Saturday, February 6, 2016

Henry VIII and the Hampton Court Vespers

Biographer J.J. Scarisbrick thinks that Henry VIII would not be happy at all about next week's Catholic vespers in the chapel at Hampton Court, as he writes in The Catholic Herald:

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.

Scarisbrick goes on to discuss Henry VIII's "Catholicism without the pope":

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.

His definitive biography is out of print from Yale University Press but readily available, including as an E-book with a good sample here. Here's a summary offered by Professor Scarisbrick.


  1. How appropriate that whilst The Church that Henry and his "heirs and successors"-are the temporal heads of,is slowly dying,there comes this reminder that the Church that he and his succesors thought they had destroyed,is far from dead. I hope the Cardinal remembers those who paid the price for their Faith at these Vespers

  2. Thanks for posting. This makes us think of Judas and the part he played in the life and death of Jesus. Will Judas be save? Will Henry?

    1. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams made this comment: "If Henry VIII is saved (an open question perhaps) it will be at the prayers of John Houghton. If any persecutor is saved it is at the prayers of their victim. If humanity is saved, it is by the grace of the cross of Jesus Christ and all those martyrs who have followed in his path." St. Thomas More promised to pray for Henry VIII on earth and in heaven before he was executed!

  3. Are we going to be saved...when thinking what the English martyrs did..we must do our Anglican brothers until they revert.