enough to stand up to him and most of those who did payed a high price for their presumption. The 'bare ruined choirs' across the land and the full diaries of public executioners are testimony to the king's methods of dealing with opposition. The only individuals who consistently held up his record to scrutiny were men like Tyndale and Pole and they operated from the safety of foreign bases (not all that safe, in point of fact: Henry sent assassins after Pole and was complicit in Tyndale's arrest in Antwerp). Yet, even Henry's bravado had to face one serious challenge: though he was victorious over the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536-7, the outcome could have been different. He won by a mixture of force and duplicity. Bodies hanging from church towers across the North were dramatic proof of his defiance. Capital punishment is not a weapon in Trump's armoury (much to his regret?). He has to fall back on a poor substitute - character assassination. Senators, representatives, and most of the UK and foreign news media are branded as stupid, malicious, un-American liars. They must always be wrong because Trump must always be right. Presidential inerrancy seems to be the key doctrine in Trump's creed.

His main way of imposing it on the nation is by showmanship. And here there is certainly a close comparison to be drawn with the second Tudor. Henry was a born performer. He spent hugely on court entertainments and public spectacles. The costly diplomatic farce of the Field of Cloth of Gold (1520) was only the most OTT example of the king's spare-no-expense-to-impress strategy. And in every single display Henry had to be the centre of attention (He was furious when Francis I beat him in a wrestling bout in 1520). Trump, too, lives for the limelight and cannot bear to be upstaged. He only appears in public at carefully-prepared rallies where he is supported by crowds of cheering fans.

However, mass sycophancy by itself is no guarantee that a ruler can cling to power. The king understood the need for a wide support base. It's not immediately obvious that Henry cared about what his people thought. He did - not because he was remotely interested in their wellbeing but because it made sense to keep his finger on the common pulse. So, he relied heavily on propaganda. Having taken on the power of the Church, he needed to sell his policy to the political class and even to the public at large. This he did through a campaign of proclamations, sermons, books, pamphlets and the managing of parliament, backed by an effective campaign of censorship. I can imagine Trump drooling over Henry's manipulation of the media or control of the political machine. Even with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress he can't impose his will. This, I assume, lies behind his assuming the role of one-man publicity machine, using Twitter to go over the heads of the politicians and the pundits and telling the people what he thinks they want to hear. These bite-sized statements are the equivalent of Tudor royal proclamations, with the added advantage that they don't need to be explained or justified. The principle seems to be that if you say something, however outrageous, often enough and loud enough people will believe you. Well, bombast and showmanship worked for Henry Tudor for 37 years but the political class took over as soon as he was gone. His failure to establish a dynastic autocracy was partly due to bad luck (being succeeded by an under-age son and two daughters). Today it is the checks and balances of political systems that prevent tyrants and their offspring turning democratic nations into personal fiefdoms. The American people may not like the the political establishment but at least they have the power to change it periodically.

Henry VIII inherited a considerable fortune, spent every penny of on his grandiose designs and left his country shattered, broke, overtaxed, at war and bitterly divided. Why? In his early days he may have been dazzled by stories of King Arthur and Henry V. He may have dreamed of 'making England great again'. But towards the end he was driven by what can only be described as egomania. Is Trump in the same category? Your answer will depend on how you judge his motivation. Does he love his country or himself? Is he there to serve his people with a raft of well-considered, carefully-costed policies aimed at nothing but their wellbeing or does he simply tap into populist prejudice? Are his 'privy chamber' staff men who have the capacity and the commitment to cope patiently and constructively with America's internal and external challenges or are they yes-men? Is he a shrewd politician or does he believe his own rhetoric? Egotists are so wrapped up in themselves that it's difficult to determine exactly what they do think, and why. After 500 years we're still trying to understand Henry VIII. Perhaps Trump's behaviour will give us some clues.
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