Henry VIII was a big man. A newcomer to the English court might have been awestruck at the sight of such a burly king; he was 6’3, had an ox’s neck, and was known to stretch out his legs during discussions and flex his meaty calves. In an era where dietary deficiencies were not uncommon, a set of muscular legs was very impressive. And Henry knew this.
King Henry was a man of great pomp and ceremony. He felt that the power of a king was tied directly to his ability to inspire awe. At his court were grand banquets, masked dances, tennis matches, and jousting tournaments. In fact, Henry was an expert tilter and won the lion’s share of tournaments he entered both in England and on the Continent. Henry spent a fortune on fine silks, cloth of gold, silver plates and spoons, tapestries, exotic pets, and precious stones. Critics may claim that these acquisitions were hedonistic excess, but in an era of pomp, excess paid dividends.
When Henry met with Francis I near Guines, at the now famously titled, “Field of the Cloth of Gold”, Henry spent more than £13,000, which would be worth millions of pounds in today’s money. Henry had a makeshift palace built that encompassed more than 12,000 square yards and his tents were made from a cloth of gold. The English priests wore damask and satin. Malmsey and Claret poured from two drinking fountains. Diplomatically, nothing came from the meeting, since both England and France would be at war again in just a few years. But Henry’s outward projection of power was so convincing that all the monarchs of Europe recognized Henry as a lion. For a small island nation of two and a half million people which had a navy the size of Denmark’s, that was an incredible achievement for the English crown. By Henry’s grandeur, the Kingdom of England had become a major player in European affairs.
Henry was also unrivaled at home. He consulted very rarely with Parliament and believed that he ruled by the grace of God alone. He was the first English king to raise taxes to support the state during peacetime. The Royal Navy was founded and ships were stocked for the first time with heavy cannons. He oversaw the construction of coastal forts that would be used until the 20th century. When the Pope refused to grant an annulment to Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Henry founded his own church and granted himself an annulment. He then seized the holdings of all of the monastic orders in his realm and used the funds to fatten his treasury.
Henry’s will was very nearly absolute. On this point, historians are in no disagreement. So how did the English monarchy degenerate so drastically from Henry’s iron hand into a bunch of Windsorian rubber-stampers?
To answer this question, I put forth a hypothesis most reactionaries will warmly recognize: universalism seeped into state institutions and caused a decay of regal power. The second part of my hypothesis, however, will not be so warmly received: Henry himself, in his lust for power, inadvertently invited the universalists into his government.
It is one of history’s greatest ironies. By grabbing more powers for itself, the English crown set in motion the forces that would rob the crown of nearly all of its powers. King Henry surely benefited from his on-demand divorces, his peacetime taxes, his seizure of monastic lands, his pretty new navy, and his ability to cull the clergy of traitors and miscreants — but from there it was a steep, downward slope — no English monarch would ever again command as much power as Henry VIII.
As it turns out, in order to make England into an empire, Henry had to strike a deal with the Devil.
Henry’s heart was theologically Catholic. He had authored a paper in his youth to refute the ideas of Luther; although scholars debate how much Henry contributed to this paper, it is not irrational to assume that Henry made generous contributions since, as a younger son, Henry had received a full theological education. Henry also respected the hierarchical ritualism of the Church, since he was quick enough to understand that if the altar was thrown in the fire, the throne would soon follow.
There was only one problem. A slow drip of doubts and misgivings, as if from a steady water torture pipe, tapped insistently in Henry’s skull: this was the beginning of a crisis of conscience. As Queen Catherine aged and had not delivered a son for the Tudor family line, the lines of Leviticus rang in the king’s head: “Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother’s wife.”
Catherine had originally been wed to Henry’s elder brother. Henry, as far as history can tell, genuinely believed that he was living in sin: not so much because Henry was a pious man who heeded the Bible in every point and particular of his life, but because he felt that the proof was in the pudding — God had cursed him by not providing him with a male heir. He needed an annulment.
And so Henry turned to the only people in England itching for reform: the Protestants. The theological positions of Protestantism do not concern us in this essay any more than the dogmas of the Catholic Church: our critique is purely secular. Protestantism, by consulting with scripture apart from tradition, by looking more to the words and actions of its religious founder than to intermediary interpreters, moves in the direction of universalism.
Since Protestantism is largely inseparable from universalism, and universalism is the wellspring of democracy, Protestantism brings with it Europe’s first widespread flirtations with democratic government.
Protestantism is not so potent, of course, as to immediately cause this lapse of obedience among a king’s subjects. It took hundreds of years for England’s culture to be transformed. But it was a steady transformation, a set of tumbling dominoes that could not be stopped once the first had fallen, as with each new monarch more and more responsibilities passed from the crown to Parliament.
The first domino fell in 1533, when the Act of Appeals was approved by Parliament. It declared that England was an empire, and that no appeal, either secular or spiritual, could pass outside of the king’s authority. This meant that the king of England had the final word on all matters within his realm and that papal bulls from Rome might as well be paper scraps clogging up a London gutter.
On the surface, this would seem like a triumph for the crown: in England, there became no authority higher than Henry VIII. But there were two persistent problems that arose from this Act of Appeals which marked its passage as one of the foremost Pyrrhic victories in English history.
The first problem was that the Act was drafted by the clever and capable secretary of the king, the meticulous Protestant, Thomas Cromwell. The Act of Appeals had given unprecedented power to the English crown, that much cannot be denied, but it had also given unprecedented power to the ministers and secretaries who ran the government on behalf of the crown: men such as Cromwell himself. By candlelight and ink, Cromwell had converted England into a constitutional monarchy — and the irony is that he had no idea he had done it.
To be fair to Cromwell, in neither letters nor conversations was he said to cherish democratic sentiments. That was too far beyond the horizon of his political era. As far as Cromwell knew, the enemy was the Church and the crown was the solution, and so by giving more power to the crown by whatever means necessary, he assumed that he was bringing England closer to its victory over the Church.
He had been half right. Protestantism did plunge a stake into the heart of the Catholic Church in England, laying it to rest for good. He had, however, made one miscalculation, because he had no way to know that once Protestantism became the dominant spiritual force in England, it would immediately turn its attentions to secular affairs, and so Protestant universalism would begin to conflict with the crown’s authority. Cromwell had worked as frantically as a hummingbird to fill Henry’s government with Protestants: the men of the Privy Chamber, the courtiers, the jurists, the mayors, the aldermen, the contractors the government hired — all were becoming Protestants. When Henry dissolved the monastic orders, Cromwell was tasked with selling the confiscated church lands, which he sold at rock-bottom prices to Protestants. It was a brilliant maneuver, not only did it assure that more landed gentlemen were Protestants, it also allowed all of these newly propertied gentlemen to vote, and so Parliament was slowly and inevitably filled with Protestants.
The second problem of the Act of Appeals was that it set a dangerous precedent at a dangerous time. Instead of using a royal proclamation to declare England an empire, instead of it being a monarchial act of will, it had been enacted as a Parliamentary statute. Henry had not made England an empire — Parliament had. Now when you consider how quickly Parliament was being filled with Protestants and malcontents of every kind, it is not hard to see why eventually Parliament would begin to consider itself the true ruler of England.
Both Henry and Cromwell died not knowing that they had opened Pandora’s box. They had no clue that kicking the priest off of his pulpit would lead to the people kicking the crown off of the king. They had no idea that turning spirituality into a private, closeted affair would lead to tradition itself being shoved away and hidden under lock and key. They had no way to know that universalism is a sign of political sepsis and that they had ended the spiritual institute that gave the king his right to rule.
As many men have noted, the Church does not exist to be in line with the times, but to be altogether timeless. This is true not just for the Catholic Church, but all spiritual institutions tasked with preserving nature’s timeless ideals of order, property, and hierarchy. As history deemed necessary, in the West, the Catholic Church was that institution.
If you were to take the Catholicism from Rome, like it was taken from England, you would have a beautiful city inhabited by soulless men. The minute the Roman abandons his long-standing faith in Christ is the minute that all those glittering fountains and white arches of Catholic civilization become monuments of a dead era. They are no less marvelous or ingenious, but they are no longer his — at that point, they belong to the spirits of the dead.
And an examination of other civilizations reveals similar institutions which serve similar functions, and which undergo crippling declines if they are similarly removed. In every corner of the globe, in every clime, spiritual institutes are the backbones of their respective civilizations.
Expunge Confucius from Chinese history and the Chinese will find themselves reciting from one of Mao’s little red books instead. Smuggle the Dalai Lama out of Tibet and it becomes nothing but a high-altitude Chinatown. Pull down the pillars of Hinduism and instead of singing praises to Vishnu or Shiva the Indian will leave his offerings on the altar of Marx. Pluck Odin out of the Norseman’s heart and before you will stand the world’s meekest and mildest social democrat.
The lesson is quite clear for us in the 21st century: even the most powerful monarchs, even a Henry VIII, cannot stop the long march of universalism without an equally powerful spiritual tradition to help him. The throne and altar must stand strong together.
The West would do well to learn from England’s error. Henry’s rabbit hole is a hole we cannot go down. Universalism has infected nearly every aspect our society which, like a case of rheumatic fever, if we are not careful, will slowly and imperceptibly kill us years after the initial fever has passed.