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Mumpsimus and Sumpsimus: The Intellectual Origins of a Henrician Bon Mot


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 and charity. 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.

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The Journal of Ecclesiastical History
  • ISSN: 0022-0469
  • EISSN: 1469-7637
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-ecclesiastical-history
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