Sunday, October 3, 2010

Dying for faith

In order to understand and articulate my Anglo-Catholic beliefs, I’ve been reading many books about the Church of England. I quickly focused my reading on two formative periods: the creation of an independent church under the Tudors (1534-1603) and the Anglo-Catholic movement of the 19th century.

Of all this reading, none of the books — nor any other book of English history — moved me as much as The Sisters Who Would Be Queen, about the disputed succession after the death of Edward VI (1537-1553) that put Lady Jane Grey on the throne for nine days before her capture and eventual execution. While the modern interpretation was that this was a bold power play between rival Tudor factions, it also reflected the first major struggle over how (or if) the Church of England would continue after Henry’s death.

Like any schoolboy, I knew that Henry VIII had three children who succeeded him, one of them Catholic. I also knew that Elizabeth I died without issue, and somehow the throne was inherited by James I (and thus the House of Stewart). I’d never heard of Jane Grey, or her younger sisters Katherine and Mary, let alone their claim to the throne of England or Jane’s brief time on the throne. (Apparently Jane was elevated as a heroine to Victorian England, as testimony to her staunch evangelical beliefs.)

Spoiler alert: I highly recommend the book, but the drama was magnified by not knowing how it would turn out. So if you have time, read the book, not the rest of this article.

Jane (1537-1554), Katherine (1540-1568) and Mary (1545-1578) were great-granddaughters of King Henry VII. Their maternal grandmother, the first Mary Tudor, was the younger sister of Henry VIII, and briefly married to King Louis XII until his death in 1515. From her second marriage to Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, she had four children: two sons who died in childhood, and two daughters. The eldest daughter, Frances Brandon Grey (1517-1559) had three daughters: Jane, Katherine and Mary.

Frances was thus niece to Henry VIII, of extremely high status within the House of Tudor during his lifetime, and is buried in Westminster Abbey. Although she was buried with royal honors, both her eldest daughter and her husband were eventually executed by her cousin Mary (aka Bloody Mary).

Both author Leanda de Lisle and other writers pay the highest tribute to Lady Jane, her evangelical passion and her intellect. Tutored alongside her cousins (once removed) Elizabeth and Edward, various accounts suggest that she was the most capable and serious student tutored at Henry’s royal palaces.

Certainly many of the machinations by Jane, Mary and Elizabeth were about power and control of the throne. The only clear successor to Henry was his only son Edward, and his death left an ambiguous line of succession (and eventually the end of the House of Tudor).

As all three Tudor women learned, there are limits to the authority of a queen (or prince or princess) during an era when English kings still led their troops into battle. At the age of 16, Jane Grey held the throne for nine days in 1553, in between the death of Edward and her capture by troops loyal to Mary. Despite their difference in religion, the half sisters Mary and Elizabeth agreed not to contest their respective claims to the throne, allying them against the Grey sisters and their subordinate claims.

But there is more than just raw power politics in Lay Jane’s life and death. With Henry’s death in 1547, Edward became sovereign of the church his father had created at a time when Continental intrigues (and Mary) sought to return the allegiance of CoE (and England itself) to the Pope. Instead, Edward’s reign brought the CoE its first two prayer books (in 1549 and 1552) under the leadership of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1532-1553 who was also executed by Mary.

De Lisle makes clear that the only way that Jane came to the throne (even temporarily) was because she shared the evangelical faith of Edward VI and his vision for the Church of England. The terms of Edward’s will passing the throne to Jane and her male heirs — bypassing Mary — was based on the Protestant zeal she shared with Edward.

De Lisle also argues that Jane would have been a highly knowledgeable and passionate leader of evangelical reform in Britain. Under royal tutors, Jane had learned to read the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek. Educated as a potential royal consort, she closely followed the theological debates that raged across Europe and divided Christian from Christian during the 16th Century.

Instead, Jane was seized and imprisoned by Mary indefinitely in the Tower of London. When forces loyal to her mounted an unsuccessful revolt, she was beheaded along with other plotters. She was offered clemency if she converted to Catholicism, but she refused.

As she waited condemned, she wrote a series of devotional prayers and letters to family. De Lisle offered brief excerpts of this prayer written during her final days in the Tower:
O Lord, thou God and Father of my life, hear me, poor and desolate woman, which flieth unto thee only, in all troubles and miseries. Thou, O Lord, art the only defender and deliverer of those that put their trust in thee: and therefore I, being defiled with sin, encumbered with affliction, unquieted with troubles, wrapped in cares, overwhelmed with miseries, vexed with temptations, and grievously tormented with the long imprisonment of this vile mass of clay, my sinful body, do come unto thee, O merciful Saviour, craving thy mercy and help, without the which so little hope of deliverance is left, that I may utterly despair of any liberty. …

It was thy right hand, that delivered the people of Israel out of the hands of Pharaoh, which for the space of four hundred years did oppress them, and keep them in bondage. Let it therefore, likewise, seem good to thy fatherly goodness, to deliver me, sorrowful wretch, (for whom thy Son Christ shed his precious blood on the cross,) out of this miserable captivity and bondage, wherein I am now.  …

Only, in the mean time, arm me, I beseech thee, with thy armour, that I may stand fast, my loins being girded about with verity, having on the breastplate of righteousness, and shod with the shoes prepared by the gospel of peace: above all things taking to me the shield of faith, wherewith I may be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked; and taking the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is thy most holy word: praying always with all manner of prayer and supplication, that I may refer myself wholly to thy will, abiding thy pleasure, and comforting myself in those troubles that it shall please thee to send me; seeing such troubles be profitable for me, and seeing I am assuredly persuaded that it cannot be but well, all that thou doest. Hear me, O merciful Father! for his sake, whom thou wouldest should be a sacrifice for my sins: to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost, be all honour and glory. Amen.
Instead of such a pious leader — who married and would likely have brought forth heirs — Jane and Mary were succeeded by Elizabeth I, who compromised between the Reformed and Catholic to maintain her power on the throne — including a 1559 revision of the BCP that attempted to split the difference between the two factions. (Anglicans bear the consequences of this Elizabeth “fudge” some 450 years later.)

At several times in the book I found myself crying for the sisters Grey. Perhaps it’s because the book — and the extant record — provides such a vivid account of their lives, unlike the numerous Christian martyrs of the first millennium. Perhaps it’s because the royally born Jane had multiple options to avoid execution but she stood by her beliefs to her death, in a way that seems incomprehensible to modern sensibilities.

I don’t know if the Anglican church (or England itself) would have been better off with the evangelical zeal of Queen Jane instead of compromising of Queen Elizabeth. I think we would have had a clearer statement of faith, and perhaps a more meaningful role of English regents as Supreme Head of the Church of England.

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