King Henry VIII, who died on January 28 in 1547, was probably one of England's cruelest tyrants. By placing his wanton lust before the welfare of his people, Henry VIII's personal sins eventually saw England fall into schism and even into heresy. It is a schism and a distortion of Christianity that Britain has never fully recovered from. As a nation, we are still paying for Henry's crimes.
Henry's people feared him, so much so that his advisers didn't dare tell him that he was dying - he had made it a criminal offence to foretell the king's death! In fact, it seems that Henry VIII remained oblivious to the fact that he was not much longer for the world until his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, informed him of his imminent death only hours before the fact. One brave man, though, had prophesied something concerning the king's death many years before. That man was Friar (later Bishop and Cardinal) William Peto.
William Peto (or Petow, Peyto) was the son of Edward Peyto of Chesterton, Warwickshire, and Goditha, daughter of Sir Thomas Throckmorton of Coughton. The exact year of his birth is unknown, though we do know that after receiving a Franciscan tonsure at Oxford, he graduated from that university in 1502. Peto then went on to study at Cambridge, where he received an MA degree in 1505. One year later, he was elected fellow of Queens' College, Cambridge.
Peto becomes a Franciscan
Even as a student, it seems that William Peto was known for his holiness, so it was no surprise that he found his vocation with the Franciscans. Soon after his ordination into the priesthood, Peto became the confessor to one of Henry VIII's daughters, the future Queen Mary. Based at the Observant Friary in Greenwich, which had always found royal favour, and which was a favourite spiritual haunt of Henry's, Friar Peto soon rose to become the order's provincial in England. It's during this time - the 1520s and early 1530s - that he came into conflict with the king, who was then determined to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry his long-term mistress, the Protestant Anne Boleyn.
Henry VIII been born and raised in Greenwich, and loved to spend as much time as possible at his palace there - called the Palace of Placentia. Whenever they happened to be in Greenwich, the royals favoured the Franciscans, who had been founded and given land adjacent to the Palace of Placentia by Edward IV in 1480. Known for their preaching and their dedication to the poor and their loyalty to the Church, the Franciscans were esteemed not only by monarchs, but also by the ordinary citizens of London. In fact, when the real and bloody persecution of Catholics began under Henry, and which continued for a further two centuries, some of the Church's first martyred saints of the Reformation were members of the Franciscan Friary in Greenwich.
Speaking truth to power - the preacher's vocation
On 31 March 1532, which happened to be Easter Sunday that year, King Henry VIII attended Mass at the Franciscan chapel in Greenwich. He was at that time consumed both by his lust for Anne Boleyn and with his pressing desire to divorce Catherine - a situation that many referred to as "the King's Matter". The preacher that morning was William Peto, who was well-known to the royal family as he was, of course, the young Princess Mary's confessor. Rather than concentrating on the Resurrection, though, Peto based his sermon on 1 Kings 22, which tells of King Ahab's refusal to be attentive to God's word, as given to him by the prophet Micaiah, and his subsequent disgraceful death and humiliating burial.
In a stunning act of bravery, and in fidelity to his faith and in his authentic desire to save the king, Friar Peto went on to compare Henry VIII to King Ahab - whose wife Jezebel had replaced the Lord's true prophets with the pagan priests of Baal. The obvious inference being that Boleyn was England's Jezebel - who would use the king's infatuation with her to replace Catholicism with the fancies of Luther, to whom she seemed particularly devoted. To the amazement of the congregation that had gathered at the Franciscan church that morning, Peto went on to warn Henry that if he continued to behave like Ahab then his corpse would suffer the same indignity that had befallen the Israelite king. After his death wild dogs had licked Ahab's blood (cf 1 Kings 22:38).
Needless to say, Henry VIII was not amused by Friar Peto's sermon. But he had not yet fallen into the tyrannical madness that would mark his later years. In fact, the king actually met with Peto following this event, to try and persuade the friar of his belief that his marriage to Catherine was invalid. Peto, though, warned the king to his face that to abandon his lawful wife would lead to the end of the Tudor dynasty. Soon after this exchange, Henry even allowed Peto leave the country, for he had been called to Toulouse to represent the English Franciscans at the order's general chapter. Immediately after William Peto had left for the Continent, though, Henry VIII arranged for one of his own private chaplains, Dr Hugh Curwen, to preach a sermon at Greenwich Frary to counter Peto's.
Curwen's sermon was a direct attack on Peto and an attempted defence of Henry's planned divorce. There is credible evidence to suggest that the king himself was in attendance, incognito, to hear Curwen's homily. It began with an accusation of cowardice against Peto - Curwen claimed that the friar was scared of the king and had fled to Toulouse for refuge. As the royal chaplain began to defend the king's intended divorce, some of the friars, led by their warden, Friar Elstow, began protesting loudly. Elstow even climbed into the church's rood-loft, from where he appeared "like a ghost in the play" (cf The Religious Orders in England - Vol. III - by David Knowles, Cambridge University Press, 1959; p 207).
The Franciscan shouted down at the king's preacher. Uproar ensued. Elstow then went on to compare Curwen to one of the prophets of Baal, and also accused him of wishing to secure preferment under the king rather than enjoyment of God's favour. Curwen, exclaimed Elstow, was a stooge of the king's, not a disciple of the truth. In the end, it seems that King Henry VIII had to publicly reveal himself so as to order Elstow's silence. We can safely assume, then, that the Franciscans fell out of English royal favour on that day! It even seems that the future Catholic Queen Mary also turned against them at that time - probably fearing that in their enthusiasm for the Church, some friars had pushed her father further away from it.
After his return from France, Friar Peto was imprisoned by Henry VIII. Amongst the other friars who joined him in prison was Friar Elstow. Within a year, though, both men had been released. They immediately escaped to the Continent, knowing by then that it was dangerous to remain in England, for the king was becoming more vengeful towards the Church by the day. Within a year, priests and religious - including members of their own community - were being executed for the faith. Within two years, in 1535, even laymen, like St Thomas More, had faced the gallows for their defence of the truth. Peto lived in Antwerp for a while, where he edited a book written by the now canonised Bishop John Fisher in defence of Queen Catherine of Aragon. He also helped fellow English and Welsh Catholic refugees during his time on the Continent. Several of Henry's spies informed the king that Peto "laboureth busier than a bee in setting forth" Fisher's book, and that "the king never had in his realm traitors like the friars" (The King's Reformation by G W Bernard, Yale University Press, 2005; p 153).
Raised to the purple and given the red hat
In 1539, William Peto was included in the Act of Attainder passed against Cardinal Pole and his allies, but was safely out of the king's reach by then. In fact, Peto was living in Italy by the end of the 1530s, where he remained till the death of King Henry VIII and his Protestant successor, Edward VI. On 30 March 1543, Pope Paul III appointed Peto as Bishop of Salisbury, though he was unable, of course, to obtain possession of his diocese. By the time he could lay claim to his see, he did not attempt to do so. In fact, on the accession of Queen Mary in 1553, her former confessor formally resigned the bishopric of Salisbury and subsequently retired to his old friary at Greenwich.
Soon after his election to the papacy, Pope Paul IV decided to elevate Bishop William Peto to the College of Cardinals. Both men had known each other in Rome, and the new pope wished Peto to become his legate in England, replacing Cardinal Reginald Pole, whom he had recently appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. By then, Peto was quite elderly and declined the red hat. Even so, Pope Paul IV preceded with the nomination, and his old friend was raised to the cardinalate in June 1557.
Queen Mary, though, would not allow her old confessor to receive his red hat, and it seems that Peto faced considerable - and unfair - public derision because of this. Some sources even suggest that he was pelted with stones by a London mob soon after this affair, an event that probably led to a his death a few months later. As to his death, there seem to be uncertainties about where and when this happened. Some have questioned whether Cardinal Peto died in London or in France. The date of his death is also vague. Many agree that he died a few weeks before his Queen, sometime in the late Summer or early Autumn of 1558. Just before her own death in November of that year, Mary had written to Pope Paul IV. In her letter, she mentioned that she had offered to reinstate Peto as Bishop of Salisbury, but that he had declined due to ill health and old age.
But what happened to Henry's corpse?
There are two reasons why Henry VIII was not buried in Westminster Abbey, with the rest of his family. The first is that he wished to be buried next to his third queen, Jane Seymour - the woman who bore him his only son and heir, Edward. She was buried in St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle. In a will dated 1546, Henry had specifically mentioned his desire to be buried next to her, and also made provisions for a great monument to be erected for them both - this never happened and the black marble sarcophagus once designed for Henry VIII, which he in turn had confiscated from Cardinal Wolsey, now adorns Lord Nelson's tomb in St Paul's Cathedral. The second reason for Henry's burial outside London is due to the fact that his people hated him - or most of them did, at least. There might have been open rebellion had the dead king been buried with honour in Westminster Abbey - a monastery that he himself had dissolved along with all the other great shrines and religious houses of England and Wales.
The macabre procession to Windsor
It was over two weeks after his death before the great procession of Henry's body left Whitehall and Westminster towards Windsor. Not many people came out to pay their respects, and those who did so either greeted the coffin out of fear or a false sense of loyalty. Most of the mourners were paid to be there - they included Henry VIII's domestic staff, the boys who worked in his kitchens and the women who washed his laundry. Decked in specially made black outfits, these servants of the king walked with his body all the way to Windsor. His lead coffin, which was carried on a lavishly decorated chariot, had an effigy of Henry VIII on top. This representation of the dead king was so convincing that many, including the Spanish ambassador, thought it really was him.
During this macabre procession, priests would greet the king's coffin as it passed their churches - sprinkling it with holy water and honouring it with incense. Bishops were also stationed along the route, to offer Masses for his soul - often in ruined monastic chapels, which he himself had vandalised. Henry's cortège was also surrounded by banners displaying images of the saints, including Edward the Confessor - whose shrine he had destroyed - and Our Lady - whose main place of pilgrimage in Walsingham had also been sacked by the king. Such was the maddening evil that had twisted Henry VIII's mind and soul towards the end of his life that he seemed convinced he could assert his devotion to the Virgin Mary on the one hand, whilst also desecrating her churches, images and shrines with the other!
Eight miles from London, Henry VIII's funeral procession stopped for the night at Syon House. It had once been England's most esteemed Bridgettine monastery, but was by then a private country house. Before Henry had suppressed this monastery, executed one of its priests (St Richard Reynolds), and given it to his in-laws, the Seymour family, he had often frequented the place as a pilgrim. He enjoyed hearing Mass there as a boy and later on as a contented young man, before his own Jezebel had led him into the wilderness of spiritual pride. As an unwelcome corpse, though, he was left alone for the evening in the old Abbey's ruined chapel.
"The tongues of your dogs take a share of the foe" (Ps 68:24)
After the Bishop of London had offered Mass for his soul, some attendants noticed that Henry's lead coffin had been damaged during the night. Either because of the weight of the effigy and the other decorations surrounding the coffin, or because the king's body had exploded - it was extremely bloated and had entered into an advanced state of putrefaction by then - the casket seemed to have expanded and opened up in parts. Those present also noticed the rotting stench that filled Syon's old chapel as the king lay there, and a liquid which looked like blood had also seeped onto the stone floor. Both the foul smell and the bloody pus discharging from his suppurating body was too gruesome for public display. So it was decided to find local plumbers to solder the lead coffin's joints before the procession headed off on the final leg of its journey.
On the evidence of one of these plumbers as well as other witnesses, we know that when the king's casket was being repaired a dog (possibly belonging to one of the plumbers) ran under the coffin and began to lick Henry's bloodied pus. Here is an eye-witness account of the event, which is quoted in Robert Hutchinson's The Last Days of Henry VIII (Weidenfeld, 2005): -
[T]he pavement of the church was wetted with Henry’s blood. In the morning came plumbers to solder the coffin under whose feet was suddenly seen a dog creeping and licking up the king’s blood. If you ask me how I know this, I answer William Grenville, who could scarcely drive away the dog told me and so did the plumber also.
It seemed that Friar Peto's prophecy had been realised. As the old friar's warning to Henry back in 1532 had been widely reported at the time, many people were aware of it. Needless to say, word soon got out that Henry VIII really had married England's Jezebel and had also abandoned God and been punished for it in a manner reminiscent of King Ahab.
Henry was eventually buried next to Jane Seymour in St George's Chapel, Windsor. Just over a century later, they were joined by Charles I, who had been deposited in the same vault after his execution at the hands of Oliver Cromwell. Neither king was given a memorial slab until the early 19th century, and Henry's dreams of being buried in a colossal monument tomb were never realised. It seems that even his Protestant descendants may have been embarrassed by their tyrannical ancestor. One is also reminded of that old saying, once proclaimed thrice before newly enthroned popes: Sic transit gloria mundi - Thus passes the glory of the world.
Like Friar Peto and all those men and women who faced persecution and death for speaking truth to power during the English Reformation, may we Catholics of today also be fearless in proclaiming the Gospel that brings forth salvation. In desiring to save men's souls, let us even be put to death or sent to exile or prison if needs be, even by the very ones whose salvation we earnestly desire. It is our Christian duty to love all men and to proclaim the truth, even as Christ our Saviour did.
Dylan Parry writes at A Reluctant Sinner.