The time has come to jump just over 3000 years to a more modern European monarch, Henry VIII of England. In yesterday’s post (under same title) we saw how the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten became embroiled in matters of “religion”, an experience shared by his remote successor. The situation in each country was in some respects different. In Egypt the gods were worshipped on a local/national basis. There were differences of opinion between monarchs and high priests, but other nations and foreign policy would not necessarily come into the picture. In Western Christian Europe at the end of the Middle Ages the situation was very different.
When the Roman Empire dissolved and disintegrated during the Dark Ages a unifying force remained – Christianity as embodied in the Western Catholic Church, under a Pope normally based in Rome. This was a civilizing influence under which the evolving states of Western Europe had their being. In theory such an arrangement could keep states on peaceful terms with one another and provide a means of settling differences under Christian principles. Unfortunately theory and practice do not always coincide. The Church became involved in a more militant role in international politics. The Crusades were an example of how war could become an acceptable policy. The Norman invasion of England had the sanction of the Christian Church, as had the later Norman-English incursion into Ireland. As time went on Popes and monarchs were often related to each other and family ties were important in international policy.
England, being an island, naturally had a strong “go it alone” preference. A feature of th 16th. century was the growing wealth and power of emerging nations. France and Spain were major players. But physically small states like England, the Netherlands, and North German states were taking advantage of new opportunities created by the discovery of America to expand their wealth and power. Manufacture and trade were not an invention of modern times! Henry’s father, Henry VII had in the interests of peace and goodwill with Spain arranged a marriage between his son Arthur and a Spanish Princess, Catherine of Aragon. When Arthur died prematurely his younger brother Henry was expected to inherit his wife as well. (Such were royal marriages – more reminiscent of the cattle market than “Mills and Boone”).
Alongside this international and commercial scene were aspects of the Church. Henry VIII was a devout follower of religious practices. The Pope had awarded him the title of “Defender of the Faith”, which he retained to the end of his life – he was in no way a “Protestant”. But there was one aspect of the Church with which Henry did not agree. This was not theological but more administrative – namely the function of the Church as an international body with influence over international relations. England, like other emerging powers was developing an independent outlook. Matters came to a head when Henry responded to pressure from his advisors to remarry and hopefully produce a male heir, which was felt to be vital for England’s continued existence and safety. Since this would break the marriage-based alliance with Spain this was not acceptable to Church policy – or international policy.
Another aspect of the religious set-up was the monastic system. The enormous benefits brought to Europe by the civilizing influence of the monasteries were beginning to be looked at differently as the system was in a process of decline, no longer so necessary and not performing well. But another factor was that monastic administration rested in the hands of authorities in Rome. This went against the growing independent outlook prevalent in England. A third factor, which we have already mentioned in the case of Akhenaten was that the monastic establishments were wealthy and were endowed with large areas of land, which the monarch could use to buy loyalty from his supporters. This entailed a break with the Pope, as representing the international aspects of the Church.
Here a comparison with Akhenaten is timely. Henry had no major quarrel with the Church’s theology. Akhenaten on the other hand created a new theology, the worship of the Sun – Aten. Henry brought the system of churches, clergy, bishops, under his control, making the religious system in England subject to the Crown.. Akhenaten’s changes were of similar nature except that he abolished the traditional deities and replaced them with one God. The system worked in England – the main clash between Church and State in England which springs to mind is the fall of Archbishop Laud in Charles I’s day to parliamentary pressure. It worked because for years afterwards religious practices remained stable . Eventually in England Protestantism gained ground, and in the 1640’s Puritanism emerged for a time as a religious force. In Egypt a conservative people, while accepting apparently the Pharaoh’s system, returned to traditional practices as soon as the monarchy changed. So “hasten slowly” would appear to be the motto where religious changes were contemplated.
An interesting example of an attempt to introduce a new religion occurred in the course of the French Revolution when the government introduced for a time worship of “The Supreme Being”. The traditional Church had already “fallen from grace” so to speak, and this was a palliative, which was short-lived.
Akhenaten’s revolutionary reforms may be a reason why during his reign Egypt was under aggressive pressure from neighbouring states, perhaps not because their religious concepts were being threatened but taking advantage of internal unrest which was bound to exist in Egypt. In the case of England the links between Henry’s break with the Church’s international influence and opposition from the other European states can be easily assumed. Yet too much can be made of “religion” here. Spain’s opposition to England in the years to come, culminating in the Spanish Armada episode in 1588 would have been more due to the clash between England and Spain in the American trade than religious doctrine. Religion is so often a convenient scapegoat for other more mundane issues like trade and commerce.
People tend to be sensitive – and conservative- when it comes to changes in belief and practice being imposed from above – and it does not only apply to religion. Henry and his daughter Elizabeth “kept the brakes on” in matters of religious change. Henry’s son Edward VI, (Tutankhamun’s opposite number), Henry’s daughter Maty Tudor, and later James II forced the pace of change and created serious unrest, as happened in the case of Akenhaten.
Another issue involved could perhaps be best described as sovereignty. We will be looking at that in the third part of this post. This is where international combinations for diplomacy or commerce fit in.