28 February 2011

Westminster Abbey

The Abbey is, essentially, the Sacring Place of English Kings and - since the invention of the 'United Kingdom' - of the monarchs of that constantly fluctuating institution, the 'United Kingdom'. It is rendered suitable for the former purpose by the presence of the shrine of S Edward the Confessor.

There was, at the beginning of the modern era, an attempt to make the Abbey something more. In 1485, Henry Tudor had, with very scant title, seized the throne of England. Marrying a Yorkist heiress did nothing to suppress agitation by those who wanted a Sovereign of the Blood Royal (indeed, his new mother-in-law joined those who were plotting against him); and, since Nature abhors a vacuum, whenever he executed Plantagenets, low-born Pretenders emerged from the woodwork. Foreign monarchs were cautious about betrothing daughters to the family of such a parvenu and unstable 'monarch'.

So he attempted to embellish his tenuous claim in two ways. By calling his son Arthur, he attempted to cast over his dodgy dynasty the mantle of the Once and Future King. And another name with incantatory potential was that of 'Henry'. Accordingly, the old Lady Chapel of the Abbey was demolished so as to be replaced by a new spectacular perpendicular chapel, where Tudor and his family were to be buried, but which, technically, was to be the shrine of a great royal saint who would match the S Edward who was enshrined nearby. Pope Julius issued bulls authorising the introduction of the cause for the canonisation of Henry VI (just as 'the divorce' was to be Henry VIII's Great Matter, so the canonisation was the Great Matter of Henry VII), and for the translation of his body from Windsor to this new chapel. Henry VII was seeking to cloak himself in the aura of the saintly Lancastrian, 'our Uncle of blessed memory', whose name, and whose descent from Catherine de Valois, he shared; and the very steps up to the chapel were to be endowed with indulgences. The building was adorned with all that was most sumptuous in the decorative arts of medieval England and of renaissance Italy.

Hindsight informs us that there never was to be either a Tudor King Arthur I or a canonised Saint Henry VI to swell the pilgrim numbers in the Abbey; that the England of popes, pardons and chantries had less than forty years to run. But things seemed quite different at the start of the sixteenth century.

13 comments:

Joshua said...

To think that Prince Henry was to have been Archbishop of Canterbury if his brother had lived and ascended the throne... one wonders if matters religious would have fared as badly as they did - or worse.

Did the cause of Henry VI simply die of inanition? has anyone attempted to revive it?

AndrewWS said...

Joshua: Yes to your latter question. The Cause of Henry VI was "live" in the Seventies and Eighties, and Fr Robert Gould OGS, then an Anglican priest and now (assuming he's still alive, which he might well not be - I knew him back then) a RC layman, was very much involved in promoting it. At one point in the Seventies, I was told that the late Cardinal Hume's secretary was a supporter.

Supporters at the time cited two miracles attributed to the King, one of which, as I recall, involved a girl recovered lifeless from a well into which she had fallen, whose first words on unexpectedly recovering consciousness were "King Henry".

ISTR that there are a number of Continuing Anglicans who are heavily into Henry VI.

William Tighe said...

Fr. Gould (as an Anglican at one point Eric Mascall's confessor) was in 1993 or 1994 ordained in the Archdiocese of Southwark and, when last I heard, living in "Morden College," a "retirement facility" in blackheath.

AndrewWS said...

Delighted to learn that he's still alive, Dr Tighe. Actually, I seem to recall that a mutual friend of yours and mine in Cambridge when we were there was a bit of a Henry VI fan.

There was also an article about the Cause in one of the Sunday glossies back in the Seventies, which, IIRC, made the point that quite a lot of Old Etonians were very keen to see their alma mater's founder raised to the honours of the altar.

bronzetrumpets said...

Would he have been King Arthur I - not II? Do kings of questionable historicity count in the numbering?

I suppose we could argue that even if Arthur was real (as I incline to think he was) he was certainly not 'King of England', and thus make him I anyway.

But how *are* these things handled?

William Tighe said...

English kings were numbered "from the Conquest" of 1066; that is why Edward I (d. 1307) is the first of that name, and various 10th- and 11th-century Edwards are not included in the reckoning.

Just as interestingly, the Scots expected that after 1707 the count would begin anew. With the four Georges the question never arose; but with the accession of William "IV" in 1830 it did, as there had been four English King Williams, but only two Scots. There had been no Scots Edwards, so Edward VII (and Edward VIII) were based solely on the English reckoning, as also Elizabeth II.

benedictambrose said...

But, Dr Tighe, her current Majesty is not properly numbered of the United Kingdom (etc.) as if she were of England alone.

James, second son of Charles the Blessed, K&M, is properly James II of "that constantly fluctuating institution" rather than James VII (as he is of Scotland).

Sauce for the goose, no?

William Tighe said...

"James, second son of Charles the Blessed, K&M, is properly James II of "that constantly fluctuating institution" rather than James VII (as he is of Scotland).

Sauce for the goose, no?"

No; James was James II of England and James VII of Scotland. "That constantly fluctuating institution," the United Kingdom, did not come about until 1707, almost six years after his death; and in any case Jacobites no more recognized the legal validity of any English, Scottish or (after 1707) "Ukainian" parliamentary statutes, than, at an earlier time, royalists did any between 1642 and 1660.

Joshua said...

I recall that the Scots made a fuss about EIIR appearing on their letterboxes after the death of George VI; after protests, it was decided that, in future, the monarch would use whichever regnal number was higher, that stemming from the Scottish or that from the English list of rulers.

Hence Prince Charles will someday reign, ceteris paribus, as Charles II, and his heir, Prince William, as William V; but if after them the next heir to the Crown is named James, he would reign as James VIII, not as James III.

Joshua said...

Oops, I meant to write "Charles III" above!

Patrick Robinson said...

There was a Henry VI society,active in the late 1970s, producing nice cards, pamphlets,booklets and a not very well produced prayerbook. Msgr Clement Parsons(late of St Edmund's College,Ware) was president and Miss J.D.Lee was sec. Anglican,catholics & others could all join. Maybe Ronald Knox & Shane Leslie's Miracles of King Henry the Sixth (1923) could be re-printed.Alan Robinson

William Tighe said...

I was unaware of this:

"it was decided that, in future, the monarch would use whichever regnal number was higher, that stemming from the Scottish or that from the English list of rulers."

which is a wonderful example of "Ukanian Newspeak" or, perhaps, "new mathematics."

Little Black Sambo said...

Didn't Prince Charles say that he would be called George?