1. Nicholas Vernulaeus (Nicholas de Vernulz, 1583 - 1649) was a professor at the University of Leuven. Besides scholarly publications and orations, he is chiefly remembered as one of the best Neo-Latin playwrights of the seventeenth century (a list of his publications is available here). Most of his plays were first published independently, but his Thomas Cantuariensis Tragoedia was not, and only appeared in his Tragoediae decem nunc primum simul editae (Leuven, 1631), pp. 547 - 614. Unfortunately the date of its composition is not specified in the book. NOTE 1
2. Vernulaeus was not a member of the Jesuit Order, but (as has recently been pointed out by James A. Parente) NOTE 2 was capable of thinking like one (indeed one can find places in the scholarly literature where he is incorrectly identified as one), and was well aware of Jesuit drama. Parentis observed that Vernulaeus adapted works from French and Italian Jesuits into Dutch, most notably Bernardo Stefonio’s Crispus (1597) and Hermenegildus Martyr (printed 1656) by the French Jesuit Nicolas Caussin. But nobody has considered the possibility that he was also aware of the dramatic activity of English Jesuits on the Continent. There is no especial reason for seeing any kind of connection between the present play and the Thomas Cantuariensis acted at the Venerable English College, Rome, in 1613, but a more compelling case can be made for some kind of relationship between his Henricus Octavus NOTE 3 and the anonymous Morus, written for performance at the Jesuit gymnasium founded for the benefit of English postulants at St. Omers., a town which at the time belonged to the Spanish Netherlands. As I have pointed out in introducing an edition of Morus, both plays end with the appearance of an angel come to announce that an angry God intends to wreak vengeance on Henry and on England for More’s execution (H. O. V.vii), and Vernulaeus’ play features a scene (V.x) in which the dying Henry agonizes over the memories of his sins and dreads his impending damnation, a deathbed scene that resembles the one predicted by the angel in his final speech in Morus, scene vi. Henricus Octavus was first printed in 1624, and Morus is undated. The likeliest explanation of these similarities is probably that the author of Morus had read and learned from Henricus Octavus, but the possibility that Vernulaeus borrowed these features from Morus can by no means be excluded. In either event, it is striking that the interpretations of historical events and the theological message in Henricus Octavus and in a Jesuit play are so similar.
3. Be all this as it may, in another sense not having to do with narrative contents Thomas Cantauriensis Tragoedia deserves comparison with a pair of Catholic plays, adopting a palpably Jesuitical attitude towards an important contemporary political issue: the 1613 history play Decemviratus Abrogatus, written for a French audience by the transplanted Scotsman Thomas Dempster and Francis Clarke’s 1655 comedy Homo Duplex, another St. Omers work. In their very different ways, these were dramatic pieces, just like Vernulaeus’ one, were used as vehicles for taking a critical look at the relation between church and state and the nature of kingship (or at least, in the case of Dempster’s, of one-man rule), provoked by the rise of Gallicanism in France. In terms of affinities, these plays also deserve comparison with two Jesuit “martyr plays” included in The Philological Museum, both acted at the Venerable English College at Rome, Thomas Morus (1612), and Roffensis (1618 — both evidently the work of the same author), about the passion of Bishop John Fisher, who died alongside More at the hands of Henry VIII.
5. The problem began with Henry’s creation of the Church of England and appointment of himself as its head, which had the effect of reducing that Church to the status of a department of a secular state, which someone might care to say enjoyed a status not entirely unlike another department established by Henry, England’s first postal service. That assessment may be somewhat too cynical, but what is undeniable is that Henry’s break with Rome had the effect of, for the first time in European history, involving a secular government in the business of supervising its subjects’ faith and morals. The temptation of that government to take advantage of this novel situation as a means of achieving its own political goals proved too strong to resist. Obedience to the crown came to be portrayed as a spiritual obligation, just as membership in the Church of England became an obligatory feature of good citizenship (for any student of Tudor political theory An Homily Against Disobedience and Willful Rebellion, which first appeared in the 1571 edition of a collection of sermons meant to be recited in every church in the land, should be required reading — opinion seems to be divided about whether it was the work of Archbishop Cranmer or Bishop John Jewel).
6. But Henry VIII and Elizabeth failed to take the final step and promulgate a theory of kingship agreeable to this new relation of church and state. Nor did such Tudor political thinkers as the Oxford philosopher John Case, author of the 1585 Speculum Moralium Quaestionum and 1588 Sphaera Civitatis. James I was not behindhand in remedying this lack by manufacturing the abstract idea of the Divine Right of Kings, largely based on the account of God’s appointment of Saul as the first king of Israel in I Samuel). This created a theoretical basis (with appropriate theological trimmings) for the subordination of the church to the secular state.
7. James’ thinking had international implications. It became attractive in France, where a modern secular state was also in the making. Matters came to a head in the early seventeenth century. In 1612 and 1613 a controversy raged within the Parlement of Paris and involving the theological faculty of the Sorbonne, at least in part fueled by King James’ theological arguments. This issue was hotly debated. On the one hand there were those who stood up for papal supremacy maintained the traditional view that the Church was entitled to intervene and remove a heretical sovereign (the theory that underlaid Pius V’s 1570 Bull Regnans in Excelsis excommunicating Elizabeth and absolving her subjects of their loyalty to her). Ranged against them were those who accepted James’ notions about divine right and sacral kingship, according to which a king had a special relationship with God, was answerable only to Him, and therefore was beyond the reach of any earthly power, including that of the Church. From the viewpoint of a good Catholic, this was a perverse inversion of the proper order of things. Thus at line 1158 the scandalized Pope Alexander exclaims in dismay sic imperare ecclesiae reges volunt [“This is how kings crave to issue commands to the Church.”]
8. Although some other Jesuit theologians had weighed in on behalf of the former view, NOTE 4 in the debate especial prominence appears to have been achieved by the writings of the Jesuit theologian Francisco Suarez, who in 1612 weighed in with Tractatus de legibus ac Deo legislatore and in 1613 followed that up with Defensio Fidei Catholicae et Apostolicae Adversus Anglicanae Sectae Errores. He contended that ultimate political authority is not immediately granted to a king by God, but rather to the civil community of the people he governs, and is only entrusted to a king by his subjects (he did not venture an explanation of the feature of anointment which figures in coronation ceremonies and has an obvious ghostly significance). Accordingly, the community is entitled to revoke this trust upon just and sufficient cause, namely for illegal or tyrannical behavior. At least in a Catholic context, this was a novel argument (it is possible that he had appropriated it from the 1579 philosophical dialogue De Iure Regni apud Scotos by the prominent and internationally respected Scottish Humanist George Buchanan, who served as a spokesman for the Protestant cabal that had deposed Mary Queen of Scots), and must have scandalized many contemporaries. This view is of course diametrically opposed to King Henry’s idea of kingship expressed in our play (8ff.):
Namque reges sacra et e caelo sumus,
Nascimur ut altis iura praecelsi thronis
Dictemus orbi. Numinis summi vices
In hoc subimus, dumque nos tellus colit,
Colit superni maximum numen poli.
Imago rex est numinis, rex est quoque
Deus alter orbis.
[“For we kings are a sacred, heaven-descended breed, we are born to be seated on lofty thrones as we dictate laws to the world. In this matter we act as the representatives of God Almighty, and when this world reveres us it is showing reverence to God in heaven. A king is God’s image, and likewise the world’s second God.”]
Here we can virtually hear James I speaking.
9. In 1613 the statist view prevailed in France, with the result that Suarez’ counterblast to James was banned and burned at Paris, just as it had been at London. his defeat of Jesuit political views ushered in the age of so-called Gallicanism, defined by The Catholic Encyclopedia as “a certain group of religious opinions for some time peculiar to the Church of France, or Gallican Church, and the theological schools of that country. These opinions, in opposition to the ideas which were called in France Ultramontane, tended chiefly to a restraint of the pope’s authority in the Church in favour of that of the bishops and the temporal ruler.” But this newly aggressive French stance towards Church-state relations never sat well with many Jesuits. NOTE 5 This defeat continued to rankle: indeed, it was persistent Jesuit opposition to Gallicanism which provoked the expulsion of the Order from France in 1764 and the issue was not definitively put to rest until the Vatican Council of 1869, at which Gallicanism was officially classified as a heresy.
10. So for centuries the Jesuit Order continued to wage a kind of guerilla war against Gallicanism, and one of the weapons it used in this war was its rich theatrical life. in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Jesuit Thomas More plays were remarkably popular (“about 43” of them are listed here) and it is worth hazarding the guess that the remarkable popularity of this particular subject was because the story of More’s martyrdom (there is no exaggeration in using this word inasmuch as he and his companion Bishop Fisher were canonized in the 1930’s) provides a succinct paradigm for the clash of interests between the Church and the modern secular state. Jesuit apologists were not equally eager to discover a similar use for the story of Thomas à Becket, NOTE 6 who was probably too much of a specifically English saint to attract much attention on the Continent, but its polemic value was appreciated back in England, where Becket came to be portrayed as a national martyr who sacrificed his life rigidly upholding the interests of the Church against state secularism as embodied by an overbearing kings NOTE 7 In this the most fundamental sense of all the Becket story was a duplicate of the More-Fisher one, and Vernulaeus was unusual in appreciating its usefulness as an alternative dramatic subject for making the same point.
11. This play has one feature that especially provokes the suspicion that Vernulaeus had in mind the rise of Gallicanism in France. It contains a set of characters with no counterpart in its Venerable College predecessor the English bishops who are cowed into supporting King Henry and throughout the play are urging Thomas to back down from his pro-Roman position (indeed, in IV.i a pair of these bishops turns up in Rome aiming to drive a wedge between Becket and the Pope and in V.iii the bishops combine to urge a harsher policy on King Henry. To be sure, in a play written by an Englishman it would be possible to read the inclusion of these characters as stand-ins for all the English bishops who had voted in favor of Henry VIII’s 1534 Acts of Supremacy, but in this case it is far likelier that these characters were meant to recall those French clerics and Sorbonne theologians who in a recent debate had proven disloyal to Rome by supporting the interests of the French government.
12. Vernulaeus was not interested in writing the same play twice, and the church-state theme is not given the same degree of prominence in Henricus Octavus. Most of Henry’s problems are motivated by his animalistic lust for Anne Boleyn rather than any attitude towards his royal status. But this does not mean it is entirely absent: More and Fisher of course do participate in the action and function predictably. But they are distinctly minor characters. Rather, the same point is made in a different way by having Heresy personified appear at the beginning of the play and in IV.iv, pressing Henry to break with Rome and concoct a bogus religion suitable for his own needs, in order to satisfy his basest impulses.
NOTE 1 Benjamin Griffen, “The Birth of the History Play: Saint, Sacrifice, and Reformation, Studies in English Literature 1500 - 1900 39 (1999) pp. 217 - 237) p. 235 assigned it a date of ca. 1625. Nicholas De Sutter, “Lost and Found: Latin School Drama at the Augustinian College of Ghent (Augustiniana 69.1 (2019) p. 24 confidently dated it to 1625. Did he have access to some archival material at the school confirming this appraisal or was he simply repeating Griffen’s opinion minus the qualification?
NOTE 2 In a chapter “Historical Tragedy and the End of Christian Humanism: Nicolaus Vernulaeus (1583 - 1649),” in Jan Bloemendal and Nigel Smith (edd.), Politics and Aesthetics in European Baroque and Classical Tragedy (Leiden, 2016), pp. 152 - 81. Cf. pp. 164ff.
NOTE 3 The subject of a fine edition by Louis A. Schuster S. M. (Austin, Texas, 1964), a volume very much in need of reprinting. See also Marcia Viergever,Vernulaeus’ Henricus Octavus: A Confessionally Propagandistic Tragedy (diss. Nijmegen, 2015).
NOTE 4 Most notably Juan de Mariana in his De Rege et Regis Institutione (Toledo, 1598).
NOTE 5 It is true that some individual French Jesuits were supportive of Gallicanism: see Jean-Pascal Gay, “The ‘Maimbourg case’ or the possibility of Jesuit Gallicanism in seventeenth century France,” Revue Historique 672 (2014) pp. 783 - 831. But they were not speaking for the Order as a whole.
NOTE 6 The only other Jesuit Becket play of which I am aware is the Georg Bernardt’s 1626 Sanctus Thomas Archiepiscopus Cantuariensis, which has been edited by Fidel Rädle (Amsterdam, 2008).
NOTE 7 See Victor Houliston, “St. Thomas Becket in the Propaganda of the English Counter-Revolution,” Renaissance Studies VII (1993) pp. 43 - 70.