Monday 25 June 2012

Voices of the Past

Do you have a British coin in your purse or pocket?  If so take it out and have a look at the abbreviations around the Queen’s head.  Just before the date you will see the letters FD.  It’s a Latin abbreviation for Fidei defensor in the male and Fidei defensatrix in the female form.  It means Defender of the Faith, a title originally accorded to Henry VIII by Pope Leo X in 1521 after the publication of Assertio Septem Sacramentorum – Defence of the Seven Sacraments -, a treatise rejecting the reformist teachings of Martin Luther. 

Eamon Duffy, professor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge, mentions it in the opening paragraph of a polemic published by the Telegraph at the weekend (The Story of the Reformation needs reforming).  Since 1558, he writes, it has meant defender of the Protestant faith. 

What he neglects to mention is that the original title was revoked by Pope Paul III in 1530 after Henry’s break with Rome.  It made no practical difference, as the style continued to be used in official documents, and was formally ratified by Act of Parliament in 1544.  Rather ironically, though she never used the title, even Bloody Mary was FD by parliamentary grant! 

That seems to me to be the whole point of the English Reformation – it was about empowerment and national sovereignty, a contention I advanced in previous articles touching on the subject.  Above all it was about breaking free from the authority of Rome, as much a temporal as a spiritual power at the time.  It really is worth stressing that Henry never abandoned Catholic orthodoxy as a personal standard of faith.  His Reformation was based wholly on the rejection of papal tutelage.

Duffy proceeds, as polemicists are wont to do, with a one-sided and historically unbalanced argument.  He is quite right to point out some of the tragic consequences of the English Reformation, a lengthy process rather than a single event.  He is right to lament the cultural vandalism that accompanied the religious and social upheaval, in the course of which so much of England’s Catholic and medieval heritage was lost. 

But he is wrong to see a process which shaped a new and greater nation as a wholly negative event.  In my own polemical style I have no hesitation at all in saying that the Reformation was a great and necessary metamorphosis.  In the place of medieval mystery plays came the dramas of Shakespeare.  In the place of Latin bibles, read and interpreted by priests, came the vernacular translations of William Tyndale followed by the King James Version, great well-springs of our language and literature.  In the place of controlled thought came free thought, the greatest legacy of all.  As the sun set on Galileo and the Catholic south it was to rise on Newton and the Protestant north. 

There was nothing inevitable about the Reformation, Duffy contends.  True; for nothing in history is truly inevitable.  That does not mean to say that there was nothing necessary about a process that swept virtually the whole of northern Europe, a process that freed the imagination from the straightjacket of traditional dogmas, a process that transformed England from an outpost of the Roman-focused medieval world to a great outward looking imperial and seafaring power. 

The professor touches on past injustices.  He touches on the anti-Catholic narratives of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, which turned the faith into the malevolent doctrine of an obscurantist and foreign power, a view entrenched in popular consciousness after the Glorious Revolution of 1688.  Gilbert Burnet, the seventeenth centaury divine, earns his animus as the ‘chief propagandist’ of this event, the author of the History of the Reformation, in which he describe Catholicism as tyranny.  “They hate us”, Burnet wrote, “because we dare to be freemen and Protestants.”

‘They’, in a general sense, is certainly a bit sweeping.  There were many English Catholics who may have taken spiritual solace from Rome but whose secular loyalty was to the land of their birth.  But always, always, we have to consider the context of the times.  Louis XIV certainly hated freemen and Protestants, as the Huguenot refugees who flooded into London prior to the Glorious Revolution would have testified.  His imperial ambitions, moreover, were a serious threat to the integrity of Protestant Europe.  This was no imagined danger. 

The professor concludes his piece by saying that the slaughtered Popish martyrs look less like an alien fifth column than “the voices of a history that England was not allowed to have.”  Would the ‘slaughtered Popish martyrs’, I wonder, include the conspirators behind the Gunpowder Plot?   I think it best to let that pass.  What I cannot let pass, though, is an earlier suggestion that John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, detailing the horrors of Mary Tudor’s Catholic reaction, simply served as propaganda against Catholicism at home and abroad.  So far as Duffy is concerned it would appear that some martyrs are more equal than other martyrs, some voices more essential, some narratives more valid and some histories more complete.   


  1. All this turmoil over a myth that just won't go away.

    1. Myths are so important, Anthony, they always have been.

  2. It is good to be reminded that fanatics such as Duffy still exist. There is a power in some ideas that - wielded by the ambitious - can overwhelm weaker minds. I read his DT article, and noted, as did many others, how he blithely ignored the vice and corruption into which the church of Rome had descended long before the Reformation.

    I always thought it ironic that Constantine's attempt to preserve Rome led to 1000 years of cultural amnesia and primitivism that almost lost the entire West to the nightmare Islam by absorbing so much creative energy into the monastic system where it was stifled.

    1. Indeed so, Calvin. The other thing Duffy neglected to mention was just how backward and primitive Catholic Ireland was, how immersed in superstition, compared with the other nations of northern Europe. But I suppose that can be dismissed as the nefarious effects of English imperialism, the usual slight of thought.

  3. Been meaning to comment on this for a few days, but life gets in the way. Just watched Richard II on the Beeb and it reminded me that I must.

    I know you are a historian, read far more than I, and are more learned than I, but what both Henry VII and Henry VIII did was reduce the power of the Baronies and increase the power of the monarch. England hadn't had a truly sovereign and supreme monarch since John's capitulation in Magna Carta. The Reformation in my mind was most definitely not about national sovereignty but an attempt to return England to an absolute and supreme monarchy.

    I agree with your analysis of English Catholics: take spiritual solace from Rome but whose secular loyalty was to the land of their birth. As an English Catholic I am very English, having served in the RAF, and very catholic. However, I have felt the tyranny of Protestantism in the land of my birth for the whole of my life. Who are the tyrants?

    Couple of points about your comments. You mention the backward Irish and their superstitions - do you not profess an interest in things witchcraft and ancient arts? I note that others comment on the depravity of Rome, and of course Rome has a complete monopoly on depravity? No Protestent or Protestant splinter group has ever done anything depraved. Not to defend the Church, but examples can be found of depravity in all societies and religions.

    On the whole a good post and I must say that I do enjoy reading all that you write.


    1. It always does, Bil. :-)

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Actually it was the Wars of the Roses that, in severely decimated England’s traditional aristocracy, began the process that ended in Tudor absolutism. In a way the Tudors stepped into a kind of political vacuum, creating a wholly new structure in the process. Medieval monarchs, even monarchs as seemingly powerful as John, were a little like the early Roman emperors - primus inter pares, first among equals, rather than absolute rulers. The Tudors established the state on an entirely new basis, with the monarch as the dominant element, a process that had begun earlier in France in the reign of Louis XI. The Reformation merely confirmed the realities of the new political order in England, with the monarch as Caesar and Pope. No medieval monarch had ever combined those powers.

      I think I expressed myself badly in the comment about the Irish. So far as I understand it Irish Catholicism had a much more primitive quality than its English or French equivalent. It’s only in the country’s fairly recent history that some of the more backward assumptions have been questioned.

      Yes, I am interested in witchcraft and ancient religions, far, far more than primitive superstition. :-)