Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Conscience of the King: November 8, 1528

The Tudor Society reminds us that on November 8, 1528:

Henry VIII made a public oration to “the nobility, judges and councillors and divers other persons” at Bridewell Palace to explain his troubled conscience regarding the lawfulness of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. In this speech, the King explained that due to his worry that Mary was not his lawful daughter and that Catherine was not his lawful wife, he had sent for a legate “to know the truth and to settle my conscience.”

The issue of Henry VIII's conscience, like St. Thomas More's, is central to our views of the English Reformation and can even be a crucial element in our evaluation of Henry VIII's character. Was he really so troubled by his conscience regarding his marriage to Katherine of Aragon? Was he just citing his conscience and his concern about the admonitions in Leviticus as an excuse? Why wasn't his concern answered by the contrary admonitions in Deuteronomy and the fact that his father had obtained a dispensation from any possible affinity from the Pope?

Henry Ansgar Kelly's The Matrimonial Trials of Henry VIII was first published by Stanford University Press in 1976 and is now published by Wipf and Stock. He analyses Henry's conscience and notes that we will never really know "Henry's mind". Kelly says that Henry is neither a Machiavellian nor a great Protestant hero (defying the Pope) in this matter, but that the truth is somewhere in between these extremes: Henry was "partly hypocritical and partly conscientious". Kelly says that Henry VIII had to justify himself before God and did believe that his marriage to Katherine was sinful, but also that he "possessed massive powers of rationalization, and was prepared to resort to cant and skulduggery to attain ends that he believed were fundamentally righteous."

Cant means "hypocritical and sanctimonious talk" and skulduggery is "underhanded or unscrupulous behavior; trickery".
I have not read Kelly's book and think it would be low on my reading list, though it does look interesting and well written.

If we compare what a semi-apologist for Henry VIII says and what an enemy of Thomas More says, however, I think you readers would agree that even his enemy would never say that Thomas More, in citing his conscience in the matter of Henry VIII's supremacy, was "partly hypocritical", that he "possessed massive powers of rationalization" or was "prepared to resort to cant and skulduggery" in defense of his unstated position against Henry VIII's Supremacy over the Church in England. The opposite would be true; he could have rationalized away his objections to the monarch, the representative of the State taking over the spiritual authority of the Church; evidently many Englishmen did.

Thomas More made no public statement and maintained silence, merely refusing personally, in the name of conscience, to swear the oaths Henry VIII wanted enforced. Therefore, there was no cant to speak of and no skulduggery at all, since More never did anything tricky or underhanded.

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