This is part 5 of a 15 part series examining the historical antecedents of the Anglican Communion.
But who are you, a man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me thus?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use?
Romans 9: 20-21
To a European king in the 16 century, the desire to produce a male heir was more than an indication of pride. A king without a son governed a kingdom that was at risk for civil war. The likelihood that cousins and uncles and other claimants to the throne would resort to arms after the death of a king was far smaller when there was a royal son with rights of primogeniture. Having a daughter was better than having no child at all, but many kingdoms, England among them, had historically been unwilling to accept a female monarch. Civil wars, in addition to producing combat deaths, almost always resulted in severe economic losses, disease, and often famine because of disruptions to agriculture. Every king considered it his duty to his subjects to beget a male heir.
Catherine of Aragon was 23 when she married Henry VIII in 1509. Nine years later she had produced one healthy daughter, three stillborn daughters, and two sons who did not live long enough to leave the cradle. Henry began to despair of the prospects of a having a legitimate son. He was by all accounts a faithful Christian. As a boy his father had steered him toward the priesthood until his older brother died and Henry became the heir apparent. He turned to the Scriptures for guidance and became haunted by the words of Leviticus 20:21: “If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is impurity; he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness, they shall be childless.”
Henry began to wonder if he was being punished b y God for marrying his brother’s widow. Yes, his father had obtained a dispensation from the Pope, but the papal dispensation dealt with the prohibition against marriage within certain degrees of affinity, which was a canonical restriction. Could the Pope license someone to violate a Scriptural prohibition? For her part, Catherine maintained that she was never actually married to Henry’s older brother because their marriage had not been consummated. But was her story plausible? As was customary, most of the English court had participated in the ceremony of putting the couple to bed on their wedding night. Bride and groom had both been 15 years old and in apparent good health. They were well aware of their royal duty. How could the marriage not have been consummated?
Henry is remembered today as a promiscuous king. He seems to have had many mistresses. This practice was quite common among European monarchs, something that was considered by most kings to be a royal perquisite. A king’s mistress could expect to be respected and well-treated at court. Often her family would be awarded land and titles. When her affair with the king ended, she would probably be married to a titled nobleman who would otherwise be above her station.
In 1519, the king’s current mistress, Elizabeth Blount, gave birth to a healthy son. Henry acknowledged the child as his own son, and in 1525 he named him the Duke of Richmond and Somerset, hoping to one day legitimize him so that he might have an heir to the throne. It is possible that this birth of a son to his mistress convinced Henry that the failure of the queen to produce a son was indeed a punishment from God, resulting from his disobedience to plain Scriptural language.
Not long after the birth of his illegitimate son, Henry began an affair with a new mistress. A marriage to a wealthy baron was arranged for Elizabeth Blount. The new mistress was Mary Boleyn, the daughter of the English ambassador to the court of France. She was widely reputed to have become the mistress of the French king while her family lived there.
She came to the English court from France in 1519. Her father was an ambitious man and would not have discouraged her from becoming the king’s mistress. It is unclear exactly when the affair between Henry and Mary started, how long it lasted, and whether, as has been claimed, he fathered her son. In 1522 her sister, Anne Boleyn, followed her from France to England, and, at some point, Anne caught the king’s eye. Henry wanted Anne for his mistress, but she refused the honor. She believed she had a better opportunity in Queen Catherine’s inability to give Henry a son.
Father, forgive the sins of our ancestors and forgive us. We have ignored your word and your laws. We have committed adultery. We have succumbed to lust. We have abandoned those to whom we swore lifelong fidelity. We have been arrogant and greedy and claimed as our own that which can never be bestowed on us. We have been untrue to you. We have broken our promises.
Father, the sins of our ancestors have grown and multiplied in our own generation. We still commit adultery, and we still search and find ways to justify and rationalize our sinful behavior. We do not take your written commands seriously. We worship ourselves and our bodies instead of worshiping you.
Have mercy, Father. Use the blood shed by Jesus on the cross to cleanse the sins of our ancestors and our own sins. Wipe clean this stain on our history. Restore us. Break the cycle of repeated sins. Free us from bondage to this history. Begin a new creation in which you are our God and we are your people.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord and true King.