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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Character of Henry VIII.
By James Anthony Froude (1818–1894)
 
From the ‘History of England’

PROTESTANTS and Catholics united to condemn a government under which both had suffered; and a point on which enemies were agreed was assumed to be proved. When I commenced the examination of the records, I brought with me the inherited impression, from which I had neither any thought nor any expectation that I should be disabused. I found that it melted between my hands, and with it disappeared that other fact, so difficult to credit, yet as it had appeared so impossible to deny, that English Parliaments, English judges, English clergy, statesmen whose beneficent legislature survives among the most valued of our institutions, prelates who were the founders and martyrs of the English Church, were the cowardly accomplices of abominable atrocities, and had disgraced themselves with a sycophancy which the Roman Senate imperfectly approached when it fawned on Nero.  1
  Henry had many faults. They have been exhibited in the progress of the narrative: I need not return to them. But his position was one of unexampled difficulty; and by the work which he accomplished, and the conditions, internal and external, under which his task was allotted to him, he, like every other man, ought to be judged. He was inconsistent: he can bear the reproach of it. He ended by accepting and approving what he had commenced with persecuting; yet it was with the honest inconsistency which distinguishes the conduct of most men of practical ability in times of change, and even by virtue of which they obtain their success. If at the commencement of the movement he had regarded the eucharist as a “remembrance,” he must either have concealed his convictions or he would have forfeited his throne; if he had been a stationary bigot, the Reformation might have waited for a century, and would have been conquered only by an internecine war.  2
  But as the nation moved the King moved, leading it, but not outrunning it; checking those who went too fast, dragging forward those who lagged behind. The conservatives, all that was sound and good among them, trusted him because he so long continued to share their conservatism; when he threw it aside he was not reproached with breach of confidence, because his own advance had accompanied theirs.  3
  Protestants have exclaimed against the Six Articles Bill; Romanists against the Act of Supremacy. Philosophers complain that the prejudices of the people were needlessly violated, that opinions should have been allowed to be free, and the reform of religion have been left to be accomplished by reason. Yet, however cruel was the Six Articles Bill, the governing classes even among the laity were unanimous in its favor. The King was not converted by a sudden miracle; he believed the traditions in which he had been trained; his eyes, like the eyes of others, opened but slowly; and unquestionably, had he conquered for himself in their fullness the modern principles of toleration, he could not have governed by them a nation which was itself intolerant. Perhaps, of all living Englishmen who shared Henry’s faith, there was not one so little desirous in himself of enforcing it by violence. His personal exertions were ever to mitigate the action of the law, while its letter was sustained; and England at its worst was a harbor of refuge to the Protestants, compared to the Netherlands, to France, to Spain, or even to Scotland.  4
  That the Romanists should have regarded him as a tyrant is natural; and were it true that English subjects owed fealty to the Pope, their feeling was just. But however desirable it may be to leave religious opinion unfettered, it is certain that if England was legitimately free, she could tolerate no difference of opinion on a question of allegiance, so long as Europe was conspiring to bring her back into slavery. So long as the English Romanists refused to admit without mental reservation that, if foreign enemies invaded this country in the Pope’s name, their place must be at the side of their own sovereign, “religion” might palliate the moral guilt of their treason, but it could not exempt them from its punishment.  5
  But these matters have been discussed in the details of this history, where alone they can be understood.  6
  Beyond and besides the Reformation, the constitution of these islands now rests in large measure on foundations laid in this reign. Henry brought Ireland within the reach of English civilization. He absorbed Wales and the Palatinates into the general English system. He it was who raised the House of Commons from the narrow duty of voting supplies, and of passing without discussion the measures of the Privy Council, and converted them into the first power in the State under the Crown. When he ascended the throne, so little did the Commons care for their privileges that their attendance at the sessions of Parliament was enforced by a law. They woke into life in 1529, and they became the right hand of the King to subdue the resistance of the House of Lords, and to force upon them a course of legislation which from their hearts they detested. Other kings in times of difficulty summoned their “great councils,” composed of peers, or prelates, or municipal officials, or any persons whom they pleased to nominate. Henry VIII. broke through the ancient practice, and ever threw himself on the representatives of the people. By the Reformation and by the power which he forced upon them, he had so interwoven the House of Commons with the highest business of the State that the peers thenceforward sunk to be their shadow.  7
  Something, too, ought to be said of his individual exertions in the details of State administration. In his earlier life, though active and assiduous, he found leisure for elegant accomplishments, for splendid amusements, for relaxations careless, extravagant, sometimes questionable. As his life drew onwards, his lighter tastes disappeared, and the whole energy of his intellect was pressed into the business of the commonwealth. Those who have examined the printed State papers may form some impression of his industry from the documents which are his own composition, and the letters which he wrote and received: but only persons who have seen the original manuscripts, who have observed the traces of his pen in side-notes and corrections, and the handwritings of his secretaries in diplomatic commissions, in drafts of Acts of Parliament, in expositions and formularies, in articles of faith, in proclamations, in the countless multitude of documents of all sorts, secular or ecclesiastical, which contain the real history of this extraordinary reign,—only they can realize the extent of labor to which he sacrificed himself, and which brought his life to a premature close. His personal faults were great, and he shared, besides them, in the errors of his age; but far deeper blemishes would be but as scars upon the features of a sovereign who in trying times sustained nobly the honor of the English name, and carried the commonwealth securely through the hardest crisis in its history.  8
 
 
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