This is part 8 of a 15 part series examining the historical antecedents of the Anglican Communion.
Consider how many are my foes, and with what violent hatred they hate me. Oh guard my life, and deliver me; let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in thee.
Psalm 25: 19-20
Around 1534, Thomas Cromwell, the Secretary to Henry VIII, and his closest adviser, proposed that every monastery and convent in the kingdom be visited and made the subject of a report. Ostensibly, the visits were to uncover corruption and disloyalty to the King as head of the Church of England. Their unspoken object would be to close as many religious houses as possible and to confiscate their wealth for the crown. When Henry took the crown in 1509, he had inherited substantial wealth from his tightfisted father. But that money had long since been squandered, and Henry was eager to find new sources of income.
The visits began in 1535. Monasteries throughout the countryside were closed and money poured into the Treasury. There was some resistance. It was swiftly met. In May, five Carthusian monks from a priory in London suffered the deaths reserved for traitors. They were dragged behind horses in their full habits. Then they were hanged on the gallows until nearly dead. They were cut down, splashed with vinegar in their mouths and faces to revive them, then castrated, disemboweled, and beheaded. Their bodies were cut into pieces and put on public display. But they went to the gallows singing. Thomas More described their demeanor as they were being led to their deaths: “Joyful as bridegrooms going to their marriages.”
In June, another set of Carthusian monks were put to death because they would not acknowledge Henry as head of the church in England. They were tied to stakes standing upright, and left to die long, agonizing deaths without food or water, wallowing in their own waste.
John Fisher had been bishop of Rochester during the long controversy over the validity of Henry’s first marriage, had been a staunch supporter of Queen Catherine, and had openly declared that King Henry defied God’s law by making himself head of the church in England. In 1531, Fisher’s cook had added poison to a soup that was served to the bishop and some of his guests. Several men died, but Fisher ate only a little of the soup and escaped with wrenching stomach pains. It had been an obvious attempt on his life. Many lay blame for the plot at the feet of Anne Boleyn, who was desperate to establish the legitimacy of her marriage in the eyes of English subjects. Henry never gave credence to reports of her involvement however. The cook quickly confessed and was executed by being boiled alive.
Bishop Fisher had repeatedly refused to take the oath of supremacy acknowledging Henry as head of the church in England. He was deprived of his office, and, in June of 1535, he was tried for treason and convicted. Two days after his trial, three more Carthusian monks went to traitors’ deaths. Fisher was executed by beheading on June 22. He was 76. On July 1, Thomas More, whom Henry had at one time importuned to become his Chancellor, was tried for treason. He, too, had refused Henry’s oath of supremacy. He was beheaded on July 6.
Father John Forrest, a religious with the Order of Observant Friars, was a former confessor of Catherine of Aragon. In 1535, he was convicted of heresy and sentenced to be burned at the stake. Henry commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. Forrest, however, would not long remain silent about the king’s marriage. His continued opposition to it finally provoked Henry to send him to his death. For this execution Forrest was chained and suspended above a fire and slowly roasted to death.
Henry and Cromwell must have believed that it was necessary to the consolidation of his rule of the Church of England that he mete out swift and harsh punishment to the king’s detractors. But while the public may have been indifferent to the replacement of a foreign pope by their own king as ruler of their church, the cruel execution of so many clergy and of the esteemed and honest Thomas More were events regarded with tremendous fear and dismay. The throne was not winning itself many true friends. Thus from its earliest days the English reformation inspired the worst of enmity between Protestant and Catholic, an enmity that would result in state-sponsored violence for two centuries to come, and an enmity that would echo down to our own day in the “Troubles” of Northern Ireland, virulent anti-Catholicism in large segments of American Protestant churches, and even continuing tensions between Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals in the Church of England and elsewhere in the Anglican Communion.
As much as the heart of Anne Boleyn may have been gladdened by seeing her enemies treated so brutally, she must have realized that she could not remain queen indefinitely if she were unable to produce a son for Henry. Henry himself appears to have had numerous affairs during his marriage to Anne. In early 1536, Catherine of Aragon died, and Henry, now freed from any hint that he was still married to his first queen, began to consider another wife. A few months earlier, Henry had met a woman named Jane Seymour while on a progress west of London. Lavish gifts and impassioned letters soon followed. In January, 1536, Cromwell reportedly told an ambassador from the Holy Roman Emperor that Henry now believed that Anne was a witch who had used her arts to seduce him into marriage. Anne began to fear that Henry would divorce her, but the reality was far worse for her than she could initially imagine. The king did want to discard Anne Boleyn. But he wanted no lengthy and protracted court case to determine the validity of his second marriage. He asked Cromwell for his help. A charge of witchcraft against Anne, a charge which carried the death penalty, may in fact have been considered. But Cromwell presented him a much simpler and more decisive solution.
In April, 1536, four men, plus George Boleyn, Anne’s brother, were accused of having had adulterous affairs with the queen. Anne herself was arrested for treason. It is unlikely that she had in fact committed adultery with any of the men, let alone her own brother, but Cromwell was nothing if not ruthless and efficient. Two brief trials were held, and while the evidence was not strong—only one of the men had confessed, and that had occurred after lengthy torture—all were found guilty. The five men were beheaded on May 17. A charge of treason was usually punishable by the method used on the first group of Carthusian monks– drawing and quartering. Henry commuted the sentences of all defendants to decapitation. On May 19, Anne herself was beheaded.
On May 20, the day after Anne’s execution, Henry became betrothed to Jane Seymour. They were married on May 30. With both of his former wives now dead, no one could contest the legitimacy of this marriage.
Father, forgive the sins of our ancestors and forgive us. We have been callous and cruel. We have resorted to violence and murder to achieve our aims. We have borne false witness. We have tortured. We have plundered the treasure of your church and used the institution of the church in furtherance of venal aims. We have made enemies of our friends and then dealt with them harshly simply because they spoke out against us.
Father, may we look unflinchingly at the history of our church. May we come to face with sin where it exists, and repent of it. May we discard our pride in our church and replace it with abject humility.
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.