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The most obvious things can elude us because they’re just too close. We’re like the fish in the joke who when asked, “How’s the water today?,” replies: “Water? What’s water?” Last month, while reading John Matusiak’s biography of Henry VIII, I had a nagging feeling that something was missing from the story. It took me a while to put my finger on it.

Matusiak’s full title, Henry VIII: The Life and Rule of England’s Nero, makes the book sound more aggressive than it is. The phrase actually comes from Philip Melanchthon, who wrote to a friend in 1540: “Let us cease to sing the praises of the English Nero.” Matusiak has a gift for finding these illuminating one-liners or anecdotes. And his book makes its case less by denouncing Henry’s vices than by its ironic, sometimes waspish tone. Here Matusiak describes the king’s dithering response, in 1531, to the diplomatic crisis with the papacy:

While England waited on the brink of come-what-may, its king settled for what amounted to little more than an aimless mish-mash of displacement activities. Any action rather than effective action would apparently suffice. … One whole day in June, from nine in the morning til seven at night, Henry was locked tight in examining a lone heretic. At other times he chose to lose himself in laboured attempts at polemics, the ultimate result of which was the publication in November of a pamphlet entitled A Glass of Truth. Couched in the form of a dialogue between a lawyer and a divine, it rehearsed the same tired old arguments that had already lost any efficacy they may ever have had. … By December Henry was occupying his time with little else beyond random proclamations against beggars, heretics and crossbows.

Matusiak is neither Catholic nor especially anti-Catholic. He acknowledges the recent attacks by historians on St. Thomas More, but isn’t persuaded by them. He is a little bewildered by sixteenth-century Catholic piety, but paints a vivid picture of it. And he is perceptive on the king’s relationship to Catholic orthodoxy: “Henry sought throughout the 1540s to impose his own idiosyncratic, hybrid version of doctrine which contained elements both to satisfy and at the same time to frustrate all sides.” 

But while I was enjoying this book, I was conscious of an absence, which became obvious only when we got to St. John Fisher’s martyrdom. It is not just that Matusiak characterises Fisher’s stance as an “overreaction”; that is understandable. A non-Catholic is unlikely to sympathize with Fisher’s view that to reject a single doctrine is to abandon the Faith. No, what really rings false is Matusiak’s portrait of the saint as “a hair-shirted, hard-praying, uncompromising flagellant … a scholar and ascetic worthy of beatification.” That’s not inaccurate, but Fisher was so much else besides.

He was, before his dramatic end, a bishop who traveled his diocese visiting the sick of every parish, sitting by the bedside of some suffering invalid for three or four hours at a time; who gave cash and a meal to the beggars crowding at his door each day, while denying himself not just comforts but normal amounts of food and sleep; whose near-contemporary biographer wrote, “To poor sick persons he was a physician, to the lame he was a staff, to poor widows an advocate, to orphans a tutor, and to poor travellers a host.” What Matusiak misses is the deepest thing in St. John Fisher—his love for God and for his neighbor.

Likewise, Matusiak draws an affectionate sketch of the strong-willed Catherine of Aragon, who defied “an assemblage of England’s great and mighty with consummate ease.” But we do not glimpse the Catherine who yearned, as she wrote in a late letter, for “the calm life of the blessed,” when she would see the God she adored.

Matusiak gives us a sense of sixteenth-century English Catholicism, in its awareness of the supernatural—“At this time when funerals were among the most frequent of church services, hell itself was never more than a failed heartbeat or horse’s stumble away”—and its variety of devotions. But he cannot explain to the reader why the removal of the traditional religion so enraged Northern England that around 40,000 people took up arms. The Northerners were, he says in an unusually flat passage, “conservative.” 

A better clue to their motives would be found in the banners they were carrying. The army—or as they called themselves, pilgrims—marched behind huge images of the Five Wounds of Christ, including His wounded heart: an image that was a precursor of the later devotion to the Sacred Heart.

Christ’s heart is missing from Matusiak’s narrative; but then, even for Christians it can be the easiest thing to miss. That God loves everyone He has created, and wants our happiness more than we ourselves do, should be so overwhelming a fact that nobody can ever forget it. But we do. Water? What’s water?

In the seventeenth century a major heresy was built on this amnesia. The Jansenists were so fixated on the fearsomeness of God that their fear obscured every other truth. At this moment, the Sacred Heart was revealed to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque as a devotion to be spread to all mankind: the symbol of God’s longing for us, of our God-given ability to return His love and to make reparation for our sins. The whole month of June is devoted to the Sacred Heart, so central is it to Catholic piety.

It recently emerged that Henry VIII, in his youth, owned an image of Christ’s heart, 150 years before the devotion was formalized. If only he had taken it out of its drawer more often.

Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald.

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