The King’s Achievement, published for the first time in 1905, was the second of Benson’s post-conversion novels and it is now available in a new edition by Cenacle Press, a publishing house run by the good monks of Silverstream Priory in Ireland. This edition is particularly welcome for the beautiful drawings illustrating the text, made by Jerzy Orga, and for the foreword by Joseph Pearce.
The historical novel addresses the pain of a nation that must choose between heresy and the Faith of the fathers. The events that, like a mosaic, make up the plot, have in common the spoliation of the monasteries – the true protagonists of the book – caused by the ambition and greed of Henry VIII, the former defensor fidei who revolted against Rome. The outcome is a brilliant operation of historical revisionism which aims to demonstrate the original corruption of English Protestantism, born exclusively to satisfy the immoderate appetites of the lustful sovereign, Elizabeth’s father.
Set between 1533 and 1540, The King’s Achievement describes the conflict between two brothers belonging to the aristocratic Torridon family. Against the backdrop of the dispute between the Pope and Henry, Christopher, a monk faithful to the Catholic cause, faces Ralph, an ambitious servant of power, so blinded by the mirage of a rapid career at court that he is unscrupulous, even going so far as to refuse Beatrice’s hand , the woman he has always loved. Between intrigues and mysteries, between providential help and difficulties, in the end the two Torridons will both risk dying.
The triumph of Henry VIII described by Benson is fleeting and fruitless. In the king’s arrogant smile the misery of a man who sacrificed his soul for a little power was represented. The monarch pursues his tyrannical project with clarity, does not tolerate anyone questioning his will and does not hesitate to eliminate anyone who tries to hinder him. To achieve his goals he uses a more effective weapon than violence: bureaucracy, capable of hiding the great changes taking place, giving an appearance of legality and spiritual renewal to his vices.
Next to him, petty and ambiguous figures move in the shadows, terrible characters in a terrible era, such as the ex-priest Layton, who is marked by an obscene personal involvement in the sacking of monasteries, and the very faithful chancellor Thomas Cromwell, always careful to satisfy Henry’s every whim, by whom he will then be betrayed and killed in 1540.
On the opposite side are the true triumphs of the book. They are the martyrs – above all Thomas More and Cardinal John Fisher – who, sacrificing themselves to affirm the rights of Christ and the Church, obtained sanctity, the only true victory. Through their gesture comes the redemption of the nation: like sacrificial lambs, they shed their blood to redeem an entire people from their sins.
As the Catholics are persecuted, their cry for forgiveness rises above the crowd, an attitude in stark contrast to the falseness of the king who lives in a constant climate of anxiety and suspicion. There is something allegorical in this, as if Benson had wanted to make Henry VIII not only the emblem of the heresiarch, but also of the incapable governor, completely indifferent to the interests of the people. He had promised his subjects the gold seized from the monasteries and then delivered it, with an unscrupulous about-face, to the nobility.
With the dissolution of the religious orders, even the monks, now without residence, find themselves forced to choose between the Pope or the sovereign, and there are many, the majority, who spontaneously submit to the crown to protect their own physical safety
The role-play on which the narrative is based is broken only at the end, when even Ralph, the tragic hero of the book, is granted the possibility of forgiveness before dying.
If his soul is saved, not so an England spiritually reduced to a wasteland.
The book: Robert Hugh Benson, The King’s Achievement, The Cenacle Press at Silverstream Priory, 2022, 448 pages, €21,95
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