Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914) is most famous these days for his 1908 book, Lord of the World, hailed by many of different dispositions as one of literature’s first dystopian novels.
But between 1904 and 1907, Benson published his Reformation Trilogy: The King’s Achievement and By What Authority? (both 1905); and The Queen’s Tragedy (1907). Together they’re a perfect antidote to the revisionism of numerous recent works of history and fiction that portray the “greatness” of England’s King Henry VIII.
Benson wrote By What Authority? first, but by order of subject, it’s second in the trilogy, given that it’s about Elizabeth I (The King’s Achievement deals with her father). The Queen’s Tragedy tells Mary Tudor’s story.
Msgr. Benson’s own life story is almost the stuff of fiction. As a son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the younger Benson was a kind of prince within the Church of England.
Benson’s father ordained him to Anglican holy orders in 1895, but in 1903 Robert entered the Catholic Church and a year later was ordained to her priesthood. His decision to cross the Tiber caused a sensation in England as great or even greater than John Henry Newman’s had.
The King’s Achievement begins in 1533 at Overfield, the manor of Sir James and Lady Torridon and their adult children. Their sons are Ralph, employed by Thomas Cromwell (chief minister to Henry VIII), and Christopher, who is discerning a Catholic monastic life.
The sons arrive home together and, at dinner with their parents, the conversation is tense. Sir James tries to tamp down Chris’s Catholic enthusiasm even as he hopes Ralph will be temperate in comments concerning Henry VIII’s new bride, Ann Boleyn.
It’s an ideal introduction to the emotional and intellectual divisions that would tear England apart, principally because of the break with Rome over the king’s wish to annul his first marriage. Henry had been dubbed defender of the faith by Pope Leo X in 1521 in recognition of Henry’s book, Defense of the Seven Sacraments, which defended the sacramental nature of marriage and papal supremacy. The king still embraces that papal title but now, via the Act of Supremacy, styles himself Supreme Head of the new Protestant Church of England.
And he begins to erase Catholicism, both subtly and violently.
While Chris travels to the Benedictine priory at Lewes to become a monk, Ralph is sent by Cromwell to the home of Sir Thomas More, now in retirement in Chelsea. Ralph is unable to trick More into making damning statements about the Act of Supremacy – and gets rather more than he bargained for: he falls in love with Beatrice, a young woman who daily visits the More family.
As things develop, Sir Thomas is clearly slipping into danger, and Beatrice writes to Ralph asking him to help. Therein lies the rub, Ralph loves her but:
A further consideration to Ralph was his duty to Cromwell; he scarcely felt it seemly to lie whole-heartedly to him; and on the other hand he felt now simply unable to lie to Beatrice. There was only one way out of it – to prevaricate to them both.
A tangled web. No man can serve two masters, especially when one is a Mistress.
Many nations have undergone wrenching changes (France in 1789, Russia in 1917), but Reformation London, which was every bit a police state along the lines of Jacobin Paris or Bolshevik Moscow, was in its way more tumultuous: Catholic, then Protestant, then Catholic again, and finally Protestant – all in a quarter-century.
Part of the pleasure of reading Msgr. Benson comes from his artful intertwining of characters real and fictional.
Also, I’ve never read a more detailed or vivid description of monastic formation or better insight into the politics of the English Reformation court. In this second regard, it’s as riveting and entertaining as Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons.
And Msgr. Benson’s prose is remarkable. In this passage, Chris, now a monk, thinks wistfully about the world outside the priory walls:
Out there through those transepts lay the town where reasonable folk slept, husband and wife together, and the children in the great bed next door, with the tranquil ordinary day behind them and its fellow before. . . .And beyond lay the cool round hills, with their dark dewy slopes, over which he had ridden a year ago, and all England beyond them again, with its human life and affairs and interests; and over all hung the serene stars whence God looked down well pleased with all that He had made.
And so the novel goes: the unfolding of a time of great crisis seen through the experiences of brothers on both sides of the conflict. Several times as I was reading of the king’s great crimes against Catholics, I made the Sign of the Cross, because it is almost unimaginable what Henry VIII was willing to do to purge Catholicism from English life – and not for the sake of principled reformation but for the satisfaction of his disordered lust and pride. Benson’s descriptions of martyrdom are awesome, a word I use in its literal meaning.
Robert Hugh Benson was also a judicious writer. His novel’s treatment of disparate characters is dispassionate, even generous, in making Anglican arguments to justify the rupture with Rome:
that it was not the part of a good Catholic to resist his prince, that the Apostle himself enjoined obedience to those in authority; that the new light of learning had illuminated perplexing problems; and that in the uncertainty it was safer to follow the certain duty of civil obedience.
Tudor Catholics believed they could remain Catholic and hoped the king would repent and revert. Perhaps the sovereign’s next wife would lead him home!
All that would cease in Elizabethan England; the flame of faith would flicker to the point of being extinguished. It seemed doomed after the death of Mary Tudor. But it did not die and never will.
It’s time for a Robert Hugh Benson revival.
You may also enjoy:
St. John Henry Newman’s A Second Reformation (from Apologia Pro Vita Sua)
Gunnar Gundersen’s Retconning the Reformation