Academic journal article CLIO

The King, the Priest and the Armorer: A Victorian Historical Fantasy of the Via Media

Academic journal article CLIO

The King, the Priest and the Armorer: A Victorian Historical Fantasy of the Via Media

Article excerpt

Charlotte Yonge described her 1864 novel The Armourer's `Prentices modestly as an attempt "to sketch citizen life in the early Tudor days."(1) At first glance it is little more than that: a well-informed and colorful, but second-rate, historical romance. At the heart of the novel, however, as this article will argue, is an ambitious, elaborate, and imaginative apology for the via media of the Anglican Church.

This apology is three pronged. To survive the turmoil of the Reformation, the Church in England needed first to define itself as a historical body: Yonge ascribes to Henry VIII, in the early years of his reign, the skills and virtues necessary to create a safe middle path through the delicate terrain of national and international statesmanship. The Church needed also to define itself as a religious body: Yonge accordingly adopts the figure of John Colet to act as mouthpiece for her theological and ecclesiological views. Finally, and most interestingly, the political and religious conflicts of the Reformation had their roots in deep and complex tensions about meaning and value which shaped all of society, and which could not be resolved by any historical individual. To represent the stabilizing power and primitive authenticity of the via media as it functions at this level, Yonge creates the morisco swordsmith Miguel Abenali, whose personal history transcends destructive class, guild, and national interests and links him to the earliest roots of Christianity.

Despite the modesty of the goals that she professes in the foreword, it is not surprising that the novel should have a polemical element. Throughout her prolific and successful literary career,(2) Charlotte Yonge saw herself essentially as "an instrument for the popularization of Church views."(3) By "Church views" she meant the views of her friend and mentor John Keble, author of the immensely popular Christian Year, friend to Newman, and one of the leaders of the party within the Church of England known at various stages of its career as "High," "Oxford," "Tractarian," "Anglo-Catholic," and "Puseyite." It was the aim of this party to revitalize the doctrine and liturgy of the Anglican Church, to defend its integrity against the encroachments of the State, and, by promoting the long-neglected doctrine of apostolic succession, to assert that the Church of England is not a local protestant sect, but truly "the Catholic Church in England." The Armourer's `Prentices concerns itself in particular with the Tractarian ecclesiology of the via media: the notion that the Church of England, in its doctrine and practice, represents a pure and authentic Catholic Christianity, a middle way between the excesses and corruptions of Romanism and Protestantism. Yonge's principal goal is to demonstrate the power of the via media to resolve the conflicts of the Reformation, by finding a safe path for her characters through the confusion of Tudor London, a society "divided and destabilized ... by political and religious tensions, high ambitions, and rapid social and cultural change."(4)

Yonge was well aware that to situate an apology for the Church of England in the reign of Henry VIII was an exceedingly bold move. The circumstances of the Church's birth were the greatest liability to the Tractarian claims for her legitimacy; the Oxford Movement was born in part out of concern for the effects of the Erastian settlement on the Church in an increasingly secular society,(5) and the Tractarian apology for the Anglican Church typically concentrated on the great seventeenth-century divines of her "Golden Age." Yonge, for the most part, prudently avoids the struggles of the 1530s and sets the bulk of her narrative between 1515 and 1517. Thus she can portray the religious and cultural forces from which the Anglican via media would eventually emerge without having to confront the painful and compromised process of that emergence.

Yonge's choice of the century's second decade also allows her to paint a more appealing picture of the Church of England's first Supreme Head than a later date would have allowed. …

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