Henry VIII's appearance before the assembled houses of parliament
on Christmas Eve 1545 was perhaps his finest hour. In what has
been called a ‘pioneer royal Christmas broadcast’, the king
delivered an impassioned and eloquent speech lamenting the religious
divisions that afflicted his kingdom, and urging his subjects towards unity
The phrase is Diarmaid MacCulloch's: Thomas Cranmer: a life, New Haven–London
1996, 348. According to William Petre, the king himself wept as he
recounted how ‘charity between man and man is so refrigerate’, and few
of his audience could restrain themselves from doing likewise.
PRO, SP 1/212, fos 110v–11r (Letters and papers, foreign and domestic, of the reign of
Henry VIII, ed. J. S. Brewer, J. Gairdner and R. H. Brodie, London 1862–1910 [hereinafter
cited as LP], xx/2, 1030). Another
eye-witness, the chronicler Edward Hall, wrote down the speech ‘worde
for worde, as near as I was able to report it’. This account gives details
of how Henry illustrated the breakdown of fraternal love among his
people: ‘the one calleth the other Hereticke and Anabaptist, and he
calleth hym again, Papist, Yypocrite and Pharisey’; rival preachers inveighed
against each other ‘without charity or discrecion’. To the king's
mind, the blame for this deserved to be apportioned to all sides, and,
to reinforce the point, Henry brought forward one of the more curious
metaphors of contemporary religious discourse: ‘some be to styff in their
old Mumpsimus, other be to busy and curious in their newe Sumpsimus’.
E. Hall, Hall's Chronicle, ed. H. Ellis, London 1809, 864–5. The charge of religious
name-calling was hardly new in 1545. In an earlier exhortation to unity and charity,
Thomas Starkey had lamented the fact that ‘eche one in hart iugeth other to be eyther
pharisee or heretyke, papist or schismatike’: An exhortation to the people instructynge them to
unitie and obedience, London ?1536, fo. 27v.
Recent historians of the reign have understandably devoted considerable
attention to his speech, arguably the most famous of all
Henry VIII's public pronouncements, and most have quoted the
mumpsimus–sumpsimus idiom, with varying degrees of wry amusement.
J. J. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII, London 1968, 470–1; S. E. Lehmberg, The later parliaments
of Henry VIII 1536–1547, Cambridge 1977, 229–31; S. Brigden, London and the Reformation,
Oxford 1989, 378; G. R. Elton, England under the Tudors, 3rd edn, London 1991, 200;
C. Haigh, English reformations: religion, politics, and society under the Tudors, Oxford 1993, 164;
R. Rex, Henry VIII and the English Reformation, Basingstoke 1993, 172; MacCulloch,
Cranmer, 348; G. W. Bernard, ‘The making of religious policy, 1533–1546: Henry VIII and
the search for the middle way’, Historical Journal xli (1998), 348. Yet there has been little
attempt to explain why the king should use precisely these words to epitomise the polarisation of religious positions
in the early 1540s.
The exception here is Lehmberg, Later parliaments, 231, which notes that the phrase
was derived from a 1517 treatise by Richard Pace. As I shall show, this does not give the
complete picture. It is not always apparent from modern accounts
that the terms ‘mumpsimus’ and ‘sumpsimus’ did not represent the king's
own assay at faux-bucolic neologism, but were an established (though not
long-established) literary trope. In the following short discussion, I hope
to demonstrate how an investigation of the derivation and precedents of
the phraseology employed by Henry in his Christmas speech can throw
some revealing light on the processes by which religious typologies were
constructed and utilised in the course of the Henrician Reformation, as
well as providing some points of orientation in that most formidable of
terrae incognitae, the mind of Henry VIII himself.
For two recent stimulating, though contrasting, attempts to locate Henry's religious
centre of gravity see Bernard, ‘The making of religious policy’; D. MacCulloch, ‘Henry
VIII and the reform of the Church’, in D. MacCulloch (ed.), The reign of Henry VIII: politics,
policy and piety, Basingstoke 1995, 159–80.