It happened today - October 21, 2015

Henry with Leo XOK, I don’t like Henry VIII. I haven’t even tried very hard. I was frightened by a Masterpiece Theatre biography when I was a child (the line one courtier uttered on leaving the king’s deathbed, “How can life bear to linger in that rotting hulk?” still haunts me) and never quite got over it. But he was not a likeable man, and he was dangerous, a really bad combination.

Consider the title “Defender of the Faith” bestowed on him by the Pope on October 21, 1529. What? You cry? Wasn’t that the Henry who broke with Rome so he could ditch his wife for his mistress’s sister, grabbed the monasteries and handed them to his buddies and sycophants, and ran through five wives before the final one outlasted him because he couldn’t conceive male heirs and blamed the women?

Yup. That would be him. Henry was a “Renaissance man” of many talents. He really did write Greensleeves. And he fancied himself a theologian; he got this title from Leo X because he had defended the seven sacraments effectively against Luther. But Henry was not just larger than life, he was more self-absorbed, a classic modern figure.

He thought he could make himself the English Pope and have nothing else change just because he wanted it. He was dismayed to find that ordinary people started arguing about the Bible and religion just because he decided to chuck Rome over the side. And his seizure of the monasteries was not just architectural and social vandalism (it shattered the elaborate and deep-rooted system of charity in England). It was clearly contrary to the spirit of the law, which said if an organization founded on bequests is dissolved the land, money etc. go back to the donors not to the guy who seized them.

Of course the Pope, or rather his successors, would find Henry’s title a bitter jest. Clement VII refused to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, possibly because her nephew the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V would have walloped off his head if he had. And Paul III rescinded the title though the English parliament voted it still in effect and in fact it is to this day though Prince Charles has mused about styling himself “Defender of Faith” in a vague and non-denominational sense.

The whole story is odd because one tends, at least if educated in a certain tradition, to regard Britain’s exceptionalism as founded in significant measure on Protestantism. As Daniel Hannan argues in Inventing Freedom, the Anglosphere’s self-understanding in the 18th century was almost as Protestant as it was free; George Washington had to suppress Guy Fawkes day celebrations for political reasons during the Revolutionary War, reasons connected with Quebec, precisely because it was enthusiastically celebrated. But the England of Magna Carta and of Alfred the Great was Catholic, if unlike continental Catholic political communities in all sorts of impressive ways.

For that matter, the Tudors had far more sympathy with the French system of absolutism one associates with Catholicism in politics than with the liberty under law that had long been, and despite the Tudors and Catholic Stuarts long remained, central to the British, American and Canadian identity.

As for Henry, well, he was mad, bad and dangerous to know, as Anne Boleyn quickly and fatally discovered. As did Thomas More and so on and so on.

He was the defender of his own selfish interests and nothing else, the scariest member of a troublesome dynasty of schemers that ended gloriously with Elizabeth I but started badly, conducted itself scandalously, and created precedents that it is fortunate were not followed.

Defender of the Faith ptooey. Henry was a rotting moral hulk all along, and his death from grotesque obesity and other physical defects associated with self-indulgence was good riddance.