Q&A with Henry Ansgar Kelly

Henry Ansgar Kelly is the author of Criminal-Inquisitorial Trials in English Church Courts and he is a Distinguioshed Research Professor at UCLA. Kelly is also a former recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the author of seventeen books.

Q: You’ve written about a range of topics across your academic career. What drew you to canon law more broadly, and then specifically, the issues covered in this volume?

A: The simple answer is the axiom, “One thing leads to another.” It began when I was at Harvard back in the 1960s doing my PhD dissertation on Shakespeare’s History Plays (you’ll notice that I’m an English professor at UCLA, not in law or history). I saw that there had been a controversy over whether the real Richard III could have been dispensed to marry his niece, Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth, and I filed it away for future research. Being a Jesuit seminarian, I went on to study canon law at nearby Weston School of Theology, but I still had access to the medieval canon-law collections in Harvard’s Law School and Divinity School, since I stayed on at Harvard as a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows. My research on kinship-laws led to my book on Henry VIII’s Matrimonial Trials. I was surprised to learn that Henry’s annulment trials—for instance the 1529 Legatine Trial pictured on the cover of my book—were criminal trials, with both Henry and Catherine of Aragon, or Henry and Anne Boleyn, as defendants. And the trials were inquisitions, subject to the same rules of due process as heresy inquisitions. The same was true of other trials brought by bishops in their busy courts: accusing persons of adultery, or marrying in secret, or not paying tithes, or corruption, or theft, or even murder, in addition to heresy or doctrinal deviations. This was something even historians didn’t know, and still don’t. I’ve set forth my position (the “unified field theory of Church trials”) in articles over the years, with limited impact—even when collected in a book, Inquisitions and Other Trial Procedures, which came out in 2001. Then, some years ago, my fellow canonist-historian, Richard Helmholz, of the University of Chicago School of Law, suggested that I bring it all together in a book. It turned out to be more comprehensive than either of us thought it would be. The book would be bigger, however, if I had covered all of Europe. But I limited it to England, because English prelates followed the rules of due process better than was done on the Continent, even at the papal court. These rules were set forth at the Fourth Lateran Council in Rome in 1215, in a decree that I call the Church’s Magna Carta: bishops can charge only public suspects, and must allow them to defend themselves. But heresy inquisitors in France and elsewhere starting violating the rules, coercing suspects into confessing before charging them. That was like our notorious “third degree,” rubber hoses and all, before Miranda rights were put in place. That’s how “inquisition,” or “The Inquisition,” got its bad name. I’m trying to rehabilitate inquisition as a procedure as good as, or even better than, the English and American jury system. In the Conclusion of the book, I try to get Sir John Baker, the great authority on English Common Law, to see the light about inquisitorial procedure, by explaining that his published objections to it don’t hold water.

Q: Do you see this book strictly for legal studies or is there a broader audience that you hope will be drawn to the book, and what do you hope they get out of reading it?

A: By showing what happens in individual trials of all sorts, the book covers a great deal of social and ecclesiastical and political history. For instance, it gives backgrounds to Chaucer’s satires about the sexual and other delinquencies of the clergy and laity. And also the competing or complementary jurisdictions of bishops and archdeacons in their roles of moral policing. It deals with the kingdom-wide prosecution of the Knights Templar and the subject of judicial torture. It explores witchcraft accusations and practices. And, of course, it covers minor and major religious prosecutions, from Margery Kempe to Anne Askew, with Wycliffites in between. It also explains the methods of dealing with clergy convicted of crimes in the secular courts. At the time that the Lutheran Reformation hits England, Thomas More gets a whole chapter to himself, and his recent demotion from a “man for all seasons” to a persecuting fanatic is carefully examined (verdict: not guilty). Archbishop Thomas Cranmer first appears as the inquisitorial judge annulling Henry VIII’s marriages, then sitting in judgment on other bishops, and finally being judged himself when Queen Mary takes over. In her sister Elizabeth’s regime, there continue to be religious as well as legal tensions, and an insistence on the canon law of the Fourth Lateran. Throughout the book, we see constant pressure to disregard individual rights for the “greater good” of doctrine (as the judge sees it). But whatever abuses occur they don’t rise to the level of the Spanish Inquisition and the Roman Inquisition. Defendants in English Church trials usually receive a fair trial.

Q: Was there anything that surprised you during the research for this book?

A: I am constantly surprised, and delighted, at what unexploited material can be found, or often re-found, in archives or older publications. This is especially true of the generally unexploited resources of medieval canon law, which can illuminate all aspects of society.

Q: What is the most interesting thing to you about this book?

A: That I was able to pull it off, being now in my 90th year. In fact, it’s the largest of my 15-odd single-authored books, and in some ways the most ambitious. Gratias Deo, I’m still at it; I’ve just drafted out another book, What Happened in the Trial and Retrial of Joan of Arc. I did, however, also decide to write my obituary, to save my wife and kids the trouble. But I set the due date ten years from now—which, of course, is subject to revision.

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