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Hidden in the northern suburbs of Oxford are the last traces of a path first trodden by multitudes of country folk hurrying to see the burning of the Protestant martyrs Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley on October 16, 1555, and trudging home afterward.

For some years I lived very close to this track, and after dark I would imagine all those figures bustling past in their gray-and-brown homespun, their hands hard as oak from work in the fields, and wonder whether they had gone to cheer or to mourn, and whether they had seen what they expected to see.

They certainly had not seen what the authorities hoped they would see. The monarch who had ordered Latimer and Ridley burned alive, poor unhappy Queen Mary, has a good claim to the title of founder of the Church of England. Without her dogged and stupid persecutions, I doubt very much that this ramshackle, leaky, doctrinally vague old craft would ever have floated at all. It doesn’t work in theory—only in practice, like so many English things. Nothing has ever bound it together half so firmly as these gruesome human bonfires, rather obviously encouraged by Mary’s consort, Philip of Spain.

For about four hundred years, the memory of this era made Englishness and Protestantism almost synonymous. Right down to my father’s Edwardian generation, only recently extinct, many English people equated popery with tyranny and foreign autocracy. Still in my childhood Queen Mary was referred to as “Bloody Mary” in the presence of children—a shocking thing, since “bloody” was also in those days a swear word of some power, taboo in polite society. We were taught to remember Latimer’s last words to his fellow victim: “Play the man, Master Ridley, and by God’s good grace we shall this day light such a candle in England as may never be put out.” I have written that from memory, and if it varies from the Dictionary of Quotations version, I don’t care. The point is, it is lodged in my memory, sixty years after I learned it. See how it embodies the central English Protestant virtues of stoical courage and manly virtue, with a flicker of grim humor at the heart of it. A candle, indeed. These religious barbecues roared fifty feet into the sky, presumably punctuated by screams, and they scorched the woodwork of neighboring buildings. At Balliol College in Oxford, they still keep their old front gate with the burn marks on it from that unforgotten day.

Several times a week, I ride my bicycle past the spot in the middle of the city where Latimer and Ridley were incinerated. It is not to be confused with the nineteenth-century Martyrs’ Memorial, a pinnacled steeple of paradoxically Catholic appearance, which stands round the corner and bears the sectarian inscription:

To the Glory of God, and in grateful commemoration of His servants, Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, Prelates of the Church of England who near this spot yielded their bodies to be burned, bearing witness to the sacred truths which they had affirmed and maintained against the errors of the Church of Rome and rejoicing that to them it was given not only to believe in Christ, but also to suffer for His sake.

Nobody ever reads it. It was built in response to John Henry Newman and his Anglo-Catholic allies, who had been ridiculing and trying to overthrow the Protestant supremacy in the Victorian Church of England. Newman’s departure, and the apparent reassertion of Protestantism, quickly made the memorial meaningless, though as we shall see, profound damage had been done to Anglicanism. Around the unexamined monument rise and fall the ignorant tides of tourists, eating their sandwiches on its steps. Meanwhile, the Church of St Mary Magdalen, which stands next to it, is now a fortress of the most Catholic version of Anglicanism, much more Catholic than the present pope.

I usually salute the actual site of the burnings as I pass, though mainly in memory of Thomas Cranmer, rather more to my liking than Latimer or Ridley, because he really wasn’t very brave. Cranmer had been made to watch the deaths of his old friends, so he knew exactly what to expect and fear. He was reduced to ashes in the same place (then a bleak and squalid ditch) some time later. He had weakly recanted, then found out that Queen Mary wanted him burned to death anyway. She had not forgiven Cranmer’s part in annulling her mother’s marriage and making her illegitimate in the eyes of the law. Faced with this act of spite, this political, equivocal old cleric at last found his courage. I find Cranmer’s hesitant and initially cowardly response to persecution and threats much easier to sympathize with than Latimer’s self-assured militancy. I sometimes pause at the scene to imagine the crackle of the fire and the terrible pain, and conclude that men and women of that time, even the cowards, must have been far braver and harder than we are. That is why their rulers were so much more cruel. Civilization—safe, peaceful, and merciful—breeds smaller, duller men than barbarism, which perhaps is why civilization never survives for long.

I offer these facts and thoughts to explain that this is the world in which I was brought up. I may even be the last living straggler of that era, a cultural coelacanth hauled up gasping from the silent, lightless depths of the day before yesterday. In my later, more multicultural life, I have learned that there are other versions of these events. I am more than ready to absorb these into my worldview, within reason. I know perfectly well that Elizabeth Tudor was not the simple figure of goodness and patriotism I was brought up to believe in. In general, I know that childhood history is merely a crude introduction to national myth, and that adults are required to treat it with severe and often brutal skepticism.

So please do not press William Cobbett’s view of the Reformation on me, or tell me to read the works of Eamon Duffy on the stripping of the altars, for I have done so. I know that there were terrible losses—of good men and women, of glorious art and sculpture, of valuable traditions, of learning and charitable works. I wish it had not been so. I only say that, without the Anglican compromise of Elizabeth, England would have had a far more savage Reformation than it did, and would have lost much more, as I think events in Scotland clearly show to this day.

Only one issue really concerns me here, on which I will stand my ground. And that is the argument, often advanced by Roman Catholics to me, that Elizabeth persecuted their faith just as Mary persecuted mine. It is not true to say that Elizabeth and Mary were mirror images of each other, and it matters that it is not true.

First, let me deal with an important outcrop of this debate: the foreshadowing of these sectarian horrors by the actions of Henry VIII. Henry is a figure of loathing to many Catholics to this day. For example, he is wrongly credited with the foundation of the Church of England, in the rude rhyme attributed to Brendan Behan:

Beware the Protestant minister:
his false reason, false creed, and false faith;
the foundation stones of his temple
are the balls of Henry the Eighth.

The doggerel works better if a coarser two-syllable word is used to describe the round objects mentioned in the last line. But it is quite wrong, whichever term is used. Henry may have been all kinds of things, but he was never once divorced. He did not believe in divorce. He hated Martin Luther. He sought and obtained annulments on grounds of canon law, and when he could not find a pope willing to grant them, he sought out another clergyman who would provide sound religious justifications for his dynastic needs—for that is what drove him, not lubricity. Henry was never a Protestant. The day before he died, he confessed to a priest and took the sacrament, as he had done since he was a boy. In fact, prominent Protestants of the time were quick to condemn his case for annulling his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. But it was the Vatican’s refusal to grant this that brought about the great schism between Rome and England. You might protest that politics should play no part in such things. But you would know perfectly well that it did and still does.

My own guess is that the Vatican has wished for centuries that it had yielded to King Henry on this point. For Henry had no fundamental quarrel with the Vatican. He dissolved the monasteries to grab their lands and wealth and buy himself support, not because he was a Protestant. It was not Henry but his sickly, short-lived son Edward VI who sought to make England Protestant. He barely had time to do so.

When Edward died and his Catholic sister, Mary, ascended the throne, the dissolution of the monasteries was very pointedly not reversed. The idea was discussed and rejected during the negotiations between Parliament and the Holy See, which led to the reintroduction of Catholic worship. In the end, the issue was not really religious, but extraordinarily modern and materialist—a question of power, money, and land. It was left alone under Mary for sound political reasons. Mary was as keen on having a united country as Henry had been. Had restoration of the monasteries been essential to maintaining or restoring a Catholic England, she would not have accepted the dissolution.

In the same way, Henry’s defiance of papal authority over control of the national church was no greater than that which Rome would face a century later from France’s Most Catholic Majesty, Louis XIV. But Louis, even so, seems to have escaped the loathing visited on Henry. It would be the Jacobins who drove the Church from France. And why should defiance of papal authority be such a decisive issue? Pope Clement VII himself spent much of his pontificate being ordered about by temporal authority in the shape of Charles V. This leads to the unavoidable conclusion that Henry’s judicial murders of Thomas More and John Fisher were political in origin, not religious. Both More and Fisher were brave and principled, beyond doubt. They were also given to fierce and cruel persecution of Protestant heretics—both, along with their Catholic King Henry VIII, were implicated in the savage death by fire of the Protestant martyr Thomas Hitton in 1530. Nor is there any doubt that Fisher, saintly Englishman or not, made treasonous approaches to Eustace Chapuys, Charles V’s ambassador in London, urging Charles to invade England and overthrow Henry. By going to their deaths over the question of papal authority over the king, Fisher and More chose an issue peripheral to Christ’s teaching, which renders unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and is preoccupied with a kingdom that is not of this world. Far from being an unalterable principle, the dissolubility of marriage had already been conceded by the chief of their Church, and would be conceded again in the future, right up to the extraordinary annulment of Sen. Edward Kennedy’s first (and in Christian terms only) marriage.

These facts are a nuisance to Roman Catholic martyrology in England. More and Fisher are essential to the story of Protestant brutality and intolerance, which greatly aided the nineteenth-century re-founding of the Catholic Church in England and sustains it still. Reborn Catholicism in England needed a counterblast to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and its long list of Mary’s victims, and to the commemorations of Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley in Oxford. It needed Englishmen who had died for the Catholic faith. Foreigners were of no use.

It also needed a martyrs’ memorial. More and Fisher, like Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer, were undeniably great and courageous Englishmen, and eloquent ones, too. One especially potent use of their memory can be found in St Wilfrid’s Chapel in the Brompton Oratory in London, perhaps the supreme headquarters of Catholic militancy in England. Above the altar of the English martyrs, in a side chapel of this majestic church, is a powerfully sinister and suggestively grim mural. It looks very old, but it was painted in 1938 by Rex Whistler (who is possibly the model for Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited). It depicts executions at Tyburn, London’s principal place for such things, and is flanked by idealized portraits of More and Fisher.

The execution scene is a masterpiece. The callous, lumpish crowd, backs turned on us, watches as several bodies dangle from a triangular gibbet. Many people are busy with horrible tasks. A condemned man is being guided up a ladder to join these broken, throttled corpses, and every inch of him betokens horror and resignation. Another man is being unstrapped from a hurdle before he too makes the ascent. A fire burns in the middle distance, oily black smoke curling into the summer sky (the trees are in leaf). That fire, it is clear, means no good to somebody. It seems to be dusk, but the darkness of the scene might only be the mood, or the smoke. Halberds and pikes, immensely tall, rise from among the mob, almost as high as the gallows, marking the presence of soldiers, presumably gathered around some notable victim. A castle tower commands the background. Far off, a windmill stands in a sort of Claude Lorrain landscape of sylvan peace. Yet the light in the painting is the light of a nightmare. A strong impression of evil and cruelty comes out of the frame, as I am sure it is meant to do. I would not want an impressionable child to see it. It is one of the most powerful pieces of propaganda I have ever experienced. When I recently revisited it, I was astonished to find how small it actually is. I had remembered it as huge.

But it is not quite true. It does not make the point it seeks to make. More and Fisher died for political offenses at the hands of a Catholic coreligionist who believed in the Real Presence and other essentials of the unreformed faith until the day he died, excommunication or no excommunication. Nor did More and Fisher die amid the crowded squalor of Tyburn, on a gibbet or in the flames. They were beheaded, a swift and merciful death by the standards of the age, at Tower Hill. Whistler’s gruesome picture, as we shall see, refers to something entirely different.

And for an explanation of this difference we must return to Oxford, England’s holiest city. The contest between the two rival groups of martyrs continues even now. On the back wall of St Aloysius Church, a five-minute walk from the Martyrs’ Memorial, is another propaganda mural, not by any means the equal of Whistler’s, but painted, as far as I can make out from the inscription, in 1977. It shows the most appealing of the Catholic martyrs, Edmund Campion, first standing in gentleman’s attire before a rather frivolous Queen Elizabeth, who fingers her pearls as she listens to his eloquence; he is later haltered and clad in shabby prisoner’s robes, awaiting a gory death. Newer still is a smart slate plaque at the far eastern end of Holywell Street, close to the remnants of the city wall, which is even more of an answer to the Protestant tradition. It commemorates four men, George Nichols, Richard Yaxley, Thomas Belson, and Humphrey Pritchard, “executed for their Catholic faith, 5th July, 1589.” Or were they?

I suppose I need to say that what follows is not an endorsement of the Elizabethan treatment of those who held to the old faith, or even an attempt to excuse it by the standards of our own age. I am instead trying to judge these matters by the standards of their time. And those standards were very cruel indeed. In England, the people had seen hundreds of heretics burned under the Catholic monarchs Henry VIII and Mary I (and a few of the more fervent Protestants burned by Edward VI and Elizabeth, who had no time for Arians and Anabaptists). These heretics tended to be fairly ordinary men and women, often detected by informers in unorthodox statements or acts. There is a terrible description of such a moment in the historian Hilda Prescott’s beautiful and moving novel (marvelously unsectarian) about the time of Henry VIII, The Man on a Donkey. A common man, a pastrycook roused to sudden temper, blurts out his heresy to church officials. As he and his wife realize what he has done, they sit weeping silently, hopelessly, desolate as they wait for the bishop’s men to take him away to his death. I think this a true picture. Some of the many who were burned were clergymen, but many were not, and none, I think, was in touch with any foreign power in the hope of overthrowing a Catholic throne and replacing it with a Protestant one. Like them or not, these people died for their faith.

In France there had been the lawless horror of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, a sight supposedly witnessed by Francis Walsingham, the head of Elizabeth’s secret police, who is said to have vowed that nothing of the kind should ever be permitted to happen in England.

Beside these events of blood and fire, the mere fining of those who would not attend the services of the Church of England seems to me to verge on mildness. The main Anglican services, for those who do not know them, are both beautiful and unobjectionable. They contain nothing contrary to Catholic belief, and are in fact carved out of the monastic cycle of prayer, with its familiar canticles and Psalms. No Catholic who attended Matins or Evensong would have been compelled to say or do anything that outraged his conscience. Even the rare services of the Lord’s Supper (four times a year, according to the Prayer Book’s instructions) are carefully ambiguous. Elizabeth herself disliked married priests and was opaque about her exact religious opinions. Even if she did not actually write it (the matter is unlikely to be resolved), her famous endorsement of religious vagueness was long treasured in England as a kindly effort to avoid needless dissension and persecution:

’Twas Christ the word that spake it.
The same took bread and brake it.
And as the Word did make it,
So I believe and take it.

Some accounts say this was her response to an attempt by a Catholic priest to trap her into heresy while she was a mistrusted semi-prisoner under the rule of her sister. Whatever the truth, it serves anyone in such a position. More famous, and in my view much the best thing ever said by any English monarch, is her declaration at the start of her reign: “I would not open windows into men’s souls.” Some accounts say that Anglican parsons, many of them former Catholic priests, would quietly consecrate the elements according to the proper form for their Catholic parishioners. The enforcement of the laws, at least to begin with, varied greatly (I rely on a pro-Catholic account for this) and was sometimes quite gentle.

So how could it be that George Nichols, Richard Yaxley, Thomas Belson, and Humphrey Pritchard, not to mention Edmund Campion, died at Elizabeth’s tolerant hands? It is important to note the date of their deaths, nearly thirty-one years after Elizabeth came to the throne. Mary’s Protestant victims were dying by the dozen within months of her accession. Nichols and his comrades did not die because of the 1558 Act of Supremacy, which declared the English monarch rather than the pope to be supreme governor of the Church, and required an Oath of Supremacy from all holders of public or church offices—the point that earlier had caused More and Fisher to go to the scaffold. Refusal to swear the oath meant confiscation of property, imprisonment, and ultimately death. Rather than risk these punishments, Catholics fled or did not seek offices, and so were left alone. So the Act of Supremacy, though it pushed Catholics to the margins of power, was not the start of a general persecution. I think even the most sectarian critic will struggle to find much evidence of English Catholics suffering gravely during Elizabeth’s first decade.

The great change came in 1570, and was begun not by Elizabeth but by Pope Pius V, a stern figure of rectitude and orthodoxy who ascended his throne in 1566, eight years after Elizabeth had ascended hers. He placed English Catholics in an impossible position by issuing his bull Regnans in Excelsis on February 25, 1570. This bull came at a time of fear and tension, soon after important rebellions against Elizabeth in both England (the Rising of the North) and Ireland (the first Desmond Rebellion). Pius was not the least bit cautious or compromising. He proclaimed majestically that “Elizabeth the pretended Queen of England and the servant of crime” was a heretic. He freed all her subjects from any allegiance to her, even if they had sworn specific oaths. Those who obeyed her commands would henceforth face excommunication. “We charge and command all and singular the nobles, subjects, peoples and others aforesaid that they do not dare obey her orders, mandates and laws. Those who shall act to the contrary we include in the like sentence of excommunication.”

Some took this permission to commit treason very seriously, as they were meant to do. In 1571 came the Ridolfi Plot, a genuine and well-organized conspiracy to overthrow and murder Elizabeth. Regnans in Excelsis provided moral and legal support for this—a planned regicide, which would normally have been viewed by the Church as the blackest of sins. Pius V and Philip II of Spain were personally aware of the plot and approved. No monarch could have treated it lightly. It was discovered and it failed, but it might easily have ended otherwise. Elizabeth’s treatment of English Catholics in the wake of this plot was a reaction, not an initiative. I cannot see that any open-minded person could view her measures as excessive or unreasonable.

Elizabeth answered the papal bull by declaring it high treason to call her a heretic or desire her overthrow. Eventually, Regnans in Excelsis became such a hindrance to those who hoped to re-Catholicize England that even the Vatican saw it had gone too far. In 1580, Pope Gregory published a rather tricky “clarification” of the bull, saying that from now on, Catholics could obey the queen outwardly in all civil matters, until there was a good opportunity of overthrowing her. Unsurprisingly, this slippery policy failed to lessen Elizabeth’s growing suspicion that Catholic priests were foreign agents of a hostile power. Life remained miserable for English Catholics who loved their faith but wanted nothing to do with foreign invaders and conspirators.

The most important of Elizabeth’s anti-Vatican laws was the 1585 “Act against Jesuits, Seminary priests and such other like disobedient persons.” It was passed in time of actual war, after the outbreak of the Anglo-Spanish conflict that year. This war would lead in 1588 to the attempted invasion of England by the Spanish Armada, an event that shows beyond doubt that the Catholic threat to Protestant England in those years was urgent and real. The Catholic Church was prominent among England’s enemies. So it is hardly surprising that from 1585 it was high treason for any seminary priest or Jesuit to be in England at all, and a felony for anyone to shelter or help them. Under this particular statute, more than 150 Catholics are thought to have died on the scaffold between 1585 and 1603. (By contrast, Mary had executed nearly three hundred Protestants in four years, with no political excuse.) For what precisely did they die? This brings us back to Messrs. Nichols, Yaxley, Belson, and Pritchard, whose memorial appeared on an Oxford wall only in the new age of apologetic political correctness. For their story, I am indebted to an interesting and generally pro-Catholic study, Tony Hadland’s Thames Valley Papists.

I think we can guess that many English Roman Catholics quietly did as Elizabeth hoped they would do. They attended Anglican services (such people were known as “Church Papists”) and continued as loyal subjects of the crown, while hoping for better and easier days in future. By our standards, this is severe repression. By the standards of the age, it was gentle tolerance. But others chose openly to defy the laws meant to suppress Catholicism’s seditious threats to the sovereign government of England, despite the fact that doing so would identify them with a foreign enemy. We can salute their bravery (whether we agree with them or not), and I do so. But we cannot pretend they did not know that their defiance, however pious, would be treated as treason and disloyalty, and with good reason.

Take Thomas Belson. He left Oxford University in 1583 and went to Rheims to study in the Catholic seminary there, in open and knowing defiance of a 1571 law banning such journeys. He came from a family of gentleman farmers who for many years had quietly given refuge to a Catholic priest in the Buckinghamshire countryside. In that area, the laws against Catholics were not very strongly enforced. Anyone who has lived in a country district will agree with me that it is reasonable to assume that the priest involved was probably known about and not acted against.

But Thomas Belson was plainly a committed rebel. He came home in 1584, again illegally, and was predictably arrested and imprisoned. In 1586, after he was permanently banished, he went to work, again illegally, as a courier between the seminary in Rheims and Rome itself. Then he returned to England, less than a year after the narrow failure of the Spanish invasion of England. He came to Oxford and was caught there in a tavern, the Catherine Wheel. Tony Hadland writes, “In May 1589, the authorities finally caught up with Thomas Belson.” “Finally” is the right word. He had been making no great effort to stay out of their hands. He was arrested with Fr. George Nichols and Fr. Richard Yaxley (both of whom were likewise breaking the law by being in England at all) and a servant called Humphrey Pritchard (who was breaking the law by aiding them).

All were imprisoned—the two priests in the wretched Bocardo Prison, where Latimer and Ridley had been held thirty years before. Then they were sent to London to be questioned by Secretary Walsingham and the Privy Council. Afterward, the two priests were tortured and held in verminous dungeons. By midsummer 1589, the Privy Council had decided to make an example of the men by returning them to Oxford. All four were so broken by their treatment that they could not ride and had to be carried in a wagon. They were tried under the 1585 law that imposed the death sentence on any Englishman ordained abroad who entered England, and on anyone helping such a person. The two priests were convicted of high treason and sentenced to be hanged, disemboweled, and mutilated while still alive, and then to have their bodies cut into quarters—the lawful punishment for treason in England, not officially abolished until the early nineteenth century. The two laymen, as accomplices, were more mercifully just hanged.

Their fate, little known, is in other ways similar to that of the much-celebrated Edmund Campion, who eight years earlier had come in disguise to England after a long period in exile, knowing perfectly well what he risked under the laws passed in response to Regnans in Excelsis. Unlike the Protestant William Tyndale, who went into exile to avoid persecution at the hands of the Catholic Henry VIII and was instead executed by the Emperor Charles V, Campion was not pursued by the English Protestant authorities and could have remained on the Continent in safety for the rest of his days, had he so chosen. As it happens, I rather admire his defiant courage, but I can see why the Church of England has yet to find a place for him on its calendar, though it has done so for Thomas More and John Fisher. He would not want to be there. Like most of Elizabeth’s victims, he actively and deliberately sought his martyrdom and would do nothing to avoid it. More than that, he was so sure of the rightness of his cause that he was ready to place himself in the service of a foreign power and commit earthly treason to remain loyal to his celestial monarch. It is no slander to him and to those like him to say that he was not the same as those who died under Mary for the Protestant faith. He falls into a different class of martyrdom.

Yet in modern England, now it is Campion, More, and Fisher who are remembered, while Latimer and Ridley are forgotten. There are numerous churches and schools dedicated to the “English Martyrs,” but the martyrs involved are always Catholics. Whereas the Anglican Church generously and rightly honors More and Fisher, in a true spirit of reconciliation, I do not think the Roman Catholic calendar has yet found any place for Cranmer. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is a museum piece.

For More and Fisher have, more or less, won. The Elizabethan settlement long ago broke down. The Anglican Church, once forged to a gleaming hardness by the fires of Bloody Mary, has rusted away. Its Catholics now brandish thuribles and don chasubles, bowed down by embroidered copes at elaborate High Masses. Even its archbishops of Canterbury now array themselves in garish vestments that would have appalled their grandfathers. Its Protestants have wandered off into a land of guitars and modern language, full of the sort of enthusiasm Anglicanism once feared and despised, its Calvinism quite undiluted by godly order, sobriety, and reverence. The Elizabethan Prayer Book, which Catholics were once forced to endure, has almost disappeared from use in its own churches, except in cathedrals, or in a few services for very old people, held early in the morning or at sunset, until the Grim Reaper takes a hand, attendance dwindles, and they stop forever. The Prayer Book’s penitential, stern theology is too rich a mixture for a land that has grown comfortable with divorce and abortion. The English Bible, that great cause for which William Tyndale was strangled, is neglected and unread, its thrilling trumpet-blasts of seventeenth-century poetry unknown even to the officially well-educated, and almost never used in church. By another paradox, Roman Catholics have their own vernacular Bible and prayers, dreadfully inferior in beauty and euphony to those of the Church of England, though few know, because they have never heard or seen anything better. The Roman Catholics have even introduced Communion in both kinds, taken to singing hymns, and brought in married priests through the back door by ordaining married Anglo-Catholic defectors to the Ordinariate. Protestant England as I knew it has almost entirely disappeared, and its once-universal opinions are now regarded as odd, eccentric, and intolerant. Only in Northern Ireland and a few corners of Scotland will you find any remnant of the once-dominant worldview that saw popery as the ally of poverty, of “brass money and wooden shoes,” and of despotism.

Yet no branch of the Church really flourishes. Nobody cares about the great issues of the Reformation because nobody cares about God. Indifference, not the reconversion of England, has done for Elizabeth’s church and the pope’s too. And Henry’s great political declaration of independence from supranational continental power has been reversed by the European Union (from which escape is proving harder than he found it five hundred years ago).

Anglicanism before it died was a good working model of a church both Catholic and Reformed, tolerant and thoughtful for its time, rightly critical of abuses that Rome itself would eventually correct, yet determined to hold to all the great truths. Those who died for it died for a good and often generous thing. Compare the beauty of its worship and its churches with that in any other reformed country, and see. More than once, as I have left Evensong at King’s College Cambridge (one of the last strongholds of Anglican beauty), I have been asked by puzzled tourists from the Continent whether the Church of England is Protestant or Catholic. If Roman Catholicism had not been so preoccupied with asserting its power, it could have saved many good men and women from horrible needless deaths, and done no harm to the faith of Christ crucified. What a pity that politics triumphed over religion. Let that flawed man Thomas Cranmer, in one of his great and moving collects, have the last word in this: “Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, who knowest our necessities before we ask, and our ignorance in asking; We beseech thee to have compassion upon our infirmities; and those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask, vouchsafe to give us, for the worthiness of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” I have long believed that he remembered these words before going to his death, and I hope I shall have them by heart before I go to mine. 

Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday.