We began our final week with one last class excursion to Hampton Court Palace. This complex outside of London was built by Cardinal Wolsey in 1514, but became King Henry VIII’s palace in 1529. The buildings are filled with Tudor and Stuart history for which an abundance of signs, costumed actors, props, and a dramatic audio tour are kindly provided to assist the imagination. Henry VIII divorced Anne of Cleves and married 2 of his other wives there, Catherine Howard and Kateryn Parr. His son, Edward, was baptized in the Chapel Royal at the palace. This gorgeous chapel still holds regular daily services and enforces a strict code of silence. Interestingly, the Chapel Royal retained many Catholic features and was relatively unaffected by the newly launched Reformation underway just outside.
Our class today looked at a few of the heresy trial records from Norwich (1428-1431) and Winchester (1511-1513). The Winchester trials were almost contemporaneous with the building of the palace. While there is no direct link between the palace and the heresy trials per se, imagination involuntarily kicks in and starts forming a big picture of a world-in-which. One of the more interesting architectural features of both the palace and the extensive gardens is the enormous number of nooks and hiding places scattered everywhere. These were certainly designed to facilitate the private and politically sensitive conversations going on endlessly behind the scenes at court. In secretive meetings like these, heresy was also believed to spread, and simply hosting a known heretic in one’s house could put that person on trial.
After discussing some of the theological contentions and the extent to which a trial record represents real historical circumstances, we began a prosopographical analysis of the text by mapping all the names indicted and linking them according to how they knew each other. At first, tracing who had the heretical book when someone came to dinner felt a bit like a game of Clue. Once a root system of heretics began to emerge, however, the method felt more like hunting cells of terrorists. It was a strange feeling in a history and theology class, but essential work for close reading of these sources.
Why heresy and heretics were so feared is a difficult and troubling question for postmoderns. Understanding this fear is further complicated by the tarnished image we have of the object of that fear, which survives almost entirely behind the polemics and judicial proceedings against them. While many people now are receptive to explanations from social control, Eamon Duffy has argued for more pastoral motivations that were deeply concerned with the seriousness of right belief and eternal salvation. Neither one of these seems entirely adequate, however. The reduction of history to a string of power struggles is unnecessarily cynical and two-dimensional. On the other hand, the excessive use of violence by both Church and State in some of these trials is hard to attribute charitable intent. Maybe tomorrow’s class will bring the answer.