31 March 1532 – A displeasing sermon for Henry VIII

Posted By on March 31, 2016

1491_Henry_VIII by Joos van Cleve 31st March 1532 was Easter Sunday and Henry VIII attended a service at the chapel of the Observant Friars at Greenwich. There, he listened to a sermon by Friar William Peto, Provincial of England (leader of the Observant Friars in England) and a man who acted as confessor to Queen Catherine of Aragon and Princess Mary.

Eustace Chapuys, in a letter to Emperor Charles V, records what happened on that Easter Sunday:

“On Easter Day the Provincial of the Minor Friars preached in their convent at Grynuyche (Greenwich) in the royal presence. They say that the King was much displeased with the sermon owing to the Provincial having alluded, though in general terms, to the fact that the excessive affection of princes and false counsellors often precluded the knowledge of truth. And I hear that the King himself, happening to converse privately with the said friar after the sermon, heard from his lips what was not much to his taste, for the Provincial spoke openly to him about the royal marriage in contemplation, telling him in plain words that if he did not take care he would be in great danger of losing his kingdom, since all his subjects, high and low, were opposed to it.”

Chapuys goes on to say that Henry VIII granted Peto permission to go to Toulouse, departing right there and then, and that the King “insisted that a chaplain of his household should preach another sermon in his presence at the very same convent” refuting Peto’s arguments. This all got rather messy as the King’s chaplain stated that he wished Peto was there to answer his arguments and the “Guardian of the convent” interrupted him and said that “he was ready and willing to take his place and respond for him.” Chapuys explains: “The King’s chaplain then was bold enough to assert at the end of his sermon that all the universities and doctors had declared the divorce to he lawful, which being heard by the said Guardian, he lost all patience, got up and said within the King’s hearing that the whole of what the chaplain had said was a fabrication.” Henry VIII was furious by this point. He ordered that the Provincial (Peto), who, according to Chapuys, had returned after hearing of the argument, should deprive the Guardian of his office and punish him. Peto refused to do this and so the King ordered the imprisonment of both men. Chapuys writes of how they were to be imprisoned until they changed their minds, but stated that they had told him many times that they would rather die than say they were wrong.

So what had caused this fuss? What had Peto said in his sermon?

Chapuys doesn’t go into detail, just writing of “the Provincial having alluded, though in general terms, to the fact that the excessive affection of princes and false counsellors often precluded the knowledge of truth.” However, Nicholas Harpsfield (1519–1575), Archdeacon of Canterbury in Mary I’s reign, gave details in his Treatise on the Pretended Divorce between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon:

“There was then among the Observant friars at Greenwich a man of good house and family called Peto, who had relinquished the brittle, bright, blazing lustre of the world to serve God devoutly and entirely in the said house; which Peto, having more regard to the [health of the] King’s soul and the public wealth of the realm than to the safeguard of his own body, having occasion in a sermon he made to entreat of King Achab, said: “This King Achab would needs give ear to the false prophets, which did circumvent and deceive him, and would not hearken to God’s own prophet Mycheas, whom he pained and pinched with hard diet and straight imprisonment,” which story he accommodating to his purpose did tell the King to his face: ” Sir, I am the Micheas that you deadly hate for prophecying and telling you the troth; and, albeit I know that I shall be fed with the bread of tribulation, yet that which God putteth in my heart I will frankly speak.” Whereupon with many persuasions he dehorted the King from the divorce.
Among other things, ” Your preachers” (quoth he) ” resemble the 400 preachers of Achab, in whose mouths God had put a lying spirit. But I beseech your grace to take good heed least, if you will needs follow Achab in his doings, you incur his unhappy end also, and that the dogs lick your blood as they did his, which thing God forbid.”

This comes from 1 Kings 22 in the Old Testament. Micaiah shares his prophecies with King Ahab, but Ahab ignores them and imprisons Micaiah. Ahab then dies from wounds inflicted during the battle. According to the Bible:

“So the King died and was brought to Samaria, and they buried him there. They washed the chariot at a pool in Samaria (where the prostitutes bathed), and the dogs licked up his blood, as the word of the Lord had declared.”

If Harpsfield is correct, Peto was comparing Henry VIII to King Ahab, a man who had ignored the prophecies of Micaiah, and whose wife Jezebel had replaced God’s prophets with pagan priests. Anne Boleyn, of course, was at this time promoting men of the reformed faith.

Harpsfield goes on to tell of how Peto’s prophecy “came to pass” when Henry VIII’s remains were being carried from London to Windsor in 1547. He tells of how his coffin rested one night at the monastery of Syon and that “the fat and the corrupt putrified blood” dripped out of the coffin on to the pavement of the church and that a dog licked it up.

It appears that William Peto was not imprisoned for long as he was in exile abroad by early 1533.

Notes and Sources

  • Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 4 Part 2, 1531-1533, 934.
  • Harpsfield, Nicholas (1878) A Treatise on the Pretended Divorce Between Henry VIII. and Catharine of Aragon, Camden Society.
  • Mayer, T. F.. “Peto , William (c.1485–1558).” T. F. Mayer In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004.

2 thoughts on “31 March 1532 – A displeasing sermon for Henry VIII”

  1. Renita says:

    My class was fascinated by this sermon and the macabre way that the “prediction” came to
    pass. They are, however, divided on whether or not Henry deserved this postmortem humiliation.

    Excellent article!

  2. Banditqueen says:

    Wonderful article and one that places the myth about Henry’s coffin into context. The information is of course being written several years later so could be taken with a pinch of salt. Given that the author of the Treatise also writes about the loss of poor Anne Boleyn and the loss of her son, the baby being a mass of flesh and other unlikely stories which have been challenged, this rumour also lacks the authenticity of source interrogation. The sermon and setting of the debate on Peto and his ideas, however, is a great image and the setting fantastic.

    Henry had a personal knowledge and experience and interest in theology, especially the ideas about his divorce. I can see why he was annoyed, especially if he was compared to King Ahab, his pagan worship and terrible fate, but that strangely does not seem to be what angers Henry the most. No he is angered because the two preachers don’t debate the merits of their arguments calmly and logically, in order, but have a go at each other, causing things to get out of control. Henry cannot get the two to apologize, so both are arrested, at least until they agree, probably quite rightly, then we get the story and it grows into the myth of later years. It’s pure theatre, a great article, great context, excellent work.

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