The Position of Rule: A Richly Embroidered Tapestry
and a Decision of Foundation
Looking at the interplay of rule, or politics, and faith, it would appear that one must make a difficult decision of foundation, or of hierarchy. One must say in the end either that faith is a tapestry richly embroidered with the things of this world, or that worldly affairs are a tapestry sumptuously illustrated with (alternately troublesome and useful) religiosity. The tug-of-war between these two possibilities runs throughout the English Reformation creating societal havoc, finding its expression even today in the British subconscious. There are only a few positions that can be taken on this subject, and each had meaningful impacts on society as well as profound implications for one’s personal life during the English Reformation. These positions are crystallized quite clearly in the situation between Henry VIII and Sir Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons. The following rulers’ deteriorating sense of reverence also shows the visible and the invisible battling each other (most notably the contrast between weak and swayable Catholic Mary Tudor and charmingly shrewd Protestant Elizabeth I). And finally there is the inscrutable genius Oliver Cromwell who managed a rather messy balance between rule and faith – tho which is on top is difficult to tell and one could say it flip-flops a good deal in spite of his keeping everything in hand for some time. The Puritans in general, however, were much more inclined toward the first option than the second, and would even go so far as to take out much of the worldly embroidery, preferring the cloth of faith to be as plain as possible.
Sir Thomas More’s situation with Henry VIII, as portrayed in A Man For All Seasons reveals the struggle between the things of heaven and the things of earth in an astoundingly clear and honest way. More struggles even in the beginning of the film with his prominent and powerful position, having to deal with bribes and maneuver honestly in his communication and dealings between the people he is beholden to and the people he loves. It is obvious that he has a code of some sort that he operates by, and we soon find out that that code is his deep commitment to the Catholic faith and to God. Near the beginning we see him stating to the Lord Chancellor Thomas Wolsey that he wishes the country could be run by his prayers, and Wolsey (in essence) telling him he is a fool. Wolsey has been caught up in the midst of the complications of state and has seen how ‘running the country’ works for some time. He is very familiar with the intricacies worldly embroidery introduces to the simple, honest kind of faith that More speaks out of, and tells More that acting out that simple faith exactly while still in the world is the mark of a naive fool. Ironically we see an almost perfectly parallel scene next, when Sir Thomas reaches his house and the young man Richard is there, asking if he will help him to become a lawyer. More shows him a bribe that he received and gives it to him as a gift, tells him that the life of a lawyer is simply more complicated and difficult than that of an ordinary man if lived uprightly, and that therefore Richard should become a teacher. The Lord Chancellor, on the other hand, names Thomas More as his successor.
Thomas More is for a time in Henry VIII’s favor as Lord Chancellor, favor bestowed and wrested away like a flash of lightening according to worldly needs. Henry’s wife was bearing him no sons, and he soon became convinced that her miscarriages were directly due to the fact that he was being punished because she was his brother’s wife. He demanded a divorce from Catherine of Aragon on the grounds that they couldn’t have been made husband and wife by Church law anyway, and he became increasingly infatuated with the stand-offish Anne Boleyn. Sir Thomas More, now Lord Chancellor, never publicly condemned the divorce, but neither did he condone it. The film has a brilliant conversation between the Henry and More where More quietly refuses to give his blessing to the marriage, dancing nimbly around the things which would incriminate him as a traitor and yet still refusing to lie in order to please the king. Politics and worldly desires have trumped all else for Henry in this situation, such that all he can think about is his need for an heir and his passionate interest in a woman who could solve his problem. He is even willing to use religion as a shield for his actions, wanting the blessing of the honest More such that he can hide behind it from his own eyes. In the end, as even his shield condemned him, he decided to take over the rule of the Church as well. Now the king of England was the Church, and he could elaborately adorn his political threads with any kind of spiritual support he desired. This represents a complete inversion of the tapestry.
Mary Tudor, Henry VIII daughter by Catharine of Aragon, came to the throne at age thirty-seven in 1553, lonely and middle-aged. An attempt to characterize her rule might include something about ‘weakness’ and being ‘easily swayed’. Having come to the throne at such a late age without a husband, having lost her youth and beauty, she desperately desired a fulfilling relationship and an heir. Throwing caution to the winds, she married Philip of Spain, who ultimately despised her and went back home. They had no children. She was left devastated. The pursuit of love could be seen as her idol, perhaps, introducing far more instability into her life than she otherwise would have had. Philip even convinced her to go to war with France and Calais was lost (1558) as a result of the expense and the forced fighting. Daniell portrays Mary as an extremely devout Catholic, rising early in the morning for private masses, fasting half the day, and working diligently until late in the night (104-105). I wonder, however, about this. It seems that her priority was being loved, and in the absence of earthly love from Philip, imposing Catholicism on the country was her solace. Poor Mary grasped at the beautiful worldly pictures on the tapestry and was devastated when they broke loose and came out of the fabric: no longer anything but a jumble of thread. Life being devoid of the beauty she so desired, in her last years she resorted to dogmatic punishment of a world which couldn’t hold her hunger.
Elizabeth I reigned in stark contrast to Mary Tudor; through charismatic charm, wily wit, worldly wisdom, and bravery, she ordered the world about her to her liking. She played people like keys on a piano and arranged them like pieces on a chess board; it is clear that she used the strengths of her womanhood to her advantage in this way, never letting them hinder her. It is said that Elizabeth tried to put off difficult decisions and applied herself mainly to maintaining a broad stable plane of power through gaining loyalties by way of relational maneuvering. She focused on political stability rather than on religious unity (Daniell, 104), as the practicality her position as ruler meant far more to her than a clean heart — or making other people’s hearts clean. She was predisposed to Protestantism, however, and remained the head of the Church (the heritage of Henry’s reign), although she attempted to mitigate the position. Elizabeth I is far more adept at dealing with the world and its affairs than Mary Tudor was, but faith seems to be relegated somewhat to a backseat in her reign as a consequence. Her reign moves the throne back a few steps closer to the insolent inversion of Henry VIII.
Puritan Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of England after Charles I’s beheading. The Puritans had been growing in number and were by this time quite influential. Oliver refused to be named King, but preferred the title of Protector which was supposed to restrict his power and give connotations of a more representative government. The Puritan ethic is strict and simple adherence to spiritual law with as few worldly trappings as possible — almost monkish in its dedication to the un-earthly, yet with a curious emphasis on personal experience and an extreme distrust of symbol and ritual. Put in a position of power, a Puritan is in as tricky a situation as Sit Thomas More was in A Man For All Seasons. Cromwell is difficult to figure out, as he often seemed to sit in a suspicious manner almost solely upon military power. Some think that he was an evil genius, but on the other hand he managed a despicably intricate and difficult situation with at least some semblance of balance for quite some time. He believed in democracy, ‘godly rule’, and tolerance (although we’ve all seen where those values go wrong too brittlely held). There are hints of untoward things at play in his political rule, such as notable (though isolated) cruelty and the dissolving of Parliament under pressure from the military (Daniell, 132). Overall, however, the Puritans would place faith and the spiritual at the core, as the fabric upon which worldly things are embroidered — with extreme care. You must choose your chains, and ideally you will be free of them completely.
So we see that Henry VIII was a winner, refusing to trust in what he could not see and wishing only to need to trust in himself. Mary Tudor was weak and lacked discernment, trapped by her own longings. Elizabeth I lost sight of her own true goal in her brilliant mechanizations of everyone else’s reactions to her. And creed-driven Oliver Cromwell slipped up in many areas, seeming to have the correct goal in mind but unsure of how to make his power manifest so as to benefit his people. In the difficult interplay of rule and faith one must found one’s life and rule on one or the other. If one is not sublimely sure of the solidity of faith, it will seem a poor foundation for rule. One must say in the end however either that faith is a tapestry richly embroidered with the things of this world, or that worldly affairs are a tapestry sumptuously illustrated with religiosity.
Every ruler must ask whether they will take faith as a basis, or necessity and the affairs of state. If the leader is insufficiently convinced of faith’s solidity, faith will deteriorate into religion and become just another brick in the wall with some leverage in important places. Sir Thomas More took off his chain of office when it required that he bind himself invisibly with lies. The kind of vision that he shows in A Man For All Seasons is incisive and clear; he sees in every situation where the needle has carried the world’s thread through the fabric of faith, and he knows when he wants to take out the stitches. He is able to see what kind of trappings he’s getting into with each commitment of his self, and is able to abdicate when necessary to preserve his spiritual life from being poisoned. The scene with his friend who implores him to give it over and approve, who asks him why he is so stubborn and proud that he will not yield even in this one instance, is very revealing. He accuses More of trying to save himself by works, in effect, saying that they’re all stained and there is no reason for More to try and avoid this one more splash of mud. More looks at him, utterly separate and unswayed, and the look says everything. His mind rephrases the question: Why don’t I consciously invite decay into my own life and make myself accomplice to the decay of my country? Because there is more to life than worldly embroidery. Because life is founded on faith, whether I wish it or not. And later: “Richard,” you can hear him saying still, with sorrow in his eyes, “what good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, and yet forfeits his soul… But for Wales?”
c. Mary Kathryn Gough (more pictures coming)
note: Both notably insecure for one reason or another, James I and Charles I, one taking up where the other left off, took the divine authority of kings to its logical conclusion, engaging in the ultimate power-trip. James, sharp and suspicious, was satisfied as long as neither the Catholics or the Puritans threatened his power — though he meddled as he saw fit between the two in an attempt to play the peacemaker (Daniell, 115-116). He joined a Protestant union of princes, but had no qualms about putting those who had helped Elizabeth to death, which would seem to indicate a lack of sensibility to the relevance and power of the intangible world. It held no terror for him; it was a tool. He even tried to legitimate his homosexual relations by referencing Christ’s relationship with John (Daniell, 118)! The state of his Parliament is described in one word “addled.” James overall found not much use for Parliament. Charles, however, went so far as to rule for eleven years without Parliament at all! He called it ‘the personal rule’, although some historians have called it ‘the eleven years of tyranny’ (Daniell, 121). Charles had married a Catholic, and his attempts to impose religious uniformity, combined with the other strife-inducing factors of his reign, brought about the Civil War, and finally a remnant of his own Parliament sentenced him to death on the premise that there would be no peace while he lived. Was Charles attempting to live according to his own beliefs, or according to his own desires? I feel that from the information I have, I cannot properly say.
Marykathryn Huffman / 2.24.06 Prof. Bratt / STBR 312 Essay # 2 / Mary Kathryn Gough (married)