Monday, October 5, 2009

St. Augustine's Abbey & Henry VIII

In Canterbury:
Three Saxon Christian churches already stood on this site when, in 597, St. Augustine was sent from Rome to 'evangelize' the English. The not-yet Christian king, Ethelbert, allowed St. Augustine to build a Benedictine abbey on these grounds. Over the centuries, the abbey was added to until it became a large complex. Many of the Angle and Saxon kings are buried here, and many of the early archbishops of Canterbury.
This is the chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary:

This is one of the newer graves! (Date is 1063). Several date back to the 6th and 7th centuries.
Today, of course, the abbey is in ruins. It was destroyed by Henry VIII, along with all the monasteries in England. Now Henry wasn't quite as depraved as he's usually portrayed. He was certainly every woman's worst nightmare husband. But his reasons for what he did were sound. England had just been through a thirty-year civil war (the War of the Roses) over the succession to the throne, causing the land and its people terrible misery and poverty. Henry needed a male heir to ensure there would be no war over the succession after his death. His wives (all six) produced among them only one very weak surviving son (by his 3rd wife), who died at age 15.

Although popes had granted divorces and annulments to royalty for just this reason, the pope at the time, Clement VII, would not annul the marriage of Henry and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. She was the aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, a Spanish king, and he didn't want his aunt's marriage annulled as it would prevent their family's heirs from eventually ruling England. And Charles had Pope Clement right where he wanted him -- in prison!

Additionally, the English monasteries had become very wealthy. Rich landowners would leave vast tracts of land to monasteries so the monks would pray for their souls after their death. The monasteries received rents from the common people who 'sharecropped' the land. The monasteries then sent huge sums of money to Rome. Rome, in turn, gave the money to either France or Spain, whichever was currently in favor, to fight against England during centuries of constant warfare. This didn't set well with the English, understandably.

So the usual story about Henry VIII and the English Reformation leaves out a lot that explains what it was really all about. The amazing outcome of this mega-soap opera was Elizabeth I, the child of Henry and his 2nd wife Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth was without a doubt England's greatest monarch, male or female. She kept England safe from foreign enemies. (She said, "I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England, too.") The arts flourished (think Shakespeare!). English explorers sailed the seas (think Drake). English scientists made great discoveries (think Newton).

Not being a queen!
History is so interesting.
Wildflowers can grow from ruins.

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