Monday, May 21, 2018

Monsignor Knox and King Henry VI


If Henry VII would have had his way, we would be celebrating the feast of Henry VI today. The son of Henry V died on May 21, 1471 in the Tower of London, probably killed at the orders of the newly re-crowned King Edward IV (although Thomas More cites Richard, the Duke of York as the responsible party). The official version was that Henry VI died of melancholy after hearing about the results of the Battle of Tewkesbury, which the House of York won and his son Edward, the Prince of Wales, had been killed.

This blog explains some aspects of the development of Henry VI's cult and cause for canonization, which was of course, cut short by Henry VIII's English Reformation:

The great mystery of Henry VI’s posthumous popularity has been grappled with for centuries. Many distinguished historians have dismissed the cult as a purely political phenomenon, and at first look this explanation is rather appealing. At the time of Henry VI’s oddly suspicious death from “pure displeasure” in that most hospitable of structures, the Tower of London, England had been embroiled in a bloody civil war for twelve long years [1]. The War of the Roses was fought between the House of Lancaster (represented by poor Henry), and the House of York, led by King Edward IV. Likely killed at the hands of his York cousins, rumors quickly spread of Henry’s murder by the creepiest of English uncles, Richard III. Most significantly, the supposedly violent homicide of Henry VI saw him reimagined in popular medieval culture as an innocent martyr. And political martyrdom, in late medieval England, was a particularly transformative process. It turned the unsuspecting victim into an impressively sacred figure, and bestowed the deceased monarch with a legitimacy denied him in life. As such, the initial impetus for Henry’s cult did rely upon his sacred political martyrdom.

Henry VII, who was the Lancastrian King’s half nephew, reinforced and strengthened the political nature of Henry VI’s posthumous cult. Defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, Henry Tudor shamelessly manipulated his uncle’s growing cultic popularity to legitimize his own claim to the throne. Not only was the long reigning “Martir by great Tormernting” continuously referred to in Henry VII’s inaugural pageants [2], the Tudor King also aggressively patronized the widespread cult, and petitioned three successive Popes to have his uncle canonized as a Saint. While Henry VI’s canonization was never secured, the process did produce a remarkable work titled The Miracles of King Henry VI [3]. This 1500 AD compilation of 174 miracle stories left out a staggering 300 accounts, and strongly suggests that Henry’s saintly popularity went much deeper than political manipulation.

The Miracles of King Henry VI demonstrates that the cult began, at least, with popular lay piety and not royal propaganda and patronage:

the English people worshipped Henry for his remarkable gentleness, compassion and leniency. Although odd qualities for a medieval King to possess, Henry’s renowned mercy and benevolence in life rendered him an extremely accessible royal figure. The late monarch was generous to the poor, commonly exempted dangerous criminals, and abhorred violence of any kind. As a Saint, he consequently appealed to those in great need of divine charity, which in bleak medieval times happened to be the majority of the English population. Saintly Henry aided criminals, madmen, plague sufferers, innocent children, lowly servants and stricken noblemen. The common theme in all his miracles was that his followers found themselves in critical emergencies, and yearned for divinely sympathetic intervention.

Henry VI posthumously provided such divine sympathetic intervention, and emerged as the patron saint of tragedy and all worldly suffering. During his catastrophic reign, Henry himself experienced extended bouts of mental illness, physical incapacitation and visible torment. His patent suffering invested the Lancastrian King with a unique saintly power, that of empathy. In The Miracles, Henry saves individuals from fatal fires, cures the terminally blind, and amazingly resurrects children from the dead. As a tormented monarch, Henry embodied both sacred power and profane suffering. His embodiment of sacral power and worldly misery explains much of his posthumous popularity, as Henry VI was never far from the minds of those in serious need.

Ronald Knox, the Catholic convert son of the evangelical Bishop of Manchester, developed a devotion to King Henry VI when he was at Eton, which Henry had founded in 1440 as The King's College of Our Lady of Eton besides Windsor. In 1923, just six years after he had become a Catholic and five years after becoming a Catholic priest, Cambridge University Press published his translation of The Miracles of King Henry VI. He also preached a sermon, included in the collection published by Ignatius Press, in which he asked the congregation to pray for the beatification of King Henry VI!

Well, even if Henry VII and Monsignor Ronald Knox had had their way and May 21 was the feast of King St. Henry VI, on this May 21, since it is on Monday the day after Pentecost, we would still be celebrating Mary, Mother of the Church, as determined by Pope Francis and the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. In view of the devotion King Henry VI had to Our Lady, he would be most satisfied.

Mater Ecclesiae, ora pro nobis!

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