Henry VIII Part 37

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Henry, indeed, was the typical embodiment of an age that was at once callous and full of national vigour, and his failings were as much a source of strength as his virtues. His defiance of the conscience of Europe did him no harm in England, where the splendid isolation of _Athanasius contra mundum_ is always a popular att.i.tude; and even his bitterest foes could scarce forbear to admire the dauntless front he presented to every peril. National pride was the highest motive to which he appealed. For the rest, he based his power on his people's material interests, and not on their moral instincts. He took no such hold of the ethical nature of men as did Oliver Cromwell, but he (p. 432) was liked none the less for that; for the nation regarded Cromwell, the man of G.o.d, with much less favour than Charles II., the man of sin; and statesmen who try to rule on exclusively moral principles are seldom successful and seldom beloved. Henry's successor, Protector Somerset, made a fine effort to introduce some elements of humanity into the spirit of government; but he perished on the scaffold, while his colleagues denounced his gentleness and love of liberty, and declared that his repeal of Henry's savage treason-laws was the worst deed done in their generation.[1171]

[Footnote 1171: Sir John Mason, quoted in Froude, iv., 306 n.]

The King avoided the error of the Protector; he was neither behind nor before the average man of the time; he appealed to the mob, and the mob applauded. _Salus populi_, he said in effect, _suprema lex_, and the people agreed; for that is a principle which suits demagogues no less than despots, though they rarely possess Henry's skill in working it out. Henry, it is true, modified the maxim slightly by subst.i.tuting prince for people, and by practising, before it was preached, Louis XIV.'s doctrine that _L'etat, c'est moi_. But the a.s.sumption that the welfare of the people was bound up with that of their King was no idle pretence; it was based on solid facts, the force of which the people themselves admitted. They endorsed the tyrant's plea of necessity. The pressure of foreign rivalries, and the fear of domestic disruption, convinced Englishmen of the need for despotic rule, and no consideration whatever was allowed to interfere with the stability of government; individual rights and even the laws themselves must be overridden, if they conflicted with the interests of the State. Torture was illegal in England, and men were proud of the fact, yet, in cases of (p. 433) treason, when the national security was thought to be involved, torture was freely used, and it was used by the very men who boasted of England's immunity. They were conscious of no inconsistency; the common law was very well as a general rule, but the highest law of all was the welfare of the State.

This was the real tyranny of Tudor times; men were dominated by the idea that the State was the be-all and end-all of human existence. In its early days the State is a child; it has no will and no ideas of its own, and its first utterances are merely imitation and repet.i.tion.

But by Henry VIII.'s reign the State in England had grown to l.u.s.ty manhood; it dismissed its governess, the Church, and laid claim to that omnipotence and absolute sovereignty which Hobbes regretfully expounded in his _Leviathan_.[1172] The idea supplied an excuse to despots and an inspiration to n.o.ble minds. "Surely," wrote a genuine patriot in 1548,[1173] "every honest man ought to refuse no pains, no travail, no study, he ought to care for no reports, no slanders, no displeasure, no envy, no malice, so that he might profit the commonwealth of his country, for whom next after G.o.d he is created." The service of the State tended, indeed, to encroach on the service of G.o.d, and to obliterate altogether respect for individual liberty. Wolsey on his death-bed was visited by qualms of conscience, but, as a rule, victims to the principle afford, by their dying words, the most striking (p. 434) ill.u.s.trations of the omnipotence of the idea. Condemned traitors are concerned on the scaffold, not to a.s.sert their innocence, but to proclaim their readiness to die as an example of obedience to the law.

However unfair the judicial methods of Tudor times may seem to us, the sufferers always thank the King for granting them free trial. Their guilt or innocence is a matter of little moment; the one thing needful is that no doubt should be thrown on the inviolability of the will of the State; and the audience commend them. They are not expected to confess or to express contrition, but merely to submit to the decrees of the nation; if they do that, they are said to make a charitable and G.o.dly end, and they deserve the respect and sympathy of men; if not, they die uncharitably, and are held up to reprobation.[1174] To an age like that there was nothing strange in the union of State and (p. 435) Church and the supremacy of the King over both; men professed Christianity in various forms, but to all men alike the State was their real religion, and the King was their great High Priest. The sixteenth century, and especially the reign of Henry VIII., supplies the most vivid ill.u.s.tration of the working, both for good and for evil, of the theory that the individual should be subordinate in goods, in life and in conscience to the supreme dictates of the national will. This theory was put into practice by Henry VIII. long before it was made the basis of any political philosophy, just as he practised Erastianism before Erastus gave it a name.

[Footnote 1172: The _Leviathan_ is the best philosophical commentary on the Tudor system; Hobbes was Tudor and not Stuart in all his ideas, and his a.s.sertion of the Tudor _de facto_ theory of monarchy as against the Stuart _de jure_ theory brought him into disfavour with Cavaliers.]

[Footnote 1173: John Hales in _Lansdowne MS._, 238; _England under Protector Somerset_, p. 216.]

[Footnote 1174: _L. and P._, x., 920; "all which died charitably," writes Husee of Anne Boleyn and her fellow-victims; Rochford "made a very catholic address to the people saying he had not come there to preach but to serve as a mirror and example, acknowledging his sins against G.o.d and the King"

(_ibid._, x., 911; _cf._ xvii., 124). Cromwell and Somerset had more cause to complain of their fate than other statesmen of the time, yet Cromwell on the scaffold says: "I am by the law condemned to die, and thank my Lord G.o.d that hath appointed me this death for mine offence.... I have offended my prince, for the which I ask him heartily forgiveness" (Foxe, v., 402). And Somerset says: "I am condemned by a law whereunto I am subject, as we all; and therefore to show obedience I am content to die" (Ellis, _Orig. Letters_, II., ii., 215; _England under Somerset_, p. 308). Compare Buckingham in Shakespeare, "_Henry VIII._," Act II., Sc. i.:--

"I bear the law no malice for my death ... my vows and prayers Yet are the King's; and till my soul forsake Shall cry for blessings on him."]

The devotion paid to the State in Tudor times inevitably made expediency, and not justice or morality, the supreme test of public acts. The dictates of expediency were, indeed, clothed in legal forms, but laws are primarily intended to secure neither justice nor morality, but the interests of the State; and the highest penalty known to the law is inflicted for high treason, a legal and political crime which does not necessarily involve any breach whatever of the code of morals.

Traitors are not executed because they are immoral, but because they are dangerous. Never did a more innocent head fall on the scaffold than that of Lady Jane Grey; never was an execution more fully justified by the law. The contrast was almost as flagrant in many a State trial in the reign of Henry VIII.; no king was so careful of law,[1175] but he was not so careful of justice. Therein lay his safety, for the law takes no cognisance of injustice, unless the injustice is also a breach of the law, and Henry rarely, if ever, (p. 436) broke the law. Not only did he keep the law, but he contrived that the nation should always proclaim the legality of his conduct. Acts of attainder, his favourite weapon, are erroneously supposed to have been the method to which he resorted for removing opponents whose conviction he could not obtain by a legal trial. But acts of attainder were, as a rule, supplements to, not subst.i.tutes for, trials by jury;[1176] many were pa.s.sed against the dead, whose goods had already been forfeited to the King as the result of judicial verdicts. Moreover, convictions were always easier to obtain from juries than acts of attainder from Parliament. It was simplicity itself to pack a jury of twelve, and even a jury of peers; but it was a much more serious matter to pack both Houses of Parliament. What then was the meaning and use of acts of attainder? They were acts of indemnity for the King. People might cavil at the verdict of juries; for they were only the decisions of a handful of men; but who should impugn the voice of the whole body politic expressed in its most solemn, complete and legal form? There is no way, said Francis to Henry in 1532, so safe as by Parliament,[1177]

and one of Henry's invariable methods was to make the whole (p. 437) nation, so far as he could, his accomplice. For pardons and acts of grace the King was ready to a.s.sume the responsibility; but the nation itself must answer for rigorous deeds. And acts of attainder were neither more nor less than deliberate p.r.o.nouncements, on the part of the people, that it was expedient that one man should die rather than that the whole nation should perish or run any risk of danger.

[Footnote 1175: "I never knew," writes Bishop Gardiner a few months after Henry's death, "man committed to prison for disagreeing to any doctrine unless the same doctrine were established by a law of the realm before" (Foxe, ed. Townsend, vi., 141).]

[Footnote 1176: The Countess of Salisbury and Cromwell are the two great exceptions.]

[Footnote 1177: _L. and P._, vi., 954. It may be reading too much into Francis I.'s words, but it is tempting to connect them with Machiavelli's opinion that the French _parlement_ was devised to relieve the Crown of the hostility aroused by curbing the power of the n.o.bles (_Il Principe_ c. 19). A closer parallel to the policy of Henry VIII. may be found in that which Tacitus attributes to Tiberius with regard to the Senate; "he must devolve on the Senate the odious duty of trial and condemnation and reserve only the credit of clemency for himself" (Furneaux, _Tacitus_, Introd.).]

History, in a democratic age, tends to become a series of popular apologies, and is inclined to a.s.sume that the people can do no wrong; some one must be the scapegoat for the people's sins, and the national sins of Henry's reign are all laid on Henry's shoulders. But the nation in the sixteenth century deliberately condoned injustice, when injustice made for its peace. It has done so before and after, and may possibly do so again. It is easy in England to-day to denounce the cruel sacrifices imposed on individuals in the time of Henry VIII. by their subordination in everything to the interests of the State; but, whenever and wherever like dangers have threatened, recourse has been had to similar methods, to government by proclamation, to martial law, and to verdicts based on political expediency.

The contrast between morals and politics, which comes out in Henry's reign as a terrible contradiction, is inherent in all forms of human society. Politics, the action of men in the ma.s.s, are akin to the operation of natural forces; and, as such, they are neither moral nor immoral; they are simply non-moral. Political movements are often as resistless as the tides of the ocean; they carry to fortune, and they bear to ruin, the just and the unjust with heedless impartiality. Cato and Brutus striving against the torrent of Roman imperialism, (p. 438) Fisher and More seeking to stem the secularisation of the Church, are like those who would save men's lives from the avalanche by preaching to the mountain on the text of the sixth commandment. The efforts of good men to avert a sure but cruel fate are the truest theme of the Tragic Muse; and it is possible to represent Henry's reign as one long nightmare of "truth for ever on the scaffold, wrong for ever on the throne"; for Henry VIII. embodied an inevitable movement of politics, while Fisher and More stood only for individual conscience.

That is the secret of Henry's success. He directed the storm of a revolution which was doomed to come, which was certain to break those who refused to bend, and which may be explained by natural causes, but cannot be judged by moral considerations. The storm cleared the air and dissipated many a pestilent vapour, but it left a trail of wreck and ruin over the land. The nation purchased political salvation at the price of moral debas.e.m.e.nt; the individual was sacrificed on the altar of the State; and popular subservience proved the impossibility of saving a people from itself. Const.i.tutional guarantees are worthless without the national will to maintain them; men lightly abandon what they lightly hold; and, in Henry's reign, the English spirit of independence burned low in its socket, and love of freedom grew cold. The indifference of his subjects to political issues tempted Henry along the path to tyranny, and despotic power developed in him features, the repulsiveness of which cannot be concealed by the most exquisite art, appealing to the most deep-rooted prejudice. He turned to his own profit the needs and the faults of his people, as well as their national spirit. He sought the greatness of England, (p. 439) and he spared no toil in the quest; but his labours were spent for no ethical purpose. His aims were selfish; his realm must be strong, because he must be great. He had the strength of a lion, and like a lion he used it.

Yet it is probable that Henry's personal influence and personal action averted greater evils than those they provoked. Without him, the storm of the Reformation would still have burst over England; without him, it might have been far more terrible. Every drop of blood shed under Henry VIII. might have been a river under a feebler king. Instead of a stray execution here and there, conducted always with a scrupulous regard for legal forms, wars of religion might have desolated the land and swept away thousands of lives. London saw many a hideous sight in Henry's reign, but it had no cause to envy the Catholic capitals which witnessed the sack of Rome and the ma.s.sacre of St. Bartholomew; for all Henry's iniquities, multiplied manifold, would not equal the volume of murder and sacrilege wrought at Rome in May, 1527, or at Paris in August, 1572.[1178] From such orgies of violence and crime, England was saved by the strong right arm and the iron will of her Tudor king. "He is," said Wolsey after his fall,[1179] "a prince of royal courage, and he hath a princely heart; and rather than he (p. 440) will miss or want part of his appet.i.te he will hazard the loss of one-half of his kingdom." But Henry discerned more clearly than Wolsey the nature of the ground on which he stood; by accident, or by design, his appet.i.te conformed to potent and permanent forces; and, wherein it did not, he was, in spite of Wolsey's remark, content to forgo its gratification. It was not he, but the Reformation, which put the kingdoms of Europe to the hazard. The Sphinx propounded her riddle to all nations alike, and all were required to answer. Should they cleave to the old, or should they embrace the new? Some pressed forward, others held back, and some, to their own confusion, replied in dubious tones. Surrounded by faint hearts and fearful minds, Henry VIII.

neither faltered nor failed. He ruled in a ruthless age with a ruthless hand, he dealt with a violent crisis by methods of blood and iron, and his measures were crowned with whatever sanction worldly success can give. He is Machiavelli's _Prince_ in action. He took his stand on efficiency rather than principle, and symbolised the prevailing of the gates of h.e.l.l. The spiritual welfare of England entered into his thoughts, if at all, as a minor consideration; but, for her peace and material comfort it was well that she had as her King, in her hour of need, a man, and a man who counted the cost, who faced the risk, and who did with his might whatsoever his hand found to do.

[Footnote 1178: In three months of "peace" in 1568 over ten thousand persons are said to have been slain in France (_Cambr. Mod. Hist._, ii., 347). At least a hundred thousand were butchered in the Peasants' War in Germany in 1525-6, and thirty thousand Anabaptists are said to have suffered in Holland and Friesland alone between 1523 and 1546.

Henry VIII.'s policy was _parcere subjectis et debellare superbos_, to protect the many humble and destroy the mighty few.]

[Footnote 1179: _L. and P._, iv., Introd., p.


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Henry VIII Part 37 summary

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