Rorate Caeli

Elisabetta Sala: Henry VIII, Gender and the Teaspoon Strategy


Elisabetta Sala

Il Sussidiaro

April 2014


How were two dictatorial regimes like that of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I able to separate not only the kingdom of England, but also the people, from the Church of Rome?

Edward VI and the Pope, Artist Unknown, c. 1575, National Portrait Gallery, London

Just fifty years ago it was generally thought that the Anglican “Reform” which  separated England from the Church of Rome had complied with the deep yearnings of the people, who, had painfully put up with the Roman yoke, and, at heart, would always have been anti-clerical, anti-monastic, anti-papal. Today, after years of meticulous research on this subject, we know for sure that it was not like that at all: the English for the entire Middle Ages were one of the most faithful people of all to the ancient faith, and, right before the Lutheran bomb exploded, English Catholicism experienced one of it phases of maximum splendor.

The question then is: how did two dictatorial  regimes – in a certain sense “antiquated”, equipped by  a lingering primitive propagandistic system, as were those of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, manage to gain the upper hand over an entire nation?  It is true that the will of the sovereign at the time was law, but, it was known that an unhappy and exasperated population could give rise to frightening uprisings like those by the peasants in France (1358), England (1381) and Germany (1524-25).  If it is true that the people did not share the religious innovations dictated from the top, and cared about the salvation of the soul more than the caprices of sovereigns, how could they have accepted the schism? How could an entire nation have allowed itself to be led where it didn’t want to go, to the point of forgetting its thousand-year-old roots and actually become what it is today, the cutting edge of secularism?

 Contemporary historians seem to agree about the multiplicity of strategies adopted by the English government,  mindful of the fact that the new doctrine took at least thirty-odd years to be formulated and at least seventy-odd to be digested by the people.

Naturally the first strategy was terror and the martyrdom of dissidents. It is true, martyrdom infuses courage in ardent souls, but terrorizes the faint-hearted. There were several revolts, including one on a huge scale, but they were all bloodily suppressed. 

The second, which was perhaps even more effective, was to hit people in their wallets. Penal laws and fines for recusants did away with the Catholic resistance’s aura of heroism, which had covered the blood of the martyrs, and people began thinking that perhaps the future of their children needed a circumstantial visit to the parish church where the State administered the service.   

All of this resounds today.  In these dangerous times, it is good at the very least to ask ourselves some questions. How would I react if my beliefs are outlawed? (To give a concrete example – what  if a crime of opinion is introduced?)

The ‘hitting the wallets’ strategy is always fundamental in wearing down the opposition and  imposing the will of a minority in power, even in a hypocritical and antiseptic time such as ours, where we think we are living in a democracy merely because we don’t risk ending  up swinging from the gallows. How many of us would heroically allow ourselves to be arrested rather than retract words we retain sacrosanct?  Many without doubt.   But how many of us  would be willing to bleed out slowly, our heroism not making the headlines, by dint of poverty-inducing fines? How many of us would be willing to lose our jobs, home and goods because we have “wrong-thinking” in regard to the totalitarian system?

Let us return to our Anglicans: the third strategy, the most important, was that of establishing the Reform (/NEW SETTLEMENT) step by step, by constantly making a mockery of the opposition, as if such  little steps would not merit a decisive resistance.  Let me put it in the words of a great historian, Christopher Haigh: “… the meal was more manageable when fed in tiny morsels, and the English ate their Reformation as a recalcitrant child is fed its supper, little by little, in well-timed spoonsful – ‘one for Cardinal Wolsey [a worldly prelate], one for Queen Katherine [of Aragon], one for the pope, one for the monks, one for pilgrimages…’ - until the plate had been emptied and Reformation had happened”*. Now, the strategy of the spoonful, or rather, the teaspoonful, is used  in our times and the most important are the ones administered  by the schools.   

Here’s how it goes:

‘Let me tell you a story.  Meantime here’s another  teaspoonful: get it down you -    good!  Now I’ll tell you the story of A COUPLE yearning for a child but couldn’t have one… Another spoonful?  OK! Swallowed that?  Now one for Law 194 ** one for law 40*** one for “rent-a- uterus”, one for homophobia… Ah you don’t like that very much – do you ? But now I’ll tell you the story of two people who loved each other very much, so, so very much…  Ah so here’s another teaspoon for ‘homosexual marriage’ one for adoptions by homos, one for A BOY WHO FELT HE WAS LIVING IN A GIRL’S BODY …   Ah yes – and this one: once upon a time there was a sick little boy who was very, very unhappy…  So one for child euthanasia, one for adult euthanasia, one for the abandoned, suffering old people…. Ah good …you’ve emptied the plate!’


* C. HAIGH (ed.), The English Reformation Revised, CUP 1987, p. 15.

**The Abortion Law

***In-Vitro Fertilization Law

Translation: Contributor Francesca Romana