Thursday, July 15, 2010

Question from Ella - Henry VIII talking during Mass

Is it true that Henry VIII would talk during mass, even having meetings? If so, was this normal or considered rude?


Foose said...

According to historian Eric Ives, "[Henry VIII's] favourite hours for business were during morning mass and before bed." Diarmaid McCulloch agrees, talking of the problems this habit created for "staff, who struggled to get decisions during the course of morning mass, which Henry thought an appropriate time to allocated to the regular discharge of business." Most recently, C.J. Meyer in The Tudors: The Complete History says critically, "Except when dealing with matters that engaged his interest in some personal way, Henry was willing to talk business only during morning mass -- evidently he was not an attentive worshipper -- and just before retiring at night."

This may be a little unfair. Richard Rex says, in reporting that the king heard three masses every day, that "[t]hese Masses would of course have been votive masses, celebrated before side-altars or chapel altars by solo chaplains with minimal ceremony, not the full-scale High Mass of Sundays and religious festivals, with choir and organ, procession and a platoon of clergy."

Henry also passed love notes -- using a Book of Hours -- to Anne Boleyn during morning mass, according to Ives, which might have been considered reprehensible by those who were otherwise used to the king's church habits.

Officially, the Church condemned having your mind on anything but the service during mass; but on a practical level, people are accommodating of kings' preferences and nearly everyone's mind wandered at some point. Rex indicates that when a public show of piety was required on the festival days, Henry's conduct was faultless. I can't come across any criticism of Henry's behavior by his contemporaries; they tend to focus on the three masses a day as demonstrating exemplary piety.

Henry may have had reasons for choosing morning mass as his preferred business setting. Maybe the drone of the clergy provided cover for confidential instructions; maybe the religious setting kept argument or discussion from his subordinates to a minimum; in this venue, he also got some respite from the perpetual favor-seeking of courtiers, since those in attendance were probably obliged to stay in their places and follow the service. Perhaps he liked it because he was also able to make decisions and pursue his policies without having to go through the Privy Council, with its dissensions, leaks, factional splits and infighting.

Finally, I'm also not sure if "morning mass" means what we would consider morning mass. Philip V of Spain, admittedly two centuries later, habitually heard morning mass at 3pm.

Foose said...

There is also the issue of where exactly Henry was located during mass. Many people might have the idea that he was stationed in the church proper, perhaps at the front, where others might observe him talking, writing, or smuggling love notes. However, the king attended mass in his private "closet." Peter E. McCullough explains in his Sermons at Court:

"The early Tudor monarchs heard mass in small closets attached to their privy chambers, and came to the larger chapel closets only on ceremonial occasions (hence also 'holyday closets'). ... As a pew the chapel closet functioned in much the same way as a modern royal box does, but with the addition of the windows that separated the closet from the chapel below."

So, on ceremonial occasions the king was hearing mass on a separate level above the regular chapel; for his three masses a day, he was more likely in the closet opening off the privy chamber (called an oratory) - McCullough notes that "Henry VIII had his closet altars decked with statues of his favourite saints" - which meant the audience would be much more limited.

Lucy Wooding adduces another reason for Henry's preference for doing business at mass:

"...important discussions often took place in the privy closet or the Holyday Closet ... The sources give the impression that this was an excellent time for getting an energetic and impossibly busy man to sit still and concentrate on something."