Learning and Teaching History: A Reflection on Practice

13. New Worlds

As we have seen, the first blow was struck by the discovery of America: this was both exciting and disturbing. The second came about through a re-examination of the text of the Bible itself and the appearance of new translations from the original Greek, first in Latin and then in the vernacular. Why was this important? Because, like Columbus’ discoveries it suggested the possibility of error in what had previously been believed. The third blow came through the invention of the printing press which would in due course make scripture and a host of other texts available to ordinary readers. Arguments previously confined within the walls of universities and monasteries could now be heard in taverns and alehouses - as Henry VIII himself observed. However, the most grievous blow was struck by a constipated Augustinian monk from Wittenberg called Martin Luther who, in 1517, used the church door in his native town to air his doubts about documents called ‘indulgences’.

For simple people at the time – and thus for us – an indulgence was time off Purgatory – an intermediate stage between Heaven and Earth where souls were purified before entering through the ‘pearly gates’. It was based upon a text in the New Testament in which Jesus seems to give Peter, the leader of his disciples, the power to decide who would be forgiven their sins and who would not. By inference the same authority could be exercised by Peter’s successors as leaders of the church and by all those to whom their authority was delegated. Alas, this gave an opportunity for the unscrupulous to make money from the ignorant and misguided. So we find the first example of a breed all too well-known in our times - the con-man – in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written some time in the 1390s. This lean-visaged, squeaky-voiced predator sells indulgences, which he calls ‘pardons,’ validated by fraudulent relics (note: pardons are not extinct: many years ago I bought one myself in Italy. It promised me one hundred days off the thousands of years I’m likely to have to spend in Purgatory for writing this...).

Luther’s problem was this. He couldn’t find any mention of Purgatory in the Bible and he doubted whether the Church had the power to forgive sins in the way that was being claimed. He seems to have come to this conclusion during long hours sitting in the loo, meditating on his own sinfulness. As subsequent events showed (he later married a nun) he had plenty to worry about and it did not seem worthy of God to believe that his slate could be wiped clean just by dropping a few coins in the collection box, certainly not by buying a piece of parchment with a blank left for his name.

It happened that, just as Luther’s mediations on his own sinfulness were reaching crisis point, the pope in Rome was experiencing a cash crisis. He wanted to re-build St Peter’s basilica in the eternal city which was falling down so he issued a whole new set of indulgences and commissioned sellers to tour Christendom with them. One of these sellers, a fast-talking Dominican friar called John Tetzel, turned up in Wittenberg and proceeded to do very good business.

Here we have one of those instances in history where a man’s internal crisis just happens to coincide with events going on in the outside world. Luther didn’t intend to start a revolution – he wanted to engage in a debate – but his views found an audience and pretty soon his ideas were spreading, to the alarm of the Church authorities. Threatened with excommunication but resolute in defence of what he saw as the truth he appeared before the Holy Roman Emperor in the city of Worms in 1520 and refused to withdraw his views. ‘Unless I am convinced by Scripture and by plain reason…’ he declared, ‘I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me, Amen.’

It is one of the great set pieces of history: not the first time that a man chose to suffer for his faith – there were plenty of Christian martyrs in Roman times who did that – but the first time when what might seem a matter of opinion to some people was seen by one man as an issue of life and death. Many more such instances would follow, right up to and including our own time. Such individuals are seen as admirable – one thinks of Sir Thomas More – and they are often held up as defenders of liberty and free speech, as More is in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons. But do men and women always have the right to put their own beliefs above those of the society in which they live? Often those who give their lives for a cause are willing to take lives for the same cause. This was certainly true of Sir Thomas who was happy to see heretics burned in order to defend the unity of the Church – the actual cause for which he died. Of course there are times when society takes a wrong direction and when good people must speak out, but courage is no guarantee of wisdom. Luther’s actions divided Europe and ushered in two hundred years of religious conflict made more cruel because both sides believed they were fighting for God.

In the meantime men and women who had grown up in an era of universal truth – one Church and one faith – now found themselves compelled to choose between alternatives which for convenience we call Catholic and Protestant. Broadly speaking Catholics accepted the authority of tradition, including doctrines like Purgatory which had been developed by the Church since the days of the gospels. Protestants on the other hand required Biblical authority for everything they believed, which did not include the right of the bishops of Rome to rule over the whole church. The two sides argued most bitterly over the mass. This is the most important of all Christian services, re-enacting the last supper that Christ shared with his disciples before his arrest and crucifixion. In the 13th Century the Church had adopted the doctrine of transubstantiation, a literal reading of Christ’s words on that occasion when he referred to the bread and wine as his ‘body’ and his ‘blood’. Whenever bread and wine were blessed by a priest during the mass a similar transformation was said to occur. Though not altered in appearance, the bread and wine on the altar became Christ as if he were physically present. Protestants found this doctrine both repugnant and illogical - how could you eat your saviour? For them the mass (or communion service as it is called in Protestant churches) was a service of commemoration not a sacrifice.

Today it is surprising that such an issue can have been the cause of men and women being hanged or burned to death as they were in great numbers during the 16th century. As a result we tend to emphasise the horror whilst ignoring its underlying cause – the fear of disunity. On the scaffold Sir Thomas More is alleged to have said ‘I die the king’s good servant but God’s first.’ It sounds noble but the men who attacked the World Trade Centre in September 2001 might have said just the same. If we all agree on what God wants there is no problem, but if we differ, and our allegiance to God is higher than our respect for the law, then society will fall apart. This was the fear that led to the brutality of the Tudor period in England and it is taking us down the same road today. Unless we can find a framework of values to which all citizens subscribe unreservedly we will never be entirely free of the threat of terrorism.

Of course a cynic might say that the row over transubstantiation was not about beliefs at all but about status of the clergy and it is true that ministers in Protestant churches do not enjoy the same separateness as do Catholic priests. On the other hand they can marry and live more ordinary lives, distinguished more by their learning than the vows they have made. Those outside any church might find the whole argument irrelevant but here again there are wider issues to be faced. Should we expect a higher level of moral conduct from those who lead us? Should we give them special privileges to do their job? In the Soviet Union members of the Communist Party enjoyed many of the privileges of a separate caste and many were modest, hard-working and unselfish. Others were not. Like Christianity Communism could not be criticised as an ideal: it was its failure in practice that brought it down. As the 17th Century philosopher Thomas Hobbes put it – ‘the chiefest cause of reformation be unpleasing priests...’

Unpleasing priests there doubtless were in Henry VIII’s England but that was not the reason why England became a Protestant country during the time of the Tudors. Henry himself was a good pope-Catholic, writing his own answer to Luther’s challenge to the Church in 1521 for which he was named ‘Defender of the Faith’ by Pope Leo X, a title the monarchs of Great Britain still hold. Until 1529 his chief minister (and alter rex in some people’s eyes) was Thomas Wolsey, chancellor, archbishop and cardinal – a typically medieval arrangement. In 1509 Henry had married the Spanish princess Katherine of Aragon but of all Katherine’s pregnancies only a daughter, Mary, had survived. Why was this seen as a disaster? Because the crown was property and by the property laws of the time a woman’s property belonged to her husband whom she swore at marriage to ‘love, honour and obey.’ Whomsoever Mary married would become the King of England and if he were a foreigner, would bring foreigners in to help him rule. No true born Englishman would put up with this. By 1525 it was clear that Henry VIII needed a new wife if he was to have a male heir and so ensure England’s independence.

What happened next is probably the best known story in English history and it illustrates just that interplay of the trivial and the profound that makes history so fascinating and so difficult to understand. I like to introduce it through a simple parallel. Let’s suppose a young man is driving girlfriend home one evening after a visit to the local multiplex. It’s raining and the roads are slippery. As his car turns a corner a cat runs across the road, he jams on all the brakes but skids and ends up embedded in a neighbouring garden wall. Whose fault is the accident?

At first it seems as if it is the cat’s but then we find out that the cat is owned by an old lady who puts it out at night irrespective of the fact that she lives on a busy road; and we also discover the man living next door to her has an Alsatian which he deliberately releases at the same time to give the cat a scare. Whose fault now? Next we learn that the young man has not kept his car in very good repair, ignoring suspicious scraping sounds from the direction of the brakes. Moreover, being hard up, he usually takes it for repair to a back street garage called ‘Dodgy Motors’ whose approach to safety isn’t exactly 100%. Now whose fault? And what about the girlfriend who chooses to show her appreciation for the wonderful night out they’ve had just as the cat starts out on its fateful journey?

We have not finished our list of possible causes for this minor event. It was, you remember, raining. Moreover, the road was not in good condition. That is clearly the fault of the council but who pays for the council? You and I, and we don’t like paying the higher taxes necessary to keep the roads in good repair so perhaps we are responsible for the accident. And who is responsible for the rain?

I end the exercise by imagining that the driver of the car is in court charged with driving without due care and attention. The class are the jury and have to decide whether he is guilty or not guilty. Generally-speaking the verdict is not guilty: despite his carelessness and possible distraction the young man is not thought responsible for the actual crash which was due to an unfortunate combination of circumstances. Rather than seeing him as an accident looking for somewhere to happen most ‘jurors’ prefer to believe that if the cat had run across the road a few seconds earlier or later, he would have gone on his way unscathed.

It is not hard to think of events in history that follow the same pattern, the most obvious being the assassination of he Archduke Franz Ferdinand in July 1914 that led to the outbreak of the First World War when the assassin was only given the opportunity to fire his pistol because the archduke’s chauffeur took a wrong turning and reversed back past the café where he was sitting. How many millions might have lived if the chauffeur had not made a mistake yet if all the great powers of Europe had not been grouped into alliances would the event itself have had such terrible consequences? We can never know, although the matter was of real concern to those of us growing up in the era of the Cold War when the possibility of another Sarajevo might have set off the Armageddon of nuclear war.

Back to Anne Boleyn. No historical character, except perhaps Richard III, has attracted more controversy. It began in her own day. No-one – friend or foe – describes her as beautiful. Rumours seem to have circulated that she had the beginnings of a sixth finger on her left hand and a large mole on her neck, although these are not put into writing until the reign of her daughter Elizabeth. A woman brought before the king’s council in 1535 described her as a ‘goggle-eyed whore’ and this appears to have been a widespread view. Only her dark eyes commanded attention. What was it that Henry saw in her?

To answer this question requires a consideration of Henry’s own character. Again, much as been written on the subject, some scholars seeing him as a lazy, pleasure-loving monarch, happy to leave the real business of government to others and thus easily manipulated by the rival factions at his court. Others have seen him as an intelligent man, initially full of good will but always liable to become obstinate and self-deceiving, and increasingly embittered by experience and deteriorating health. Derek Wilson characterises him in his later years as a lithe teenager imprisoned in the body of a grossly overweight and frustrated old man. All recent authorities have been concerned to remind us that the young Henry was thought the handsomest and most accomplished prince of his age, equally at home on the tournament field and in the company of scholars. Perhaps we should listen to the opinions of those who knew him best. Congratulated on his friendship with the king, Sir Thomas More reminded his listeners that ‘if my head would win him a castle in France, it should not fail to go’ whilst Thomas Wolsey counselled against putting any idea into Henry’s head because once in ‘ye shall never pull it out again.’ Once he had made up his mind to marry Anne – whatever the reason – Henry was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to achieve his goal which included performing an intellectual somersault and becoming the enemy of much of what he had enthusiastically supported in his youth.

Traditionally, the reason for his perseverance is Anne’s unwillingness to become his mistress in the fullest sense of the word. However, my view is that – after an initial refusal on Anne’s part – the decision not to consummate the relationship before marriage was Henry’s. He wanted to be sure that any offspring of the union would be regarded as legitimate, not only in the eyes of his subjects but of all Europe. For this to happen the pope, still the head of the Church everywhere but in Luther’s homeland in Saxony, had to pronounce his marriage to Katherine invalid. Two factors prevented the pope from obliging the king. Firstly it would mean admitting that a previous pope had been wrong to allow the marriage and secondly because a decision in Henry’s favour would anger Katherine’s nephew, the emperor Charles V, whose forces threatened Rome from every side and actually captured the city in 1527, briefly imprisoning the pope in his own palace.

In the end it was Anne who contrived to get herself pregnant – allegedly during a stormy night at Calais where she and Henry were staying after a meeting with the King of France in early November 1532. Whether she feared the loss of her ‘young looks’ (and the possibility that Henry’s love for her might falter) the result was a crisis. Without the pope’s co-operation only one course of action lay open – to proceed without him. The details of the so-called ‘break with Rome’ are less important than the speed with which it had to be carried out. Only afterwards could attempts be made to justify what had been done in the form of an act of Parliament that declared England to be an ‘empire of itself’ whose monarch head always been head of both Church and State. In the meantime Anne was crowned in the face of widespread public hostility and Katherine exiled to a damp and cold Lincolnshire castle.

At this point things began to go wrong for Anne. When the much anticipated prince was born it turned out to be a girl. Anne’s second pregnancy ended in a miscarriage and so did her third. It was beginning to look like Katherine all over again. As Anne felt more and more insecure there were ‘scenes’ when she suspected him of infidelity. Just when her fall was determined upon, and by whom, are once again matters of considerable debate but it was sudden. Arrested at Greenwich on May 1 1536 she had been tried and executed by May 19. As is well known, her crime was adultery with several men of the court, including incest with her own brother. It is almost certain that she was innocent of the charges but Henry himself believed them and a confession of sorts was obtained from one of her alleged lovers, a court musician called Mark Smeaton. Smeaton’s reward for talking seems to have been decapitation – the clean death normally awarded to gentlemen (as someone of lesser rank he faced the possibility of the full penalty for treason – hanging, drawing and quartering).

What most children want to know is why Henry went to such lengths to destroy a woman he had once loved. Why not simply divorce her, as he had Katherine. Especially as good grounds existed (he had previously had an affair with her sister – the ‘other Boleyn girl’). The answer is surely a testament to Anne herself. She does not seem to have been the kind of woman to accept defeat and retire gracefully with a pension, as Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, was to do. Given half a chance she would have fought back, for her daughter if not for herself. Perhaps big, bluff Hal was frightened of her, for all his physical strength. Others certainly were. None of the men who had helped to bring about her fall would be safe as long as she lived. Moreover, there was a need to clear the ground for a fresh marriage. Katherine was already dead, Anne soon would be: Henry could marry again knowing that he was free to do so. On the day after Anne’s execution Henry was betrothed to Jane Seymour who had been one of her ladies-in-waiting and barely a week later, they were married.

In telling this story I have called into question a number of widely held beliefs, some of which have been very important in sustaining an interest in the Tudors and in history in general – the stuff on which generations of history teachers have relied in order to get and keep the attention of pupils. Amongst them are Henry VIII’s reputation as a womaniser and Anne Boleyn’s determination not to yield to his ‘advances’. Learners of all ages like this questioning of accepted truth. It allows them to feel that they have been let into a kind of secret and it suggests to them that other secrets lie concealed beneath the superficial world of ‘sound-bite history’ and by extension ‘sound-bite journalism’. Perhaps of equal interest is the way that myths establish themselves in the first place. Marie-Antoinette did not advise the poor ‘to eat cake if they had no bread,’ nor did King Alfred burn any cakes or Drake play bowls before defeating the Spanish Armada. There was never a curse on the wall of Tutankhamen’s tomb and Hitler did not dance a jig after forcing the French to sign an armistice in 1940: this was the result of a clever piece of later editing when the film was shown in British cinemas. What has happened in each case is an example of the past being moulded to suit our preconceptions of it and in the process turned into a fable that teaches the lessons we want it to teach. Shakespeare did the same on a more elevated level when he used characters from history like Macbeth to show what happens when great men give in to ambition or jealousy. ‘The times are out of joint,’ complains Hamlet, ‘O cursed spite that I was born to set them right.’

The foregoing reminds us that history is not an option you can choose to teach or not teach. Even if it disappeared from the curriculum history would continue to be learnt, just as I learned my first history – from my mother’s telling of the sad story of Lady Jane Grey, the ‘Nine Days Queen’ whose childhood home, Bradgate House, lay not far from Leicester where she lived as a child. Unfortunately it would almost certainly be bad history with none of the reminders about evidence and bias which distinguish it from mere story-telling. With Hitler still in mind we don’t need to be reminded of the harm that bad history can do. Thus the most important question that children can learn to ask at school is ‘how do you know?’ and it’s worth pausing to review some of the sources for Anne Boleyn’s life just to see what the nature of the evidence actually is.

Anne’s age: no-one troubled to record the date of Anne’s birth but it seems to have been about 1501, at the Boleyn family home, Blickling Hall in Norfolk. In 1513 she left England to become a maid of honour at the court of Duchess Margaret of Austria, then ruling the Netherlands as regent for her nephew Charles, later emperor. It was customary for the daughters of English noblemen to spend their teenage years away from home, learning the manners and accomplishments they would need to win suitable husbands. The proof that Anne went is a letter she wrote to her father whilst there, one of the very few letters from her that survive. In 1515 she joined the train of Henry’s sister Mary who was briefly married to Louis XII, King of France, staying on to serve in the household of Queen Claude, wife of Louis’ successor Francis I. She seems not to have returned to England until 1522 where, as the daughter of a successful courtier, she quickly became a star of court pageants.

Anne’s appearance: Anne must have been painted during her lifetime but the only contemporary likeness to have survived is a crude medal, seemingly made to celebrate the birth of her daughter Elizabeth. What we have is a later portrait-type of which many copies exist, one of which Elizabeth incorporated into a ring opposite a miniature of herself. Most descriptions we have of Anne come from biased sources, especially the imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, who never acknowledged her as the king’s wife. All observers agree that she was dark-haired, not especially beautiful, but graceful and lively in a way that men found extraordinarily attractive.

Anne’s character: again the witnesses are mostly hostile but we know from the Lisle letters that she liked little dogs – one, a spaniel called ‘Pourquoi’, given to her by Lady Lisle, seems to have fallen out of window and broke its neck. ‘There durst nobody tell her Grace of it, till it pleased the King’s Highness to tell her Grace of it…’ Chapuys is the source for most of the arguments between Anne and Henry but he was dependent on court gossip and his informants may have seen what they wanted to see. Her condemnation for adultery would not have been credible had she not enjoyed the effect she had on men. Poor Smeaton was targeted precisely because he had made clear his infatuation with her.

Henry’s love letters: a number of letters written to Anne by Henry survive, written in his own hand. They are remarkably frank and affectionate and suggest the passionate nature of the relationship. As Henry disliked writing they are testimony to the power of her attraction, especially when she was at a distance from him.

Anne’s trial and execution: the record of Anne’s trial is preserved in the so-called ‘Baga de Secretis’ – a collection of state documents kept separate from the rest because of their delicate nature. There were a number of eye-witnesses of her death, one of whom, a herald called Charles Wriothesley, kept a kind of diary of events from which we learn what she said upon the scaffold. Earlier Anne’s behaviour in the Tower had been reported by the constable to Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s principal adviser and the main architect of her downfall. ‘I have seen many men and also women executed,’ the constable wrote, ‘and they have been in great sorrow, and to my knowledge this lady hath much joy and pleasure in death.’ Anne’s passivity may appear surprising but we should remember that she believed in an afterlife where the truth would be known. The fact that she had been unjustly condemned would count in her favour when her sins were considered. She would be vindicated on the Day of Judgement, if not before.

Anne’s bones: Anne was buried before the altar in the chapel of St Peter in the Tower, in a chest made to hold long bows. In 1876 the floor of the chapel was lifted and Anne’s bones discovered about two feet down, ‘not lying in the original order…but heaped together in a smaller space’. The surgeon present pronounced them to be ‘those of a female between twenty five and thirty years of age, of a delicate frame of body and who had been of slender and perfect proportions; the forehead and lower jaw were small and particularly well formed.’ Six months later the remains were re-buried in the chapel where they still lie alongside others who met a similarly tragic fate, in what has been called ‘the saddest spot on earth.’