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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 51

Henry VIII. (1509—1547.)

Henry VIII. (1509—1547.)

Henry VII. was succeeded by his son Henry VIII., the offspring of the union between the White and Red Roses. The late Earl of Beaconsfield, it is said, once cynically remarked of Mr. Gladstone that he had not a single redeeming vice. Well, if vice redeems a man, Henry VIII. were certainly one of the most completely redeemed men that ever lived. Assuredly no more detestable tyrant ever breathed. His horrible cruelties proceeded from the profound depravity of his own heart. They were without excuse of any kind. They fell indifferently on friend and foe, noble and ignoble, 'saint and sinner, Catholic and Protestant, wife and child. Lust, gluttony, vanity, pride, rapacity, blood-thirstiness, all strove for mastery in the breast of the first Defender of the Faith. That such a monster of iniquity should have been permitted to die a natural death must ever strike the historian with astonishment.

He is the true Blue Beard of English story. Long before his divorce from Queen Catherine was broached, his amours were notorious. Elizabeth Tailbois and Mary Boleyn, Anne page 46 Boleyn's eldest sister, had both ministered to his passions before he cast his eyes on his second queen. By the former he had a son, Henry Fitzroy, whom he made Earl of Nottingham, Duke of Richmond, Admiral of England, Warden of the Scottish Marches, and Lieutenant of Ireland. He would probably have named Fitzroy his successor, but the youth died before attaining his majority. To gratify his desire for Anne he divorced the faithful Catherine, repudiated the Papacy, doomed Wolsey, the magnificent cardinal, to destruction, and renounced many of the religious tenets for the defence of which in his anti-Lutheran treatise he had been dubbed by the Pope Defender of the Faith.

His charges of infidelity against Queen Anne, for which she and four alleged paramours, her brother being one, suffered shameful deaths, were almost certainly fabrications. On the day of Queen Anne's execution he dressed in white to celebrate an occasion so joyful. On the day following he married Lady Jane Seymour. Anne's daughter, Elizabeth, he was careful to bastardise, just as he had previously bastardised Catherine's daughter, Mary. He subsequently changed his mind, and made it high treason to question the legitimacy of either.

Luckily for Jane Seymour's neck, she died in child-bed, and his minister, Thomas Cromwell Earl of Essex, unfortunately for himself, had the temerity to provide for Henry another wife, Anne of Cleves. From the first he disliked her, called her "a great Flanders mare," and soon contrived to divorce her and behead the unfortunate minister who had so far mistaken the royal appetite.

Then came Catherine Howard's turn. She pleased the tyrant for a time, but ante-nuptial irregularities were discovered, and both she and nine other persons were condemned to death by act of attainder. It was made high treason for any woman to marry the royal libertine with any unacknowledged sins on her conscience. People dared to smile at this absurd and brutal decree, and said the king must henceforth look about for a widow.

His sixth matrimonial venture was, in fact, the widow of Lord Latimer, Catherine Parr. She was a woman of tact, but on one occasion her neck was in the greatest jeopardy. By this time Henry was infallible head of the Church, and to page 47 dispute any doctrine which he chose to entertain was heresy, punishable by death. The queen ventured to express some slight dissent from one of the royal beliefs. The consequence was thither impeachment and arrest were immediately resolved on. But Catherine, meanwhile learning her danger, dexterously managed to convince Henry that when she had presumed to differ from him it was merely to give the infallible head of the Church the pleasure of refuting her. The result was that when the chancellor presented himself to convey her to the Tower he was told to begone for a knave, fool, and beast.

As a Church reformer, Henry suppressed no fewer than 645 monasteries, 90 colleges, 2,374 chantries and free chapels, 110 hospitals, with revenues amounting to nearly two millions per annum. He took care to share the plunder with his courtiers and others, so as to give the strength and cohesion of self-interest to the party of spoliation.

But Henry's most notable achievements were in his novel character of Supreme Pontiff of England, of infallible umpire in the province of faith and morals. The Bloody Statute, very properly so called, ordained that whoever should deny transubstantiation by voice or pen; affirm communion in both kinds; question priestly celibacy, the obligation of vows of chastity or the efficacy of private masses and auricular confession, should be burned alive.

The result of this unprecedented measure was that Protestants and Catholics were dragged to the stake on the same hurdles—the Protestants because they believed less than the king, and the Catholics because they believed more. An acute foreigner then in England observed : "Those who are against the Pope are burned, and those who are for him are hanged." While Bainham and Bilney were burned for Anti-Popery, the illustrious Sir Thomas More and the venerable Bishop Fisher were beheaded for denying the king's supremacy.

And thus the wheat and the tears were skilfully separated by this royal bishop of souls, the reformer of the Church of England! So delighted was Parliament with these and similar proofs of the royal wisdom and moderation, that they voluntarily bestowed on Henry's proclamations the force of law! He thus absorbed in his own person all the functions page 48 of king, pope, and Parliament, after the fashion of the Roman emperors, who figured not merely as imperators, but as consuls, praetors, curule adiles, and masters of the horse, all in one.

Henry varied his ecclesiastical and matrimonial murders by frequent political homicides. Among the more heinous in the last category was the execution of the Countess of Salisbury, because she had the misfortune to be the mother of his enemy Cardinal Pole, and that of the young and accomplished Earl of Surrey, because he had presumed to quarter the arms of Edward the Confessor on his escutcheon.

In his later years this second Herod was so corpulent that he was unable to walk up or down stairs, and machinery had to be employed to move him. He was afflicted with ulcers, which so maddened him that no one approached him without terror. At last the great avenger, death, laid his hand on the monster, and men breathed freely once more. His reign is an everlasting disgrace to the English name.