Lewes Priory was once a cathedral-like structure housing prosperous Benedictine monks but the old king fell out with the Pope over that question of his divorce and things went from bad to worse not only leading to his split with the probably very nice Queen Catherine of Aragon but also with the Roman Catholic Church.
He married that most irresistible of women, a tarty intellectual called Anne Boleyn, who was also probably a very nice woman, but he fell out with her in the end and condemned her to that scary death of having her head cut off. Her call to fame apart from being a romantic heroine, is that she was mum to Queen Elizabeth the First, probably England’s greatest monarch.
The old king, as he used to be called in the days of his daughter’s reign, was crowned five hundred years ago yesterday, on Midsummer’s Day. It was warm and sunny when the handsome, athletic young intellectual prince had that crown placed on his head. It was a time of hope and joy for his people – well so they thought.
In those days monarchs held supreme political power and wonderful and glorious as Henry may have seemed that day, his rule, like all politicians’ periods in office, ended in failure.
Fat, resentful and bloody-handed, he did though guide England into its glory days and, insignificant as it seems now, gave us the Church of England.
Well churches mattered in those days. If you take his reigns and those of his three children, all mothered by very nice women, you just couldn’t win if you took your religion seriously. It was a rare person indeed that managed to combine longevity and religious sincerity.
Henry made it a bit dodgy being Roman Catholic, his son Edward made it even dodgier being anything but radical Protestant, then Mary made it compulsory to be Roman Catholic again and finally Elizabeth turned it all round once more.
It didn’t just mean that you switched churches from the nice church down the road to the other one up the hill, it meant that bad things happened to you like being burnt at the stake.
It would seem so irrelevant to modern life if we didn’t have those weird Islamasist terrorists still killing people for not being in their religious club. They don’t seem to be very nice to their wives either.
It is odd now looking at the modern Church of England, strange to see it as a militant cell when for most of its existence it has been the great compromiser and now almost an irrelevance.
What would Henry the Eighth have thought? Would he have thought it had been worth it? There is that Robert Bolt play, A Man For All Seasons, about Henry’s fall out with his chancellor, Thomas Moore, which has that great line when Moore finds out that his son-in-law has betrayed him in exchange for political promotion to Secretary of State for Wales. Witheringly, he tells the young man: “It profit a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world…but for Wales!”
I wonder now if those Tudor monarchs would think any of that religious blood-letting was worth giving us the sleepy, ignored and much-ridiculed Church of England.
If you pop in to one of their churches these days it is all very different from Henry’s day, it is a mix of elderly hopefuls and easy-going social-workers all singing along to platitudes set to music not profound enough for the Eurovision Song Contest.
Well times move on. I would rather our religious folk spent their Sundays like that than planning to strap a bomb to themselves and wander into the local supermarket.
But before I drop the Church of England into the recycling bin, I must linger over the sounds that came from my radio yesterday morning.
To mark this 500th. anniversary the BBC broadcast a service from the Chapel Royal in London, Henry’s old church.
It took me back to my days as a choirboy when the Sunday morning service was called Matins, when prayers were chanted and the prayerbook was full of great poetry written by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who was also, incidentally, another victim of bonfire justice. The music, yesterday, was by one of England’s greatest composers, Henry the Eighth’s composer-in-residence, one Thomas Tallis and it was, let’s admit it, sublime.
English music during the Sixteenth century was possibly as great as music composed anywhere in the World and Tallis sits there as its crown.
So, with my regrets for all those discarded queens, burnt Catholics and Protestants and destroyed monasteries, at least we have a relic of real beauty: the prose and music of the Sixteenth Century Church of England.
Not good enough I know, but, yesterday morning, at least, I was transported back to some moments of real childhood joy. A sense of exultation that came to me regularly when leaving church after singing Thomas Tallis or his genius disciple, William Byrd.
I never really thought it was about men in sandals sitting on clouds but I was encased for an hour or so a week in a beautiful building, uplifted to somewhere indefinable by the power of great music. Wherever it was that it took me, all I know is that it felt like I was somehow complete again, inspired, re-ignited. Thanks Henry.