Reformation on the Record: Suzannah Lipscomb on Henry VIII and the break with Rome
Reformation on the Record was a two-day conference which brought together research using original records of Church and State from our collection to explore this period of religious, social and economic turmoil.
In this talk, historian, broadcaster and award-winning academic Dr Suzannah Lipscomb explores one of the fundamental turning points of the 16th century Reformation: Henry VIII’s separation from the Roman Catholic Church.
The National Archives Podcast series.
This talk is called Henry VIII and the break with Rome.
It was presented by Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb as part of the Reformation on the Record conference, held on the 3rd November 2017 at the National Archives, Kew.
[Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb]
I want to start somewhere slightly odd, with the story of London’s first gun crime. On the morning of 13th of November 1536. It was a cold and misty morning, nevertheless Robert Packington rose early as he always did. Packington was a London mercer, or a dealer in fine fabrics, silks, velvets and the like, and he lived on Soper Lane, at the Sign of the Leg in earshot of the great bells of Bow.
Packington wasn’t a true cockney, he’d been born in Worcestershire in around 1489, which makes him about 46 years old that morning. Though he would have heard the bells of Bow, the signature sound of the capital every day. Church bells were how people told the time in Tudor England.
Soper Lane was just off Cheapside. Cheapside was the principle market and thoroughfare of the capital. It was broader than any other street in the city and lined with half-timbered buildings that rose to three or even five storeys high and every day from Monday to Saturday traders sold fruit and vegetables, poultry and milk, honey and flowers on Cheapside.
It was particularly famed though for its huge merchant’s mansions, its huge ornamental fountains and its luxury shops, selling leather goods, millinery and haberdashery. At the western end were the really high-end shops: the mercers and the goldsmiths. Despite its name “in Cheapside make nothing cheap be sold” said one 16th century writer called Tom Telltruth, so obviously he knew what he was talking about.
And so Packington, although he wasn’t rich he was one of these well off mercers. According to the chronicler Edward Hall, he was a man of good substance.
When he died he left cash bequests of over £300. He was also known for being honest and wise; his integrity was so well regarded that he had just been made a Warden of the Mercers Company and he’d been made a burgess of Parliament for the city of London. In fact, he’d just been re-elected to the Commons in 1536, so these days we may not make direct links between parliament and moral probity but obviously at the time they did.
And he was religious; come winter or summer, Packington rose at 4am in the morning leaving behind his wife Katherine and his five children, to go to mass at St Thomas of Acre, just off Soper Lane and across Cheapside. So no more than 30 or 40 yards from his house. Despite having moved to the capital from the countryside, he actually would have lived out his whole adult life in this small triangle of his house and his church and his shop.
So on the morning of the 13th of November it didn’t matter therefore that it was misty. He probably knew the area like the back of his hand and he was just crossing the street from his house to the church when he was suddenly murdered with a gun. A crowd of labourers were standing nearby and they heard the clap of the gun and they saw him fall.
But it turned out that it did matter that it was misty that morning. Because of the mist they couldn’t see who shot him. The chronicler Charles Riseley tells us “it was not known who slew him”. Hall adds “the deed doer was never espied nor known”. A proclamation was later made by the Mayor asking for information and offering compensation “if any man can tell tidings how he might be known, he shall have a great reward”. But no information was forthcoming. Packington, meanwhile, died of his wound.
Now London’s first gun crime is intimately tied up with the story of Henry VIII and his break with Rome, because Packington’s blood, like that of so many others over the course of the 16th century, was spilt because of divisions about faith. Because there’s something crucial that we know about Packington. He was described as one of the brethren – he was friends with Thomas Cromwell, by this point Henry’s First Minister, and one not much given to Roman Catholicism.
At Packington’s funeral a famous Evangelist called Robert Barns, [we’ll come back to him], preached the sermon, and the wording that Packington had chosen for the preamble to his will didn’t mention the Virgin Mary or the Saints. And finally Packington was known and remembered as a merchant who used to bring English bibles from over the sea. In short, he was what would later be called a Protestant.
But he died on his way to hear mass. The idea that there would be two binary categories of faith, Catholic and Protestant, and in fact that the whole history of this country would be determined by them, wasn’t yet known. In fact the category hadn’t yet crystallised; they hadn’t been carved out in full, each cut of the blade painfully cleaving one into two.
In Henry VIII’s England, the word ‘protestant’ was generally used to describe the followers of Martin Luther. So those we might be tempted to call ‘Protestant’ in the 1530s, those who were interested in reading the bible in English, who thought the veneration of the Virgin Mary and the saints unnecessary, who thought confession to priests unhelpful, they were known as ‘Evangelicals’. And these Evangelicals wanted an unmediated faith; they wanted engagement with the scriptures themselves. They didn’t need saints to pray for them. They didn’t require priests to offer them absolution.
But these Evangelicals still took the mass and believed that the bread and wine did actually become Christ’s body and blood in the miracle of transubstantiation. In fact in Henry VIII’s England it was illegal not to believe that. So Packington was an Evangelical.
In 1536 it wasn’t yet legal to own a copy of the bible in English, which is why Packington had to bring them from across the seas. In fact he was probably importing copies of William Tyndale’s New Testament. It was banned in England, as Dermott McCullough has pointed out, because it had controversially reinterpreted key words. Like the Greek word ‘metan noete’. In the Latin Vulgate bible, this has been rendered “do penance”, meaning that sinners confessed their sins to a priest and received absolution in return for doing good works. A penance to compensate the sin. But ‘metan noete’ from ‘meta noete’, comes from ‘meta’ meaning ‘after’ and ‘nous’ meaning ‘thought’ or ‘mind’ It’s an afterthought. It’s a rethinking. It’s about changing one’s mind and one’s heart.
So Tyndale translated it into English as repent. Repent that was a psychological attitude. It was something you could do alone before God and you didn’t need priests to help. So the retranslation of this one word had huge implications for the Church.
Meta noie had been the first of Luther’s 95 thesis. Some 19 years before Packington’s murder and 500 years ago, this week, on the 31st of October 1517, a little-known monk and Doctor of Theology called Martin Luther probably nailed his 95 thesis, (probably), to a church door in Wittenburg.
A long list of points for disputation, this was the normal way of starting academic debate. Luther’s main point of contention in the thesis was that the indulgences that had been issued by the Pope to pay for the building of the basilica of St Peters were dishonest and deceitful. In doing so he attacked two of the pillars on which Christendom was built.
Pillar number one, the Pope; considered to be a direct spiritual descendant of St Peter, he was the heart of medieval Catholicism. International Christian society was united by its obedience and allegiance to the Pope.
And the second pillar was purgatory. This is the idea that there was a place of purging that one went to after death. The idea behind this was that confession to a priest guaranteed forgiveness from God. But it was thought that there was still a debt to be paid off, which could be worked off in purgatory or paid off through penance. Or you could get an indulgence, a certificate that released you from some of the suffering in purgatory. This could be granted by the Pope or by his bishops in exchange for the performance of the specific good work or say, some money.
For Christians, most of the Christians anyway, this was an optimistic and hopeful thing. Purgatory itself was a time limited period of suffering but with an indulgence you could speed up your journey through purgatory, or for your loved ones who were already dead.
But to Luther the sale of indulgences to raise money for the Basilica was profoundly corrupt. It wasn’t helped that in Germany the sales were handled by a bullying friar called Johannes Tetzel. Tetzel claimed that the indulgences were so efficacious that even if a person had raped the Virgin Mary, one of these indulgences would be enough to buy them complete remission from their time in purgatory.
Luther didn’t think this was quite right. In fact Luther was devastated that ordinary people were being conned into buying their salvation from people who had no authority to give it. And his 95 thesis were a way of drawing attention to the problem.
And it was only when the Pope refused to do anything to reform the system of indulgences that Luther concluded that there must be something completely wrong with the whole system of church authority. The Pope must be fallible and therefore the only infallible source of religious authority must be Scripture. It was a conclusion that got him excommunicated.
And then in one of history’s great ironies the man who refuted Luther’s ideas, who published a book deriding him and defending the Pope in 1521, Henry VIII, King of England, was rewarded with title ‘fide defence’, defender of the faith for so doing. A title he became quite attached to.
But Henry VIII’s asserto septem sacramentorum, the defence of the seven sacraments, wasn’t sufficient protection for England against the spread of Lutheranism. The excitement of Luther’s ideas was contagious. The pathogen was quickly broadcast through the next mechanism of the printing press. Some of Luther’s followers thought this was serendipitous to the point of providence and we know that copies of Luther’s sermons were circulating in English from 1534, which is probably how Packington came across these ideas, because he suddenly wasn’t afraid to speak out about them. We know this because the chroniclers described Packington as being a man of great courage, one who could both speak and also would be heard.
So he was a man of influence, a man who bravely denounced those things that he thought were wrong. And what he thought was wrong was the covetousness and cruelty of the clergy. Now if I had been giving you this lecture 30 or 40 years ago, now I would focus entirely on the sense of the need for reforming the church, before this point, because there were many people at this time who thought that the church did need reforming and who ridiculed its excesses.
People like Thomas Moore and Erasmus, people who didn’t go on to become Protestants but, who though that there needed to be some change. They were called Humanists. Now we need to separate this from the modern use of the term. Very few of these 16th century humanists rejected theism, but what they did reject was the excesses. They thought that religion had become a matter of externalities and not a matter of conscience and heart.
And like these Humanists, Packington was concerned about the abuses in the church. The covetousness of the clergy. By this he could have meant a reference to the sickeningly wealthy bishops who were enriched by the practice of simony, the sale of church offices. Or pluralism, the holding of more than one benefit at a time. Or perhaps he took issue with the income from indulgences, as Luther had done.
But he also mentioned the cruelty of the clergy. Perhaps he was referring to their lack of care for their flock, or for the deceit practised with fantastical relics, such as a straw from the manger at Bethlehem, some wine from Canaan or a feather from an archangel’s wing.
A couple of years after Packington’s death the revered Rood of Grace from Boxley Abbey in Kent, which had been said to be moved by the power of god to do miracles, was taken to the court at Whitehall where it was shown to be moved by strings and pulleys. A chronicler tells us that the monks at Boxley had time out of mind, gotten rich in deceiving the people.
But in the early 1530s Packington was one of only a small number of people who were bothered by such things. Recent revisionist research, by people like Eamonn Duffy and Christopher Hague, has done a good job of reminding us that in fact the pre-Reformation English church was far from being universally disliked. Duffy and Hague’s research has highlighted the strength and rigour of the late medieval church; it had not been an organisation in crisis, it had been spiritually rigorous, its devotional life was flourishing on the eve of the Reformation, on the eve of the break with Rome. Its practises brought solace to the vast majority who would have been a great attachment to the colour the pageantry sights sounds and smells of traditional religion.
Hague concluded that Protestantism couldn’t even have been attractive to the lower levels of grass roots of society because of the high levels of illiteracy, and reformation was therefore mostly not expected nor welcome. The Reformation in England, in other words, was not unleashed by a groundswell of people who shared Packington’s views, but by a seemingly unconnected phenomenon in the 1520’s.
The King who had refuted Luther wanted to annul his marriage to a wife who, as coincidence would have it, shared her name with Robert Packington’s spouse. She was called Catherine. From around 1527 onwards, after nearly 20 years of marriage, (it’s worth bearing in mind that the length of their marriage was almost double the length of all Henry’s other marriages put together), Henry had sought to separate from his wife Catherine of Aragon. This is in large part because although poor Catherine had been pregnant six times, the couple had experienced a heartbreaking series of miscarriages, stillbirths and infant mortalities. Only one daughter, Princess Mary, had survived.
By 1527 Catherine was in her 40s and perhaps had even gone through menopause. Henry had no reason to think she would conceive again and he needed a male heir, as you all know. Henry, and most people at the time, believed that one of his primary responsibilities as King was to provide an adult male heir by the time he died, and the reason for this is quite simple. He thought that he needed a son of, say, 15 in order to secure the dynasty, to ensure a peaceful transition. A daughter just wouldn’t do, because princesses could be married off to foreign rulers.
So if therefore his daughter was married off, then this foreign ruler could dominate England, or if they married a member of the nobility, then there would be infighting. And a woman also had never successfully ruled England before, so he needed a boy and he also needed to get on with it because he needed a boy of 15, because children couldn’t rule on their own. They had to have regents or groups of counsellors and as you know from the Wars of the Roses, there had been disputes over regencies and over minorities, endangering the security and peace and prosperity of the country in recent years.
So he worried that if he didn’t have one or more than one legitimate sons by the time he was in his 30s, then he might easily die in his 50s without an adult heir. And he had good reason to worry; his grandfathers had died at the age of 26 and 41, his father at 52.
Henry became convinced possibly, even genuinely, that his lack of a surviving legitimate male heir meant that he was in some way being punished by God. He suspected that the reason was that the Pope had granted a dispensation allowing him to marry his brother Arthur’s widow, when Arthur had died in 1502. In 1529, according to George Cavendish, Henry stated that “a certain scrupulosity pricked my conscience which doubt pricked, vexed and troubled so my mind and so disquieted me, that I was in great doubt of Gods indignation, which as it seemed to appear to me as right well, for all for all such issues male as I have received of the queen died incontinent after they were born so I doubt the punishment of god in that behalf. Thus being troubled in waves of the scrupulous conscience and partly in despair of any issue by her it drave me at last to consider the estate of the realm and the danger it stood for the lack of male issue to succeed me in this imperial dignity”.
The lack of a male was a real problem. But his scrupulosity of conscience happened to coincide with him falling in love with Anne Boleyn. Henry probably noticed Anne Boleyn at some point in 1525 to 1526. She wasn’t beautiful, this picture from the late 16th century painted when her daughter was Queen, is probably flattering, but she was witty, bright and sophisticated. Henry had previously had an affair with her sister. There was a moment later in life when Henry was asked whether he had indeed had an affair with Anne’s sister and with her mother and he replied gruffly, “Never with the mother”.
But he sought a divorce from Catherine from 1527. We have a letter from him to Anne which has been dated to 1527 saying that he had been, by that point, struck for more than a year by the dart of love. He was quite the romantic. Even the Pope was astonished that Henry didn’t just take Anne as his mistress. And the traditional explanation for why Henry wanted to marry Anne was that unlike her sister, Anne refused to consummate their relationship before marriage, holding out, we’re told, for the greater prize of being Queen. I suspect, however, that they both decided to wait until they were legally and legitimately married to consummate their union.
What they needed was a legitimate male heir; if they had a child along the way it would have hindered the King’s great matter as it was known. And it was also the fact that contraception was unreliable and unappealing at best. But there was also the reason of character. Henry throughout his life was very legalistic. He liked things to conform to the letter of the law. He wanted the world to be recast as he saw it. He wanted it to be declared that it had never been right for him to marry Catherine of Aragon, his brother’s widow, and that therefore he was single and it was perfectly alright for him to marry Anne Boleyn. He wanted to be right.
In May 1527 therefore, the Kings 1st First Minister, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, presided over a secret trial at Westminster designed to test the validity of Henry’s marriage to Catherine. And it found astonishingly, that the dispensation that had been granted in 1500, allowing him to marry Arthur’s widow had been inadequate and their marriage therefore was unlawful.
So in September 1527, Henry’s envoy William Knight was sent to Rome to get this sort of ratified by the Pope. He went with two pre-prepared Papal Bulls for the Pope to put his signature to. The first was to allow Henry to take a second wife while still married to Catherine. This was a proposal that was fairly rapidly dropped, and the second was a dispensation for when Henry’s marriage to Catherine was declared invalid allowing the King to marry a woman with whom he had affinity.
The Roman Catholic Church in the medieval period had a long and complicated list of degrees of affinity and consanguinity that is relationships by blood or sex or marriage that prevented a lawful marriage. And Henry had had to get a dispensation in order to marry Catherine because she had been married to his brother. Ironically of course though because of the affair with Anne’s sister he needed to get exactly the same sort of dispensation to marry her. Now he pretty much took it for granted that his annulment to Catherine would be granted and with good reason, because while annulments of marriages were not common, they weren’t unusual. Louis XII had had his marriage annulled in 1498 and Henry’s own sister Margaret Tudor, Dowager Queen of Scotland, had had her second marriage to the Earl of Angus annulled by the Pope Clement 7th in March 1527.
The problem for Henry was that his timing was off by a mere matter of months. William Knight was finally admitted to the Pope’s presence in December 1527, but in May 1527 troops belonging to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, had sacked Rome and Pope Clement 7th, who had granted an annulment to Henry’s sister, was by this point being kept prisoner in his own castle at St Angelo.
Charles V just happened to be Catherine of Aragon’s nephew. The response that the Pope could give therefore depended on the favour of Charles V and Charles was not about to let his aunt be besmirched by the dishonour of a divorce.
So what did the Pope do? He bought time. He appointed his representative in England, Wolsey, to try the case and he said that he would send an additional papal legate, Cardinal Lorenzo Campaggio, to help Wolsey judge the case. But still concerned about upsetting Charles V, he prevaricated further.
There was a massive delay about Campaggio’s departure. Campaggio finally set out in June 1528 and he arrived in England two months later. But he was under secret orders to drag the business out as long as possible. Six months after Campeggio’s arrival therefore, the trial had not yet begun. So when we get to early 1529 we still have nobody in England seriously predicting a break with Rome.
Finally in July 1529, the trial opened to consider the validity of Henry and Catherine’s marriage and it was almost immediately scuppered by Catherine herself. Unexpectedly she appeared in person, protesting that she couldn’t get a fair trial in England and refusing to accept the judges’ authority and giving notice of her appeal to Rome.
So accordingly Pope Clement 7th revoked the case to Rome. Two years had already passed since Henry sought his annulment and it is at this juncture that Henry lost faith in Wolsey and realised he wasn’t going to get his annulment from the Pope. Wolsey was arrested and Henry started to look for another plan, which he found both in scripture and in Anne Boleyn’s advice. In late 1529, Henry appointed a team of theological experts led by Thomas Cranmer, to study the scriptures for him. For about two years this team of scholars and royal agents, gathered evidence to buttress Henry’s claim that the annulment was justified, but also that it should be decided in England and not in Rome. The manuscript compilation they got together was produced in November 1532 and it was called collectanea satis copiosa, the sufficiently full collection.
It argued on the basis of two verses from Leviticus; these stated that the union of a man and the wife of his brother was contrary to the law of God. That any papal dispensation, in other words saying that it could allow it, was worthless and if one did marry ones brother’s widow then they would be childless. The King’s lack of an heir was divine judgment. Now never mind that there’s a verse in Deuteronomy saying the exact opposite of those in Leviticus and never mind that Henry and Catherine weren’t actually childless. One of the team, Robert Wakefield, a leading expert in Hebrew, discovered that on close examination the word childless in Hebrew actually meant a lack of sons.
The second plank of Henry’s new plan was the growing warmth he felt towards ideas of royal supremacy. In other words, that he himself should be head of the church in England not the Pope. In fact the historian J J Scarisbrick was so convinced of Henry’s growing commitment to the principle of royal supremacy that he asserted that if there had been no divorce Henry might yet have taken issue with the church.
But crucially Anne Boleyn helped him along. And this is where the story connects up again with Evangelicals like Packington. Anne had been influenced during her years in France by Evangelical beliefs. She was almost certainly one herself and at some point after 1528 Anne had given Henry a copy of William Tyndale’s, The Obedience of the Christian Man. This was an Evangelical work that asserted that the papal claim to authority over Kings was “not only a shame but a shame above all shames and a notorious thing”. In other words, it was shameful for princes to submit to the power of the church – it defied and inverted Gods order. And Henry said this is the book for me and all Kings to read, because it enabled him to transfer all that obedience, all that deference that he had felt for the Pope back in 1521, to himself.
In legal terms this meant English sovereignty. Over the next few years therefore the doctrine of the royal supremacy and thereby the break with Rome was turned into law, through a series of acts of parliament.
Firstly in January 1531 Henry issued a charge of prima minary against the whole of the clergy of England. This was treason for obedience to a foreign power, the Pope, and he was however very generous in granting them all a pardon in exchange for the mere some of 100 thousand pounds.
Secondly Parliament passed in 1533, the boringly named but absolutely crucial Act in Restraint of Appeals and the preamble to this claimed “by diverse sundry old authentic histories and chronic it is manifestly declared and expressed that this realm of England is an empire”. Now, being an empire meant that no foreign ruler could have authority over England. It made the King the final legal authority in matters religious and secular, it meant that Catherine couldn’t taker her claim back to Rome. And this is what people mean when they talk about the break with Rome being the first Brexit.
As a result of this Henry and Anne married officially on the 4th of May 1533. In fact they probably already married twice before, certainly privately in January 1533 and we think probably secretly in Oct 1532. For example, Princess Elizabeth was born in Sept 1533. You do the math. All of this, the three marriages, weddings were before the 23rd of May 1533, when Thomas Cranmer, Henry’s newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine null and void. Henry as a result of this was promptly excommunicated by the Pope.
And then thirdly we have the final crucial act which sealed the deal, as it were, which sealed the break with Rome, which was passed in 1534 which declared that Henry VIII was supreme head of the Church of England. In fact it says he always had been, it’s just that they hadn’t noticed it. The following year, 1535, Cromwell’s squads assessed the wealthiest set-ups in the country and in 1536 they hit.
Packington you’ll notice, was shot on his way to his church, St Thomas of Acre, a church that was founded in 1227 at the birthplace of St Thomas Beckett, who famously of course obeyed the Pope rather than the King, and it was also the Headquarters of the Knights of St Thomas. Two years after Packington’s death, their order was dissolved and their properties were forfeited to the Crown, and in fact this was just one of 33 great religious houses in London that were dissolved and despoiled between the year of Packington’s death and 1540.
The priory church of Christ Church Aldgate was torn down stone by stone. Others like Charterhouse were repurposed as schools and as hospitals. And in fact these 33 in London were just a small proportion of the 800 religious houses across the country that were suppressed in those four short years.
At around the time that Packington died the great dismantling of the religious houses had begun. 1536 was the year that Henry started to exercise the powers of his new supremacy. It was an act of incalculable cultural vandalism. Valuable medieval libraries were ransacked, irreplaceable jewellery was dissipated, tombs were plundered and profaned, precious plate was melted down. The monasteries were directly re-deployed to magnify and defend the new supremacy. The wealth went into the building of Hampton Court just down the road and Nonesuch palace and it was spent on coastal fortifications to defend against a French or Spanish invasion.
The Pope by this time had issued a Papal Bull that anyone who wanted could invade and take the King of England’s throne. Monastic church bells were melted down to make cannon. Bow Bells in London may have survived, but many others did not. Across the country somewhere between a third and fifth of all the lands of England which had been in the possession of the church, came into the possession of the King. And they were sold through the offices of the Court of Augmentations who enriched themselves in the process. As chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, Sir Richard Riches name turned out to be apt.
The ruins that we see scattered across our landscape today are testifying to the scale of the loss. It was the greatest redistribution of land since the Norman Conquest. It was the largest windfall of cash for the crown in the history of England, and it’s estimated to be over a billion pounds today.
It was also an act of political genius in another way because it bound the population into Henry’s decision to break with Rome. The dissolution of the monasteries distributed church lands, plate and possessions into the eager hands of the ruling classes.
You don’t get Downton Abbey if you don’t have the dissolution. And when Henrys catholic daughter Mary tried to re-found the monasteries, she found that the gentry and nobility of England, no matter how devout, now had a vested interest in not allowing the lands to be repossessed.
But besides wealth there is another possible explanation for dissolution. After the supremacy, Henry seems to come to see himself in a kind of new role, as a sort of old testament King or prophet like a David or a Josiah with responsibilities before god for purifying the worship of the land and for purging idols.
We can see this in several different places. So this is a mural that was at Whitehall palace from 1537, a massive 12ft by 9ft mural. The palace burnt down in 1698, but we have this small copy of it and it’s the picture of course we all know of Henry. But he’s not at the centre – at the centre we’ve got this stone plinth comparing the achievements of Henry VII and those of Henry VIII and Henry VIII’s are putting down the presumption of the Pope and restoring true religion.
This is how Henry liked to see himself. He also commissioned a series of tapestries for Hampton Court from 1540 onwards, which told the story of Abraham. Another man who had a son late in life, had a covenant with God to lead his people out and had a hotline to the divine. Who could Henry have been thinking of? And in 1543 his book of doctrine stated that “by the help of god and his word the King had travailed to purge and cleanse our realm”.
For other people of course the dissolution had consequences. For the poor it removed their system of support and welfare. It’s no wonder that those who rebelled against the King’s supremacy and the dissolution in 1536, in the largest peacetime rebellion in history between the peasant’s revolt and the civil war, known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, re-founded monasteries as they marched south. It wasn’t until the Elizabethan poor laws that some seventy years later, that anything like the degree of welfare provision was put back in place.
Now some historians suggest that really all Henry had done with the break with Rome was to adopt a sort of Catholicism without the Pope. But the destruction of the monasteries meant that Henry actually went a lot further than just rejecting the Pope.
Because he removed the powerhouses of prayer for the souls of the dead, which had been an essential component of a salvation theology, incorporating purgatory and this meant that two and not just one, of the pillars of medieval Catholicism had been struck out by England’s power hungry King.
For the time being the third and final pillar remained, teetering. The third pillar was the Mass, which Robert Packington was on his way to receive. As Richard Rex puts it, “as long as the chief religious service was the Latin mass, then the heart of Catholicism was still beating, even if the body was horribly mutilated”.
Henry VIII retained the Latin Mass in all its beauty until his death and he personally oversaw the trial and execution of the Sacramentarian John Lambert, who believed that the bread and wine did not literally become Christ’s body in blood but were symbols. Such a belief was heresy in Henry VIII’s England.
But just months after Packington, who of course you remember who brought English bibles from over the sea, after he died the Evangelicals did achieve one great victory. It became legal in England to print bibles in English, in fact the year after that a great bible was commissioned. It was ordered in September 1538 that an English bible should be put in every parish church in the land and extracts should be read out every Sunday.
And I think the frontispiece again shows us Henry as he wanted to be remembered, directly under what can only be described as a rather squashed God, munificently handing out the word of God to his people. Why did he allow the reading of the bible in English? Well, take this piece of evidence and add on this, a picture that Henry had hanging in his own long gallery at Hampton Court and it gives us the answer. It’s called Stoning the Pope, and those men holding stones are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Only the bible and of course a very wise King could crush the Pope.
Now some like Packington would have thought these changes a good thing, a genuinely exciting thing, that Luther’s ideas were bringing freedom and liberation from guilt and shame, and an intense religious experience, and emotional fulfilment. But there were also many who conformed to the will of the King against their conscience, and they were forced to do so, because putting the supremacy in law had not been enough for Henry VIII, he wanted the whole Kingdom to be complicit in his decision, even in their thoughts.
To that end he required an oath that everybody, (well, all men), should swear which would be to be true to Queen Anne and to believe and take her for the lawful wife of the King and the rightful Queen of England and utterly to think the lady Mary, daughter by the King and Catherine but as a bastard and thus do without any scrupulosity of conscience. In other words, Henry was allowed scruples but no one else was. Everybody was forced to agree to the King’s divorce from Catherine and because of what it said in the preamble to the oath, they were also implicitly agreeing to his position as supreme head of the church.
So a year before Packington was shot, Thomas Mooe and Bishop John Fisher alone among the laity and the episcope along with Carthusian monks, refused to swear the oath and died as a result. More and Fisher by beheading, the monks more barbarically by being hanged, cut down before they were dead, having their bowels and hearts burned, their heads cut off and their bodies quartered. Even the inured London crowd was horrified. More, Fisher and the Carthusians died as martyrs for the Roman Catholic Church.
As Susan Brigden put it in her great work, London and the Reformation, religion which had once bound the people of London now divided them. This may not have been on the scale seen on the continent where for example, armed religious warfare had led to massacres of the innocents like the St Bartholomew’s day massacre in Paris in August 1572, in which 10,000 were killed over three days. As Peter Marshalls put it, the Tudor state maintained the monopoly on violence.
But London was still a city in which one might die because of one’s faith, as Robert Packington’s murder shows. We know that he was opposed to, and held in contempt, by the catholic clergy. Chronicler Edward Hall concluded that it was among the clergy that one had to search for his assassins, “he was like by one of them most shamefully murdered”. Twenty years later John Fox in his book of martyrs, his acts and monuments, reported a rumour that the former Bishop of London John Stokesely had paid a priest 60 gold coins to carry out the murder.
And five years after, Fox said that he’d received some new information, that told him that Dr John Innocent, the Dean of St Pauls, had confessed on his deathbed of being guilty of arranging the murder by hiring an Italian assassin.
Now, who knows if this is true, but what is certain is that the break with Rome opened Pandora’s Box, because crucially what it had done was for the first time, it had given people a choice in religion. Henry may have tried to determine the faith of the country but what he’d actually succeeded in doing was involving ordinary people in the business of questioning what mattered in religion.
Were they willing to swear the oath or not? Try as they might to slam the lid shut Henry and his successors couldn’t recapture the creatures that had escaped. They couldn’t control what people believed or what they did. And as subsequent regimes chopped and changed the faith of the country according to the faith of the ruler, people worked out complex ways to obey to resist or to collaborate in the midst of the oscillations. The twistings and turnings produced heretics and martyrs and made everyone re-examine their ideas of faith and its place in their lives.
It’s no wonder that no part of society of culture, music, literature, art, nothing remained untouched. The very paradigms in which people thought had shifted.
Packington’s murder, the first gun crime in London, and Henry’s break with Rome have themes that should speak to us. The world was shattered and people were divided by their choice, and not easily brought to a sense of national unity. There was no rise in living standards, for a century. The poor, as always, suffered most of all.
But as Tim Stanley has put it, ruptures prompt nations to rethink who they are. After the shattering came slowly, new beginnings, as those monastic church bells were melted down and the profits from the monasteries went to defend against the threat of enraged Kingdoms in Europe, there came the renewal of strength. Henry commissioned a series of fortresses along the south coast to hold off the European Catholics. He built up the navy to well over 100 ships. He became the first King to invest in shipbuilding and the administration and bureaucratic organisation of the navy and installing a permanent staff.
It was this Royal Navy founded by Henry VIII that held off the French in 1545 and Spanish in 1588 and underpinned the flourishing of overseas trade and empire from the late 16th century.
Ultimately it was from this that came the creation of the world’s first global multinational, the East India Company, and for better or worse the beginnings of empire. Parliament, through the long reformation parliament of 1529 to 36, because of its far reaching measures, its long and frequent sessions, its revolutionary consequences, was transformed into a supreme and sovereign legislator the forerunner of its modern state. And English and later British national identify came to rest on an affiliation with Protestantism. The monarch can still not be a Catholic.
There may have been many new beginnings but Packington was one of many whose world was shattered. Five hundred years ago in this week that we mark the consequences of Luther’s seismic shift, we hear the echoes of the hammer, driving in the nail, (probably), to those 95 thesis, the crack as Henry split England away from Roman Catholicism and of the gunshot that took Packington’s life, resounding through the centuries to today.