Mar 302009

Dr David Starkey has opened his trap about the injustice done to poor Henry VIII by the concentration of modern female historians on his wives, to the exclusion of his powerful accomplishments in the realm of politics and religion.

But he warned that the “soap opera” of Henry’s personal life should come second to the political consequences of his rule, such as the Reformation and the break with Rome.

Dr Starkey went further, by saying that modern attempts to paint many women in history as “power players” was to falsify the facts.

Many years ago, when I still taught history, I used to tell my students that almost everything that ‘power players’ did was motivated by money, power, or land. With Henry VIII, it tended to be all three, although as in a sense they’re more or less three sides of the same coin, this is not particularly noteworthy.

In fact, very little of what Henry VIII did is particularly noteworth – and the break with Rome is not one of those things. The English Church, under the direction of the monarch, had broken with Rome already on a number of occasions. The refusal of William II to fill vacant bishoprics (so that the Crown could continue to collect their revenues) resulted in the exile of the Archbishop of Canterbury and William’s excommunication; Henry II’s spat with Thomas Becket meant that half of the priestly class of England joined Becket in exile and, of course, Henry was excommunicated; John’s stubbornness about Stephen Langton mean that the poor archbish couldn’t even get into England, let alone go into exile, and John’s excommunication and the subsequent Interdict laid on the nation lasted for some years. During all of these periods, the monarch and people of England were ‘broken’ from Rome, and in the case of John, many of the people even supported his position. Henry VIII’s quarrel with Rome rather pales in comparison, and the basis of his break was neither theological nor procedural: he wanted the Church’s revenues, and he wanted to be ultimate court of appeal on both religious and civil matters. The 39 Articles were hardly un-Catholic, and most of what he incorporated from Luther’s theological protest was later adopted by the Catholic Church during the Counter-Reformation anyway. The true Reformation in England happened after Henry VIII’s death, under his son Edward VI and his second daughter Elizabeth I.

What is significant about Henry VIII is that, as part of his megalomania, he rode roughshod over the constitution of England and the traditional liberties of its people as enshrined in Magna Carta. His show trials rivalled Stalin’s and his prosecution of people under treason laws for slights against his amour propre made a mockery of justice. His execution of the Duke of Buckingham for no other crime than being a rival prince of the blood, and his subsequent seizure of the Duke’s ancestral lands (ever wondered about Buckingham Palace?), whilst nevertheless moaning on and on about the sanctity of his conscience, show him to have been a despot and tyrant of the highest order.

Even these dubious accomplishments, however, are not unique to Henry VIII; his father did the same thing.

What is unique about Henry VIII is that he alone of all English monarchs, including the wicked John, the inept Edward II, and the evil-uncle Richard III, beheaded his wives. Everything else he did falls, if you will, into the ordinary realms of monarchical naughtiness. Grasping, greedy, power-hungry – well, fair enough. But double uxoricide? That, my friends, was unprecedented, and has never happened since. It’s the kind of behaviour one might expect from a Mithridates, not from a crowned monarch of a Christian nation, a Defender of the Faith with an exquisitely acute conscience. Is it any wonder historians, whatever is between their legs, focus on that?

I reckon that Henrician history isn’t feminised so much as it is centred on the only thing that makes Henry VIII actually interesting. Apart from his torrid love-life, he’s really a rather run-of-the-mill king.

Starkey does say one peculiar thing, though:

He also stressed his comments were not a “value statement” about how he thought the world should be, but argued: “It is a great impertinence to impose our values on the past. It instantly reduces the people of the past from real people to mere straw men and women in our struggles.”

Using the past to inform our own time is kinda what we study history for; while it may be ‘impertinent’ to impose our values on the people of the past, it is the height of arrogance to argue that we must not employ history as a rhetorical tool in our own struggles. Although I don’t like it, and I resent the use of history that politicians make to prop up their own stupidities, to insist otherwise is to diminish its importance, and the study of history is embattled enough already without historians adding to the claims of irrelevance it has to overcome.

  3 Responses to “‘Feminised’ history”

  1. […] Henry VIII nonsense What is it with the British government’s desire to honour this disgusting parody of a man? Is it because Gordon Brown increasingly resembles him? (Watch out, […]

  2. Bella, Buckingham Palace is named for Buckingham House, the seat of a different set of Dukes of Buckingham (the Dukes of Buckingham and Normandy), who were significant in the 17th Century.

    Other than that, I would agree with your general point that overly much is made of Henry’s relations with Rome without putting them in the historical context of a long and bitter feud between the secular and spiritual power in England. Indeed, in the grand narrative of religion and power in England, Elizabeth is by far the more significant player.

    Although I think what does matter about Henry was his legalistic pursuit of what he assumed was his right (both in the case of the Divorce, but also in the case of the Break, and indeed the subsequent divorce of Anne Boleyn). Rather than assert his power nakedly, Henry was obsessed with acquiring legal sanction – not a habit which has particually bothered his predecessors. He could have just had Catherine killed seemingly accidentally (might have caused war, but hardly less problematic than what he did do), as he might have done with Anne. The desire to do things through the law made Henry’s disputes not just a written argument, but one which drew in huge numbers of people in an increasingly (relative to the immediate past) literate age, and created a whole constitunency of people who had an interest in and knowledge of the religio-political nature of the state, which in turn bred the religious controversies of the Stuart period, and in turn the political arguments about liberty and right.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.