Your cheeky guide to the dynasty

Archive for Religion

Opportunity Knox (but only for men?)

I’ve got John Knox in my system today so give me a few minutes, here. Knox, considered the father of Presbyterianism, preserved for us the dreadful details of the Oxford Martyrs’ fate (today in 1555) and was in fact a “martyrologist.” (I am wondering if this occupation went the way of “zincographer” and “haberdasher.”)

Knox also penned a delightful little piece called The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. He was referring to the Catholic female rulers Mary I, Mary Queen of Scots, and Marie de Guise. As we all know, another prominent female ruler was coming down the pike, and his publication didn’t go over so well with Elizabeth I. As you can imagine.

Knox wrote to her, explaining “Well I didn’t mean YOU…” but she was not amused. When Knox came back from Geneva in 1559, the queen wouldn’t let him land in her beloved England. Instead, she directed him to Leith via the treacherous North Sea. That’ll teach him.

You want to read this misogyny 16th-c view on female rulers, don’t you? Here you go. The link also includes his “let me explain” attempts to Elizabeth I. Of course the time being what it was, t’was unusual to imagine or accept a female ruler. Times change, though, and fortunately those women helped that.

Knox is buried, as it happens, beneath parking spot #23 next to St. Giles in Edinburgh. Surely, many “weak, frail, impatient, feeble, and foolish” women have parked atop him over the years?


Oh Boy OR Girl: You Rule!!

Henry VIII is turning over in his grave whilst Catherine of Aragon and her daughter, Mary I, are high-fiving somewhere in the afterlife: Gender-neutral succession has come to the British monarchy, and the heir shall henceforth be permitted to marry — gasp!! — a Catholic.

The news was officially announced this morning.

I Never Really Loved You Anyway

Ely Cathedral

Image by stevecadman via Flickr

Remember middle school? When you’d have a crush on someone and, because preteens have wacky hormones, that someone might adore you one day and ignore you the next? Finally, this someone would make you so furious that you took it to that shrine of school memories, the yearbook. You may have scratched the face off their picture, or possibly have drawn devil horns and a goatee on it.

There! That showed ’em. Didn’t you feel better? Well, probably not.

It was this kind of hurt and rage that spurred Henry VIII on to the four-year tirade known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries. From 1536-1540, over 800 holy houses in England were destroyed, Henry VIII’s version of drawing goofy glasses and demon eyebrows on the Pope’s picture to show him he didn’t need no stinkin’ sacrament.  

For those of us who love the link to the past that historical sites offer, the destruction of these buildings is heartbreaking. My home in England was five minutes down the road from gorgeous, massive Ely Cathedral, which dates from the 11th century. Sweet, right? Especially for an American like me. If we have any buildings that go back even 300 years, that’s a stretch.  I grew up in a house that was built in 1898 and I always thought that was really old! Anyhoo, I was overwhelmed to be so close to this medieval treasure. Cueing the new-world nerd in me, I’d press my hand to the stone walls and marvel at how much history they’d seen.

Inside Ely Cathedral is a small wing called the Lady Chapel, a common feature of medieval churches in England and mainland Europe. The “lady” is, of course, the Blessed Virgin Mary. For those of you who aren’t Catholic, let me clarify that Catholics do not worship Mary over Christ (a common misconception)! We just greatly respect her as His mother. And in the medieval church, these chapels were built in her honor. The one in Ely Cathedral is peaceful and lovely, although with some interesting omissions if you are paying attention.

Heads. Of the statues carved into the walls. There are no heads.

During the Dissolution of the Monasteries, many statues of saints in religious houses were defaced, removed, or just smashed there on the spot. In the case of Ely’s Lady Chapel, the figures on the wall had their noggins crushed into oblivion. That in itself carries history with it, but at the same time I feel pretty resentful about the loss of the past that this event created. Ely Cathedral still has its walls, but some places were not so lucky. Reading Abbey, for instance, was reduced to ruins. Fortunately, it’s finally on the mend but the original structure is of course lost forever.

Why all the destruction, Hal? Well, parts of buildings and their decorative elements could be sold to finance the government instead of Rome. Besides that, the physical act of treating statues like The Who or Nirvana treated their guitars was a way of saying “no thanks” to icon worship.

Even today, there are people who believe that the Church worships actual statues and paintings, another myth I’d like to dispel. Afer all, do you think photographs of loved ones in your home are really those people? Or just a reminder of those people? Right. That’s how we approach our icons. Like the middle schooler who destroys the yearbook pic, Henry found satisfaction in ordering the destruction of statues because it got rid of the visual reminder. But it was also a symbolic gesture: We don’t need your idol worship — It’s forbidden by God. We’ve got the right idea and here’s what we think of yours. 

Henry’s über-tantrum was not the only one of its kind. Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland, for example, also expressed their anger by wiping out the Church’s influence in their own countries. In any case, there’s no way to recover those stones and statues that witnessed so many centuries of history. Although Henry eventually came back to his original beliefs in all but name, his switcharoo can never bring back what he ultimately trashed.

(There’s a nice two-minute clip here from BBC’s “History of Britain” with some before/after visuals at Holy Trinity Church in Suffolk.)

Losing His Religion?

Our young Henry VIII was considered a devout Catholic: attending Mass three times a day, being buddy-buddy with the pope, and strongly defending the idea of transubstantiation (the changing of the bread and wine into the body of blood of Christ).  Let’s just skip over the part about his spending “quality time” with young ladies of the court, shall we?

At that time, all Christians in England were Catholics, period. However, over in Germany in 1526 (when Henry was 35 years old),  Martin Luther was busy organizing his new church after rejecting the Catholic Church, which was very corrupt at that time. Luther was especially riled up about indulgences, the Church’s way of saying “pay up at Mass and your soul will be saved.” His work sparked the Protestant Reformation, and Christianity was then split in two: Catholics and Protestants.

Around this same time, Henry was getting tired of his wife, Catherine of Aragon, failing to produce a male heir. He’d stayed married to this lady for nearly 20 years, and for what? One measly daughter? This had to end.

He ranted and raved and stomped his feet a bit when the pope wouldn’t grant him a divorce from this Spanish princess, but in the end he said, “Fine, the Catholic Church won’t let me divorce so I’ll take my ball and go home.” He declared himself the head of the brand-new Church of England, dumped Catherine, and married a certain court vixen named Anne Boleyn, as if she’d had “can produce male babies” stamped on her forehead. He embraced blossoming Protestant ideals such as married priests, no confession, and no transubstantiation.

Like a petulant child, he destroyed a ton of monasteries in England and cut off the heads of important Catholics in the country. That oughta teach ’em. But it didn’t help the new Queen Anne give birth to any healthy boys, nor did it keep his next wife, Jane Seymour, alive long enough to have more than one male heir. He couldn’t even stomach staying in the same room with Anne of Cleves (Wife #4), let alone try to have children with her.

And in 1539 (right between Wives 4 and 5), Henry convinced Parliament to pass the Act of Six Articles, which basically said:

  • Transubstantiation is A-OK once again
  • Communion is to be bread only, not wine
  • No married priests
  • Pay-per-view Mass was fine
  • No remarried widows
  • Confess to a priest

During the next several decades, his Catholic daughter Mary and his Protestant daughter Elizabeth would duke it out and the country would remain divided by religion. But for all intents and purposes, Henry — in his heart — was still a Catholic.