Reigns of Henry VIII. add Edward VI.-Gentle methods of introducing the Reformation into Ireland.-Parallel between Bishop Bale and Archbishop Magee.-Unchangeableness of the Irish.-Versatility of the English.
Henry the Eighth, who was as fond of theology as of dancing*, executed various pirouettes in the former line, through which he, rather unreasonably, compelled the whole nation to follow him; and, difficult as it was to keep pace with his changes, either as believer, author, or husband, or know which of his creeds he wished to be maintained, which of his books he wished to be believed, or which of his wives he wished not to be beheaded, the people of England, to do them justice, obeyed every signal of his caprice with a suppleness quite wonderful—and danced the hays with their monarch and his unfortunate wives, through every variety of mystery and murder into which Thomas Aquinas and the executioner could lead them.
*“Sir W. Molyneux (says Lloyd) got in with King Henry the Eighth, by a discourse out of Aquinas in the morning, and a dance at night.” STATE WORTHIES
But they, upon whom a blessing falls, have no right to be particular as to the source from whence it comes; and though (as Gray with infinite gallantry expresses it) though the Faith, thus derived, has preserved, ever since, the “varium semper et mutabile” character of its source, yet that it was a blessing to England and her liberties, even Captain Rock—all Papist as he is—will not deny. The very variety and mutableness of English Protestantism is congenial with the spirit of Civil Liberty, which delights to follow the branching rivulets of opinion, and has always found her harvests most rich, where these meandering streams most freely circulate.
‘Twas Love that taught this monarch to be wise,
And Gospel light first beam’d from Boleyn’s eyes—
But the Irish were not to be dragooned into blessings. Strongly attached as they have ever been to their ancient faith and ancient institutions, it would have required either a docility under the rod of despotism, which is one of the faults most rarely imputed to them, or a long course of confidence in the wisdom and good intention of their rulers, which is still, unluckily, a desideratum in their hearts—to have weaned them from a religion, so interwoven with all their feelings and recollections. Proffered even by the most friendly hand, the boon of Reformation would have been slowly, if at all, accepted; but, preached from the mouths of the same race, subjects whose cry had never been aught but “Death to the Irish!” and accompanied by all that apparatus of persecution, with which Law and Religion have ever been surrounded in Ireland, is it wonderful that the boon should have been fiercely and at once rejected? is it wonderful that a continuance of the same persecuting policy, which made us spurn, without inquiry, the creed of our oppressors then, should have kept us good Catholics and bad subjects ever since?
As a specimen of the gentle arts by which the new religion was recommended to the people, read what follows:—“Under pretence of obeying the orders of state, they seized all the most valuable furniture of the churches, which they exposed to sale without decency or reserve. The Irish annalists pathetically describe the garrison of Athlone issuing forth with a barbarous and heathen fury, and pillaging the famous church of Clonmacnoise, tearing away the most inoffensive ornaments, so as to leave the shrine of their favourite Saint Kieran a hideous monument of sacrilege.”
The venerable crozier of St. Patrick, too, which, even in the present enlightened times, would be viewed, I fear, with more genuine homage, than all the assembled croziers and mitres of the whole Protestant bench of Ireland, was by the Vandal reformers of that period insultingly committed to the flames.
Conciliation, indeed, seems to have been as well understood then as it is at present; and the Prelate, selected in the reign of Edward VI. to smooth the way to the establishment of the Protestant Religion in Ireland, appears to have transmitted his mantle to that mild and tolerant Archbishop, who is at present so actively employed in maintaining it there.
Raised from an obscure origin by his talents and learning, Bale, the Bishop of Ossory, on becoming a Lord of the Church aristocracy, assumed the arrogance of station as a substitute for the pride of birth, and mistaking violence of temper for religious zeal, employed the “live coals from the altar” in kindling around him dissension and revenge. “Even the weak among the new-reformed (says the historian) were terrified; and the Romish party
held this spirited and turbulent enemy in the utmost abhorrence. He insulted the prejudices of the people without reserve or caution, and during the short period of his residence, in Ireland lived in a continual state of fear and persecution.” If a Charioteer of this temper was, like Phaeton, but ill qualified, to guide the car of the New Light up the steep ascent of its “prima via,” how doubly perilous is the guidance of such a rash hand now, when
Ultima via prona est, et eget moderamine certo.
The obstinate perseverance of the Irish in their old belief is not, perhaps, more remarkable than the readiness with which the people of England veered about from one religion to another, during the three reigns that succeeded the Reformation*.
*Lloyd describes them, during the interval between Mary’s accession and her first parliament, as, “like the Jewish children after the captivity, speaking a middle language between Hebrew and Ashdod.”—See his ‘State Worthies, in which we find recorded a number of those eminent and, no doubt, excellent persons, who contrived, notwithstanding the very opposite interests that prevailed in the reigns of Henry, Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth, to hold situations of trust under all these sovereigns.
Nor was it only politicians that exhibited this convenient flexibility—the great Reformer Latimer changed his opinion no less than eight different times.—See Lingard, vol. vii. p. 269. “Cranmer’s faith (says Mr. Brodie) was continually changing. He at one time as furiously persecuted those who denied transubstantiation as ever he did any other imputed heresy, and was long a stickler for pilgrimages, purgatory, &c.”—History of the British Empire.
In the Parliament convened in Ireland, upon the accession of Elizabeth, “Most of the temporal Lords (says Leland) were those whose descendants, even to our own days, continue firmly attached to the Romish communion; but far the greater part of the Prelates were such as quietly enjoyed their sees, by conforming occasionally to different modes of religion.”
It is a curious proof of the utter indifference with which persons in authority viewed those great changes of religion, that Sir Antony Saint-Leger, who had been entrusted with the government of Ireland, when the new regulations of divine worship were to be established, in the reign of Edward, was again made deputy, in the time of Mary, when these same regulations were to be all abolished!
Bacon seems to think that a versatile disposition gains as much in happiness as it loses in dignity*—and, certainly, whatever dignity Ireland may have maintained by adhering so steadily to her ancient faith, the happiness that results from versatility is all on the side of England.
*Ingenia gravia et solennia et mutare nescia plus plerumque habeant dignitatis quam felicitatis.—De Augment. Scient.