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Book Review: Henry VIII

Keeping Up With The Tudors

Henry VIII

by David Loades

Amberley Publishing, 2011

J. Scarisbrick’s 1968 biography of Henry VIII casts every bit as imposing a shadow over Tudor studies as its subject did over the Tudor world, a fact veteran Tudor historian David Loades sees fit to acknowledge immediately in his current biography of England’s most notorious monarch. He escapes a charge of superfluity by stressing ideological shifts; Scarisbrick’s lengthy concentration on doctrinal hair-splitting, for instance, is eschewed in favor of battles and bedrooms, and Scarisbrick’s fascination with the diplomatic machinations of such serpentine creatures as Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell is sidelined in favor of a more detailed exhumation of who did what to whom. That Loades also eschews Scarisbrick’s at times suffocatingly gelid prose in favor of an entirely lustier and more readable line our present biographer is perhaps too much of a gentleman to point out.

The principal who did what to whom is, of course, the sharp schism of Henry’s reign, his break with both his lawful wife Catherine and the Church. Loades convincingly characterizes it as the beginning of all serious thinking about Henry’s life and times:

He quarrelled with his wife, took mistresses and begat a bastard, waged unsuccessful war and tried to extract money from his subjects by underhand means, but none of this was allowed to affect his chivalric image, which by 1527 had become seriously detached from reality. However, what challenged his self-conceit fundamentally was his ‘Great Matter’ – his desire to rid himself of Catherine of Aragon. Once he was locked into that struggle he could no longer expect a consensus of flattery to follow his every move, and the historiography of his reign can truly be said to begin.

Loades has written sixteen books on the Tudors, a feat so astounding you almost have to read the line ‘Loades has written sixteen books on the Tudors’ a second time, slowly, aloud, in fearful tribute. The most amazing thing about this feat is how memorably good so many of those books are – this is not some Wikipedia hack with a quick-file of National Archive entries. The Tudor Queens, The Fighting Tudors, and The Making of the Tudor Navy, among many others, are monographs of genuine strength and spirit, and even the inevitable The Tudors for Dummies (out of almost prurient interest, I peeked at it) is more than simply a mortgage payment. Loades’ approach is scrupulously scholarly – he’s a master of the aforementioned archives – but there’s always more than simple fact-amassing going on here. Henry VIII (one hesitates to call it a lifetime masterpiece, since this particular author might very well top it, possibly tomorrow) is a very vigorous example of this: on virtually every page, in addition to carefully-presented dates an figures, there’s also some happy insight to make even those familiar with the period smile and nod. When Loades is writing, for example, about the arrest in 1546 of the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Surrey, he makes a comment about the conniving Privy Council that’s both apt and authoritative:

They were dangerous to Edward, not to Henry, but with the King on the cusp of death, it is not surprising that their enemies decided to strike while his will was still effective. They suspected that a threat to his heir would be taken more seriously by the King than any challenge to himself, and in that they were quite correct.

A pall sometimes falls over Henry biographers, a stitch in the side of runners who are forced to keep company with this oddly compelling, oddly repulsive man for any length of time. Francis Hackett famously ended up hating ‘bluff King Hal’ the proto-fascist, and Loades, for all his deliberation and bonhomie, is not immune. Even a third of the way into his book, he’s informing us in silken asides that Henry’s “gallantry was always more apparent in words than in deeds.” By 1541, we’re told, Henry “may not be able to joust any longer, to play tennis or to make love, but he could still hunt, and make war” – and a 21st Century audience is clearly trusted to see a life without tennis and lovemaking for the barren wasteland it is.

In a way, the pall cast over Loades may be worse than open hostility – certainly worse, from Henry’s point of view. Our biographer comes closer than any writer in a century to calling Great Harry the most horrible thing you can call a prince: unimportant:

Today, Henry’s political legacy seems remote. The Church of England is still by law established, but that no longer matters to the great majority of Englishmen, and many Church leaders themselves favour disestablishment. Parliament traces its ascendancy to the Glorious Revolution of 1689 rather than to the Act in Restraint of Appeals, and the Privy Council is a formal body with no role in day-by-day government. Even the navy thinks of Samuel Pepys as its founder rather than Henry VIII.

Much as some readers will appreciate the nod to Pepys (he worked really hard, after all, and for scant thanks), this is sobering stuff. Loades makes scathingly light reference to the current Tudor-craze in popular entertainment, but his estimate of Henry VIII’s ultimate significance is often even fainter praise. Froude, Toynbee, and, yes, Scarisbrick would hardly have known what to make of this:

In the last analysis, however, much of his lasting achievement was intangible. By punching above his weight in European diplomacy, he gave his countrymen that ‘good conceit’ of themselves which emerged which emerged in the successes of the Elizabethan ‘sea dogs’ and merchants.

The great and mighty Henry VIII reduced to a cheerleader for Martin Frobisher? “How wretched/Is that poor man, that hangs on Princes’ favours?” a fallen Wolsey asks in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, and granted, we live in down-cutting times. But even so!