Wednesday, July 9, 2014

King Henry VIII's Bloody Legacy in Toronto

UK TOUR DAY SIX (THE RHONDDA VALLEY) — Today, I ventured up into the South Wales Valleys. There's a lot of history up here. The Rhondda is the valley made famous by How Green Was My Valley — right smack dab in the middle of the South Wales coalfield; this was the very heart of the world's coal mining industry during the 1800s.

But the history of this place stretches back much further than that. Today, I visited this statue by a spring on a towering hill near the village of Penrhys, looking out over the valley. Once upon a time, this was one of the most holy spots in all of Wales. It's called Ffynnon Fair (St. Mary's Well). For hundreds of years, people came here to bathe in the water of the holy well, which was said to have magical healing powers. It's so old, in fact, that no one is quite sure when it all started: the tradition may very well stretch back all the way to the pagan days of the Druids. What we know for sure is that by the time the 1400s rolled around, there was a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary standing on this spot. They say it appeared miraculously in the branches of a nearby oak tree. At first, no one could move it, no matter how hard they tried — not until a shrine and a chapel had been built here. The site became one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in the whole of Wales; Catholics traveled "across land and sea" to visit the statue and heal themselves in the holy water. The greatest Welsh bards all wrote poems in praise of it.

But that all came to an abrupt end in 1538 thanks to history's most famously horny monarch: King Henry VIII. As the famous story goes, Henry wanted a divorce so he could shag Anne Boleyn. The Pope wouldn't give him one, so Henry seized the opportunity to split from Rome and declare himself the head of the church in England. He seized church lands, destroyed monasteries and forced his entire empire to become Protestant. That included super-Catholic Wales, famous for their devotion to the Virgin Mary.

During his crackdown on the Catholic church, Henry targeted six particularly important holy sites in Wales. This was one of them. The King's enforcer, Thomas Cromwell, demanded that the shrine be destroyed. The statue of Mary was torn down, shipped to London, and burned. The site was shut down. Even decades later, when pilgrims tried to visit the well, they were arrested. The stone statue that stands here now wasn't erected to honour the original until the 1950s.

King Henry's split from Rome became one of the most remarkable events in the entire history of the Western world. The religious violence he unleashed has raged on and off for hundreds of years. The repercussions are still being felt today, nearly five centuries later. And there are few cities outside the British Isles where those repercussions were felt more than they were in Toronto.

King Henry VIII in the National Museum, Wales
Our city was founded in the wake of the American Revolution by the super-British Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe. His original vision was for something of a British utopia on the northern shore of Lake Ontario — Toronto would be more British than Britain itself. The city, he hoped, would not only be deeply loyal to the Crown, but also to the Church of England. And so, we were meant to inherit the religious hatred that King Henry had turned into official British policy. There was supposed to be even less religious diversity here than back home. Take, for instance, weddings: for the first few decades of Toronto's history, Anglican ministers were the only priests allowed to perform marriages ceremonies. Catholics, in particular, were blatantly discriminated against — a direct result of Henry's lustful actions hundreds of years earlier. It got so bad that when Irish Catholic refugees flooded into the city during the Great Famine of the mid-1800s, many civic officials in Toronto initially refused to help them. The Catholics were dismissed as "papists" unworthy of our concern. In the decades that followed, bloody riots between Protestants and Catholics became a regular feature of life in Toronto. There were dozens of them. In fact, our streets erupted into sectarian violence so often that we earned a reputation as "the Belfast of North America."

Toronto's anti-Catholic discrimination continued well into the 1900s. The super-Protestant, Catholic-hating Orange Order had a stranglehold on positions of power in the city. At late as the 1950s, the Mayor of Toronto was Leslie Saunders: a Deputy Master of the Orange Lodge who declared that Toronto was a "Protestant city" and used official Toronto letterhead to compare the historical defeat of Catholics in Ireland to the defeat of Nazis and Fascists in Europe.

Thankfully, by then, the tide was finally beginning to turn. In the 1954 election, Toronto dumped Saunders in favour of the Jewish Nathan Phillips. There hasn't been an Orangeman ruling City Hall since the 1970s. But even to this day, no one born as a Catholic has EVER been elected as Mayor of Toronto.

And it all started in places like this, on a sacred hillside in the South Wales Valleys.

The well itself
The holy spring
The view from the hillside toward Tonypandy
The view from the hillside toward Ystrad


Read more posts about The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour and the connections between the history of Toronto and the United Kingdom here. I'll be posting lots more during the trip! And you can follow me on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook too.

 Jamie Bradburn has the story of the Saunders vs. Phillips election battle on Torontoist here

I first learned about the statue and holy site thanks to the excellent documentary series, The Story of Wales. You can watch a bit about the site and Wales that time starting at the 18:10 mark of the YouTube video here. Learn about the pilgrims who still visit the site today here. And about the restoration of the shrine here. There's a little bit more about it thanks to Google books here.


  1. As always, awesome article! Can you recommend any literature on the topic of Lieutenant Governor Simcoe and his British Utopian ideas?

    1. Thanks! I wrote a post about his vision for Toronto here:

      Book-wise, there's also Mary Beacock Fryer's Simcoe biography, which is a very detailed account of his life, including his love of Britain.