The late Geoffrey Moorhouse has previously authored several volumes regarding the plight of Henry VIII, and the historical turmoil surrounding the bifurcation of the Church of England from Rome. Moorhouse’s Sun Dancing is a critical volume for any student of Irish monastic history and Celtic spirituality. In one of his last publications, Moorhouse writes of Henry VIII’s confiscation of 650 monasteries, and the religious and political machinations contributing to the genesis of the Anglican Church. Moorhouse’s intentions in this work are “to convey what life was like in a great English monastery [as seen through the lens of the Benedictine monastery and cathedral of Durham] before the Dissolution began in 1536, and how that life and that presence were transformed by the political and ecclesiastical events for which Henry VIII was responsible” (p. xxiv). Moorhouse wrote this work with a clinical eye on the intricate underpinnings and minute details of surviving records and, although the events slowly unfold, he has made a lasting contribution towards the deeper understanding of Church History.
The underlying causes for Henry’s usurpation of monasteries, and his ultimate separation from the Roman Catholic Church, concern his desires for renewed coffers, the flesh, and a male heir who would conquer France, and potentially rival the Holy Roman Emperor. Henry VIII, who was at one time known as the Defender of the (Catholic) Faith for his attack on Lutheranism, had wasted an astronomical amount on fortifying his navy against the threat of Scottish and French invasions. In fact, Henry “was close to bankruptcy, having spent all the money his father had left him, amounting to £1,800,000. Ten years before the wedding [to Anne Boleyn] he had already become so strapped for funds that he introduced two new taxes, one of them euphemistically called the Amicable Grant…” (p. 97). Of Henry’s marital woes to Katherine of Aragon, Moorhouse rightfully describes the English Church as being “convulsed,” with “the inevitable consequences this had for the King’s relations with Rome” (p. 46). One of these consequences concerned the English Monarch as a bully, wherein “the English clergy were pardoned for their intransigence in not complying instantly with his wish that they support him in his struggle with the papacy, on payment of a collective £100,000 into the royal coffers…and on recognizing Henry as ‘their singular protector, only and Supreme Lord, and, as far as the Law of Christ allows, even Supreme Head’ of the Church in England” (p. 46-47).
In the Chapter entitled “Tenebrae,” Moorhouse poignantly describes the Liber Vitae, or the Book of Life which has survived from the ninth century, and had “lay upon the high altar…listing the names of more than three thousand people associated with the early Church in Northumbria, all inscribed in either silver or gold; but in time, contemporary monks were included in the volume, in the order of their professions….” (p. 11). The chapter entitled “A Great Violation” relates the harrowing details behind the desecration of the shrine and tomb of the much-venerated St. Cuthbert, wherein Henry’s evil minions unearthed an emerald valued at over £3,000, violating the corpse of the incorrupt Saint, accidently breaking one of his legs in the process of searching for hidden treasures.
The late Geoffrey Moorhouse has added a final exclamation point to his research of Henry VIII. Moorhouse’s work is highly recommended for students of both English and Catholic Church History. The only criticism of this work concerns the footnotes, which are included at the end of the book, but are not annotated by number in the actual text. However, this work is extremely well-researched, and should serve as a final entry in Moorhouse’s own Liber Vitae.