You're allied with who?

Henry VIII On November 17, 1511, England concluded a treaty with Spain, which is pretty unusual given their long history of colonial rivalry and that unpleasant business involving sinking the “invincible Armada” or, to give it its pompously formal and half wildly inaccurate name, “La Grande y Felicísima Armada”. This “Treaty of Westminster” was against France, which is par for the English course. But it does raise the question whether if Henry VIII had not done his theology with a singularly inappropriate body part, his nation’s geopolitical strategy might not have been very different over the next few centuries.

England was, of course, long determined to prevent a major European power from threatening the “sceptre isle” and its growing overseas possessions. There was a significant division between “blue water” Tories who favoured primary reliance on the Royal Navy to contain the threat, and Whigs who believed it was wiser to intervene in continental affairs rather than wait until one major power became so dominant that it could turn its attention from land to sea. And obviously both strategies were often at the mercy of events. But it wasn’t all chess pieces and geopolitics.

As Daniel Hannan rightly reminds us in Inventing Freedom, the self-understanding of the Anglosphere from the 17th century stressed Protestantism almost as much as liberty. Mind you, in most English-speaking Protestants’ the two were not very separate; an argument could be made not only that Catholicism was associated with absolutism in, say, France but also that it was associated with would-be tyrants in England, especially the Stuarts.

It is this consideration that makes the 1511 alliance with Spain, such as it was, a bit odd, because Spain was another poster child for the allegedly pernicious influence of Catholicism on government and political culture, a major power with an absolutist system and aggressive intentions. It is of course also true that in the twists and turns of European diplomacy alliances were so fluid as to be embarrassing, and England at various times was at war with or allied with Spain and with France, the Netherlands, Russia and anybody else I can name as well as a great many I can’t. And yet on the whole there was a consistent streak of being against Catholic monarchies in the long run and the big picture of British foreign policy.

As I’ve pointed out before, there are two significant theological complications here. First, England was not “Protestant” in anything like the sense that the hard-core Lutheran and Calvinist predestinarians were. Indeed, the English Puritans who had drunk from that particular well were unwelcome in their homeland and contemptuous of the established Anglican church which they regarded, at least while in their doctrinal cups, as little better than the Papacy. In fact I’ve always found Anglican doctrine to be strangely amorphous, partly due to the British genius for compromise; most Anglicans I know are surprised to find that the 39 Articles endorse predestination (while also more or less repudiating it). As Laurence Stern rather neatly put it in the 18th century, “The Anglican Church is the best church, because it interferes neither with a man’s politics nor his religion.” And he was an Anglican clergyman.

The other significant theological complication is that England was itself Catholic from its second evangelization under the Saxons until the break with Rome, and under that faith it developed its remarkable and unique effective culture and system of liberty under law. Magna Carta was the product of a Catholic nation, though one quite unlike the others in many ways, a nation that routinely told the Pope to buzz off (including under King John), and the heroic Archbishop of Canterbury who was the prime mover behind Magna Carta, Stephen Langton, was a Catholic not an Anglican prelate.

These two considerations together suggest that the Anglican Reformation, for all its deplorable excesses, was probably a less significant event than it seemed at least in secular terms. English and then British foreign policy would likely have followed quite a similar course down through the years had Catherine of Aragon born Henry VIII six stout sons, and the English approach to religious doctrine and especially to the relationship between national independence and allegiance to Rome would probably have taken a far healthier course than it often did among the continental powers.

To say so is to suggest the uncomfortable possibility that ideas, especially formal ideas of the sort expressed in catechisms, may have less influence on the minds of men than they sometimes appear to. But then, Paul did say that we see through a glass darkly, a consideration that presumably pertains to rendering unto Caesar as it does to many other things. And in Britain, on that last point, the vision was always less murky than elsewhere, both before and after Henry’s formal break with Rome. Which, again, leads me to suspect that if it hadn’t happened, the strong and effective British opposition to the domination of Europe by any particular type of absolutism, including later both French militant atheism, Napoleonic whatever-that-was-aboutism, the Kaiser’s ostensibly Luthern nationalism and Hitler’s semi-pagan Naziism would have been very similar to what it actually was.