To take in the tumult provoked by the death of Arthur, Prince of Wales, the first born son of King Henry VII and of his wife, Elizabeth of York, early in 15th century Tudor England, combine the affection currently felt for Prince William with the fear for the future engendered by the death of John Kennedy. For over a century, England had been in the throes of the dynastic upheaval known as the War of the Roses. Rehearsing reversals of fortune between the warring houses of Lancaster and York is beyond the reach of most Americans. It’s enough to know that when Henry Tudor seized the throne at the Battle of Bosworth Field, England prayed, and hoped, that the heir of this new house, himself a descendent of both Lancaster and York, would truly be a prince of peace. Modern media didn’t exist, but the marriage of Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales, to Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, only a few months before the prince’s death, far exceeded anything that the Windsors have ever marshaled for their progeny.
Hope couldn’t have been more hyped.
With that in mind, here’s a vignette from Thomas Penn’s new history, Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England.
Late in the evening of Monday 4 April 1502, a boat docked at the landing stage at Greenwich, where Henry, Elizabeth and the royal household were in residence. It carried a messenger with urgent dispatches from Ludlow, under the seal of Prince Arthur’s chamberlain, Richard Pole. Henry had retired for the night and the house was quiet; close counselors opened the letters. The prince of Wales had died forty-eight hours previously, in his chamber at Ludlow Castle. He had been taken ill nearly two months before, at Shrovetide, but his decline, when it came, had been swift and brutal. The likely cause ... was the sweating sickness, the lethal flu-like virus whose symptoms included a raging temperature, convulsing intestinal pain, asphyxiation and acute kidney failure. The counselors summoned Henry VII’s confessor, one of the severe, grey-habited friars at the adjoining convent of Franciscan Observants. The following morning, ‘somewhat before the time accustomed’, he knocked discreetly on the door of Henry’s privy chamber. Entering, he told all the servants present to leave, then turned to the king and broke the news: his dearest son was departed to God (70).
Knowing what this death meant to England, consider how the loss of any young son, newly married, would tear open the hearts of his parents. Here’s what happened:
Henry’s first instinct was to send for Elizabeth who, seeing her husband in ‘natural and painful sorrow’, comforted him. Her response was reassuring and rational. Henry should, she said, remember that he still had a ‘fair and goodly’ prince, and two fair princesses. Besides which, he still had her, and they could have more children: ‘we are both young enough’. Finally calming, Henry thanked his wife, who returned with her ladies to her own apartments, where she broke down. The scene was replayed in reverse: now, it was Henry who came to console Elizabeth in ‘good haste’, out of ‘true, gentle and faithful love’, and who reminded her of the advice she had just given him (70-71).
What a beautiful phrase from the chronicle: out of “true, gentle and faithful love.” Elizabeth sets aside her grief to comfort her husband, and, having been supported by her love, he then does the same. It’s a wonderful image of Christ shepherding his own, through the love of others. In this case, devoted spouses.
We’re quite accustomed to homilies that speak of ordained ministers as shepherds of their people — no doubt an effect of who preaches them — but Christ likens only himself to a shepherd; nowhere does the New Testament call its ministers shepherds. My purpose is not to denigrate ordained ministry. (Leaders are easy to lambaste; they lash themselves.) But I am suggesting that too much focus upon ordained ministry truncates the power of Christ’s metaphor.
What does a shepherd do? Why did Christ liken himself to one? A shepherd protects and nourishes, as Christ does in the gospel, drawing his disciples away from the crowd and feeding them (Mk 6:31-32). Whatever leading occurs in shepherding, it happens in pursuit of those two needs, protection and nourishment. Leading is a means to an end. How sad that our homiletical tomes are stuffed with tales of shepherds as leaders, when the more humble, everyday vocation of the shepherd is to protect and nourish. Isn’t that what Elizabeth did, without hesitation, for “the natural and painful sorrow” of her husband? Didn’t Henry do the same with “true, gentle and faithful love?” How many such stories would we hear, on any given Sunday, if we asked each person present to stand in turn and tell the tale? Christ shepherds us all, through countless acts of human kindness at the hands of our fellows.
Monarchs and bishops lead. It’s their God-given charge, but all Christians are called to shepherd, even if only one little lamb depends upon them. That lamb still requires nourishment and protection. It still needs “true, gentle and faithful love.”
Rev. Terrance W. Klein