Visitors to this site with long memories will recall the dispute we had here over the film of “ A Man for all seasons” Robert Bolt’s play about Sir Thomas More. I was reminded of it by a recent provocative piece by in The Catholic Herald ( U.K.) by Dominic Selwood. Mr. Selwood asks what would England be like if Henry 8 th had not broken with Rome, and the reformation had consequently never happened. The article is entitled “What would Catholic England look like today?”
He begins his arresting piece by suggesting that Henry “became fixated on a male heir to secure his lineage ( ironic, given that [both] his daughters rank among England’s best known rulers.)”
Mr. Selwood’s sentence would have more closely reflected the reality by mentioning not just Henry’s lineage ( though that was undoubtedly a factor ) but also the need he perceived for political stability. Queen Elizabeth did indeed turn out to be a very great queen. (She may indeed have inherited some of her mother’s qualities!) But she was one in a million. It was surely quite rational in Tudor times for Henry to assume that neither of his daughters would turn become one of the most remarkable statespersons the world has ever seen- and we should remember too that Elizabeth was able to achieve what she did only by not marrying.
The really embarrassing nonsense in Mr. Selwood’s exposition is his apparently serious attempt to justify the reign of the unhappy Queen Mary on the grounds that she is “among England’s best known rulers.” “Best known” alas, yes – but for all the wrong reasons: a disastrous religious policy which did catastrophic damage to her own cause, her pathetic false pregnancies, and the loss of Calais- a world-class foreign policy cock-up. One feels that her reign more than justified her father’s fears. ( Could it be that Henry was so desperate for a male heir because he intuited that his eldest daughter was not quite the full shilling?)
More interesting than Mr. Selwood’s attempt to belittle Henry’s dynastic considerations is his idea that everything in England would have gone swimmingly if only there had never been a reformation. And he certainly paints an entrancing picture of what things might have been like. He claims that of all the countries in Europe that England was the most Catholic, and would have remained so.
But would it? Mr. Selwood writes that “there is little point in looking to other countries as examples.” Well, why not? Because, I suspect, if we do so the weakness of his case becomes evident. Do not the European examples suggest that if there had not been a reformation in England then the Enlightenment would have taken a more aggressive, and even violent form, and that Mr. Selwood would have found himself faced not with the cozy old Church of England but with the rigours of French style-secularism?
( Had Mr. Selwood been writing for Irish readers he could have made the point that in Ireland the political effects of the reformation were indeed dire because they overlaid religious differences on a quasi colonial situation which was potentially difficult enough…)
We have added to Catholic Herald to our list of British links, where Mr. Selwood’s intriguing piece and other interesting commentary may be found.