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Storms In English History: A Glance At The Reign Of Henry VIII
by [?]

A GLANCE AT THE REIGN OF HENRY VIII.[1]

What two works are those for which at this moment our national intellect (or, more rigorously speaking, our popular intellect) is beginning clamorously to call? They are these: first, a Conversations-Lexicon, obeying (as regards plan and purpose) the general outline of the German work bearing that title; ministering to the same elementary necessities; implying, therefore, a somewhat corresponding stage of progress in our own populace and that of Germany; but otherwise (as regards the executive details in adapting such a work to the special service of an English public) moving under moral restraints sterner by much, and more faithfully upheld, than could rationally be looked for in any great literary enterprise resigned to purely German impulses. For over the atmosphere of thought and feeling in Germany there broods no public conscience. Such a Conversations-Lexicon is one of the two great works for which the popular mind of England is waiting and watching in silence. The other (and not less important) work is–a faithful History of England. We will offer, at some future time, a few words upon the first; but upon the second–here brought before us so advantageously in the earnest, thoughtful, and oftentimes eloquent volumes of Mr. Froude–we will venture to offer three or four pages of critical comment.

[Footnote 1:
History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Death of Elizabeth. By James Anthony Froude, M.A., late Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford. Vols. I. and II. London: Parker & Son, West Strand. 1856.]

Could the England of the sixteenth century have escaped that great convulsion which accompanied the dissolution of the monasteries? It is barely possible that a gentle system of periodic decimations, distributing this inevitable ruin over an entire century, might have blunted the edge of the fierce ploughshare: but there were difficulties in the way of such arrangements, that would too probably have thwarted the benign purpose.

Meantime, what was it that had stolen like a canker-worm into the machinery of these monastic bodies, and insensibly had corroded a principle originally of admitted purity? The malice of Protestantism has too readily assumed that Popery was answerable for this corrosion. But it would be hard to show that Popery in any one of its features, good or bad, manifested itself conspicuously and operatively: nay, to say the simple truth, it was through the very opposite agency that the monastic institutions came to ruin: it was because Popery, that supreme control to which these monasteries had been confided, shrank from its responsibilities–weakly, lazily, or even perfidiously, abandoned that supervisorship in default of which neither right of inspection, nor duty of inspection, nor power of inspection, was found to be lodged in any quarter–there it was, precisely in that dereliction of censorial authority, that all went to ruin. All corporations grow corrupt, unless habitually kept under the eye of public inspection, or else officially liable to searching visitations. Now, who were the regular and official visitors of the English monasteries? Not the local bishops; for in that case the public clamour, the very notoriety of the scandals (as we see them reported by Wicliffe and Chaucer), would have guided the general wrath to some effectual surgery for the wounds and ulcers of the institutions. Unhappily the official visitors were the heads of the monastic orders; these, and these only. A Franciscan body, for example, owed no obedience except to the representative of St. Francis; and this representative too uniformly resided somewhere on the Continent. And thus it was that effectually and virtually English monasteries were subject to no control. Nay, the very corrections of old abuses by English parliamentary statutes had greatly strengthened the evil. Formerly, the monastic funds were drawn upon to excess in defraying the costs of a transmarine visitation. But that evil, rising into enormous proportions, was at length radically extirpated by parliamentary statutes that cut down the costs; so that continental devotees, finding their visitations no longer profitable in a pecuniary sense, sometimes even costly to themselves, and costly upon a scale but dimly intelligible to any continental experience, rapidly cooled down in their pious enthusiasm against monastic delinquencies. Hatred, at any rate, and malignant anger the visitor had to face, not impossibly some risk of assassination, in prosecuting his inquiries into the secret crimes of monks that were often confederated in a common interest of resistance to all honest or searching inquiry. But, if to these evils were superadded others of a pecuniary class, it was easy to anticipate, under this failure of all regular inspectorship, a period of plenary indulgence to the excesses of these potent corporations. Such a period came: no man being charged with the duty of inspection, no man inspected; but never was the danger more surely at hand, than when it seemed by all ordinary signs to have absolutely died out. Already, in the days of Richard II., the doom of the monasteries might be heard muttering in the chambers of the upper air. In the angry denunciations of Wicliffe, in the popular merriment of Chaucer, might be read the same sentence of condemnation awarded against them. Fierce warnings were given to them at intervals. A petition against them was addressed by the House of Commons to Henry IV. The son of this prince, the man of Agincourt, though superstitious enough, if superstition could have availed them, had in his short reign (so occupied, one might have thought, with war and foreign affairs) found time to read them a dreadful warning: more than five scores of these offending bodies (Priories Alien) were suppressed by that single monarch, the laughing Hal of Jack Falstaff. One whole century slipped away between this penal suppression and the ministry of Wolsey. What effect can we ascribe to this admonitory chastisement upon the general temper and conduct of the monastic interest? It would be difficult beyond measure at this day to draw up any adequate report of the foul abuses prevailing in the majority of religious houses, for the three following reasons:–First, because the main record of such abuses, after it had been elaborately compiled under the commission of Henry VIII., was (at the instigation of his eldest daughter Mary) most industriously destroyed by Bishop Bonner; secondly, because too generally the original oath of religious fidelity and secrecy, in matters interesting to the founder and the foundation, was held to interfere with frank disclosures; thirdly, because, as to much of the most crying licentiousness, its full and satisfactory detection too often depended upon a surprise. Steal upon the delinquents suddenly, and ten to one they were caught flagrante delicto: but upon any notice transpiring of the hostile approach, all was arranged so as to evade for the moment–or in the end to baffle finally–search alike and suspicion.