Henry VIII: The Mask of Royalty

By Lacey Baldwin Smith | Go to book overview
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"The Conscience of a King"

MORE. In matter of conscience, the loyal subject is more bounden to be loyal to his conscience than to any other thing.

CROMWELL. And so provide a noble motive for his frivolous self-conceit!

MORE. It is not so, Master Cromwell--very and pure necessity for respect of my own soul.

CROMWELL. Your own self you mean!

MORE. Yes, a man's soul is his self!

Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons, Act II

HENRY'S RELIGIOUS PROGRESS, the erratic route he followed between a malleable and ancient Catholicism untempered by the hot blast of the Council of Trent and a new and shapeless Protestantism still lacking the cold logic of John Calvin, leads through a theological bog into which even the expert may sink without trace. The sign posts are few and often untrustworthy. The old faith was a venerable and complex corpus of belief which had endured for fifteen hundred years because it was a spiritual synergism: a union of patristic commentaries, scholarly glosses, papal decretals and time-honored custom conjoined with the revelation of Scripture, all of which added up to, something more than the sum of its parts. The totality was a monumental authority, but the components were rarely clear and occasionally downright contradictory. It took Sir Thomas More seven years to convince himself that the secular supremacy of the Roman pontiff did in fact stem from divine prescription. 1 Time out of mind, the sacrament of the mass had been both a resacrifice of Christ's body on the cross and a commemoration of that historic event, but whether it was more one than the other remained in doubt, and ceremonial usage was not precise. The seven sacraments had been sanctified by the centuries, but history still resounded with the

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