History Ain’t What It Used to Be

I made a pilgrimage this week to see the Tower of London, the place where the “royal treasures” are kept.  I am not referring to the diamond and ruby studded crowns of England’s monarchs, however, but to the remains of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher in the chapel of St. Peter ad Vinculum (“St. Peter in Chains”).

Thomas More was not actually kept in the “White Tower” – in the center of the Tower of London citadel. He would have been kept in one of the towers in the wall of the complex.  The actual tower housed an armory.  You can still tour it and see the hulking armor of King Henry VIII (with its ridiculous, protruding cod-piece).

It’s somewhat disturbing to see anyone celebrating Henry VIII, a narcissistic tyrant responsible for the deaths of thousands of his countrymen, plus the murder of several women to whom he had pledged before God to be faithful. Henry was no more faithful to them than he was to the Church.

Before Henry became king, the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham was the site of an immense, thriving monastery. Henry, as was his custom, had it emptied and leveled, then presented the land as a gift to one of his toadies.  You can’t help wondering what’s worse: lawless tyrants like Henry or the craven yes-men who make their crimes possible. Two large arches are all that remain of the original monastery, although large Catholic and Anglican shrines to Our Lady have been erected nearby.

The remains of Walshingham

When I first noticed Henry’s image in the museum store, it struck me as unfortunate.  But then I realized his image was mostly on cheap, kitschy key-chains and coffee mugs, making him something like the Elvis or Liberace of the English monarchy.

Thomas More, by contrast, is not only revered as a saint in the Catholic Church, but his name is also commemorated in several prominent places in London.  Although “St. Thomas’s Tower” which sits above “Traitor’s Gate,” the entrance to the Tower complex opening directly onto the Thames, is not named for him, I am likely not the only person who saw the name and said a quiet prayer to him as I passed by.

Tower prisoners were taken to a nearby public scaffold where they were beheaded.  There is a bronze plaque there now.  Although their heads were put on spikes on London Bridge as a warning to others, their headless bodies were thrown into an unmarked pit beneath the chapel next to White Tower to prevent the body’s burial place becoming a “shrine” for a “martyr.”  When that chapel had to be rebuilt in the twentieth century, over a hundred bodies were found under the floor, many more than historians expected to find.  St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher’s remains were identified and are now buried in a crypt with others inside the church. There is no mention of Henry there.

I heard a story about Henry in another church, however.  Standing before the tomb of Lord Admiral Nelson in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the guide mentioned that Nelson’s immense crypt was built originally for Cardinal Wolsey.  But Henry took a liking to it and seized it, intending to have himself buried in it. When the time came, however, Henry had become so fat he couldn’t be fit into it. So it sat for centuries unused. Eventually, someone realized that they could simply take the royal crown off the top and put the symbol of the royal navy on instead, thereby solving the problem of what to do with Nelson.

History is a funny thing.  It doesn’t always go the way people expect.  I think about this every time I hear someone insist on accommodating “the direction of history.” Sir Thomas More would seem to have been someone “left behind by history.” Henry crushed him and the future belonged to him.  Didn’t it?

Plaque at the site of More’s beheading

In the television series “The Man in the High Castle,” which projects a world in which the Axis Powers won World War II, the main protagonist, Juliana Crain, tells a Nazi spy:  “For a world full of perfection and happiness, you hardly seem happy.”  “Just wake up!” he snaps back at her.  “This is the world we live in.  One that can be perfected, but not by your idea of goodness.”

At the end of the following episode, two events play out simultaneously.  In the streets of New York City, where the Nazis now rule.  Heinrich Himmler addresses thousands and shouts: “Today, history ends! And the future begins!”  The crowd shouts “Sieg Heil!”

At the same moment, in a tiny town in the countryside where Catholics are hiding a small community of Jews, a man is finally receiving his bar mitzvah.  The man serving as rabbi of the group speaks about “the importance of our traditions. They hold the pain and joy of 5,000 years.  When we connect to the past, Hashem speaks.” As they lift the new adult member of their Jewish community upon their shoulders, the camera cuts back and forth between their celebration and the immense Nazi crowd shouting “Sieg Heil!”

We have no idea whether these Jews will survive. Thanks be to God and the sacrifices of thousands of men and women, the Axis powers did not win that war.  But other tyrants have won, died peacefully, and continue to be revered. So as we look upon that immense crowd shouting slogans, comparing them with the small group of Jews singing and circling around their new member, we must ask ourselves: Which group would I want to be a member of, no matter the result?

For if the living God is the “lord of history,” then it doesn’t matter how large the crowd, how overwhelming their voices, or how powerful the tyrant, in the end, they all pass away, and the saints remain.  Our task is to invest in things that last – and trust Him for the rest.

Traitor’s Gate


Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.