henry viii and familyOne of the biggest mistakes that a student of history can make is to confuse the so-called English “Reformation” with its namesake on the continent. Whereas the Protestant Reformation in Europe was animated by the genuine theological differences that separated those who followed Luther or Calvin from those who accepted the apostolic and ecclesial authority of Catholicism, the so-called “Reformation” in England was animated solely by the political ambitions and lustful appetites of the king.

Henry VIII was not a protestant but a tyrant. In declaring himself the head of the church in England, he was making religion a servile subject of the secular power. He was demanding that the things of God be rendered unto Caesar. Parallels with the secularism of our own time and its war on religious liberty are palpable.

Considering the parallels between Tudor England and the secular fundamentalism of our own age, it is worth considering the English Resistance to the Tudor Terror in the hope that it will inspire similar holiness and heroism today.

Those who defied the secular powers in England by refusing to kowtow before the state-imposed religion were known as recusants. These noble souls paid huge fines and often suffered imprisonment or exile for refusing to conform to the state religion. There were many others who suffered martyrdom, laying down their lives for their friends and forgiving their enemies from the scaffold, preferring the hangman’s noose or the executioner’s axe to the slavery of secularism.

The heroic London Carthusians were among the first victims of the Tudor Terror. Some were starved to death on Henry VIII’s orders, others were hanged, disemboweled while still alive, and then quartered, suffering the grueling and gruesome fate that would befall many other martyrs throughout the remainder of the bloody reign of the Tudors. Other early martyrs of Henry’s cynical and sacrilegious “Reformation” were Saints Thomas More and John Fisher, both of whom were beheaded on the orders of the king.

If things were bad under Henry, they would arguably be worse during the reign of Bloody Bess, the daughter of Henry’s adulterous relationship with the ill-fated Anne Boleyn. It was during Elizabeth’s blood-stained reign that the Jesuit Mission to England demonstrated the courage, zeal and evangelizing spirit of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Perhaps the two most famous Jesuit Martyrs were Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell, martyred in 1581 and 1595 respectively, both of whom have an intriguing connection with William Shakespeare which is beyond the scope of our present discussion.

Although it is not possible to pay due tribute and homage to the hundreds of martyrs who laid down their lives for God and neighbor during the Tudor Terror, it would surely be a sin of omission to fail to mention St. Margaret Clitherow and St. Anne Line, two holy women who were martyred for their faith during Elizabeth’s reign.

St. Margaret Clitherow, known as the Pearl of York, was martyred in 1586 for the “crime” of hiding priests from the authorities. The method of execution was being crushed to death, a barbarous sentence that was carried out in spite of the fact that she was believed to be pregnant. With providential symbolism, the date of her death was March 25, the historical date of Our Lord’s Incarnation (the Annunciation) and also that of His Crucifixion.

St. Anne Line, a convert to the Faith who, like Campion and Southwell, was probably an acquaintance of Shakespeare, was martyred on February 26, 1601, in the last years of Elizabeth’s reign. She had been arrested when priest-hunters raided her apartments during the celebration of a clandestine Mass. Although the Jesuit priest who had been celebrating the Mass had managed to remove his vestments in the nick of time and escape arrest by mingling into the congregation, St. Anne Line was arrested for hiding priests and went to the gallows to suffer the martyrdom for which she had prayed.

These martyred saints are but a handful of the many holy souls who chose death and the glory of martyrdom over submission to a secularist tyranny which had sought to destroy religious liberty.

The Tudor Terror lasted from Henry VIII’s declaration of himself as head of the Church in 1534 until the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. Sadly the Terror would continue under the Stuarts, the last Catholics being executed in the 1680s, and would linger in less deadly forms of persecution until Catholic Emancipation in 1829. Then, after three centuries of heroic and defiant resistance, the remnant of recusants were joined by a new wave of converts and a new wave of Irish immigrants, heralding the beginning of the Catholic Revival. It was not the first time in the glorious and bloody history of the Church that her scourging and “death” had led to a glorious resurrection. It was not the first time and doubtless it will not be the last.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from St. Austin Review (September/October 2014). 

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility.

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