Sunday, 18 March 2012

Blood and Freedom


This is a piece I recently had published in the English Standard under a different heading. It's attracted a bit of interest so I thought I would publish it here also, just for the record. It touches on themes that I have already raised in discussion with Nobby on my Restrain of Appeals article (25 January), though it puts the figure of Henry VIII as king in a more focused light.

At the conclusion Chapter XVIII of A Child’s History of England Charles Dickens expressed his disapproval of Henry VIII in very clear terms: “The plain truth is, that he was a most intolerable ruffian, a disgrace to human nature, and a blot of blood and grease upon the History of England.”

This is a view that must have coloured many little minds, for the book, which first appeared in serial form in Household Words in the early 1850s, was on the curricula of English schools right through to the Second World War. We now have a slightly more nuanced view of this Tudor giant, but the image of him as a boorish tyrant still informs a lot of popular culture. The truth, rarely pure and never simple, is that Henry in a very real sense was the first true ‘sovereign’ in English history.

I’ll clarify this point a little later but first a word or two on the context of his reign, on the political forces that shaped his style as a ruler. Yes, he was a particularly dominant figure, more so than any of his predecessors on the throne. His more tyrannical actions are explained in large parts by the shallow roots of the Tudor dynasty, planted with uncertainty after a long and bloody dynastic war. It could be dangerous to be alive in his reign, chiefly for those unfortunate enough to have a better claim to the throne, something they were well-advised to keep quiet about.

Henry had one overriding obsession: to secure the future of his line and, in the circumstances of the time, he believed it essential that he had a son. A daughter simply would not do. We can look forward to the reign of Elizabeth, one of the most successful monarchs ever, but Henry could only look back to the example of Matilda, the daughter and heir of Henry I, whose rightful claim was usurped by her cousin Stephen, a preamble to a lengthy civil war.

When Henry came to the throne England had two separate legal systems – the common law of the land and the canon law of the church. Two sets of laws meant two sets of courts, with the ultimate arbiter in all matters affecting canon law being the Vatican. This included all family law, issues pertaining to wills and, of course, marriage and divorce. This was the basis of Papal power in England, which by the early middle ages was considerable.

Although Henry had several children by his first queen, Catherine of Aragon, only their daughter Mary had survived infancy. By the 1520s, on the threshold of middle age, he believed it imperative that the marriage to Catherine, no longer capable of bearing children, be dissolved. An appeal had to be made to Rome. It might have been a relatively simple matter but for one thing – the pope of the day, Clement VII, was in the power of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who just happened to be Catherine’s nephew. The ensuing English Reformation began, therefore, as a matter of dynastic politics.

I hinted above that prior to the reign of Henry English kings had never been fully sovereign. The country, like today, was part of a wider union, subject to the authority of the Universal Church. It was a dangerous thing for an English king to challenge the power of the pope, as Henry II and his son John discovered to their cost.

There is much debate in the press today about the repatriation of powers from Europe, with Prime Minister David Cameron making vague nods in this general direction. But Henry did not talk; he acted. Exasperated by the delays caused in the settlement of his marital affairs, he effectively brought to an end the duality in English law; he ended the power of Rome.

With the aid of Thomas Cromwell, his chief minister at the time, Parliament was persuaded to pass the Act of Restraint of Appeals in 1533, a measure I touched on here earlier this year. This had the effect of ending all appeals to Rome, allowing matters to be settled on the spot, declaring to the world that England was an empire, not subject to the rule of a foreign princes or courts

This Act is one of the most significant in English history, going far beyond offering Henry, as head on an independent English Church, a way of breaking the Roman logjam. It was a declaration of political sovereignty, an Act of Parliament rather than a royal proclamation. It was so successful that even during the Catholic reaction of Henry’s daughter, Mary, it was never repealed. For all her orthodoxy Mary remained Supreme Head of the Church, effectively the Pope in England. There were no more appeals to the Papal Curia, no more foreign laws.

Now think of us today, think of the steady erosion of our national sovereignty, think of us subject to the legal vagaries of the European Court of Human Rights, which recently ruled that we could not deport a foreign terrorist, a man with no connection to this country, a man who is a positive threat to our national security.

History has been reversed. We are far more in thrall to the new Roman power than we ever were to the old. How I admire the audacity of Bluff King Hal. For me he is not a blot of blood and grease on the history of England. He is, rather, an avatar of freedom.

33 comments:

  1. I have long wondered how and when Hank 8 contracted syphilis, whether it affected his fertility, and how much it affected his judgement and personality.

    I have also wondered about the impact of the disease on decision makers of other major European powers.

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    1. Calvin, his fertility, or perceived lack of it, wasn't so much the issue, in early life anyway, than the mortality of his offspring. It was still an issue in middle-age. His son by Anne Boleyn was stillborn. I'm not sure about the syphilis issue in that, so far as I am aware, it has never been proved conclusively that Henry suffered from this condition. What did affect his judgement and personality was his ulcerated leg, which got steadily worse as he got older.

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    2. It's no longer a popular speculation, I know, but sometimes I can be a bit of a fogey about these things . . . until they come back into fashion :)

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  2. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

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    1. Anthony, they do indeed. Do you know who first said this? If not, it was a certain Guy Fawkes. :-)

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  3. Hello, Ana, and apologies for my long absence.

    Wow! You'll be in big trouble for this one. I shouldn't be surprised if the ghost of Henry himself doesn't pay you a visit. ;-)

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    1. No need to apologise, Jamie; it's a pleasure to see you. I wouldn't mind a visit from Hal...just so long as he did not ask me to marry him. :-)

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  4. Hi,Tks for following back so quickly.I like this blog on henry. It just goes to show how our view of history is coloured in childhood.Many decades ago i met a man who introduced me to the formation of the early ChristianChurch & it became a lifetime research project.This ended with Barbara Thiering's Jesus the Man. Look her up on the internet if you are interested. Best Regards, Robin

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    1. I will, Robin, thanks, and welcome to my blog. :-)

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  5. I would prefer to be in thrall to the old Roman power than the new. Not that I am favour of either!

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    1. Ah, David, the old seems positively benign to me. :-)

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  6. Hello Ana. I prefer Henry V.

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    1. Ah, Nobby, a much more faithful son of the church. :-)

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    2. My preference has more to do with Agincourt, Ana.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Agincourt

      What military battles did your Henry win :-) ?

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    3. The Battle of the Spurs and Flodden, though the latter I admit not personally!

      So far as Henry V is concerned, his success in France stored up trouble for the future. In the latter part of his reign it was proving increasingly difficult to fund fresh campaigns, with Parliament reluctant to grant supply. Once the divisions between the houses of Burgundy and Armagnac were resolved the war would become impossible to win. It’s all very well to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels but the foreign quarrel, ironically, was eventually to contribute to the destruction of the house of Lancaster.

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  7. That was no foreign quarrel Ana. Henry was inspired by his ancestry. Was he not the first English King since Harold to speak everyday English?

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    1. No, I think that was his father, Nobby. The French claim by Henry’s day had much more to do with internal English politics than dynastic rights. The foreign quarrel was a reference to Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part Two, where the old king on his deathbed says to Prince Hal;

      Therefore, my Harry,
      Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
      With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out,
      May waste the memory of the former days


      Meaning of course the usurpation of 1399.

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  8. ps You might see the previous comment appear twice. If so, this is because the first one disappeared into the ether immediately after writing.

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  9. Ana,

    I don't know whether this backs up your argument or mine but I found this: Who was the last English King to speak French?

    "Henry V. It was during his reign also that English courts/Administrative departments stopped using French in favour of English.And with regard to the French spoken, it was Norman French not regular French.Norman French borrowed words heavily from the lands the Normans originated from-Scandinavian.Quite interesting to know that the only place Norman French is still spoken is the British owned Channel islands."


    http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20100404142553AAUH29F

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  10. And this immediately below it:

    "The first King of England, since the Norman Conquest, to speak English as his first language was Henry IV. So the last King of England to speak French as his first language would have been Richard II.

    But it was Henry V who encouraged the use of English in Court.

    Oddly enough, French influenced English far more after English was reinstated as the language of Court, than before."

    1-1 ?

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    1. Thanks, Nobby. There is a transition at work here, obviously. These changes don't simply happen overnight.

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  12. Regarding the extradition of what's-is-name I had 'noised' my views earlier on this blog in that I reckon we have a vested interest in keeping him here. If France can legislate to ban the veil surely we can deport someone who is a clear threat to the security of this country and whatever became of the much publicised visit of Theresa May to Egypt to get him deported?

    Did you catch the recent BBC program by Helen Castor She-wolves: England's Early Queens? Also How God Made the English by Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of Church History at Oxford University. I've known about this before but he discusses Henry VIII's break from Rome on the grounds of the myth much propitiated chiefly by Bede and Geoffrey of Monmouth of Joseph of Arimathea having set foot on these hallowed isles about the Chalice Well in Glastonbury and there is the possibility that Jesus Christ himself may have come here as a child and I have read about St Paul preaching at Ludgate. If this is true this would go a long way to authenticate the saying attributed to Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in the Islamic Tradition that Christ upon his Second Coming would encounter the Anti-Christ at the 'Bad e Lud' [Gate of Lud] (Abul Husayn Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj Qushayri al-Nishapuri. Sahih Muslim: 'Of the Turmoil & Portents of the Last Hour'. No 7015). Further information on this can be found in my video.

    This version of history is also supported by al-Kahf [The Cave/Cape] the eighteenth chapter of The Holy Quran the subject of which is the history of the Christian Civilisation. In it appears the iconic figure of Khidr (translating literally as the Green Man), the evergreen spirit of joy, harmony and goodwill. (See Hadhrat Alhajj Hakim Maulana Noorudin - Khalifatul Masih I. Haqaiqul Furqan iii: 3). This figure first appears in Jewish scripture in the account of Moses' Apotheosis. It has been suggested that the legends of the Green Man in Europe intermingled with Christian iconology during the crusades (this view has also been referred to by Hadhrat Khalifatul Masih II) in his Tafsir e Kabir iv [Extensive Commentary on 'The Holy Quran'], though they had already been reinvented by the Christians from local Osiris-based myths and other corn-God cults. That apotheosis occurs in the Green Knight of Arthurian lore and Sir Gawain & the Green Knight. In Islam, Khidhr (the Green Man) is believed to be the personification of the mediating principle between the imaginary realm and the physical world ever since the eight century.

    It is of profound occupation for me to look into all this that was grasped by Henry VIII who then severed himself from the yolk of Rome. Especially as St Peter was also rivaled in succession by James, the brother of Jesus who incidentally, was at loggerheads with St Paul over the interpretation of the Gospel. As such Henry VIII ought to emerge as something of a saint in Islam!

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    1. What an interesting perspective, Rehan!

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    2. Isn't it just! I've managed to give the wrong link to the Extensive Commentary. This is the correct one.

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  13. Rehan, do you think it would be worthwhile for Ana and any others interested in getting a bit of context for your post to read Henry Corbin's ALONE WITH THE ALONE: CREATIVE IMAGINATION IN THE Ṣūfism of Ibn ʻArabī?

    Miguel Asín Palacios' works demonstrating the pervasive influence of Islamic legends, stories and religions ideas on Dante's DIVINE COMEDY, particularly his INFERNO, might also help post-Christian Europeans begin to come to terms with the tremendous influence of Islam on European literature and religion, to which you refer in your post vis-a-vis the Green Man's possible metamorphosis into the Green Knight, etc. . . . Corbin is of course very helpful for understanding the Khidhr, etc. as well

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  14. Thanks Chris and Ana, I have come across the ibn 'Arabi and Dante argument before and ibn 'Arabi's special association with Khidhr. This gives me the opportunity to look into it further and I'll get back to you and Chris on it.

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