Philip Ashe, a historian with 41 years teaching experience and now retired from his post at Leeds Grammar School, came to the club tonight and delivered us a lecture on the topic The English Reformation: the first BREXIT.
I say ‘lecture’ rather than ‘talk’, to pay tribute both to his polished phrases and the depth of scholarship he displayed. So much so that after learning that he occasionally gave talks on Cunard cruises, Richard Wharton, giving the Club’s thanks, remarked that Philip must have felt that tonight he’d ended up on a tramp steamer.
Philip began by reminding us of the basic facts. Henry VIII was married to Katherine of Aragon. After the horrors of the War of the Roses, it was essential for stable government and the integrity of the realm that there should be an undisputed male heir who would have communal backing for his title to the throne.
In 1511 Katherine had given birth to a son, but unfortunately he only survived for 6 weeks. Twenty years into Henry’s reign, it was now clear that Katherine was unlikely to bear another son, and Henry’s eye had been caught by the younger Anne Boleyn. He needed the dispensation of Pope Clement VII to divorce Katherine so that he could marry Anne. The Pope refused, and Henry’s solution was to declare that the supremacy of the Pope in all matters spiritual was no longer recognised and to establish himself as the head of the Church in England. He then granted himself the divorce he needed.
The English Reformation, making the King the head of the Church in England, was duly established by Parliament in the Act of Supremacy in 1534. Thereafter came the dissolution of the monasteries and the end of direct Papal influence on the affairs of England.
Our lecturer’s thesis was that despite the involvement of the church, and endless theological debate, the breach with Rome had very little to do with religion as such. What has this got to do with Brexit? Quite a lot, we learned.
Like the Remainers and Brexiteers of today, the divide was between what King Henry called ‘the English papatistical’ and ‘entirer Englishmen.’ The former thought of themselves as Europeans, part of a great continental community, bound by an indissoluble spiritual treaty, which it could not renounce without defying God. The latter were proud inhabitants of an island which was Europe’s first defined nation state, who believed that England should look to its own national interest, and run its own affairs free of foreign meddling, especially in religious matters.
Philip told us, ‘The principle dynamics behind the Reformation in England were xenophobia and its by-product anti clericalism, historically two of the most deep rooted and enduring characteristics of the English people. These traits have structured the course of English history since at least 12th century, to the extent that it is remarkable that the Reformation took so long to happen in the first place’.
He went on to explain that by xenophobia he did not mean an irrational fear or hatred of foreigners, but that anti-foreign anti-papal views were not just prejudices, but were rooted by a sound instinct for self- preservation.
The lofty ideal of European Christendom was just ‘a mirage’, let down by Machiavellian intrigue and power grabbing. The Catholic Church was not an international community operating by consensus or majority, but ‘the helpless prize in a power struggle between emergent nations’. Orthodox Christendom was connected with interests of House of Hapsburg and Spain.
I was reminded of the Brexiteers’ complaints of the EU institutions being a gravy train when Philip went on to give us a picture of how the Church had come to behave in England. 50,000 clergy living off the backs of a total population of only 3 million, enjoying more than a fifth of the wealth of the country, with 780 religious houses entirely lacking in pastoral zeal and fulfilling no obvious social need while Church leaders from the Pope down concentrated on the extension of privilege and their jurisdiction.
Philip concluded his lecture by telling us that the breach with Rome succeeded because there was nothing new about it. ‘All the elements to supply doctrinal nourishment were already there: anti clericalism, anti-papalism, the exaltation of the Crown in spiritual matters, the envy of clerical property, the yearning for doctrinal reform. All elements were there – they just needed a spark’. The spark was Henry VIII’s need for a divorce.
If the King had possessed the Dominic Cummings gift for a soundbite, he might have said ‘it was time to take back control’.
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