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Reign of Henry the Eighth - (Concluded). page 3


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But it was not merely in lopping the heads of honest statesmen and prelates that Henry VIII. now displayed the powers of supreme head over the Church. There was a more tempting prey which allured his avaricious soul, and promised to recruit his exhausted treasury. These were the monasteries, convents, and abbeys. These institutions had grown excessively corrupt through time. Without depending on the reports of Henry's commissioners, whose business it was to make out a case for him against them, there is abundant evidence in contemporary writings that the monks, nuns, and friars were grown extremely sensual and corrupt. They had become wealthy, and wealth and indolence had produced their natural consequences - luxury, voluptuousness, and decay of real religious zeal. In the poets of still earlier clays - in Chaucer of England, and Sir David Lindsay of Scotland - we have ample proof of this state of things. Possibly, by reducing their property and enforcing a strict discipline, a tolerable reform might have been introduced into these houses, but Henry was not dreaming of reform, but of confiscation. The clergy of every description were imprudent enough to irritate the lawless king, by denying his supremacy and attacking his conduct. Rage and cupidity alike urged him to imitate the Reformers of Germany, and seize the spoils of this affluent body. Cromwell - whom he had appointed Vicar-General, a strange office for a layman - went the whole length with him in those views; nay, he was the man who first turned his eyes on this great attractive mass of wealth, and hallooed him to the spoil. He had told him that, if once he was established by Parliament as head of the Church, all that opulence was his. There can be no doubt that it was to carry out this seizure that Cromwell was put into that very office of vicar-general, as the only man to do the business, and he went to work upon it with right good will.

The first thing was to appoint a commission, and to obtain such a report as should induce Parliament to pass an act of suppression of all the religious houses, and the forfeiture of all their property to the Crown. The Bishop of Paris, years before, had confidently affirmed, that whenever Wolsey should fall, the spoliation of the Church would quickly follow. To expedite this matter as much as possible, the whole kingdom was divided into districts, and to each district was appointed a couple of commissioners, who were armed with eighty-six questions to propound to the monastic orders. As the supremacy of the king, and approbation of his marriage, were made absolute requisites of compliance, there was little chance of escape for any monastery, be its morals what they might. With creatures selected by Cromwell, and who had the terror of that head-severing king before them, the result was pretty certain; and we have a proof, in a letter of Dr. Layton, one of those commissioners, with what eagerness this office was solicited. He writes to Cromwell: - "Pleaset yowe to understand, that whereas ye intende shortly to visite, and belike shall have many suitors unto yowe for the same, to be your commissioners, if hit might stand with yowr pleasure that Dr. Lee and I might have committed unto us the north centre, and to begyn in Lincoln dioces northwarde here from London, Chester dioces, Yorke, and so forth to the border of Scotlande, to ryde downe one side, and come up the other. Ye shall be well and faste assurrede that ye shall nother fynde monke, chanone, etc., that shall do the king's highness so good servys, nother be so trusty, trewe, and faithful to yowe. There is nother monasterie, sell, priorie, nor any other religiouse howse in the northe, but other Dr. Lee or I have familiar acquaintance within X. or XII. mylls of hyt, so that no knaveiie can be hyde from us. We knowe and have experience both of the fassion of the contre and rudeness of the pepul."

The visitors had secret instructions to seek, in the first place, the lesser houses, and to exhort the inmates voluntarily to surrender them to the king, and, where they did not succeed, to collect such a body of evidence as should warrant the suppression of those houses; but after zealously labouring at this object through the winter, they could only prevail on seven small houses to surrender. A report was then prepared, which considerably surprised the public, by stating that the lesser houses were abandoned to the most shameful sloth and immorality, but that the large and more opulent ones, contrary to all human experience, were more orderly. The secret of this representation was, that the abbots and priors of the great houses were lords of Parliament, and were, therefore, present to expose any false statement.

On the 4th of March, 1536, a bill was passed hastily through both Houses, transferring to the king and his heirs all monastic establishments the clear value of which did not exceed 200 per annum. It was calculated that this bill - which, however, did not pass the Commons till Henry had sent for them, and told them that he would apply his favourite remedy for stiff necks, cutting off the heads - would dissolve no less than 380 communities, and add 32,000 to the annual income of the Crown, "besides the presents received of 100,000 in money, plate, and jewels. The cause of these presents was a clause in the Act of Parliament, which left it to the discretion of the king to found any of these houses anew; a clause which was actively worked by Cromwell and his commissioners, and, by the hopes they inspired, drew large sums from the menaced brethren, which lodged plentifully in the pockets of the minister and his agents, besides that which reached the Crown. Cromwell amassed a large fortune from such sources.

The visitors under this act were authorised to proceed to each house, to announce its dissolution to the superiors, to take an inventory of its effects, and to dispose of the dispossessed inhabitants according to their instructions. By these the superior received a pension for life; the monks under the age of four-and-twenty were absolved from their vows, and turned adrift into the world; those who were older, were either quartered on the larger and yet untouched monasteries, or were told to apply to Cromwell or Cranmer, who could find them suitable employment. As for the nuns, they were turned out unceremoniously with the gift of a single gown, and were left to secure a means of existence as they could - a most ruthless proceeding. The cruelty of these ejectments was greatly aggravated by the crowd of hungry courtiers to whom the improvident king - as improvident as he was grasping and inhuman - had already given or sold the possession of the greater part of the property of the monasteries.

The Parliament, which had now sat six years, and which was one of the most slavish and base bodies that ever were brought together - having yielded every popular right and privilege which the imperious monarch demanded, and augmented the Royal prerogative to a pitch of actual absolutism; having altered the succession, changed the system of ecclesiastical government, abolished a great number of the ancient religious houses without thereby much benefiting the Crown - was now dismissed, having done that for this worthless monarch which should cost some of his successors their thrones or their heads, and a braver and more honourable generation the blood of its best men to undo again.

Whilst the cormorants of the Court were busy seizing upon and gorging the whole property thus reft from its ancient owners, and which, duly administered, might at this day, have rendered taxation nearly unnecessary, the two queens of this English sultan died, but under very different circumstances.

The treatment of Catherine, after her repudiation, was as rigorous and disgraceful as a heartless king and a servile set of courtiers could make it. She had been driven from her house at Bugden, and required to betake herself to Fotheringay Castle, which she refused on account of its unhealthy situation. The Duke of Suffolk, in endeavouring to force her into compliance, behaved to her with such rude insolence that she abruptly quitted his presence. In the commencement of 1535 she was removed to Kimbolton Castle. Though she had a right to 5,000 per annum as the widow of Prince Arthur, she was kept so destitute of money, that Sir Edmund Bedingfield, the steward of her household, reported that she was suffering under a lingering malady, and had no means of obtaining the most ordinary comforts. Her servants were required to take an oath that they "would bear faith, troth, and obedience only to the king's grace, and to the heirs of his body by his most dear and entirely beloved lawful wife, Queen Anne," or they were dismissed. Her confessor, Father Forrest, was thrown into Newgate, and the one who succeeded him in that office, Dr. Abell, was also incarcerated, because they would not reveal anything communicated in confession which might criminate the queen. These two conscientious men were treated with the grossest indignity, and finally put to death in a most horrid manner, for their constancy in resisting these diabolical designs.

Catherine's only daughter, Mary, was kept from her, and was not only declared illegitimate, but was banished from Court, and, like her Royal mother, confined in different houses in the country. This rigour was made the more bitter, because Mary, feeling for the unmerited treatment of her mother, would never renounce the title of princess, or give that title to the infant Elizabeth, whom she only called sister.

In her last illness Catherine earnestly implored that she might be permitted to see her daughter, but it was refused her. Death was about, however, to release this much-abused woman from the power of this ruthless tyrant, and, perceiving its approach, she called one of her maids to her bed-side, and dictated the following letter to Henry: -

"My Lord and dear Husband,

"I commend me unto you. The hour of my death draweth fast on, and my case being such, the tender love I owe you forceth me with a few words to put you in remembrance of the health and safeguard of your soul, which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and tendering of your own cares. For my part, I do pardon you all; yea, I do wish and devoutly pray God that he will also pardon you.

"For the rest, I commend unto you Mary, our daughter, beseeching you to be a good father to her, as I heretofore desired. I entreat you also on behalf of my maids to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants I solicit a year's pay more than their due lest they should be unprovided for.

"Lastly, I do vow that mine eyes do desire you above all things."

On the receipt of this letter it is said that even the stony heart of Henry was touched, and that he shed a tear, and desired the ambassador of Spain, Eustace Capucius, to bear a kind message to her, but she died before receiving it, on the 8th of January, 1536, and was buried, by order of the king, in the Cathedral of Peterborough, though she had expressly desired by her will to be buried in a convent of Observant Friars. Thus died Catherine of Arragon, a woman who had suffered more afflictions and indignities than any princess, or perhaps any woman of her time, and who had borne them with a dignity, a firmness, a wisdom, and a gentleness, which won her universal respect and admiration.

Anne Boleyn, on hearing of Catherine's death, was so rejoiced that she could not help crying out, "Now I am indeed a queen!" She is said to have been in the act of washing her hands in a costly basin when Sir Richard Southwell brought her the news; and, in her joy, she presented him with the basin and its cover. She bade her parents rejoice with her, her face radiant with pleasure, saying now she felt the crown firm on her head. The king had ordered his servants to wear mourning on the day of Catherine's funeral, for he did not forget that she was a princess of Spain; but Anne refused to do so, and arrayed herself in bright yellow, and made her ladies do the same. The whole of Anne's conduct on this occasion speaks little either for her head or her heart. She said she was grieved, not that Catherine was dead, but for the vaunting there was of the good end she made; for numberless books and pamphlets were written in her praise, which were, therefore, so many severe censures on Henry and on Anne. Indeed, her open rejoicing on this occasion, and the haughty carriage which she now assumed, disgusted and offended every one.

And yet, in truth, never had she less cause for triumph. Already the lecherous eye of her worthless husband had fallen on one of her maids, as it had formerly fallen on one of Catherine's in her own person. This was Jane Seymour, a daughter of a knight of Wiltshire, who was not only of great beauty, but was distinguished for a gentle and sportive manner, equally removed from the Spanish gravity of Catherine and the French levity of Anne Boleyn. Before the death of Catherine, this fresh amour of Henry's was well-known in the palace to all but the reigning queen; and, according to Wyatt, Anne only became aware of it by entering a room one day, and beholding Jane Seymour seated on Henry's knee, in a manner the most familiar, and as if accustomed to that indulgence. She saw at once that not only was Henry ready to bestow his regards on another, but that other was still more willing to step into her place than she had been to usurp that of Catherine. Anne was far advanced in pregnancy, and was in great hopes of riveting the king's affections to her by the birth of a prince; but the shock which she now received threw her into such agitation that she was prematurely delivered - of a boy, indeed, but dead. Henry, the moment that he heard of this unlucky accident, rushed into the queen's chamber, and upbraided her savagely "with the loss of his boy." Anne, stung by this cruelty, replied that he had to thank himself and "that wench, Jane Seymour," for it. The fell tyrant retired, muttering his vengeance, and the die was now cast irrevocably for Anne Boleyn, if it were not before.

The unhappy queen recovered her health, but not her spirits. She now felt the hour of retribution for her dishonourable conduct to her mistress Catherine was come. Every step she took only the more forced upon her that conviction. She ordered the dismissal of her rival from the Court; a higher authority countermanded it. It is impossible to conceive a more awful and alarming situation than Anne's at this moment. From the hour that her enraged husband had quitted her chamber in wrath, he had abandoned her society. Her little daughter, Elizabeth, was kept apart from her, as Catherine's daughter had been from her. The gaieties of the Court went on as if there were no such person as this formerly nattered and worshipped woman. She was left alone, with a few servants, at the palace of Greenwich; and is said to have sat, gloomy and spiritless, for hours in the quadrangle of Greenwich Palace, or wandering solitary in the most secluded spots of the park. What an awful feeling of desertion - what a still more awful feeling of approaching fate - must have lain on her in those days, knowing so well the man she had to deal with her! Instead of having made friends, she had made enemies. Her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, was wholly alienated from her, and Brandon, Henry's chief favourite, was her mortal enemy.

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