Modern liberal democracy is in crisis. We have countries around the world dominated by lustful, unstable authoritarian leaders. Britain is caught in a quagmire as deep political divisions continue to prevent the Disunited Kingdom from finding a clear path to exiting from Europe, with potentially calamitous economic consequences. Close to home, as noted in last week’s issue of Early Modern Times, the sitting leader is entangled in a web of his own making with accusations that he applied unseemly political pressure to his own minister of the crown–though his dwindling supporters imply that it is the minister’s stubbornness which was partly responsible for the debacle. Parallel circumstances were arguably at play in the events surrounding the early modern ‘Brexit’: namely, Henry VIII’s break from the Catholic Church and creation of the independent Church of England.
King Henry VIII succeeded to the English throne in 1509 at age 18 as a popular, handsome, and charismatic Renaissance prince in contrast to his dour and excessively parsimonious father Henry VII. The new Tudor king was less interested in managing affairs of state than going hunting and dancing, as well as dabbling in Renaissance humanist learning and theology, and largely left the reins of government in the hands of his formidable chief minister Cardinal Wolsey. The year of his succession also saw his marriage to his erstwhile sister-in-law, the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon, after the death of his elder brother Arthur. A Papal dispensation was obtained so that he could marry his brother’s widow, as Henry VII ‘incested’ that such an alliance was essential to England’s special relationship to the continent. Although the future queen Mary I was the offspring of this union, Catherine did not produce a male heir, and so in Henry VIII’s eyes the marriage had Aragon-to-pot.
Henry’s head was turned by Catherine’s maid of honour (though perhaps better described as a ‘lady-in-waiting-for-power’) Anne Boleyn, a wily young operator whose intelligence and graces were inherited by her daughter with Henry, the future queen Elizabeth I. Anne’s insistence that she be Henry’s wife and not his mistress set the ‘Boleyn ball’ rolling for the English Reformation, as obtaining a divorce from Anne would require another dispensation from the Pope. The Cardinal’s efforts at obtaining an annulment were greeted with the non-committal ‘Wolsey about that’, and as it turned out the Papacy would seek to knock down the ‘Boleyn pin’ tying together Anne and Henry. Wolsey’s failure would send England down the dark ‘Boleyn alley’ of religious schism.
Upon Wolsey’s death, the enablers of Henry’s divorce were the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, and the self-made politician Thomas Cromwell. The former was known for stuffing his mouth at meals and studying only the night before his exams, hence the nickname ‘Crammer’, while the latter was distinguished by his steely temperament and ‘chrome will’. Cranmer’s and Cromwell’s strategy was to exit European Christendom and establish an independent church headed by the English sovereign. In reference to Jesus’s description of the Apostles as fishers of men, Cranmer and Cromwell declared that the English needed no help from the Cat-licking Church to do its fishing: thus in 1534 was founded the ‘Angle-I-can’ Church in opposition to the Papal See-Bass.
But these two Thomases were confronted with a third, doubting Thomas: the austere Catholic statesman Sir Thomas ‘Less is More’. More was notorious for wearing a hair-shirt underneath his clothes as a form of perpetual penance. Such undergarments were ridden with lice and other parasites, and so perpetually penned-ants. It was no surprise, then, that as Henry’s Lord Chancellor from 1529, More zealously persecuted and burned Protestant ‘hairy ticks’. More resigned the office in 1532, but was strongly pressured by Cranmer and especially Cromwell to acknowledge the king’s supremacy over the church in England. He famously refused to swear against his conscience and defy ‘the power of the Papal’. In consequence, as a devout and even fanatical Papist, More lost his head while Henry got a head in the world. For Catholics, More’s the pity and so he was made a saint four hundred years after his death, in 1935. Protestants, however, would prefer their own form of ‘cannon-isation’ of Thomas More.
Henry got his way in marrying Anne Boleyn, but she too produced no male heirs and was suspected of both adultery and witchcraft. Anne followed More’s fate, and Henry set his eyes on Anne’s perspicacious servant Jane ‘See More’. After her death in childbirth, he married three more times and grew increasingly fat. Cromwell fell to the executioner’s axe in 1540, while Cranmer was burnt at the stake in the succeeding reign of the Catholic Queen Mary I. In conclusion, Henry’s kingship was truly a ‘Two-door’ reign: the entrance door opened with Henry’s sunny ways, while the Brexit door closed with corrupt and corpulent tyranny–such that Henry ‘Eight’ up the resources of the state with six failed marriages and a small pile of bodies in his wake.
‘Til next week,
Director, Early Modern Tudor Sedan Studies Program