Royals should keep faith, not title

September 20, 1994|By Robin Holt

IT'S BEEN a bad couple of years for the House of Windsor and the British royal family certainly needs no further grief. Why, then, did Prince Charles in a recent interview suggest that the title "Defender of the Faith" be altered to simply "Defender of Faith"? Because it's a good idea. A modern idea.

Conservative Anglicans (the British version of the American Episcopal church) are -- as conservatives tend to be -- outraged.

The monarch's position as Supreme Head of the Church of England has been part of the British "constitution" (actually a collection of documents) for some 400 years.

At least one member of the Privy Council has threatened to veto Prince Charles' accession to the throne.

If we Americans are to understand why the Brits are dropping their pints, and why the Prince of Wales is, finally, saying the right thing -- a brief history follows:

In 1517, maybe by design and maybe by accident, Martin Luther kicked off the Protestant Reformation and set off Christendom's Civil War. As with all civil wars, there were no neutrals permitted: either you were a believer in the True Faith (Catholic or Lutheran or Calvinist or whatever) or you were a heritic.

England's Henry VIII, the relm's most married monarch ever, had become king in 1509 and in 1520 he wrote a defiant answer to Luther entitled "A Defense of the Seven Sacraments," for which Pope Leo X honored him with the title, "Defender of the Faith." The Catholic faith.

Now we come to the famous wives. Henry had married his older brother Arthur's widow, Catherine of Aragon, who gave him a single child, Mary Tudor. Henry wanted a male heir, partly out of machismo, but also because his claim to the throne was shaky.

His father, Henry Tudor, had seized the throne in 1485 by defeating Richard III at the battle of Bosworth Field, ending 30 years of dynastic war over the English crown. Henry feared, perhaps with reason, that without a male heir his country would fall apart in another "War of the Roses."

When the pope refused to give Henry a divorce, the king rammed through parliament a bill naming the Archbishop of Canterbury the chief priest in England (needless to say, he granted Henry his divorce) and the king as supreme head of the church.

The rest of the story can be told quickly. Henry's next wife, Anne Boleyn, gave birth to Elizabeth and his third wife, Jane Seymour, gave the king his longed-for boy, Edward. As postscript: Anne was tried for adultery and treason; Jane died a week after giving birth.

Thus, when Henry died in 1547 Edward VI inherited a Protestant England, excommunicated from the Catholic church. But Edward VI was a sickly teenager who died of tuberculosis after six years of indifferent rule.

Protestant nobles desperately put Lady Jane Grey on the throne for about a week, but Henry's eldest daughter Mary I had the more obvious claim.

Mary I was, of course, the devoutly Catholic daughter of Catherine. Bloody Mary, as she has been known ever since, was determined to bring England back to the one "true faith."

She proceeded to burn as many Protestants as she could get her hands on -- ultimately about 300.

When she died in 1553, Elizabeth I, her younger and Protestant sister, wrenched the country back to the other one "true faith."

To be fair, the new queen said, "I have no wish to look into another man's conscience," and there were no mass executions. But Cath olic "recusants" as they were called, were tortured and a bill was introduced in Parliament to expell all Jesuits from the country. In Elizabeth I's later years, the most menacing opposition came from dissenters on the left, religiously speaking.

The Puritans thought the Church of England uncomfortably close to the old, corrupt Papists (they still call them that in Northern Ireland). Elizabeth I's successor, James I, resolved to "harry them out of the land" and that, ultimately is how the Pilgrims got to Plymouth Rock. Eventually, the clash between the Puritans (who dominated Parliament) and the Anglican royalists would escalate into England's only civil war and the dicatorship of Oliver Cromwell.

The cherished, sentimental intermarriage of church and state that the Prince of Wales has so recently threatened to undo is an unholy alliance, whose contract is written in the blood of tens of thousands of Englishmen and women, and of our own American ancestors as well. Persecutions, incarcerations, tortures, burnings and beheadings are the legacy of the HTC Catholic/Protestant mutual massacre that occupied the English crown for 150 years.

Most of the victims, as always happens, are nameless now -- although one stands out: Sir Thomas More. At one time he was Henry VIII's chancellor (the 16th century equivalent of the Prime Minister), but because he would not swear allegiance to the Act of Supremecy (the king is the head of the church) he was beheaded. The judicial murder of Europe's greatest intellectual is the greatest stain on the Tudor dynasty.

In the pluralistic society that Great Britain has become -- Catholics, Protestants and Moslems -- and with the bloody example of Northern Ireland in view, the legacy of the "Defender of the Faith" is that of the rack, the rope, the stake and the block. It is a gruesome relic of an ancient and bigoted age.

Prince Charles is right. The English, and humanity, are well rid of it.

Robin Holt writes from Baltimore.

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