Boris Johnson, St. Thomas More and Heavenly Medicine
‘The King’s good servant but God’s first’ and other saintly links to the outgoing prime minister’s life.
On July 6, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was effectively removed from office. His resignation came the following day, after 24 hours of unprecedented political intrigue.
A quick glance at Johnson’s career — or, more properly, at his multiple careers — shows a man who knows how to get to the top, and knows how to stay there. Whether in journalism or as mayor of London, or, latterly, as a scandal-hit prime minister, he appeared to defy gravity as he turned unfavorable situations around in his favor.
The 2019 British General Election is a good example of this. In the 2017 General Election, the outgoing prime minister and Tory party leader, Theresa May, threw away a slim Conservative majority, only to be forced to lead a minority government. It was a humiliating defeat that exacerbated the already-vicious parliamentary divides on Brexit and plunged the country into yet another two years of acrimonious debate and stasis. The 2019 election changed all that. The Tories won a previously-unthinkable 80-seat majority. As a result, the debates over Brexit ended: Britain would leave the European Union.
And all of this was due to one man: Boris Johnson, a man of many gifts: He is a talented writer and speaker, a shrewd editor, and, without doubt, a brilliant political campaigner on the stump. Few politicians are known by their Christian names, but today, for many, the name “Boris” signifies, in the old-fashioned sense, gaiety. Johnson’s “Boris-act” is what is known in show business as one’s “shtick,” namely, a well-honed performance. And, like any great performer, he knows his audience. During his tenure we heard little about the challenges facing the country, let alone policy solutions to them. Instead, we were left smiling at jokes and witty speeches with enough alliteration to keep a poet happy for months. Here was Boris promising nothing except that it would be all right; detailing nothing, but telling us not to worry — as, clearly, he was not worried. This raconteur, sometimes politician — if full-time showman — saw no problems where others saw them in abundance. Ultimately, this has proved his undoing.
What few media commentators mention is that the man at the center of this recent political drama is the first baptized Catholic to be prime minister of the United Kingdom. Johnson had been duly baptized into his mother’s religion. But, by all accounts, that is where his Catholicism ended. While at Eton College, Johnson was confirmed in the Anglican Communion. Subsequently, Johnson has spoken little of his religious beliefs. His voting record while a member of parliament showed no obvious Christian influences. Johnson is pro-abortion and vocal in his support for same-sex “marriage.” He has advocated changes to the law to allow euthanasia. He describes himself as a “liberal conservative,” but his detractors say his whole political philosophy has been charted according to one star only — his own.
Yet, curiously, important dates in Johnson’s rise to — and now fall from — power have also been those of saints and intercessors.
The greatest political challenge for Johnson, prior to his becoming prime minister, was in 2008, when he ran for mayor of London. The mayoral election was held on May 1. By late the next evening (May 2), as the vote counting concluded, it was clear that Johnson had pulled off a major coup in what for many was seen as too liberal a city for a conservative ever to win. In the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, May 2 is the feast day of the former ruler of Bulgaria, Boris I, whose death occurred in 907.
More than a decade later, Johnson was elected Conservative leader and prime minister on July 23, 2019. That date happens to be the feast of St. Bridget of Sweden, patroness of Europe. To some extent, it could be argued that, politically, things did begin to move forward once Johnson had taken up leadership of the Conservative Party. From that date, the logjam of Brexit, both at Westminster and Brussels, slowly began to ease.
But there is yet another St. Boris, a Russian prince. His feast day is July 24. That is also the day when Johnson actually took office as leader of the Conservative Party and as prime minister of the United Kingdom. Maybe that saint’s day is not such a good omen for Johnson, however, as it was on that day in 1015 when this St. Boris received the crown of martyrdom.
In 2019, a British general election was called, to be held on Dec. 12 — the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas (where Johnson was born) and patroness of the unborn. On that day, Johnson won a stunning election victory that meant Brexit was now definitely going ahead.
Becoming prime minister was momentous for Johnson, but something equally momentous, if more mysterious, happened while he was in office.
Johnson married Carrie Symonds in a Catholic ceremony at Westminster Cathedral on May 29, 2021. The previous year, the couple’s son, Wilfred, had been baptized Catholic, prompting suggestions that Johnson had returned to Catholicism. He had been married twice previously, but these marriages were deemed to be invalid by reason of lack of canonical form. And so he was free to marry in the Church. Now, for the first time in his life, Johnson was sacramentally married, living with his Catholic spouse and children.
Removed from office in a political coup, Johnson is Britain’s first Catholic prime minister; centuries earlier, in 1688, the last Catholic king of these islands, King James II, was removed from office by a Protestant coup d'état. That monarch fought to regain his throne, but that military campaign ended in failure and humiliation. He retreated to France. There, the Stuart king was transformed into a devout Catholic whose last days were spent in prayer and penance. The loss of his throne proved to be the means by which the scales fell from his eyes. From then on, he saw the true crown he must strive for.
Is it too much to hope that Johnson’s rapid fall from political grace may be the means by which he, like King James, is forced to examine the workings of an altogether different grace in his life?
It does seem that dates and saints appear to have run strangely parallel to Johnson’s political career. It seems to continue. The day on which Johnson’s premiership effectively crumbled, as his cabinet deserted him, leaving him prime minister in name only, was July 6. It is the day on which St. Thomas More, patron saint of politicians, was martyred at Tower Hill, a few miles downriver from the Palace of Westminster. More reminds us all too well that it is better to be faithful to the True King than to solely serve any earthly one. Perhaps, this morning, that sentiment is not lost on the incumbent of No. 10?
As St. Thomas More wrote: “Every tribulation which ever comes our way either is sent to be medicinal, if we will take it as such, or may become medicinal, if we will make it such, or is better than medicinal, unless we forsake it.”