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Tue 17 September 2019
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As cliff-edge Britain searches around for historical analogies to a ‘no deal’ Brexit, Arthur Snell discovers an infamous King and his ill-fated adviser are the most telling of all.


Britain loves a historical analogy. For Brexiters this is usually a comic book version of the Second World War with EU politicians, many of whose parents suffered German occupation, offensively cast as Nazis.

They seem so gripped by this historical delusion that one is left suspecting that some of them believe themselves to be veterans of that conflict. “I was in the army, I wasn’t trained to lose,” the heroic former Territorial Army officer Marc Francois MP explained, neglecting to mention that he had never seen active service.

The point about historical analogies is that they are always contested. The same events can be endlessly reinterpreted. Brexit is Parliament versus the Crown; the sober hard-working Roundheads against the profligate, aristocratic Cavaliers. Or is it the other way round: a narrow band of Puritan zealots determined to protect England from pernicious continental influences such as Catholicism?

How about England’s break with the Roman Catholic Church?


As is well known, this separation was largely driven by King Henry VIII’s desperation to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, to enable him to marry Anne Boleyn, whom he hoped would bear him a son. With his numerous wives and an indeterminate number of children – not to mention physical bulk and occasional charm – Henry VIII seems a good historical rhyme for Boris Johnson.

At the outset, the English king and his advisors thought that they could easily get what they wanted from the Church – a supra-national authority that was political, economic and cultural. Henry sent his secretary William Knight to Pope Clement VII to demand a divorce, but the English had fatally misread continental politics. Catherine’s nephew was Emperor Charles V, the most powerful man in the world, who held Rome and the Pope in his power. There was no way this deal was going to be “one of the easiest in human history,” to quote Liam Fox.

Contrary to what Michael Gove might have said, Henry did not hold all the cards.

If the unfaithful, vain and voracious Henry makes a good comparator for Boris Johnson, then Thomas Cromwell’s present-day analogue would have to be Dominic Cummings.

So Henry’s advisers went for the ‘no deal’ option. They decided they would take back control of England’s sovereignty from a ‘foreign’ church, proclaiming in the key withdrawal Act of Parliament in 1532 that “England is an Empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one Supreme Head and King”.

The concept of national sovereignty would have been confusing to a 16th Century Englishman, but then our departure from the EU won’t stop us from being subject to the European Court of Human Rights or the requirement to wage war in defence of other members of NATO, so it remains confusing to the present day.


Henry’s talk of Empire was disingenuous – a convenient argument to justify a power grab by the English monarch. He didn’t stop with the divorce. Just as Conservative Prime Ministers plan to use Brexit to return a huge array of powers directly to the executive, bypassing Parliament entirely (the ‘Henry VIII powers’), Henry’s break with Rome increased his power and his wealth. Over a five year period, hundreds of monasteries were dissolved and the Crown’s wealth transformed. At a time when one in 50 adult men were monks, this also represented a transformation of England’s social structure.

As the 1530s progressed, Henry tended towards tyranny and a key figure in this was Thomas Cromwell.

If the unfaithful, vain and voracious Henry makes a good comparator for Boris Johnson, then Thomas Cromwell’s present day analogue would have to be Dominic Cummings.

For all Hilary Mantel’s magnificent writing of Cromwell as the hero of her novels, he was utterly ruthless, highly intelligent and totally dedicated to remaking England.

Henry was a lifelong Catholic, his break with Rome merely the necessary expedient to enable divorce. Cromwell was the true believer, placing a Bible in English in every church and promoting Protestant reformers such as Hugh Latimer. He was also prepared to play by different rules. His lack of respect for traditional authority, including great aristocrats and churchmen, left him with many enemies.

Henry’s advisers went for the ‘no deal’ option: they decided they would take back control of England’s sovereignty from a ‘foreign’ church.

Cromwell insisted on absolute loyalty to Henry, introducing a new Treasons Act in 1534 that made it a capital crime even to “imagine… any bodily harm” to the King. It was this Act that allowed Cromwell the make the case against Anne Boleyn once he felt that she was an obstacle to his plans, leading to her beheading in May 1536.

In the end, Cromwell overreached. Henry came to regret the execution of Boleyn and decided he didn’t like Anne of Cleves, whom Cromwell had lined up as a match for the King after the death of Jane Seymour.

In 1539, Cromwell implemented a Statute of Proclamations, allowing the king to rule by decree. Cromwell’s opponents coalesced around the argument that he had hijacked the king’s power. Having made so many enemies, Cromwell fell swiftly and was beheaded on the day Henry married his fifth wife, Catherine Howard.

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Dominic Cummings’ strategy is falling apart. It looks as though the Labour party won’t give him his ‘people versus Parliament’ general election and the Conservative rebels have the numbers to prevent a ‘no deal’ Brexit, unbowed by threats of deselection. While the modern Conservative party appears to have given up on beheadings (although the Home Secretary Priti Patel likes the death penalty, so who knows?) it disposes of failed advisers with remarkable alacrity, as Nick Timothy will know. So perhaps Cummings’ days are already numbered.

Like any historical analogy, there are limitations to all this. The EU promotes peace and liberalism across the continent – not something the 16th Century Catholic Church can credibly claim. But, history helps us to recognise the difference between belief and bluster, principle and power. We would do well to keep studying it.

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