These imponderables came to mind as I was reading The Mirror And The Light, the final part of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, who was for many years a close advisor to Henry VIII and one of the driving forces behind the English Reformation.
The series has caused controversy in some quarters. Catholics have questioned Mantel’s strongly negative presentation of Thomas More, the scholar and Lord Chancellor of England. He was eventually executed in 1535 after refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy, a vow which all clergy and public officials were required to take which affirmed Henry as the head of the English church, and denied the Pope’s authority (a version of it was still required of MPs and students at Oxford well into the nineteenth century). As well as her attitude to More and the other early English martyrs like Bishop John Fisher, Mantel is clearly sympathetic to the Reformation in general. I’d also say that she doesn’t quite capture the depth and texture of English Christianity at the time. For a book about the same period and the same issues which does manage this, I often recommend to people HFM Prescott’s The Man On A Donkey.
That said, Mantel is undoubtedly a very gifted novelist.
Over 1900 pages across three books, she draws together with remarkable skill many complex narrative threads to paint a picture of life at and around the English court in the 1530s. There is obviously a great depth and breadth of research behind the series, which has been her major literary project for a decade and a half. As long as we bear in mind that there are certain prejudices operating in the background, and that they are ultimately historical fiction not history, they are entertaining and enlightening. They will almost certainly get you thinking about counterfactuals – the “what ifs” of history.
Some academic historians are a bit sniffy about counterfactuals, viewing them as a kind of parlour game, an exercise in imaginative speculation rather than scholarship. Nevertheless, they are great fun — and the beginning of the Reformation in England is packed with fascinating ones. I noted a couple at the start of this post, but there are plenty of others.
If Henry VIII had died in 1536, after the death of Anne Boleyn and before marrying his third wife Jane Seymour, England would have remained a Catholic country. Or would it?
Perhaps Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon might have been annulled after all in the 1520s, if the political pressures acting on Pope Clement VII had lined up differently. Then England might have remained within the Catholic fold. Or maybe not – forms of Protestantism were already becoming influential in London and south-east England by the 1520s, and the difficulties between the English Crown and the papacy were not solely to do with Henry’s desire for a legitimate son. English monarchs had bickered intermittently with Rome, usually about money or control of the Church, for several hundred years. However, Henry’s project to build a stronger and more centralised state meant that these quarrels would likely have acquired a new urgency in his time even without the problem of his failure to father a son with Catherine of Aragon.
For my money, the most thought-provoking alternative histories centre on what might have happened if Henry had died in the mid-1530s, before his son Edward appeared on the scene.
[Counterfactuals] are great fun — and the beginning of the Reformation in England is packed with fascinating ones.
At that point the main legislation establishing the English Church’s independence was in place. The liturgy and belief of most English Christians were still essentially Catholic nonetheless. Many monasteries remained intact. Catholic beliefs remained dominant in the nobility and gentry. The most plausible candidate for the throne, Mary, was devout and loyal to Rome. We’ll never know, but that’s the beauty of it.
Counterfactuals may not be real history but thinking about what could have happened and what might have happened can certainly help us understand what did happen.
Niall Gooch is a regular Chapter House columnist. He also contributes to UnHerd.
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