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‘To the Great Infamy of the King’s Highness’

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Keeping Up with the Tudors

The Last Divine Office: Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries

By Geoffrey Moorhouse
BlueBridge, 2009

The morning mist was burning off, withdrawing to the sullen marshes, revealing a small, brute-strong knot of heavily armed Scottish fighting men backed up against a black-bottomed wood. Low, fast-moving clouds blurred the sun, muting the polish on a thousand long spikes bristling from three large clusters of men, these schiltrons impenetrable to attack, lethal pin-cushions of pikemen pulled in so close they could barely move or be moved. Horsemen and grim infantry filled the spaces between these islands, and all eyes were turned toward the south.

There, across an even field, was arrayed the might of England come north: vast companies of infantry, armed knights on enormous, pawing mounts, ominous phalanxes of longbowmen, the whole roiling mass of it wreathed in dust and the urgent cries of warhounds. In the center of this mass was the king, that dread lord Edward I, the celebrated ‘Longshanks’ (he was very tall) who had fought in more countries than those Scottish pikemen could find on a map, and who had had quite enough of Scottish pretensions. The ‘Hammer of the Scots’ now had William Wallace and his men square on the anvil.

The king was not alone. On his left along the marsh borders were the forces of some of his most powerful lords (so powerful Edward needed to keep them close at hand) – Norfolk, Lincoln, Hereford. And his right wing was a clenched mass of eager men-at-arms under the command of the great Marches prince Antony Bek – his men, feudally bound to him, their companies raised, armed, and provisioned by him, marched here to Falkirk to aid the king and thirsting for the headlong rush across that open ground to the enemy now plainly in sight.

At a signal from the king, the left wing advanced, stumbling almost immediately as the marshy ground became treacherous but working forward toward their roaring targets. On the right, Bek’s men saw all this with a yearning they couldn’t contain – screaming, they began their own advance, along visibly better ground. Bek bellowed for restraint, and he was a formidable man himself: probably forty-five, fair of face, veteran of Crusade and boon companion to the king – but he quickly saw that restraint wouldn’t work here and maybe shouldn’t, so he joined his men racing in a wheeling arc to deliver a mailed battering ram to the Scottish left flank, spurring his own horse right alongside those of his proudest retainers, screaming right along with them as those ferocious schiltrons grew clearer and clearer. So begins Blar na h-Eaglaise Brice: the Battle of Falkirk.

Screaming means nothing, though, against a forest of iron spikes – nothing does, at least nothing in this year of our lord 1298. Riding horses into that mass of long spears means only dead horses, and the horses were more aware of it than the men, turning from that fatal hedgework despite all the urgent prompting in the world (even so, more than a hundred were lost that day). Charging men likewise were thwarted, unable to reach the Scots steadfast at the center (all the while having to deal with the Scottish rank-and-file, in itself no sane soldier’s idea of a July picnic). By this point the warrior earls had come up along the Scottish right, and a loud, long, hammering donnybrook was in full uproar with no clear victor emerging, but Bek’s hammer-strike had begun the discomfit of Wallace’s men, setting even his impenetrable spear-islands into a ragged, harried sense of the inevitable.

Then Edward sent the future forward to turn the tide. He sent in his longbowmen, who drew up close enough to those schiltrons to take aim. The air hissed and hummed with hundreds of long thick iron-shod shafts, each one of which could punch through two inches of solid oak (the sound they made when striking a leather-jerkined foot soldier – the wet impact followed by a high, winding horrified scream – was the best approximation of pure agony the world had yet invented). The schiltrons were pulled in tight but not that tight, and the rest of the Scottish forces didn’t have even that much protection; a general slaughter ensued, which Wallace saved from a complete disaster only by scattered flight back into the woods.

As much as to any one man, Edward owed his victory at Falkirk to Antony Bek, but Bek had a distinction that set him apart from Edward’s warlike earls: he was also a prelate of the Church. He was the Prince Bishop of the Castle and Cathedral of Durham – lord of his own realm, beneficiary of his own crowning on his own throne. Durham was a palatinate, a largely independent area whose ruler was only nominally dependent on the king (there were and are only three palatinates in England, and none so proud as Durham) – which could sometimes lead to friction and was one of the main reasons kings as smart as Edward always tried to have a man he could trust absolutely in the position. Durham had stood for centuries on an all but impregnable rock overlooking the Wear River, holding court and levy over the surrounding countryside to the horizon in all directions, a bulwark against the bellicose Scots. While the Prince Bishops went on Crusade, made war, captured castles, and hosted monarchs, the Benedictines of the Cathedral, overseen by their Prior, observed the humble rhythms of their order – matins, compline, vespers, gardening, raising voices in song, ministering to the people of town and country, in a pattern that seemed born of eternity and destined for it.

Geoffrey Moorhouse’s new book The Last Divine Office (published in the UK as The Last Office) sports the subtitle Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but the subject here from first to last is the mighty rock of Durham – its past, its life, and the almost unthinkable upheavals that came upon it in 1536, when its long, slow surrender to the tendrils of Henry VIII’s Reformation began.

  For centuries, the fortress of Durham Cathedral was the spiritual and temporal bastion from which the power centered in London ruled the north and west, and Moorhouse is excellent in capturing the all but regal authority this responsibility imparted to the various Prince Bishops who ruled there, especially once the Normans brought about the physical transformation of the place into “something massive and magnetic, timeless and unforgettable, operatic in its stony grandeur, its towering outline a sign of faith and hope, a promise of eternity.” A common saying about the Prince Bishops was that England sported two kings, one in London, one on the River Wear, and Moorhouse crafts a fascinating account of these turbulent figures who technically took third place in power to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York but seldom acted that way. Refreshingly, he’s also very effective in conveying the palpable sense eternity the Cathedral’s rituals could convey in the here and now:

The liturgical seasons followed each other as they had done for five hundred years in this place, with their different moods of anticipation and joy, celebration and despair, penitence and hope and pensiveness; with their changing vestments, their distinctive services, their unvarying rituals, and those that shifted as the seasons came and went.

It had been this way at Durham for a very long time. William the Conqueror created the first Prince Bishop in 1080, but even then Durham had been a center of liturgical power for half a millennium, among other things the focal point of the cult of Saint Cuthbert (in later years renowned because his mortal remains were held to be incorruptible). The Cathedral was also famous for housing the body of the Venerable Bede, who’d written a pious account of Saint Cuthbert’s life, in addition to his more celebrated ecclesiastical history, to which Moorhouse pays satisfying tribute:

For he was not only the first but one of the greatest monastic historians, a man of exceptional critical judgement as well as of conspicuous sanctity and moral courage, who once wrote a letter to Bishop Ecgbert warning him of the dangers that beset monastic independence, which could be usurped by kings, powerful nobility – and even bishops: a dangerous thing to announce without anonymity during the Middle Ages.

Power concentrated there on the River Wear; Prince Bishops vied with their Priors, expeditions were mounted against the Scots, pilgrims came from all of Christendom to stand in awe, services were held, and centuries passed in a convincing approximation of permanence. But Bede’s warning about the usurpation of princes was prescient. The Prince Bishops of Durham had known an almost unrivaled power in England for centuries; they disposed of vast income, they guarded the borders of the kingdom, they attended the coronation of kings and kings attended their coronations, and for a long time this power seemed as permanent as the stones of the great keeps standing there on the crag overlooking the river. Then in the middle of the 16th century, a series of events in London detonated a wave of changes that would eventually engulf even this high bastion of continuity, and at the center of that tsunami was England’s King Henry VIII.

Henry wanted to change his wife. His queen of ten years, Katherine of Aragon, had finally proven to Henry’s unhappy satisfaction that she would never give him a male heir, and that realization came to him in lock-step with an overpowering lust for Anne Boleyn. The Tudors were uniformly headstrong, and Henry was the worst of the bunch (or the best, depending on how you look at it)(no, to tell it plain, it doesn’t depend on your viewpoint – it’s a just plain bad quality in a ruler, and Henry was the worst); where another man, another king, might have taken his various matrimonial disappointments in stride, Henry, inflamed by desire (and perhaps egged on a bit by ordinary everyday greed), decided that if the Church wouldn’t do as he wanted, he would do the unthinkable and change the Church itself.

His tactic, famously, was the single biggest, most audacious act of legal hair-splitting in the history of lying lawyers: whom do you ultimately serve, he asked the prelates and high churchmen of England, the Pope or your King? Henry’s lawmen found statutes to his liking, ambiguous rulings that could be construed to assert the king’s authority over his people in all matters, temporal and spiritual, and when those statutes were tweaked for specificity and enforced with halberded beefeaters, Henry became de facto head of the church in England – and so, head of the Church of England.

That meant he could divorce his old queen, marry his mistress, and make her his new queen – but it meant something else too: Henry now had the personal disposal of all the former church lands and revenues in the country, a vast sum by any reckoning. Slowly, in relentless stages, Henry sent his lawyers and assessors into every county and shire in order to make that reckoning, and Moorhouse doesn’t take the easy step of making these assessors – or their boss, Henry’s Vicar-General Thomas Cromwell – mere villains. The Church in Henry’s day was riddled with superstition, graft, and absurdity, conditions that infuriated all men of good conscience (like Erasmus, and like Henry, at least in the beginning), and Moorhouse sets this stage very well – he could scarcely fail to, with such promising material as the cult of holy relics that plagued the day. Durham had its venerated Saint Cuthbert (and the Venerable Bede), and every place of worship had its equivalent, as Moorhouse relates:

A number of monasteries had national reputations almost entirely because of the corpses and other relics in their custody, like Durham itself (on account of Cuthbert and Bede), Winchester (St Swithun), Bury (St Edmund) and Hailes (the Holy Blood), some of which were more obviously spurious than others: when analysed, the blood preserved in the phial at Hailes turned out to be that of nothing more sacred than a common duck. Even below this widely celebrated level in the pecking order of veneration, however, virtually every religious house in the land had something that attracted devout people who needed above most things a tangible focal point for their entreaties, their generosity and their adoration. The most obscure figure could mean the difference between solvency and destitution to the religious promoters of such a memory: as was the sixth century Welsh St Derfel Gadarn, a giant of a man in life, when he was a warrior at King Arthur’s court, and a prodigious object of veneration ever since in Merioneth, because he was strong enough to rescue souls from hell by sheer strength.

Gardan’s image sometimes attracted hundreds of visitors in a single day, as did the innumerable slivers of the True Cross, nails from the True Cross, vials, goblets, and in at least two cases whole ewers of the Virgin Mary’s milk. There were holy fingernails, holy swaddling clothes, holy hair clippings, holy paintings and statues and icons of every kind, and all these things drew crowds of desperate and credulous worshipers seeking any supernatural aid they could find against the terrors of everyday life. The stupid spectacle of it enraged true Church believers like More and Erasmus, and the list of such abuses gave ideological cover to the rapacity the king’s reformation unleashed, although as Moorhouse points out, “Henry and Cromwell didn’t much care what havoc they wrought, so long as their bidding was obeyed.”

Moorhouse hits this note frequently, this evocation of the change’s pitiless nature (his chapter “The Apparatus of Plunder” is a gem at the heart of the book, a truly marvelous little historical essay in its own right), and yet the main impression his work conveys, oddly enough, is how orderly and how, well, reasonable much of Henry’s Reformation was (this was certainly a new impression to me – the way Moorhouse marshals his sources casts the changeover in an interesting new light). Churches were required to yield up their treasures to Henry’s corps of executors, true, but records show that their officials, right down to the most humble clerics, were paid regular pensions by the government for the rest of their lives. The monasteries were dissolved and the altars stripped, but the new Church of England often did its best to ameliorate the disruptions on the local level. As Moorhouse puts it, a stray jackdaw watching from the rafters would have noticed very little overt disturbance (that stray jackdaw shows up often in The Last Divine Office; regardless of who was in charge, Durham obviously needed an exterminator).

The change was brought about from nine parts need and one part religious fervor, and the proportions were reversed for public consumption, as in the fiery language of a typical preamble:

Forasmuch as manifest sin, vicious, carnal, and abominable living, is daily used and committed amongst the little and small abbeys, priories, and other religious houses of monks, canons and nuns … To the high displeasure of Almighty God, slander of good religion, and to the great infamy of the King’s Highness and the realm if redress should not be had thereof … so that without such small houses be utterly suppressed and the religious persons therein committed to great and honourable monasteries of religion in this realm, where they may be required to live religiously for the reformation of their lives, there can else be no reformation in this behalf…

But at Durham much of the wonder and the power (made subtle through time) manages to persevere, largely because Durham’s bishop, Cuthbert Tunstall, had the orderly mind and the craven love of continuity given to all natural-born appeasers. He surrendered the might and independence of Durham to Cromwell in a steady stream of yielded documents, grants, deeds, keys, and knick knacks, and although the Pope in Rome might have fumed at such practical compliance, Durham itself thereby managed to survive with more than a modicum of dignity – a dignity that very much breathes today, as Moorhouse movingly portrays:

And those who enter the church today are often quite overcome by the sensations it produces, whether they are Christians or not. A small boy declares that when he looks up he wonders if the building will fall on him, and many people say it makes them feel very small or very calm or overwhelmed by its palpable holiness. A woman steps over the threshold of the Galilee [Chapel] and, stopping in her tracks, lets out a great sigh. Sometimes, people are so moved by everything they see and otherwise sense here, that they do extraordinary and quite unforgettable things. A group of Africans from KwaZulu had finished praying in the Freretory, where Cuthbert lies beneath a gilded Ninian Comper tester now, when one of them, a woman, broke the silence and began to sing in her native tongue, her companions taking up a refrain at the end of each line; and people within earshot shivered at the thrill of it, were brought very close to tears by something they instinctively understood, though they couldn’t comprehend a single word.

So ignore Henry VIII’s squinting face on the US cover of The Last Divine Office and concentrate instead on the painting of Durham Cathedral itself. Geoffrey Moorhouse has written a splendid history of that indomitable old rock – a book the Venerable Bede would have enjoyed. Strange as it sounds, there’s really little praise higher than that.

Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He hosts the literary blog Stevereads and is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly.

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