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When You See Me, You Know Me

By (January 1, 2008) No Comment

They captivate our imagination, and they cultivate our multi-media screens—and so for the year 2008 Steve Donoghue will encompass their comings and goings, their makings and unmakings. Open Letters presents the first installment of Steve Donoghue’s Year with the Tudors.

Henry VIII: Court, Church, and Conflict

By David Loades
National Archives, 2007

More than any other British monarch, he tends to make his biographers hate him. The ones who can resist must either be pitied for their blindness or cherished for their judgement.

Oh, they don’t start off hating him in any case. They dig into the royal records, into the expense-rolls and wardrobe-accounts and letters and journals, and they do so at first in the same glow of innocent optimism that gripped all of Europe in 1520, when the otherwise worldly Lord Mountjoy wrote to his friend the great Dutch humanist Erasmus, breathlessly describing a brave new world, and a prince who seemed to embody all that was best in the burgeoning Renaissance: “All is new here and everything is full of promise.” Despite his international renown, Erasmus was basically an itinerant intellectual-for-hire, always in search of the security that could only come from landing a rich and understanding patron. This virtuous new prince of the English, this shining young man versed in all the humanist’s arts looked to be the ideal made flesh, and Erasmus’ fellow humanists in England urged him to come over and make his home at court.  

Something contrary tickled Erasmus’ hyper-sensitive antennae, and he declined the invitation to this Elysium. But biographers for the last 400 years have been less chary. They toil under the tight-fisted parsimony of Henry VII, surely not the subject of epics, and then they resign themselves to the bland, virginal auspices of Henry VIII’s older brother Arthur, who would have had his country conquered by France in about five weeks, except he died. It’s at that point biographers finally grind their heels on the real meat of their matter, the resplendent Henry VIII.

At first, there is everything in the world to recommend him, and that magic infallibility ensnares biographers. He was young and handsome and precociously learned and hugely athletic. He was personable and graceful and actually, quotably funny, and not incidentally he had the open-handed disposal of the immense treasury his squint-eyed father had so painstakingly amassed. Dawn broke in England and draped itself in cloth of gold, and nobody augured anything in the ruthlessness with which the young prince brutalized his opponents on the tilting yard. The fallen were dragged feet-first to various healing-houses, and the smiling prince quoted something telling and went on about his day. Erasmus kept his distance, but hardly anybody else did, including ensuing centuries of biographers.

We can’t blame them, really: he’s the greatest king England’s ever had, whether he deserves it or not. In the West his round face and lightning-bolt form are the quick-reference touchstone for ‘monarchy,’ and they always have been (even as early as 1613, Sam Rowley could title a play about him simply When You See Me, You Know Me). In promise, in profligacy, in the perverse power of his own image, he excels all his kingly company, even his own mighty daughter, who gave her name to an age in a more definitive way than he ever did. Fool though he was in some things, idiot that he was in others, monster that he was in still others, he represents the pinnacle of all that monarchy as a governing concept can ever hope or fear to be. Here the absolute feudal monarch of the Middle Ages combines with the constitutional monarch of the present day; a man who has councils and hears their learned input, but who overrides them whenever it suits him. He is now as he was in his own day: a pig-headed avalanche, with all of Europe waiting on his next act and three separate countries as his private playing-field.

Despite how they flock, this is daunting territory for the biographer, and there is a pitiless compunction laid on any who would undertake the task: what can you add? What more can you say?

There’s been an insignificant antscrawl of new documents or inscriptions: that can never be the reason for presenting new life of Henry VIII to the reading public, nor is that David Loades’ purpose in writing the latest Henry biography, Henry VIII: Court, Church, and Conflict. No, Loades, Professor Emeritus at the University of Wales, offers no fiery revisionist tract here, just a thoroughly foundationed overview of the reign and times. A successor to G.W. Bernard’s massive and intensely thought-provoking book The King’s Reformation (in which the king, free of councilors, ministers, and advisers, is urged as the sole architect of the Protestant Reformation) is not attempted here, nor are the bitter psychological reconstructions of Francis Hackett’s The Personal Life of Henry VIII. J.J. Scarisbrick’s 1968 biography is given the rote genuflection it’s received from all and sundry for the past fifty years (those of us who’ve always thought it overrated might take a moment of pleasure as Loades gently rebukes the great volume, saying with patently insincere sadness that it’s a pity the 2000 edition of the work didn’t take advantage of interim advances in scholarship), but no attempt at anything like its extensive oversweep of sources is made. And it need hardly be pointed out that there is no hint here of the magnificent prose found in A.J. Froude’s 1908 biography – it can legitimately be wondered what the modern reading public would even do if it encountered magnificent prose…flee screaming from it, as from a many-tentacled alien?

Henry VIII blustered and thundered, and several of his writers have succumbed to the same indulgence (Rowley’s book is full of cannon-fire, and Froude’s account rolls with a thunder its subject would have enjoyed privately, right before he had the man very publicly executed); it is to be assumed that Loades in his great experience has consciously decided against flamework of any kind. He has free and able access to the National Archives and all the riches therein, and he lays those riches – and the skimmings from all the latest things he’s read on the subject – before the general reader in clear, accessible prose. He has been explicating Tudor history so long and so patiently that perhaps he has forsaken passion when it comes to his subject, but whatever the reason for that passion’s absence, the general reader will be glad of it: this is a book that is useful and wants to be used.

In this respect he’s well served by his entrée with the National Trust: at every major point in his story, there’s a well-chosen and fully-quoted document reproduced from the official records. Other Henry biographers, in a hurry to tell their readers how they themselves construe such documents, quote from them sparingly, in snippets, or only through paraphrase. Loades’ full quotations, combined with his approachable, workaday prose, give readers a very pleasant sense of immediacy, of watching the old events unfold anew before them.

All those events are recounted here as any reader of a Henry VIII biography would expect: the glowing youth, the long and increasingly frustrating marriage to Catharine of Aragon, who was daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain and aunt to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (the marriage failed to produce the male heir Henry so desperately wanted – both for dynastic reasons and to absolve himself of the guilt he felt over marrying Catherine in the first place, who’d been married to his older brother Arthur before she came to him), his break with the Roman Catholic Church over his right to remarry (although revisionists like Bernard would claim it was over fiery religious conviction) (and old-guard Tudor scholars like Geoffrey Elton would maintain that Henry was little better than a tool used by one political operative or other, be it Thomas More or Cardinal Wolsey or Elton’s own candidate, Thomas Cromwell), his seizures of Church land and property, his elimination of most of the old-guard nobility and establishment of most of the new, loyal to him and to their own preservation, his foreign wars and domestic persecutions, his increasing tyrannies and of course the marriages, the gaudy total of all those marriages.

The first was to Catherine, that blameless widow of Arthur’s who worshiped Henry and bore him a healthy daughter. The second was to the worldly-wise seductress Anne Boleyn, whose sexual spell prompted Henry to break not only with his oldest friends but with the rest of the religious world itself – she demanded no less, and he, like so many young men before and after him, was willing, in his thrall, to give her anything. She fell, which is rare but which can happen if a woman fails to produce a male heir (in this case she only produced Elizabeth, the greatest queen of that or any other era, but such a thing wouldn’t have signified in Henry’s day). The third was Jane Seymour, about whom Loades keeps as clear a view as any ruthless Tudor statesman:

What was important about her [Jane Seymour] was that she was neither a French nor an Imperial princess, and the king’s third marriage, it soon transpired, was not going to lead to any rethinking of the schism. This was important, because it was widely assumed, not least by Pope Paul III, that the rejection and death of Anne would lead to a new direction in English policy. He even put out feelers, indicating a willingness to lift sanctions in return for a formal submission. Henry was not interested. The royal supremacy was now an integral part of his prerogative, and was not negotiable.

As readers have been warned, they are in no danger of running into gorgeous prose. Even so, the passage ably displays both the strengths and weaknesses of Loades’ book. The strengths are obvious: a friendly, even jocular tone, a full command of the facts and relevant documents, and a quick-footed awareness of political realities. The weaknesses, alas, are equally obvious: an unfortunate penchant for cliché, a popularizer’s tendency to oversimplify, and a lifelong partisan’s grab-bag of peculiar phrasings (foremost of which is Loades’ stubborn, mistaken use of the word ‘schism’ – for those of you who may be unclear on the matter, ‘schism’ is a technical term for a split in the church between two heads of the church; England alone, Loades’ melodrama notwithstanding, doesn’t enter into it one way or the other). The reader of such good stuff is immediately aware first that they are in good hands and second that they must tread a bit warily even so.

He moves on from Jane Seymour (about whom Loades somewhat indelicately maintains was “proven breeding-stock”) in good order: plain little Anne of Cleves is next, a woman he has the decency to refer to as innocent but not stupid – although either quality would have guaranteed Henry would put her aside, as he promptly did. His next wife, Catherine Howard, Loades tells us, “was nothing if not sexually exciting, and just the tonic Henry needed.” But it was never good policy for Tudors to bring Howards anywhere near the heart of power, and Catherine ended up beheaded on Tower Green on a charge of adultery. Witnesses said her defection and death shook the no-longer-young king as nothing had in a long time.

  Of Henry’s last and in some ways most remarkable wife, Katherine Parr, Loades has little of interest to say – not through any fault of his own, but because the lady strove to be uninteresting, and who can blame her? Uninteresting wives got quietly put aside and pensioned off; interesting ones met far more abrupt ends. Besides, as Loades puts it, Katherine was a benign presence and, remarkably, thoroughly devoted to Henry. It’s the irony of Henry’s much-storied love life: at its end, when he was too old, too unhealthy, and too jaded to enjoy it fully, he found the wife he’d been searching for so brutally all through the years, a woman as intelligent as he was but with no schemes or grandnesses to prick his vanity. She was his helpmeet in the final years of his life, and she watched with dismay as the waiting wolves among the nobility (including her own brothers) rushed in when the lion breathed his last.

Although such oversized personal drama will always want to dominate any account of Henry’s life and reign, it’s kept in fairly even balance by Loades, who devotes equal time to the many other fascinating aspects of Henry’s reign, which stands athwart the most important cultural and sociological disruptions in modern history. The break with the Church is given its full due (in asserting that the mainspring of this break was Henry himself, Loades basically agrees with Bernard, but he’s much more agreeably circumspect about it), as is the subject of Henry’s wars in France. In fact, Loades groups his material this way (as opposed to the wearying method most modern biographers use, of grouping the material around the wives), with chapter headings like “The King’s Enemies,” or “The King’s Laws.” There’s throughout a very refreshing sense of the reign being taken as a whole.

Even in so amiable a book, there are occasional flaws. In a note on the singularity of Elizabeth’s rule, for instance, he strikes a bizarrely grudging tone encountered elsewhere in modern writing on royalty:

The precedent of Matilda in the 12th century, which is sometimes quoted, is not really relevant, because although she claimed the throne and held power for a short time, she was never generally accepted – nor crowned.

The stark, unholy significance being given to that one half-hour ceremony! Matilda may not have been crowned, but she wore a crown, and she may not have been ‘generally accepted’ but then, that distinction was hardly enjoyed by any monarch, medieval or Tudor. And she didn’t just ‘claim’ the throne, she assumed it, from her father the King. It hardly diminishes the glamour of Elizabeth I to admit a precedent.

And it’s that ‘generally accepted’ that opens the door for another curious misstep on Loades’ part, on the subject of Ireland. In the book’s best chapter, “The King’s Other Island,” the tangled question of Tudor Ireland is expertly tackled. At one point Loades mentions that in 1520 Henry sent Thomas Howard, the Earl of Surrey, to be chief governor of Ireland, and then there’s this odd passage:

The earl was insistent that only a military conquest could subdue even the Anglo-Irish lords, let alone the ‘wild Irish’, but Henry was unconvinced, looking instead for a process of more or less peaceful pressure. This soon became a fundamental disagreement, because the traditional English attitude toward the Irish was that they were a subject people, who could be expropriated at will. This was, by and large, the position Surrey adopted, but the King and Wolsey favored instead an attempt to win over the Irish chieftains, which, ironically, was much closer to the practice of the Anglo-Irish peers. Not for the last time, the English government became bogged down in the contradictions and illogicalities of Irish politics.

Ah yes, those crazy, illogical Irish! This isn’t, Loades long-sufferingly points out, the last time their wacky antics would impede the straightforward, logical forward march of English imperialism. It seems not to occur to Loades – as indeed it seems not to have occurred to the English of Henry’s day or any other – that there exists a quick remedy to this situation: get your fat, grabby English hands out of the illogical country you conquered, subjugated, and occupied – presto! No more contradictions!

But such peccadilloes are minor smudges on a work as friendly and recommendable as this one. It’s Loades’ archive-oriented approach that makes the book stand out; for instance, in Scarisbrick’s book, fourteen pages are devoted to the subject of Henry’s will, whereas in Loades it’s three pages – but then we get to read the will. The effect is liberating, and it can be found throughout Henry VIII: Church, Court, and Conflict. Indeed, Loades rests his justification for writing the book squarely on the documentation behind it:

And yet he [Henry VIII] was the first English king for whom the evidence survives to enable a convincing reconstruction of the interaction of power and personality to be made. For that reason alone he deserves to remain a subject of enduring fascination.

An assertion that would confuse scholars of, say, Henry II, but no matter: the VIIIth would have preened at that ‘enduring fascination.’

Steve Donoghue’s first literary endeavor, an English translation of the Bible, was imperiled when Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas More issued his proclamation against vernacular Scriptures. Although Donoghue completed the work, he did not attempt its publication, and soon thereafter turned to writing history and scholastic criticism. Today he hosts the literature blog Stevereads.