• The story of Friars Peto and Elstow of the Observant Franciscans of Greenwich England in 1533.Henry VIII was so impressed bythe Observant Friars that he wrote to Pope Leo X (1513-21) that he could not sufficiently commend their strict adherence to poverty, their sincerity, charity and devotion - that no Order battled more assiduously against vice, and none were more active in keeping Christ's fold. But that was in 1513, now in 1533 he was still without a male heir after nearly 24 years of marriage to his Queen , Catherine of Aragon. Pope Clement VII could not accede to Henry's petition for an Annulment of his valid marriage. In 1529 Henry had dismissed Cardinal Wolsey as Lord Chancellor for his "failure" to secure an Annulment. Henry was eager to marry Anne Boleyn.
Having compelled an English Bishop to "grant" a purported Annulment, Henry bigamously went through the form of marriage with Anne Boleyn on 25th January, 1533. He was then excommunicated by Pope Clement VII (1523-34). The Observant Friars' Convent, built by Henry's father, Henry VII, adjoined the Royal Palace at Greenwich. Its Chapel was used for Royal Baptisms
Henry VIII had supported the Friars moderately over the years, and Friar Forrest was the Queen's Chaplain.In 1533 the "Great Question"was initially the validity of the King's true marriage. Now, especially given the popular affection for Queen Catherine, the Great Public Issue became forcing acceptance of the Boleyn "marriage".
The Friars of Greenwich constantly and powerfully, in their preaching and conversation publicly defended the validity of the King's true marriage. On what seems to have been Sunday 11th May, 1533 the King himself assisted at Mass when Friar Peto "a man of good house and family"was the preacher. He vigorously and in detail defended the King's true marriage to his face. Bravery indeed! The King, "being thus reproved, endured it patiently and did no violence to Peto."(Stow) The following Sunday,the 18th, the King arranged for a Dr. Curwin( the name may have been Coren) to preach. Curwin was aware Peto was away, and launched into a scathing personal attack on him, as well as defending the Boleyn "marriage". Henry must have thought he had been suitably avenged when Curwen's peroration seared the air!
Curwin cried out:"I speak to thee, Peto, who makest thyself Micheas, that thou mayest speak evil of Kings, but now thou art not to be found, being fled for fear and shame, as being unable to answer my arguments." Knowing Friar Peto had to be absent, he no doubt thought he could get away with it, winning the King's gratitude. WRONG!! Alas for Curwen, Friar Elstow in the Rood Loft had heard it all . .
He leant over the Rood outraged by this cowardly attack and "he waxed hot, and spake very earnestly, so that they could not make him cease his speech until the King himself bade him hold his peace."(Harpsfield) As he leant over the Rood, Friar Elstow called: "Good Sir, you know that Father Peto , as he was commanded, is now gone to a Provincial Council held at Canterbury, and not fled from fear of you, for to-morrow he will return again." Friar Elstow continued:"In the meantime I am here as another Micheas, and will lay down my life to prove all those things true which he hath taught out of holy scripture. And, to this combat I challenge you before God and all equal judges. Even unto thee, Curwin, I speak who art one of the four hundred prophets into whom the spirit of lying is entered, and seekest by adultery to establish succession"....
... betraying the King unto endless perdition, more for thy own vain glory and hope of promotion than for discharge of your clogged conscience and the King's salvation.""Great Harry" was not used to this! One can only imagine the alarm and anxiety in the Chapel!!Trying to come out on top, Henry had secured for himself a second humiliation. He resolved to risk no more. On Monday , by the King's direction, Friars Peto and Elstow were brought before the Privy Council. They stood their ground despite hectoring and bullying threats from members of the Council. The Earl of Essex told them that they deserved to be put into a sack and cast into the Thames! Friar Elstow gently and with a smile made his response:.....
.."Threaten these things to rich and dainty folk who are clothed in purple, fare delicately, and have their chiefest hope in this world, for we esteem them not, but are joyful that for the discharge of our duties we are driven hence. With thanks to God we know the way to heaven, to be as ready by water as by land, and, therefore, we care not which way we go."(Stow)
As it happens, it seems both escaped the death penalty, but were reprimanded and exiled from England. It is not necessary to die to be truly a heroic priest and Friars Peto and Elstow are among the most heroic. They faced down the the willful choleric Royal tyrant to the last. Perhaps Henry's guilty conscience saved their lives. Many others would not be so lucky.
• Fourteen years later, his mind deteriorating into syphillitic rages and his once handsome athletic body bloated and long vitually immobile, having plundered , decimated and corrupted Christ's Church in his realm, King Henry VIII like so many of his wives before him, went to meet the King of Kings.