Language is a slippery thing.  We often tend to think of it simply as a means of communication, but we underestimate its ability to twist and to hide meanings at our peril.  I recently wrote about the word “debunk,” which is more often invoked to hide and protect bunk than it is to expose it. Today’s word is peccadillo, a Spanish word derived from the Latin peccatum, “sin.”  The -illo on the end makes it a dimunitive, diminishing the meaning of the original to “little sins.” The implication is that the sins thus designated are small and unimportant, mere trifles. In current usage the word peccadillo almost invariably refers to sexual sins, and serves as a warning to the judgmental and puritanical among us not to make too much of such transgressions.  These are, after all minor affairs, victimless crimes, even . . . aren’t they?

     If this seems like an odd introduction to the post below, bear with me.  I first published this piece (the most popular I ever wrote, if we are to trust Google Analytics) six years ago, on the occasion of the long-delayed Christian burial of England’s King Richard III, more than half a millennium after his death. Despite the brevity of his reign (less than three years), Richard remains one of the most recognized British rulers. He is himself a fascinating figure (especially after we get past Shakespeare’s villainous caricature), but he is also the link between two other monarchs: the father of his predecessor, Edward IV, and Henry VIII, the son of his successor.  The “peccadilloes” of Edward and Henry, as we shall see, had reverberations far beyond any crimes Richard is alleged to have committed.

Richard III

530 years is a long, long time to wait.  On Thursday, March 26th 2015, England’s King Richard III, the last English monarch to die in battle, and the one of the last English kings to die a Catholic, finally received a Christian burial.  Not a Catholic funeral, unfortunately, but his interment in the Anglican Cathedral of Leicester was a great improvement over the hasty, unmarked burying of his desecrated corpse after the Battle of Bosworth Field 530 years ago.

   Richard remains one of the most controversial of British kings.  He assumed the throne when his twelve-year-old nephew Edward V was declared illegitimate by Parliament. Edward and his younger brother Richard were sent to live in the Tower of London (which was not yet used exclusively as a prison), and their uncle became King Richard III.  The two boys disappeared from public view and just two years after his accession Richard was deposed by Henry Tudor, who then became Henry VII.  Richard has been suspected ever since of having the “little princes” murdered, although historians today (especially since Paul Murray Kendall’s 1955 biography of Richard) acknowledge that there is no convincing evidence that he was the author of their deaths, and that, others, including Henry Tudor, had far more motive to kill them than Richard did.*     

As interesting as it would be to speculate on the probable guilt of the various parties involved (and, of course, it would be), that’s not the purpose of this blog.  Instead, I’d like to focus on what can happen when we let desires untamed by a properly formed conscience have free rein.  The connection here is that Henry VII, who drove Richard from the throne, in time bequeathed the throne to his son Henry VIII, who separated the English Church from the Universal Church and made himself its head.  Henry’s action had profound consequences, and not only the destruction of Catholic culture in England along with a century and a half of strife and bloodshed (which was, in itself, more than enough).  Historian Warren Carroll has demonstrated that the separation of the English Church went a long way towards ensuring that the Protestant Reformation became a permanent feature of religious life in Europe, a thing which might otherwise have remained a largely German affair.  In later years, the growth of the British Empire ensured that the split in the Latin Church was spread over the whole globe.

An idealized portrait of henry VIII and Anne Boleyn

And all because of Henry VIII’s wandering eye.  He did not set up his own church for theological reasons (he never considered himself a Protestant), nor was he compelled by a groundswell of anti-Catholic feeling in England, this last point thoroughly documented in Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars.  No, Henry was motivated by his failure to produce a male heir with his wife, Catherine of Aragon, coupled with an ardent desire to indulge in a more intimate relationship with one of Catherine’s ladies, Anne Boleyn.  Anne’s price for returning the king’s affections was that she be allowed to take Catherine’s place.  Since the Pope was unwilling to grant Henry an annulment, the English monarch simply made himself the pope of England, and, as far as he was concerned, the problem was solved.  While it is possible that a Plantagenet descendant of Richard III, had he ruled instead of Henry, might also have split with Rome, it seems much less likely, since the actual break was  precipitated neither by domestic pressure nor by external forces, but was instead closely tied to Henry’s personal desires and character.

   On the other hand, however decisive Henry VIII’s libido might have been for the creation of the Anglican Church, there would have been no Henry VIII to have caused the split had it not been for another king’s lust.  That king is Richard III’s elder brother, Edward IV, father of the little princes who were allegedly murdered in the Tower of London.  Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, a sudden and inadvisable match, came as a surprise to his family and advisors; he married her not because it was an appropriate marriage for an English monarch but because, as with Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII a couple generations later, it was her price for bestowing her favors upon the king.

     Elizabeth brought her family with her, of course, whose ambitions after Edward’s death were so alarming that many nobles and Parliament called upon the late king’s brother Richard to serve as protector of the young Edward V and his brother.  Soon it seemed expedient to remove the twelve-year-old king altogether in favor of his grown-up and capable uncle, especially after another sexual indiscretion of Edward IV’s came to light which allowed Parliament to declare Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville null, and the boy-king illegitimate.  In other words, Edward’s lust-driven behavior in one instance created the unstable situation that made the deposition of his son desirable, and his libidinous behavior in another instance provided the grounds to do so.  As we saw above, the consequences of these indiscretions can still be seen around the globe more than half a millennium later.

Board, Ernest; King Edward IV and His Queen, Elizabeth Woodville at Reading Abbey, 1464; Reading Museum;

    Few of us, of course, can expect our misdeeds to have anywhere near the impact of those of Edward IV or Henry VIII.  Nonetheless we can see, as Scripture tells us, how “the iniquity of fathers” is visited “upon children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation” (Numbers, 14:18). Indeed, for centuries.  The point is, we have no way to predict how far-reaching the consequences of our own sins will be, and how long they’ll last.  Nobody who has seen the vast store of sociological data that has been amassed over the past few decades can deny that one of the greatest contributors to poverty and other debilitating social ills today is the break-down of sexual morality. The next time we are tempted, we might do well to remember what happened when Edward and Henry went astray.

*In brief, while Richard might fear that the princes could become a rallying point for those disaffected with his rule, he could point to the fact that they had been formally removed from the succession by act of Parliament, and that he had been legally crowned.  Henry, on the other hand, came from a line that had been excluded from the succession generations earlier by Henry IV.  He needed both Richard and the princes dead, because the justification for his rebellion was that Richard was a usurper: if so, then Edward V, and not Henry Tudor, was the rightful king; if not, then Richard III was the rightful king, and Henry simply a traitor.  Either way, no Henry VII.  

2 Responses

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *