A spot of blood and grease on the pages of English history.
Charles Dickens, referring to King Henry VIII
For English speaking Catholics, June 22 is a bright day on the calendar of the Saints. It is appropriate that in the northern hemisphere it is also one of the longest days, when it is not the longest day, of the year, since no amount of sunshine is too much to celebrate the merits of Saint Thomas More and Saint John Fisher. On this day we remember the two saints who stood against King Henry VIII, for the great principle that the State must never be allowed to control the Church. Much that we Americans celebrate as freedom was born out of Church-State struggles down through the ages. Sometimes those who stood against the State fell in the struggle, but the concept that the State is not absolute, that there are limits to its authority, is one of the great gifts of the Catholic Middle Ages to all of mankind. It is only in modern times, since 1500, that the heresy that the State may exercise absolute authority has been a constant source of misery and strife in the history of the West.
When he ascended to the throne of England Henry VIII was popularly known as the Golden Hope of England. His father Henry VII had never been loved by the people of England: a miser and a distinctly unheroic figure no matter what Shakespeare would write in Richard III. He had brought the end of the War of the Roses and peace to England, but that was about as much credit as his subjects would give the grasping, unlovable Henry Tudor. His son by contrast looked like an Adonis when young, strong and athletic. He had a sharp mind and had been well-educated, intended, ironically, for a career in the Church before the death of his elder brother Arthur. He was reputed, correctly, to be pious. He had considerable charisma in his youth and knew how to make himself loved with a well timed laugh or smile, and loved he was, by the nobles, commons, his wife Katherine, and the Church. Few reigns started more auspiciously than that of Henry, eighth of that name.
By the end of his reign he was widely despised by most of his subjects. Called a crowned monster behind his back, his reign had brought religious turmoil to England and domestic strife. The best known symbols of his reign were the headman’s axe, the stake and the boiling pot in which he had some of the luckless individuals who roused his fury boiled to death.
It of course is small wonder for a Catholic to have little love for Henry VIII and his reign, but the distaste for Henry extends well beyond members of the Church. Winston Churchill, the great English statesman and historian, in his magisterial History of the English Speaking Peoples, has this to say about the executions of Saint Thomas More and Saint John Fisher:
“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.”
Churchill himself was not noted for being a churchgoer. When asked if he was a pillar of the Church of England, he quipped that perhaps he could be considered to be a flying buttress of the Church, supporting it from outside. Perhaps this helped give him a certain objectivity regarding Henry VIII. Here is part of his summing up of Henry’s reign:
“Henry’s rule saw many advances in the growth and the character of the English state, but it is a hideous blot upon his record that the reign should be widely remembered for its executions. Two Queens, two of the King’s chief Ministers, a saintly bishop, numerous abbots, monks and many ordinary folk who dared to resist the royal will were put to death. Almost every member of the nobility in whom royal blood ran perished on the scaffold at Henry’s command. Roman Catholic and Calvinist alike were burnt for heresy and religious treason. These persecutions, inflicted in solemn manner by officers of the law, perhaps in the presence of the Council or even the King himself, form a brutal sequel to the bright promise of the Renaissance. The sufferings of devout men and women among the faggots, the use of torture, and the savage penalties imposed for even paltry crimes, stand in repellent contrast to the enlightened principles of humanism.”