The Victorian writer and critic Walter Bagehot famously said, of the necessity to maintain an air of mystery around the monarchy, “We must not let in daylight upon magic.”
I was thinking about that tonight after I told my son about Richard III, whose body was recently discovered. I told about how Richard came to the throne at the end of a series of events that began with his brother, King Edward IV, having their scheming brother put to death. Then Edward died, leaving two young sons. Richard seized the children, imprisoned them in the Tower of London, had Parliament declare them bastards, and finally had them murdered. That left him as King Richard III. This provided Henry Tudor the chance he needed to vie for the throne. His army and Richard’s met on Bosworth Field, and it was there that Richard met his end.
Henry VII was the new king, followed by his son, the illustrious Henry VIII. I started in with my son about Cardinal Wolsey, and how he was both the most powerful churchman in England and, as Lord Chancellor, the most powerful figure below the king. I was watching his face as I told him about a cardinal doing the things Wolsey did … and finally I conceded that the more you know about how kings and princes of the church behaved, the less glorious any of it looked.
“They were basically all warlords, the kings,” I said.
“Dressed up in illusion,” he said.
I’ve been to Westminster Abbey, and to St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. I’ve been to the Vatican. It is awe-inspiring. It is magical. But the more you know about how men of ages past behaved, and their successors do behave in some cases, the harder it is to muster the will to be enchanted by it. Or so it seems when seen at a distance. When you’re in the presence of that kind of grandeur, though, I wonder if it changes. I’m sure it does, at least for many of us.
Some people see Old South plantation houses, and can only think of the slave labor and exploitation concealed by the beauty of those buildings and the grounds. Others see them and recognize a culture and a vision that had about it a quality of beauty and nobility despite the evil it did. Similarly with, say, Westminster Abbey. It was built by kings who were in many ways wicked and ruthless warmongers, by our lights today. And yet, to stand within the Abbey is to be overwhelmed by beauty, a beauty brought forth in large part by those rough men who called themselves royalty.
So too with the church. Pope Julius II, for example, was a fierce and fearsome Renaissance prince, and literally led his army into war. He was an immense improvement over the rotten Alexander VI, the Borgia pope, whose memory he execrated. Still, Julius was nobody’s idea of an ideal Vicar of Christ. And yet, if not for Julius, the artistic legacy of the Roman church would be much poorer. It was he who is responsible for St. Peter’s Basilica, and for commissioning Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Through these rough men came great beauty that to this day bears witness to truths hard to grasp otherwise.
Does beauty conceal truth, or reveal it? When we see a king or a pope, or a figure of that rank, in full regalia, amid pomp and pageantry, are we at risk of our eyes leading us to believing these men are what they are not, or does the splendor tell us something true about the offices they hold, if not their character?
Both, I think. It depends.