The assault was not going to stop at matters of discipline; it was dogma that was aimed at, and, worse even than that, the foundation on which dogma rested. It was not an affair of Religious Houses, or even of morality; there was concerned the very Rock itself on which Christendom based all faith and morals.
To whom are you faithful?
This was perhaps one of the most critical questions facing the English people in the years of King Henry VIII’s reign—the period of the English Reformation. When remaining faithful to the Catholic Church could cost you your head, should you pledge your allegiance to the King’s new church?
In 1904 Father Robert Hugh Benson wrote The King’s Achievement, a historical novel that follows the lives of the Torridon family. Two brothers, Ralph and Chris, represent two contrasting paths. Ralph—of the world—works for Lord Cromwell. Meanwhile, Chris—of the spirit—enters a monastery and becomes a priest. As the persecution against the Catholic Church heightens and monasteries are attacked, Ralph becomes the antagonist who leads an attack against Chris’s monastery.
A family grieves the brother whose soul seems lost. Ralph pursues worldly success while courting the lovely Beatrice, who is a fervent Catholic, but will devotion to Lord Cromwell sabotage his burgeoning love? Can Ralph continue to justify his actions, even as he befriends and comes to respect the great Thomas More? Chris’s turbulent emotions toward his wayward brother threaten his own spiritual peace—can he learn to be in the world but not of it? And can he save his brother even while Chris’s resistance to the King’s orders places his own life in danger?
Benson does a remarkable job of bringing this era of English history to life, especially in illuminating the horrific, completely destructive persecution against the Catholic monasteries. Many monks gave their lives as martyrs. Many monasteries were looted, robbed, and destroyed. Peaceable religious men and women who had quietly carried on valuable spiritual work within the walls of these monasteries and convents suddenly found themselves on the street, nearly penniless and, objectively speaking, vocationless.
The methodical tearing apart of the Catholic Church in England is concerning in its familiarity to some of the tendencies one could observe in our own world today. The Catholic faithful of the 1530s, many of whom were not fully catechized, did not know what to believe. King Henry and his clergy expressed persuasive arguments that quickly led people astray. Then these same men criticized, condemned, and silenced those who dared defend the truth of the Catholic Church.
There are so many excellent aspects to this historical novel. Benson brings alive the personalities of St. Thomas More, King Henry VIII, and Lord Cromwell. Also, I truly enjoyed the family dynamics of the Torridon family. It’s sobering how two brothers, raised by the same parents in the same household, could veer along such completely opposite paths. At one point in the novel, Benson describes Ralph and Chris walking along with their father, just feet apart from each other, but an impassable gulf exists between them. Anyone who has experienced conflict within one’s familial relationships can relate to that sensation of heartbreaking distance among people of shared blood.
Chris’s spiritual journey is very fulfilling, especially as he overcomes his inner struggles. Within his monastery, Chris detaches himself from everything and everyone in the outside world. As the plot progresses though, Chris begins to realize that, while leaving the world behind, he still needs to be mystically one with that same world.
“Neither a life in the world would have done it, nor one in the peace of the cloister; but an alternation of the two. He had been melted by the fire of the inner life, and braced by the external bitterness of adversity.”
I will say that there are a few aspects of the plot that I found disappointing. While Benson does a superb job creating suspenseful scenes, sometimes those moments lose their punch: in two specific instances, when Chris finds himself in particularly dangerous circumstances and the stakes are high, the resolution to the conflict is quite anticlimactic. As for the romantic plot of the book, I questioned why the highly intelligent and deeply faithful Beatrice would be attracted to Ralph. However, I became most concerned by one of the major take-aways of the novel, namely that one should practice loyalty for loyalty’s sake. Faithfulness to something—or someone—bad is not a virtue and I cannot understand why it was lauded as such.
Where does your loyalty lie? Are you a faithful son or daughter to the King of Kings? The King’s Achievement reminds us that sometimes faithfulness carries a steep price. Yet, Benson depicts Saint Thomas More reminding the other characters—and us—that we are all God’s prisoners. May we serve Him loyally every day of our lives.