Echoes of the present in the past

Does history repeat itself? Yes, but it’s complicated. Sometimes its repetitions are relatively simple as when the folly of Hitler in invading Russia replicated the folly of Napoleon nearly 150 years earlier – or the human folly of financial speculators is replicated in the boom and busts which pepper the centuries. But the cataclysms engendered by these repetitions were in some ways less penetrating and consequential than the more subtle repetitions which a close look at our human story reveals.

Alison Weir is a historical biographer, specialising in the late middle ages. She largely writes about the English monarchs of the era. Her biography of Elizabeth of York, Queen Consort of the first Tudor king of England, Henry VII, was published five years ago. It is a book with a powerful subtext. It is one which anyone with any sense of history’s capacity to repeat itself will not read without hearing echoes from our own time ringing in their ears.

Weir tells the story of Elizabeth, daughter of the last Yorkist victor of the Wars of the Roses, and the turbulent times in which she grew to womanhood. She takes us through the concluding years of that conflict and the pivotal part Elizabeth played in securing the uneasy peace which succeeded the defeat by the Lancastrian Duke of Richmond – who became Henry VII – of her scheming and murderous uncle, Richard III. 

Richmond defeated Richard at the battle of Bosworth in 1485 and not too long afterwards, as Henry VII, helped cement an uneasy but real peace for the kingdoms of England and Ireland by marrying Elizabeth. She was the eldest daughter of Edward IV and ostensibly the heir to his throne. With that marriage the Tudor dynasty – which was to last just over a century – began. Henry was a Welsh Tudor in the Lancastrian line.

But all of that is the surface narrative of the story of Elizabeth. Doubtless that narrative has many lessons of its own to offer us and subsequent histories will be found to mirror the follies of its protagonists. But the more subtle echoes which resonate from our own time are contained in the details which Weir gives us of both Elizabeth as a person and of all of those with whom she lived out her days. What is astounding is that even in a time when people played fast and loose with the rule of law, when values subscribed to were often blatantly not adhered to – such as the value of human life – these values were still held. The mores of the time and the allegiance to Christian faith and practice was so deep as to be astounding to a modern reader. Men might do wrong, but they knew they were doing wrong.

The real echo from our time, however, is generated by our being reminded of what is not told directly by Weir in this story – but is alluded to by frequent reference to what unfolds in the  subsequent history of the Tudor dynasty. This story ends with two deaths. The Queen’s death occurred in 1503. The year before, the tragic death occurred of Henry VII’s heir, Prince Arthur, the fifteen-year-old husband of Catherine of Aragon. Then, after much diplomatic maneuvering,  Arthur’s 11 year-old brother, Prince Henry, now heir to the throne, is betrothed to his young widow. 

We know the tragic story which unfolds in the sixteenth century – when the Protestant Revolt takes hold in Germany and France, and then seeps into England. We know what happens when that eleven–year-old prince becomes king and lets his libidinous urges be manipulated by a clique of Protestant reformers and opportunists to break with the universal Church. We know what happens when greedy parvenues see a golden opportunity in all this to plunder the wealth of the Church and in the process destroy so much of the infrastructure which sustained the faith and the devotional life of a very Catholic society.

We may have read the work of historian Eamon Duffy who chronicled the work of destruction of that clique, protected as it was by the greedy men who had been made wealthy by the despoiling it wrought. He cleared the air of the untruths circulated by earlier historians that English society was already ripe for the Protestant Reformation by showing us how deep and devout was the Catholic faith of the English people.

Alison Weir’s chronicle of the life and times of Elizabeth of York, of the Catholic  faith and practice by which she and her contemporaries lived, and her allusions to the destruction of that in the Reformation and the Cromwellian era, tell us the same story.

And what is that echo we hear resonating in our brains? Is it the echo of the story of our own time, of the story of a people, peoples in the Western world, who remember an age when their Christian faith was the most important thing in their lives. They now look around them and see whole societies permeated by an alien culture, a culture of individualism, a culture of selfishness induced by that individualism, dominated by a vision which attaches importance to the material things of this world, alien in all ways to the life of the spirit.

What is the repeated element in this story? It is that civilisations can die and do die. They die by the corruption of human agents. The Tudor age saw the gradual and forced disintegration of the pious and devout world inhabited by Elizabeth of York, faithful wife to a faithful husband. Henry VII was succeeded by a king who perpetrated the destruction of his mother’s world and is remembered above all else as an adulterous unfaithful husband to an uncertain number of his six wives.

In our western societies, in Ireland, in England, in America and further afield we are confronting a similar disintegration of our Christian societies. In Ireland, it is happening at a bewildering pace, perhaps not even the space of two generations. All are doing so for similar reasons as did our ancestors in the Tudor age – the disregarding of the values of faith, of prayer, devotion and – for Catholics – the sacraments.

But history’s repetitions need not all be negative in their consequences. Indeed the progress of mankind seems to suggest that they are on the whole positive. The descent from the high values of the Christian culture of the fifteenth century to the confusion and losses of the sixteenth, no more than the descent of our own time, can be matched by the patterns of genuine christian revivals which we see threading through our history. If they do it will be by one agency and one agency only. It will be by returning to the self-same values and understanding of the meaning of our existence possessed by Elizabeth of York, so elaborately, exhaustively and admiringly recounted for us by Alison Weir in her moving biography of a good and noble Catholic woman.

One thought on “Echoes of the present in the past

  1. Carolyn Moynihan

    There has been deep piety in every age of the Church, including our own, I think. (And I did learn a lot from Eamonn Duffy’s book) but there was/is decay as well. Thomas More himself saw that.
    I have just finished re-reading Chesterton’s tour-de-force, The Everlating Man. First published in 1925, its main purpose was to refute the idea that Christianity is “just another religion” which evolved along with mankind, as science was “demonstrating”.
    There is a chapter towards the end called “The Five Deaths of the Faith” in which he argues that Christendom decayed and then died, or was killed in periodic revolutions, including the “Renaissance paganism” that led to the Reformation, but each time rose again. (As you suggest in the last paragraph) Precisely because it is NOT like other religions. It is a supernatural thing that erupted into human history from a God “who knows his way out of the grave”.
    Just as 19th century England had its Oxford movement, don’t we see also a rebirth among a new generation of witnesses and and teachers and apologists of the Faith (e.g. the John Paul II cohorts) who feed the undying thirst of human beings for God and everlasting life. “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” We just have to make sure people hear HIS words.

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