Thursday, 23 April 2009

Henry VIII: 500 years on

Some 500 years ago Henry VIII ascended to the throne of England. The Daily Telegraph observed this quincentenary with a column article by Simon Heffer, entitled: "Thank Henry VIII for laying the foundations of freedom". Now, if one recalls the way in which the oath of allegiance to Henry VIII as head of the Church in England was enforced, the reference to freedom in the title of this article is intriguing to say the least. My understanding of the history - not by any means that of an expert - was that Henry VIII was a dictatorial tyrant to parallel the likes of Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
... when a combination of his desire for a male heir to secure his dynasty and his carnal appetite for Anne Boleyn made it imperative that he end his marriage to Queen Catherine, the Reformation began almost by accident.

There is a kind of English arrogance here which assumes that what happened in England and issued in the Church of England was the Reformation, and nothing significant happened anywhere else in Europe.
Without the Reformation there would have been no civil war and no establishment of the constitutional monarchy. Who is to say that that what happened in France in 1789, or across Europe in 1848, or in Russia in 1917 would not eventually have happened here?

Can one suggest a parallel between the oath of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy of the French Revolution and that of Act of Supremacy - in that both required a consent to the clergy being subject to the state?

What I would find interesting to see is an evaluation of, for example, the extent to which the life and culture of France is irreligious compared to the extent to which the life and culture of England is irreligious. Another interesting comparator would be to Protestant regions in, say Germany or northern Holland. I have a completely unproven thesis that the Reformation that issued in the Protestant churches of the European mainland was still an essentially religious phenomenon and has led to a culture that even today is strongly religious. The Reformation as it happened in England, however, being prompted and guided more by matters of state, has a decidedly secularising shape to it, and it has issued in a culture that is much more secular (the established nature of the Church of England notwithstanding).


Anonymous said...

This is interesting, because I used to see Britain as more religious than the Netherlands! I think that was largely based on appearances, though - thinks like college chapels (with daily services, even) would be unheard of here, but that doesn't say much about the actual religiosity of the college, of course.

Politics and religion were also intertwined in the Dutch reformation - we were occupied by the (Catholic) Spanish, and liberated by the (Protestant) William of Orange, after all.

But you are right that the actual change in religion was much larger than it appears to have been in Britain. Having a "Lady Chapel" in the church, or even kneelers, incense or ceremonial candles, would be completely unheard of in Dutch Protestant churches.

Joe said...


Does your experience turn the un-proven into the disproven?

I have always had a sense of the Church of England as an appearance of religion rather than a reality of it - quite unfair, I am sure, of the experience of the everyday C of E parish, but perhaps not so unfair of "sung evensong" in the Cathedral or college chapel. Fully fledged Protestantism seems to have a greater sense of reality about it, which is why I perhaps feel it is more religious.