Can there be forgiveness after Christianity?
Political culture could do with a 'loveday'
Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, which as well as being the most important date in history for Christians, is also one of the most painted scenes in history (the picture illustrating this piece is by Henry Ossawa Tanner)
In England it was also once known as Lady Day, and until the 18th century was the start of the year. On this date tenants up and down the kingdom would travel to the lord’s manor to renew their contracts, and reaffirm what taxes aimed at grinding down the peasant’s will to live had to be paid (that’s why the tax year still starts at this time of year).
I’m a great believer in the idea that we lost something important with the abolition of the medieval calendar, and it’s psychologically very healthy to have a set of feasts and fasts, days for thinking of the dead, days for marking the boundaries of the community, and days for abstaining. (It’s a subject I’d like to turn into a book or piece one day, sort of like ‘How to live like a medieval peasant but without getting the plague’, although I’m not sure ‘coffee morning with the landlord day’ would suit everyone.)
Lady Day was also the setting for one of the most naively optimistic events in English history, known as ‘Loveday’ and taking place in London in 1458. It says a lot about the importance of Christian ideas of forgiveness in medieval Europe, but also perhaps why it seems harder to forgive in today’s climate.
‘Lovedays’ were a well-established practice in England, mentioned by Chaucer and Wycliffe, and similar to modern-day arbitration. People in disputes (usually over land) agreed to reconcile and avoid further legal conflict, the loveday then sealed with a kiss and blessed by a priest. It was loosely related to the medieval Catholic Church’s peace movement, probably one of the most underrated and important campaigns in European history, the religious authorities placing enormous pressure on kings, barons and knights to refrain from attacking each other. The Church played a huge part in the drop in violence over the medieval period.
Peace and reconciliation was the intention in 1458 when King Henry VI organised his Loveday event. Henry was a saintly but hopelessly ineffectual individual, about as unsuited towards kingship as can be, ‘a man more timorous than a woman’ as the Pope said. On one occasion, a courtier, in an ill-thought-out attempt to organise some banterous male bonding, arranged for topless women to dance before the king; Henry angrily averted his eyes and left the room, saying ‘Fy, fy, for shame, forsothe ye be to blame’.
He was also horrified by violence, which is unfortunate, because if you’re a medieval king, one thing you’re not going to be short of is violence (in fact it may be the most dangerous job in history). Henry lived during a century in which four English kings perished violently (or suspiciously) and, unfortunately for him, he would be one of them.
Overwhelmed by conflict and stress, in 1453 Henry became catatonic, partly sent into shock by England’s defeat at the Battle of Castillon, which ended the Hundred Years’ War. His kingdom was increasingly marred by violence, caused by rivalries between over-mighty barons, all claiming descent from Edward III and chasing too few positions in society — the quintessential example of elite overproduction.
In 1455 this factionalism had deteriorated into outright conflict, with the First Battle of St Albans opening what would become the War of the Roses. Among those killed was the leading Lancastrian, Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, slain by the Yorkist Earl of Salisbury; what is slightly strange and, perhaps for the older reader, heartening, is that Percy was 62 and Salisbury 55, while the other high-profile Lancastrian casualty, the Duke of Somerset, was almost 50. Somerset had been warned by a soothsayer that he would die in a castle so he believed that, so long as he fought in the open, he would be safe. Having killed four men at St Albans, he is said to have looked up and felt an overwhelming sense of doom when he noticed that the inn he was standing outside was called The Castle; momentarily distracted, he was fatally stabbed.
The king was also injured when an arrow hit him in the neck, crying out ‘forsooth’, but otherwise just stood there being ineffectual.
The battle set in motion a number of vendettas, with the sons and brothers of those killed now seeking revenge. The king’s solution, once he emerged from his stupor, was to hold a ‘Loveday’ in Westminster, on March 25, 1458.
He hoped to bring together Lancastrians such as Somerset, Northumberland and Clifford, whose fathers had all died at St Albans, and Yorkist faction leaders Salisbury and Warwick, who would make reparations and agree to keep the peace for 10 years. The leaders of each side would walk hand-in-hand to St Paul’s Cathedral; Somerset stood beside his enemy Salisbury, and behind them Warwick held hands with the Duke of Exeter, with the king at the back. Then they all celebrated a service of thanksgiving at the cathedral.
Sadly, it did not make much difference in the end, for the younger Beauforts and Percys carried a ‘grudge and wrath’ against the Nevilles and York. Later that year the Earl of Warwick was stabbed by a kitchen worker most likely under the orders of a rival, and from that point on the conflict spiralled out of control, with ever bloodier clashes before climaxing with the epic Battle of Towton in 1461, the biggest in English history.
King Henry failed to bring peace and reconciliation, but he was fighting impossible odds; the aristocracy was in economic decline, against the rising power and wealth of the middle class, the ‘broggers’ or brokers; indeed this section of society was largely unaffected by the conflict, and one of the most startling things about the War of the Roses is that, according to John Gillingham, house-building actually increased (Green Belt 1, Civil War 0). However, there were just too many royals wandering around, and there was only one way to solve that problem.
Yet the culture of forgiveness still had an impact on reducing political violence. For one day each week, from the time they were old enough to remember, Englishmen and women had been repeatedly instructed how important it was to forgive their enemies. Forgiveness is counter-intuitive, and goes against our instincts, yet humans are susceptible to repeated messaging. If they’re told things enough, they start to believe them (as we’ve seen in the past decade).
The huge drop in violence over the course of medieval history would not have been possible without the prestige and respect given to those who forgive. It certainly had an impact on our political culture. Today there is a strong correlation between how long a country was Catholic and its ability to sustain democracy, and while the Church’s prohibition of cousin marriage is probably the main mechanism, I wonder if democracy is even possible without the idea of forgiveness.
Reading the recent Vox series on the subject does not exactly inspire confidence. In this 21st century progressive vision of forgiveness, there is almost no mention of Christianity, in a country where the faith played such a central role in its great moral struggle, the campaign for civil rights. Martin Luther King repeatedly made references to forgiveness as a Christian act, and it was white America’s Christianity which allowed it to be shamed into changing.
What is even more disconcerting about the Vox worldview is that there seems to be little differentiation between those who have wronged people by their deeds, and those who have wronged them with their opinions. (Why does someone need to ‘forgive’ J.K. Rowling? What has she done, exactly, except express a different opinion?)
In fact, what today’s political activists possess is a post-Christian idea which conflates forgiveness with submission; people can be forgiven, but they must be defeated first. My fear is that younger members of the ruling class will always act appallingly, if given permission to do so, and so it’s vital to place restrains on their instinctive will to power. Whereas what is so corrosive about identity politics is that, as opposed to the Christianity it replaced, it encourages young aristocrats to act out and become their worst selves.
This is what Christopher Lasch meant when he wrote of religion that ‘If it is ultimately forgiving of human weakness and folly, it is not because it ignores them or attributes them exclusively to unbelievers. For those who take religion seriously, belief is a burden, not a self-righteous claim to some privileged moral status. Self-righteousness, indeed, may well be more prevalent among skeptics than among believers. The spiritual discipline against self-righteousness is the very essence of religion.’
And that discipline has certainly been neglected of late, self-righteousness seething out of keyboards across the world. Wokeness has been compared to a heresy of Christianity, in particular Calvinism, except one lacking any idea of redemption or forgiveness. Indeed it is something far more visceral and atavistic, far more natural than Christianity, the will to dominate and to destroy rivals — except to those who supplicate. Forgiveness goes against our instincts, and that is what makes it divine.