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.

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