Thursday, 30 July 2015

JEH: 'If "nun", write 'none'"

The July issue of the Journal of Ecclesiastical History has been out for a couple of weeks now. Thanks to a strange combination of circumstances, it’s a bumper – no less than eight articles, something for everyone, but in particular a lot for those interested in the early modern English world, from England itself to Ireland and Bermuda.

As always, they’re all wonderful, but as always I’ll arbitrarily pick one to celebrate: the shortest article of them all, and the kind of wonderfully precise, surgical devastation that I have always envied but never managed to produce.

We all know about Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon’s divorce … what more could there possibly be to say about it? Well, John F. Hadwin has found something, and we won’t ever be able to tell the story in quite the same way again. When the papal legate Cardinal Campeggio arrived in England to try the case in 1528, he suggested that one solution would be if Katherine of Aragon decided to become a nun. She absolutely refused, but it’s become a regular part of the story – even picked up by Hilary Mantel – to observe that, if she’d been less unbudgeable on this point, the whole thing could have been solved very simply.

Well, turns out that’s not the case. Hadwin lays out clearly and effectively that a proposal to dissolve the marriage this way, while not actually legally impossible, was certainly more dubious than the straightforward route to an annulment that Henry and his allies were already pursuing. And if it had happened, it would not have given his new marriage anything like the clear legitimacy which he sought, nor would it have satisfied his, by now sincere, conviction that his marriage was sinful.
It may, even, have been a ruse by Campeggio to lure Henry into accepting the legitimacy of the pope’s dispensing power … though Hadwin doesn’t press that, and the evidence I think makes it no more than possible.
Still, if, like me, you’ve ever confidently said or written that the whole thing could have been solved if Katherine had only agreed to become a nun: no, it couldn’t have been. In the end, the king’s marriage was either legitimate or it wasn’t, and someone had to lose. Hats off to Hadwin for demonstrating this so lucidly and succinctly.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Historic formularies

Fresh from a great workshop in Stratford-upon-Avon celebrating the 30th anniversary of the late, lamented Pat Collinson’s lecture on so-called ‘iconophobia’ in Reformation England. Briefly, we all agreed that he was wrong, but that few of us could ever hope to be so interestingly, provocatively and fruitfully wrong.

                Lovely contributions from a range of people – Helen Pierce on popular print and AngelaMcShane on a rich but virtually unknown seam of Puritan ballads stood out – but the oneI’m going to single out was from a young Swiss scholar named Antoinina Bevan Zlatar, who’s working on Milton but who spoke today about a Star Chamber case from 1632, in which one Henry Sherfield was tried for destroying a stained glass window containing several depictions of God the Father.

                The outcome was predictable enough – good order and decency trumped any Calvinist scruples about idolatry. William Laud, then bishop of London, was one of the judges, and commented that removing images from churches was ‘distasteful’ (Antoinina managed to convey his fastidious disdain wonderfully well).

                What struck me was the comment of another judge, Richard Neile, the archbishop of York and another ceremonial enthusiast. He considered the awkward fact that the Edwardian Homilies – an authoritative text for the early Stuart church – bluntly condemned images of this kind. Neile’s answer was to relativise them:

As for those divine Homilies … set forth in king Edward’s days, … we know the times did not bear them: nor are they to be taken or understood, as not to allow any manner of pictures or images (though it may seem so) of Christ upon the Cross; but it is like the forbearing of food for a time. … I say that for the crucifix, there may be a very good use made of it.

The image of food is beautifully provocative: linking the attacks on ‘popish’ images  to a ‘popish’ devotional practice which Puritans like Sherfield had made their own, and at the same time implying that images were an essential part of a normal Christian life, only abandoned for a while until England had recovered from an intemperate late-medieval bout of binge-idolatry.

Nowadays Anglican ministers have to do no more than nod towards the Church of England’s ‘historic formularies’ – the Prayer Book and Ordinal, the Homilies and the Thirty-Nine Articles – leading some to mutter that this is indefensible relativism. Which perhaps it is. But it’s been going on for a long time.

Updated 7 July