Simon Heffer: Thank Henry VIII for laying those foundations of freedom

Roundup: Talking About History

[Simon Heffer is a British journalist, columnist and writer.]

History is now a multi-media theme park through which many choose to pass for light entertainment. The journey is often superficial and conducted by the inexpert. Occasionally one travels first class, such as with Dr Richard Holmes, the peerless military historian, or Dr David Starkey, the Tudor titan. However, these men who rely on serious documentary research in order to present the public with a version of the past no less entertaining for being true and revelatory find themselves jostled by hucksters and mountebanks.

Dr Starkey has done a superb job on Henry VIII, the quincentenary of whose accession falls today. Yet, as a shrewd businessman as well as a fine historian, Dr Starkey knows that the abundant elements of soap opera in the life of a man who began as a model of catholic chivalry and ended as an uxoricidal monster make him box office. It is certainly a good story; but not, I think, one that is quite so interesting as its consequences.

Every half-millennium or so an event occurs in our history that changes the basis of society. The Romans come, the Romans go. The Normans come; and between their arrival in 1066 and the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 there is one seismic event after which society sets off (after a false start or two) on an entirely new course: the Reformation in England. When the Convocation of Canterbury of the Church in England agreed in March 1531 to accede to Henry's demands about church governance that included the clergy's recognition of him as head of the English church, it also triggered a process of such profound economic and political change that even today there is still dispute about the extent of the consequences. Let me add my three ha'porth: without the Reformation we would not have had what Seeley called "the expansion of England", we would not have had a middle class educated and powerful enough to initiate the industrial revolution, we would not have had the empire we did, and would not have had the land and sea power that kept us free from invasion and foreign influence: not to mention the theological consequences.

Perhaps it is an event in a foreign land in the ninth year of Henry's reign that stands as the most significant in all Christendom since the crucifixion (which we accept as historical fact: the resurrection, more significant to those who hold the Christian faith, is not for atheists like me). On October 31 1517, when the German priest Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, he changed the destiny not merely of a nation but of western civilisation. We cannot delude ourselves that Henry, once he understood that this event had happened, was touched by it; he was not the theological type. Ironically, he was made defender of the faith by the Pope in 1521 for defending the Catholic Church against Luther (in a politically useful book ghost-written by Thomas More). Yet when a combination of his desire for a male heir to secure his dynasty and his carnal appetite for Anne Boleyn made it imperative that he end his marriage to Queen Catherine, the Reformation began almost by accident.

If Luther set a blueprint for an alternative theology within a Church of England, another precursor had been in Lollardry in the 14th century, when followers of Wycliffe questioned the doctrine of the Catholic Church and urged a reliance on the scriptures rather than on ceremony. The Church's habit of burning heretics, specifically supported by Henry IV, helped suppress the sect, but its ideas never went away. Again, leaving aside the theological ideas, there was emerging in this system of thought an idea of sovereignty. As an island people the English were always prone to nationalism. When the Reformation finally came in the 1530s, and the Pope excommunicated Henry after his marriage to Anne in 1533, the concept of sovereignty was effectively born.

Henry's subsequent association with Protestantism was a marriage of convenience rather than offspring of the sort of earthquake of conscience that had inspired Luther. He sought to remove Rome's authority in England so he could secure his annulment (which he had previously sought on the grounds that he had married his dead brother's wife). The dissolution of the monasteries, which Thomas Cromwell effected for him between 1536 and 1540, broke up the main cells of the Catholic clergy in Henry's realm: it also initiated the greatest change of land ownership in England since the Conquest. Perhaps a quarter of land changed hands, bought by the aristocracy and by a newly emergent gentry and with the revenues going to the Crown. This would be the basis of the Crown's wealth, and of its security. It also began a social and economic mobility unseen in England before; it sowed the seeds for the expansion of the middle class, broke feudalism and, slowly, developed freedom of thought...

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