Baking Cake

11 04 2009

[You can listen to a recording of this episode here.]

2009 happens to be the five hundredth anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession to the throne of England. No doubt we will all be celebrating this in our own particular ways. I am yet to firm up my plans, but I see several others have already taken the initiative and are cashing in on the event. Hampton Court have a summer full of Henrician activities to look forward to. The Tower of London have just installed an exhibition of the great man’s armour and, inevitably, David Starkey has managed to squeeze out another series charting the life of England’s most famous King.

Watching the first episode of said series I was reminded this week of my favourite story in the whole of English history. It is the story of Lambert Simnel and to tell it we have to go back to 1483 and the infamous murder of the Princes in the Tower.

Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was acting as regent for his young nephew, Edward V (aged just twelve years). Supposedly for their own safety, Edward and his younger brother were kept in the Tower of London. One way or another these two boys met a grim end and their uncle became King Richard III. Shakespeare, in his play of the same name, points an accusatory finger at Richard, suggesting that he killed the princes in order to obtain power for himself.

Well, just a few years later, at the Battle of Bosworth field in 1485, Henry Tudor (Henry VIII’s father) defeated the unpopular King and established what we now know as the Tudor dynasty. And that was that.

Or so it would have been if it weren’t for a young baker’s boy from Oxford, named Lambert Simnel. One day a passing priest happened to spot Simnel, and was struck by his resemblance to the young murdered prince – the true heir to the throne.

The opportunity was too good to miss and Lambert was whisked away to Ireland where he was trained in courtly manners and kingship. Then he was presented to the Irish leader, the Earl of Kildare, who was prepared to support this rather flimsy claim to the throne of England.

Well, as you can imagine, everybody got very excited when Simnel sailed across the Irish sea to claim his supposed destiny. Unfortunately for those opposed to the Tudor crown, the claim was very quickly and brutally dealt with by Henry VII. But, taking pity on the young boy Simnel, the King offered him a pardon and employed his services in the Royal kitchens.

And so it was that in 1509 a new Henry came to the throne as Henry VIII. And the rest, as they say is history.

It is difficult to think of many people who have had a greater impact on the life of our nation in the last thousand or so years. Probably Henry’s most famous, or infamous, act was to establish himself as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and to make the state church protestant.

Well, we still live with the impact that momentous change and, as is now tradition every Easter, there has this year been a lot of discussion about the state of religion in our society today.

There are two threads to this debate. One is about the establishment of the Church of England, and the other is about the general position of religion within modern culture.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to defend the privileged position of the Anglican church in the British system. Like her predecessor Henry, our Queen is Supreme Governor of the Church of England. She, and anybody who might like to succeed her, is prohibited by law from marrying a Roman Catholic or indeed being one.

Every day the House of Commons starts its proceedings with prayers led by its very own chaplain who is, of course, an Anglican. But perhaps the most startling of all is the presence of twenty-six Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords. They differ from the six hundred odd Lords Temporal – appointed by the government in the usual way – in that they are a selection of bishops and archbishops from the Church of England. Other religious groups are represented, but not in such a formal way.

So, how does done go about defending such a state of affairs in a multicultural nation like the United Kingdom is today? Well, an increasing number are starting to give the argument up as a lost cause – and perhaps it is. But there is still a robust defence from the church and it is this:

By being established as the state church, the Church of England is legally bound to provide spiritual guidance and support to all members of our communities – regardless of their own personal beliefs. What is more, the Church’s leaders have come to represent not just the Anglicans in our midst, not just the Christians, but all religious folk.

One of my friends in the church told me recently the story of a bishop who made great efforts to engage with the Muslim communities of his diocese. He represented their interests in the House of Lords and worked with them on a range of projects. These efforts were so well received that he was told ‘Bishop, we see you as a Muslim just like all of us.’ Well, as you can imagine the bishop was tickled pink – although his smile was somewhat subdued when he was told that Ramadan was fast approaching.

Now, while this argument may hold some legitimacy it is fast losing currency within the population. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury has suggested that the time has come when we need to have a bit of chat about the whole arrangement.

However, the Archbishop has also observed that if we are to remove the Church of England’s privileged position, we must not do so in the spirit of secularising public life more generally.

Some commentators would have us believe that because numbers of Muslim, Catholic, Hindu and Jewish worshippers have grown as they have, the Church of England can no longer claim a monopoly on faith. They also argue that because numbers of worshippers are falling, that we should abandon religion altogether. Well, you may have noticed that these are contradictory arguments – and yet they are normally espoused by the same people.

If we put aside for a moment any discussion over the existence of God, and the authority religious texts – both debates which have absolutely no hope of ever being settled – we might look to the practical implications of living in a society with religion.

I make no claim to be able to defend all aspects of religion, not least its historical record, but equally we must not overlook its benefits. For example, in a culture where the links of community are increasingly strained and broken – where we have so little in common with each other – religion can and does provide a shared sense of experience.

I’m thinking of the hymns that we all recognise at weddings and funerals, the stories from the Bible which provide us with a common literary frame of reference, or the moral framework with which the western world is constructed. All these make up an important part of our society’s fabric.

I would wager, though, that more people in our society view this Easter holiday as simply a bit of time off work rather than recognising any particular religious significance. And I think that is a great shame because it is no co-incidence that our society is also one of increasing selfishness, loneliness and unhappiness.

There is one part of the Christian tradition still maintained in households up and down the country. That is the fascination with bakery. Every major Christian festival is attributed its very own form of cake. Top of the list has to be the Christmas Cake. Then there is the Wedding Cake and a whole host of others. In fact if one does enough research, one can even find the recipe for an Ascension Cake, to be eaten of the Feast of the Ascension.

This Easter you may be settling down to consume the season’s liturgical sweetener. It is a light fruit cake covered in marzipan, with eleven decorative balls representing the eleven true disciples (Judas, you see, is omitted). The cake was developed by a young man put into service in the Royal kitchens in the Sixteenth Century. It is named the Simnel cake, after its creator, one Lambert Simnel.

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