How would King Henry VIII react to the news that Cardinal Vincent Nichols will preside at Catholic Vespers in the Chapel Royal of Hampton Court Palace on February 9? Not just by turning in his grave (which anyway might be difficult since it is possible, if not probable, that his daughter Mary, when she became queen, had his tomb opened and his embalmed body burnt). No, there would be seething, bewildered anger and ruthless revenge immediately planned.
He was hard on English cardinals anyway. Cardinal Wolsey, who built magnificent Hampton Court (too magnificent for Henry’s comfort), would probably have lost his head had he not died a natural death a few days before facing a rigged trial for high treason. When John Fisher was given a red hat on the eve of martyrdom, Henry famously vowed that the bishop would never have a head to put it on – and carried out his threat.
And then there was the king’s cousin, Cardinal Reginald Pole, who had fled his homeland long before and become so dangerous an enemy that Henry made desperate efforts to have him kidnapped or assassinated. When these failed he took revenge by putting Pole’s mother, Blessed Margaret, in the Tower and eventually butchered her.
Cardinal Nichols’s presence at Hampton Court would be especially galling in that he is Archbishop of Westminster and a senior member of a nationwide Catholic hierarchy appointed by Rome, in communion with the Pope and confident that it is an authentic, organic part of the Church Universal. Henry thought he had got rid of all that and had set up an independent national Church with him as its lord and master. He would be outraged to know that the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster and his brother bishops had an “alternative” set of cathedrals and dioceses, and that there had long been houses of monks, friars and nuns in England once more.
We can never know exactly what Henry believed and what he really thought his “Catholicism without the pope” meant. Yes, he allegedly “heard” Mass often, that is, he (probably) was within hearing distance while going about his early morning rounds. In his younger days he “crept” to the Cross on Good Fridays and went “devoutly” to Walsingham. And, of course, he wrote (with a good deal of help) that celebrated book against Luther which won him the title of Defender of the Faith – a papal award which, incongruously, is still part of the royal style.
Henry was theologically alert and informed, and could hold his own with any divine. But his faith was surely only skin deep. The royal supremacy was above all about power and prestige. The Church which he had delivered from the Roman “yoke” he bled white with merciless taxation. He showed little interest in its spiritual renewal. He certainly flirted with Lutherans when it suited him and had no qualms about importing a Protestant princess to be his fourth wife. Most remarkably, he knew full well that the primate of all England, Thomas Cranmer, was, as he said, “the biggest heretic in Kent”, but the archbishop was too useful in untangling his matrimonial problems to be censured, let alone deposed.
And then we must consider his assault on the religious orders. True enough, many of them were easy targets, but to have destroyed hundreds of monasteries, friaries and nunneries in a mere three and a half years was a colossal “achievement”. Henry masterminded it at every stage, with Thomas Cromwell his tireless agent. The whole operation was a devastatingly clever amalgam of false promises, smear campaigns, deception, blackmail, bribery and brutality.
There was a serious threat of an aristocratic attempt (backed, if not initiated, by John Fisher) to unseat Henry in 1534-5. It misfired. In 1536 Henry faced what was probably the largest protest movement in English history, the Pilgrimage of Grace.
It could have proved lethal, but Henry managed to disperse it. In 1539-40 he faced an apparently even greater threat. The mighty Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, hitherto constantly distracted by wars and rumours of wars, had made peace with France and indeed was spending months there enjoying lavish hospitality. Could there not now be an invasion of England, blessed by the pope (Paul III, who was eager for such a crusade) to destroy Henry and put his daughter Mary on the throne? She would marry Reginald Pole, who had as good a claim to the throne as did Henry (and though a cardinal was still a layman).
Thus would England be returned to the Catholic fold. It was in the face of this that the infamous Act of Six Articles was rushed through Parliament. Devised by Henry, it was “ultra-Catholic”, affirming transubstantiation, Communion under one kind only, the importance of celibacy and so on. It was intended simply to disarm pope and emperor and thus ward off the threat of invasion.
To make the point more clearly, Henry had three leading English Lutherans found guilty of radical heresies they did not profess – and burnt. He then pounced on Thomas Cromwell, accusing him of gross heresy and, ignoring his ever-loyal minister’s pitiful pleas for mercy, had him executed. Then, to placate Protestants, he also martyred (quietly) three Catholic priests who had refused to accept the royal supremacy.
In the event, Charles had so many other things to worry about that the invasion scare soon passed. Meanwhile, the Act of Six Articles was quietly forgotten. It had served its purpose.
In his later years Henry began to look and behave like a monster: grossly overweight, stinking, capricious, secretive and sadistic.
It is more than difficult to see him as anything else. He thought he was a Catholic (but not a Roman one). But his Catholicism was self-deception, a disguise for his egoism. If Mary really did exhume his body and have it burnt, she did something that today we find more than distasteful; but one can understand why she did it.
Professor Jack Scarisbrick is national chairman of Life. His book Henry VIII, first published in 1968, remains the standard account of the monarch’s life