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September 14, 2012 9:02 pm
Tudors: The History of England, Volume II, by Peter Ackroyd, Macmillan £20, 507 pages
Early in the reign of Henry VIII, a group of earnest students would meet at the White Horse tavern in Cambridge to argue about religion. They were excited by the latest stirrings of dissent within the Roman Church, the prospect of purging medieval Christianity of dogma, miracles and popish superstition. One of the leading lights, Thomas Bilney, declared that on reading Desiderius Erasmus, the Dutch Christian humanist, he had “met Jesus for the first time”. One day Bilney would be burnt at the stake for preaching that the veneration of statues was tantamount to idolatry.
The “great theme” of Peter Ackroyd’s Tudors, the second part of a projected six-volume history of England, “is the Reformation of the English Church” – an event he sees as having been to the country’s lasting benefit at the dawn of the early modern era. Ackroyd has clearly drawn on the scholarship of Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars (1992), with its nostalgia for England’s lost late medieval Catholicism; he has also been influenced by Diarmaid MacCulloch’s enthusiasm for the intellectual and constitutional benefits of England’s brand of Protestantism.
But the unique character of Protestantism in England, Ackroyd argues, owed more to the saga of the Tudor family dynasty than to the arguments of a Luther, a Calvin or a Bilney. Mary Tudor’s attempt, after Edward VI, to restore Catholicism with human bonfires was inspired less by that other great European religious phenomenon, the Counter-Reformation, than by filial piety: her bid to restore the Catholic twilight of Henry’s reign. Despite the dissolution of the monasteries, the Roman Mass, as Ackroyd points out, was still celebrated under Henry VIII.
Issues of marriage, divorce, succession, the supremacy of the monarch over the Church, and foreign antagonisms, not least with Spain, would be responsible for the schism between England and Catholic Europe. The years spanning 1485 to 1603, from the accession of Henry VII to the death of Elizabeth I, were measured by tests of fealty aimed at ensuring the security of the Tudor monarchy and the realm. In an era when oaths were taken seriously, those who cherished the supremacy of the pope in matters spiritual risked their necks. There would be blood.
Ackroyd delivers the grisly annals of Tudor persecutions with an eye for detailed pathos. On Henry VIII’s orders, the gentle monks of London’s Charterhouse, vegetarians vowed to permanent silence, were publicly butchered in their habits because they would not foreswear their allegiance to the Holy Father in Rome. Their saintly superior, John Houghton, was first. His swiftly disembowelled entrails were held up to his dying eyes, his heart scooped from his chest and rubbed in his face. The entire community suffered a similar fate.
Next Thomas More, former Lord Chancellor and favourite of Henry, was beheaded because he was incapable of squaring the circle of his allegiance to monarch and pontiff. Yet Thomas himself, today celebrated as a sainted martyr by the Catholic Church, had in earlier times – as Ackroyd emphasised in his ground-breaking The Life of Thomas More – enthusiastically signed the death warrants of Protestant “heretics” despite the ascetic holiness of his literally lousy hair shirt.
Under Edward, who succeeded Henry VIII in 1547 aged nine, the religious reforms of the Church in England were impelled by the protectorate of Edward Seymour, first duke of Somerset. Migrant Protestants from Europe were welcomed in London. It was the period when England was denuded of its rich Catholic iconographic and liturgical heritage. Statues, stained glass, crucifixes were smashed, wall paintings whitewashed, relics burnt. Corpus Christi processions, liturgical kisses of peace, genuflecting, the playing of organs, were all banned. Ackroyd evokes the purging of Catholic popular piety with a controlled, rueful passion, revealing, or perhaps betraying, his own Catholic upbringing. “The theatre of piety,“ he writes, “was being deconstructed. There were to be no more intimations of sacrifice and the minister, no longer called priest, was ordered simply to place the bread and wine upon the altar. The Mass was therefore stripped of its mystery.”
After Edward’s early death and Queen Jane’s nine-day reign, Mary Tudor acceded to the throne in 1553 by what she judged a “sacred dispensation”. The old faith, and the Mass, were back, and in Latin. The statues of the Virgin and saints that had survived the iconoclasts’ hammers were restored to their niches. A thousand Protestant divines fled the country. Of the 22 bishops of the former reign, only seven retained their dioceses. The ardent reforming prelates – Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer – were subjected to show trials before their deaths.
All in vain. Under Elizabeth, Catholicism became synonymous with Spanish and popish treachery. Some 200 Catholics were executed in her bid to overturn Mary’s reversion, 123 of them priests, condemned as spies working, as Elizabeth saw it, in the interests of a foreign power. Ackroyd keeps careful tally of the butchery. He calculates that some 308 died under Henry VIII, compared with 300 under Mary Tudor, observing with scrupulous fairness to Henry that Mary’s reign was far shorter. Numbers aside, Ackroyd neatly avoids imposing a 21st-century moral sensibility on the question of executions by warning against cultural anachronism. “It is not possible,” he writes, “to judge the behaviour of one century by the values of another.”
His business, however, is to weigh what was lost and what was gained. The suppression of a strongly communal religion, he believes, led to social fragmentation: “the richer sort tended to think of themselves as a class apart”. At the same time, Ackroyd discerns in “the growing emphasis upon the individual, the dissolution of communal life, the abrogation of custom and tradition” the necessary conditions for a country destined to assume the mantle of imperial power. But we must await the next volume of this superbly accessible and readable History of England to see how he will justify that claim.
John Cornwell is author of ‘Newman’s Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint’ (Continuum)
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