Defence of History
A few weeks ago, I was conducting research and working on a historic based blog that would have depicted two mothers of members of the United States Armed Forces. Those two mothers were Lydia Bixby of Massachusates and Alleta Sullivan of Iowa. Lydia was thought to have lost five sons during the Civil War and Alleta’s five sons were actually killed during World War II. I will write about Lydia and Alleta at another time.
As I was doing my research on these two extraordinary women and sketching out their stories, my own regular work went from busy to high speed. More importantly and crucially, our attention was redirected to a horrific action by a police officer in Minneapolis to George Floyd on the evening of Memorial Day, May 25. The world was changed overnight and many public policy questions started to get raised about race relations in the United States, the police and this also evolved into effects on history and culture.
While statues were being destroyed all over the country and names being changed or proposed to be changed, I started thinking about a blog post related to the preservation of history. I really struggled but thought it was important to convey a message given that the idea of In2 Mundus is knowing and understanding history and culture and applying that knowledge to our workplaces. On the morning of June 22, I was streaming Catholic mass as has been my routine lately since working from home five days per week. On that particular day, the priest was celebrating the feast of Saint Thomas More, who was Chancellor to King Henry VIII in the early 16th century. I became interested in Thomas More several years ago while watching the Showtime series The Tudors. I started to read about him and also learned about some of his writings, including those that he wrote while imprisoned in the Tower of London.
The key aspects of Thomas More that were most intriguing were his civilized approach to life, utmost honesty and the fact that he stood by his principles right on through his trial and execution for “high treason” or differing in thought and belief from the King.
Much like 2020, Thomas More lived in unsettling times. The European powers of France, Spain, England, the Holy Roman Empire, and Papacy were threats or allies to each other depending on which day it was. All of these powers were autocratic. In addition, there were also challenges to the belief system and to the way Europeans lived and worshipped at the time. While challenges to the Papacy were nothing new as heresies and schisms were always abundant since the institution of the Christianity, Martin Luther's protest against the Catholic Church was something much more significant than what the Holy See had experienced prior to the 16th century.
History generally views King Henry VIII as an unhinged tyrant and perhaps he was. Perhaps this tyranny resulted from illness, psychological issues, post traumatic stress disorder (from a jousting accident), was neglected as a child or any number of reasons including the desire for power, money and an eternal legacy. Henry was steadfast in what he believed in at the moment he believed it and could not tolerate opposition. His beliefs also significantly changed due to mostly self interest.
Initially in 1521, Henry was against Protestantism (more specifically, Lutheranism) and a staunch supporter of the Catholic Church and the Pope. Henry was not tolerant of Martin Luther’s teachings or those who sided with Luther. He did several things to thwart Protestantism, including burning Protestant books and making it illegal to own such books, burning many Protestants at the stake for the crime of “heresy,” and the more civilized approach - writing a book called Defence of the Seven Sacraments. All of these actions earned Henry the title of “Defender of the Faith” by Pope Leo X (Giovanni di Lorenzo de' Medici) (Peal, 5). Coincidentally, Pope Leo X was the son of Lorenzo “the Magnificent” de’ Medici, great-grandson of Cosimo “Pater Patriae” de’ Medici and first cousin to Pope Clement VII (more on him below). As you may recall from a previous blog, the Medici family ruled Florence, Italy and were humanists in the sense that they supported the arts and funded the Italian Renaissance.
There are many theories as to why the Protestant Reformation came to be. Some of the more popular theories are the rocky relationship that nations and kingdoms had with the Church, the many heresies and schisms concerning Catholicism, actual or perceived abuses and corruption within the Church that resulted in people repudiating the clergy, and the ideas resulting from the various aspects of the humanistic philosophy (Conacher, 41). In other words, it was a powder keg waiting to happen. The Protestant Reformation also followed some significant world events in history. In the early 16th century, Europe was coming out of some of the worst plagues that were ravaging the European population, in addition, the age of science, discovery, exploration and invention were also in high gear during this time. People’s minds and ways of life were constantly changing by being introduced to new and life changing realities coming out of these new inventions. Aside from the more global issues mentioned above, the more immediate reason for the Protestant Reformation came out of ideas and fundamental differences with the doctrine of the Catholic Church. The Reformation also grew out of mass marketing with important tools of the time, such as the printing press and providing the Protestant teachings, doctrine and the New Testament of the Bible in the vernacular of a specific nation, such as the English language as opposed to Latin, which was the language of the Catholic Church at the time (Conacher, 54).
Clearly, the old way of thinking and ways of the world were being challenged on a monumental scale. Oftentimes, there were counter-challenges to these realities and this thinking by long-time established entities, such as the Catholic Church and some rulers. Perhaps the reasons for these counter-challenges were self-preservation, relevancy, fear or skepticism. Moreover, while the European monarchs and leaders were commonly at odds with the Church over political matters, they were normally aligned on the power structure and tolerated each other (aside from a few excommunications or interdicts that come to mind, such as those imposed on Florence and Venice). Moreover, despite all of the reasons for the Protestant Reformation and advances that Protestantism was making, the English people were still very much Catholic. Similarly, the English monarch was also very much Catholic. However, Henry VIII’s “great matter” changed this history, the people, the monarch and the English way of life. These changes occurred through autocratic rule; threats to life; confiscation of property; and the destruction of families and legacies.
In the 1530s, Henry was still without a legitimate male heir to the throne. Having a legitimate male heir was something of great importance in 16th century Europe. A young lady named Anne Boleyn who was his wife’s (Catherine of Aragon) Lady in Waiting also caught his eye and in many ways seduced Henry while encouraging him to marry her (Peal, 16). There were a few problems with this; Henry was married to Catherine, they had a child (Mary) and there was no way that the Catholic Church under Pope Clement VII (Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici) would annul their marriage. This was due in part to Catherine’s nephew, Charles V, being the Holy Roman Emperor and holding much influence over the Pope to never allow the annulment to go through. This battle between Henry, the Holy Roman Empire and the Holy See went on for six years until Henry took matters into his own hands. In 1533, Henry secretly married Anne (Peal, 6-7).
Some historians regard Anne Boleyn as a reformer who led Henry to dissolve his relationship with the Pope and move toward Protestantism, while others consider her a devout Catholic up to the point of her execution. There is yet another explanation, which is that she would support any means to become Queen of England (Ridgway, 2010). Henry and Anne had a daughter who would later become Queen Elizabeth I, but they could not bear a male heir and for one reason or another, Henry had her executed for treason. Henry would go on to wed four more times in his life and his third wife, Jane Seymour would bear a male heir, Edward VI.
In 1534, the English Parliament, which basically operated at the whim of the monarch, passed the Act of Supremacy which officially established the Church of England in a breakaway from the Bishop of Rome. Henry established himself and future English rulers as the “Supreme Head of the Church of England” (Peal, 7). Moreover, the clergy and people of England had to recognize him as such. The Act enabled the King to direct religion in the country in the way that he sees fit. In essence, by this Act, Henry expunged Catholicism which had been the predominant religion in England for centuries and changed the English belief system overnight. Henry also expected the entirety of the realm to follow suit or else suffer the consequences.
In the years following the passage of the Act of Supremacy, Henry was able to increase his wealth by confiscating Catholic Church property and land. Henry also dissolved monasteries and all these riches allowed Henry to increase his hostilities toward his historic enemies, particularly France. In addition, anybody within the realm who supported the Pope would be deemed treasonist, which was punishable by death (Hanson, 2017). To double down on this, Henry forced citizens and the clergy to acknowledge or swear the “Oath of Supremacy.” To put it simply, citizens had to swear that Henry was the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Those who refused to take this oath were convicted of treason, tortured and executed in some of the most horrific ways imaginable (Peal, 8).
As an aside, under the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI, with the advice of his uncle and Lord Protector Edward Seymour (1st Duke of Somerset) and the Archbishop of Canterbury (Thomas Cranmer - who was also an advisor to Henry with respect to the Act of Supremacy), banned anything that was deemed “Catholic.” This included crucifixes, stained glass windows, wall paintings, statues, certain ceremonies and traditions, and books (Peal, 11).
Henry and later his son, Edward and daughter Elizabeth would not tolerate anything but the new Church of England. The people of England were probably mortified because they were told what to believe and saw their traditions and history literally destroyed. It is no surprise that less than a century following the reigns of Henry, Edward and Elizabeth that the English sought a place where they could practice their religion as religious intolerance grew and grew with each subsequent monarch. Unfortunately, some who came to the New World practiced their own religious intolerance with fellow people of English descent and others (Salem witch trials come to mind and other persecutions that took place).
Thomas More had become one of the most trusted advisors and closest friends of Henry. He worked as an attorney and in other civic occupations in London and later became Lord Chancellor to the King. It could be argued that More was an external thinker who supported outworldly ideas and humanism. He looked to the Greek philosophy of politics as is evident in some of his writings, such as Utopia. His humanistic side is also made evident by his friendship and correspondence with Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch philosopher and humanist (Baker-Smith, 2014).
More was also a devout Catholic. It is plausible that More assisted Henry in his writing of Defence of the Seven Sacraments, which was his written defense of the Catholic Church following Martin Luther’s protest in 1521. More was considered a stalwart enemy of heresies of the Catholic religion and also considered the mere act of Luther’s teachings of something different than true Catholicism and as immoral. In essence, More viewed the ills of the Catholic Church as human in the sense that there are good people and not good people as part of the church. This included popes. However, More also believed that the doctrine of the Church came from God through the Pope or Christ’s vicar on earth. In other words, while certain actions of those who led or were a part of the Catholic Church could be deemed good or evil, the doctrine was never fallible. We know all this through More’s writings of Catholic doctrine, most of which was written while imprisoned in the Tower of London (Baker-Smith, 2014). With these beliefs of Thomas More, it is no surprise or doubt that he would ever take Henry’s oath to denounce the Pope and recognize Henry as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. For this, Thomas resisted Henry and stood by his own principles. Thomas did this peaceably and attempted his defense through power or persuasion and reason. Nonetheless, Henry could not tolerate opposition, especially from somebody as prominent in English society as More, and the King executed Thomas More by beheading. Following his death, Thomas More was regarded as a martyr for the Catholic faith and would later be canonized as a saint of the Catholic Church in 1935 (Baker-Smith, 2014).
In sum, Henry VIII created destruction when he could no longer tolerate something. When Lutheranism or Protestantism became popular, he would have none of it in England and burnt books and executed those who did not support Catholicism. When he could no longer tolerate his various wives, he went to great lengths to divorce them or even accuse them of treason and execute them. Finally, when he had a disagreement with Pope Clement and when the Pope could not support Henry’s divorce from Catherine, he destroyed anything and anybody determined to be Catholic. The question is, what did that accomplish? How was this destruction of innocent people and objects related to the real or perceived immorality of the institution? This destruction also did not discriminate. The tearing down of Catholicism and its history and traditions in 16th and 17th century England was the tearing down of that which was exceptional, non-confrontational and good. While there may also have been some immoral Catholics who were destroyed, the fact remained that the real and perceived problems in Rome continued to exist.
In some contrast to 16th and 17th century England, in recent weeks we have seen statues and historic references of some very horrible, controversial, little known or misunderstood people of the past taken down in various places throughout the United States. We have also seen other historic figures taken down, who history tells us, did some very good and important things. There are also other statues and monuments to certain figures who did some disastrous things that are not being touched. So, with the latest movement to delete out of our current society certain figures, there seems to be an issue of consistency. We have also seen demands to rename buildings, military bases and some cities. I am not going to get into the details of who was horrible, controversial, little known, misunderstood, good or disastrous. You can do your own research of these figures and make up your own mind to that end. The point that I am making is that these statues and names are history. These people lived and did what they did and nothing can change that. I think most people would agree that the statues of Confederate figures or of Roman Emperors are things that should not be admired. I view these statues and figures as reminders of people and historic events that people can research and learn about. There was also a reason as to why they were erected and we should understand those reasons before they are taken down. Who and what do these statues represent? What did they do? Why did they do the things they did? How can we prevent the immoral things that they did or contributed to from ever happening again? I think the same can be said of some of the places we visit. Are the pyramids and the Roman Colosseum astounding and are people amazed at what they see? I would venture to say yes and I can speak for myself and confirm that I am amazed by Colosseum (I have not visited the pyramids yet). However, knowing what I know of what occurred at the Colosseum, what was done there and how the pyramids were built, I am not in the least bit supportive of any of those aspects. In fact, I loathe how the pyramids were built and the carnage that went on in the Colosseum. Same thing goes for the Tower of London where many of Henry’s prisoners were tortured - physically and psychologically, as well as the various Nazi concentration camps that are preserved to this day in Europe. These abhorrent events occurred and there is nothing that we can do in the present to change the fact that they occurred. The only thing we can do is learn and take a civilized approach to action to ensure that history doesn't repeat itself.
Henry VIII and his two children, Edward VI and Elizabeth I went to extraordinary ends to delete any inkling of Catholicism from the English Realm. Their destruction in their own country and to their own people were such that, we in the present, will not know what existed and why. Their destruction was also not civilized. It was forced and violent. Unfortunately, this happens time and time again in history. These acts also occurred under the Confederacy, the lives and families that were destroyed through slavery, the terrorism and murder that occurred under Nazi rule, and so on.
My purpose in providing an overview of Henry VIII and his actions as they dealt with his support and then disregard for Catholicism, as well as his Act of Supremacy does not have a political position one way or another and is by no means a comparison of what is going on today, except to say that certain aspects of history are being taken away or destroyed without civil discourse. The depiction of Henry is an extreme example to show his irrationality of what he destroyed and what can be learned from his actions. It also serves the purpose of comparing a destructor of history (Henry VIII) versus somebody who made his points and stuck to his principles in a very civilized way through his writings and influence as an attorney and highly regarded thinker (Thomas More). Henry was unable to live in harmony with those who did not agree with him. Thomas More, while he had his differences with those he disagreed with, made his disputes and his points in a civilized manner in order to change minds and hearts.
Where do we go from here? The taking down of statues and other historic artifacts is a very complex situation and not easily resolved, yet those statues and names are history and have meaning (good, bad or indifferent) that may not be apparent without doing some significant research. While I do not think that certain statues need a place of prominence in various communities, I do think they need to be preserved and we need to learn from them. It may also help to know why these statues were erected and are located where they are. The existence of a particular piece or representation of history may peak the interest of somebody who is emboldened to teach or civilly influence and engage in discourse for positive change to our society.
Baker-Smith, Dominic, “Thomas More,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, March 19, 2014, Accessed: June 29, 2020.
Conacher, J.B., “The Reformation in England: A Reconsideration of Henry VIII’s Break from Rome.” University of Toronto, Toronto, 1955, Accessed: June 25, 2020.
Hanson, Marilee. "The 1534 Act of Supremacy,” February 16, 2017, Accessed: June 27, 2020.
Peal, Robert, “Henry VIII and the Reformation,” Harper Collins, London, 2016, Accessed: June 22, 2020.
Ridgway, Claire, “Anne Boleyn and the Reformation,” The Anne Boleyn Files: Tudor history since 2009,” March 29, 2010, Accessed: June 27, 2020.