Saturday, May 27, 2017

A Week of Wonderful English Saints

The current Starz TV series The White Princess (sequel to The White Queen, both based on Philippa Gregory's novels about the Wars of the Roses) focuses on Elizabeth of York, wife of England's Henry VII, who founded the Tudor dynasty, after defeating the last Yorkist king, Richard III, at Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485). As part of the peace between the rival houses of Lancaster and York, Henry married Elizabeth (daughter of Edward IV and niece of Richard III). The two of them are thus the ancestors of all subsequent English and (from James V on) all Scottish monarchs, down to the present occupant of the British throne. ("The White Queen" was her mother, Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV, mother of the murdered "princes in the Tower.") 

A relatively minor character (photo) is the Queen's first cousin, Margaret Plantagenet (1473-1541), daughter of Edward IV's and Richard III's traitor brother George, Duke of Clarence. In the series, as in real life, Margaret was married off in 1487 to King Henry's cousin, Sir Richard Pole, who eventually became Chamberlain for Henry's first son, Arthur. Margaret, in turn became lady-in-waiting to Arthur's wife, Catherine of Aragon, a role she resumed later when Henry VIII married his widowed sister-in-law. As countess of Salibury in her own right, she was wealthy and prominent. Her son Reginald Pole eventually became a Cardinal and, during Mary Tudor's Catholic restoration, Archbishop of Canterbury - the last Catholic Archbishop in that line. Her and her son's fidelity to the Catholic faith (and their potential claim as surviving Plantagenet Yorkist heirs to the English throne) eventually caused the English Reformation's proto-Stalin, Henry VIII, to imprison her in the Tower, where she was executed on May 27, 1541. Her son, Cardinal Pole, subsequently said he would "never fear to call himself the son of a martyr." And In 1886 she was duly beatified by Pope Leo XIII. May 28 is the date assigned for her commemoration.

Margaret Pole is one of three outstanding English saints celebrated this week. On Thursday, in places where the Ascension is postponed to Sunday, we celebrated the Venerable Bede (c.673-735), a monk at Jarrow in Northumbria, author most famously of Ecclesiastical History of the English People, as a result of which he is remembered as "the Father of English History." He wrote much else beside, including some poetry in the vernacular. Among other things, he also popularized the use of the new (now universally used) dating system based on the Birth of Christ (Anno Domini). His scholarly reputation extended far beyond his home island, and he was mentioned by Dante in the Divine Comedy (Paradiso, X). However his feast became part of the general Roman calendar only in 1899. It was originally assigned to May 27, but in 1969 was moved to May 25.

And today the Church commemorates the great Saint Augustine of Canterbury (534-604), the Roman monk sent by Pope Saint Gregory the Great to evangelize the English and who founded the See of Canterbury in 597. His relics were lost during the barbaric destruction of the English Reformation, but a new shrine has been recently re-establlished near the site where he first landed in England. Celebrated in Britain on May 26 and elsewhere on May 28 until 1969, he is now celebrated on May 27.

The Collect for today's Mass prays "that the fruits of [Saint Augustine's] labors may remain ever abundant in your Church." And so they did, reaping a rich harvest for more than six centuries until the wanton destruction inspired by Henry VIII's lust for unlimited, unchecked spiritual as well as temporal power.

This unique collection of great English saints in one week is, of course, coincidental. Still, it highlights for us English-speakers the great debt we all owe to our linguistic ancestors who brought the Catholic faith to the English-speaking world, nourished it with their piety and scholarship, and defended it to the point of martyrdom at the hands of a monster monarch whose insatiable lust for power led him to the mother of all Brexits, gratuitously separating his kingdom from the Universal Church, in the process destroying countless lives and erasing a great nation's glorious religious heritage.

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