Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Open Thread - Wilson's "A Brief History of Henry VIII"

And off we go! Here's the initial entry from PhD Historian, but the rest will be in the comments. Anyone else who is reading along, feel free to add your thoughts as well!
[Update March 24 - changed date to move thread back up for a while]

From PhD Historian:
Derek Wilson, A Brief History of Henry VIII (London and Philadelphia, PA: Running Press, 2009). 386 pages, 14 B&W illustrations.

Derek Wilson is, in my opinion, one of the few historians writing today who is able to write with credibility what might be termed “psycho-biographical history,” or history that examines the individual “movers and shakers” of events, their personalities and characters, and seeks to determine why they did what they did. Psycho-history was popular in the 1960s and 1970s but has since faded from favor, especially among “hardcore” academics. And not without reason, for it sometimes bordered on the absurd in the lengths to which some writers would go to create a psycho-profile from little or no evidence. But I have read many of Wilson’s books, and I respect his work immensely, in spite of the prevailing attitude that discounts his methodology.

Wilson is a prolific writer, having produced more than fifty books over the past forty or so years. He is one of only a handful who write both fiction and non-fiction and who still have my full respect when he lays claim to being a “historian.” His non-fiction works have focused heavily on a variety of figures from the Tudor period of English history, and his titles include:

Sweet Robin: Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1981);

In the Lion’s Court: Power, Ambition and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII (2002);

Uncrowned Kings: The Black Legend of the Dudleys (2005);

Sir Francis Walsingham: A Courtier in an Age of Terror (2007).

He also wrote a marvelous comparative biography of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, The King and the Gentleman (1999), that shed an entirely new light on the British Civil Wars of the 1630s and 1640s.

A Brief History of Henry VIII is Wilson’s latest foray into the area of psycho-history. It is perhaps a dangerous expedition, considering the massive amounts of material already written on England’s best-known monarch. Wilson is tackling a legendary figure and the iconography and mythology that has developed around him over the centuries. The scope of the endeavour would no doubt frighten any less-experienced or less-confident writer. But Wilson dives into the study fearlessly.

The back cover of the paperback volume begins with a question in bold-faced type: “Was England’s most famous king ‘A fool, a liar, and a damnable rotten worm’?” The accusation is quoted from Martin Luther, whose religious views Henry had famously challenged in 1521 with his own Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (Defence of the Seven Sacraments,) ... though almost certainly with the help of “ghost writers.” I suspect we are getting a taste here of what is to come ... Henry Tudor propped up and made larger than life through the efforts of those around him, and not himself actually as formidable as the man in the carefully crafted image.

The back cover observes that “in the portraits of Holbein, Henry Tudor stands proud as one of the most powerful figures in renaissance Europe.” But it then asks teasingly, “But is the noble stance a bluff? ... Wilson explores the reality behind the image of the Tudor Lion.”

And the cover is a detail of that same Holbein masterpiece in which Henry is shown standing tall and solid, fists on hips, feet spread wide, with a stern facial expression suggesting supreme self-confidence and more than a hint of bravado. The image, both in terms of the painting and the characterization, are so inextricably linked to “Great Harry” that it will be a true challenge for Wilson to dismantle it.


Anonymous said...


In the opening entry, I said that Wilson dives into this daunting study “fearlessly.” His Introduction starkly reveals just how fearless Wilson really is. After a brief overview of the history of the founding of the Tudor dynasty, Wilson immediately swings his verbal sword and begins cutting vast swathes out of the Henrician mythology. Where most other historians have found “a powerful king who, for good or ill, deliberately set about transforming the realm he inherited,” Wilson finds “a man whose blustering egotism covered a basic insecurity ... morally and intellectually limited and heavily dependent on others ... too self-obsessed to have any vision of a greater or better England” (p. xi).

Wilson argues that England was at the crossroads of the Renaissance and Reformation, and Henry was simply in the right place at the right time. Henry was not a proactive shaper of those historical processes, Wilson states, but was instead “essentially reactive.” Henry’s talent lay in his acute judge of character, and he had the good sense and good fortune to surround himself with men of exceptional talent and ability (e.g., Wolsey, More, Cromwell), and it was those men, not Henry, who had the profoundest effect on policy and the course of Tudor English history (p. xii).

Wilson does not mince words. He judges Henry to have been “a spoiled ... unprincipled, unpredictable, paranoid and very dangerous eccentric” (p. xiii).

Wilson observes that his book is neither a political history nor a traditional “full-blown” biography, but is instead a focused character study of one of England’s most enduring and most popular figures. Wilson views Henry VIII’s life as a Greek tragedy: “A flawed hero, struggling in vain against fate and his own weaknesses who is eventually destroyed by them” (xiii).

Anonymous said...

Henry VIII played the propaganda game like a pro. Was he larger than life? Most likely...he had absolute power. Thanks to Holbein he'll always be pictured as being over the entire world.

But I've often wondered what he was like off the stage, however...in a corner of his privy chamber, without anybody eyeing him...if that was at all possible. And yet, do I want that sense of greatness to be whitewashed from my thoughts?

This is going to be a fun thread!

Tamise said...

What particularly interested me was the following:

‘Many of the changes which overtook England would have occurred whoever had occupied the throne. Church and state and the relations between them could not have remained unaltered during the four decades of Henry’s reign.’ (pxi)

It will be interesting to see how Wilson thinks the Church would have changed anyway.

Also to see if Henry came close to defeating ‘those demons which opposed and eventually destroyed him.’ (pxiv)

Anonymous said...

Chapter One: England’s Harry
This chapter starts, of course, with Henry VIII’s birth in 1491 at Greenwich Palace. Oddly, his older brother Arthur does not enter the narrative until about halfway through the chapter, but thereafter it assumes central importance in Henry’s character formation. Henry was, after all, a second son ... the “spare heir.” Attention was lavished on Arthur in his separate household, and Wilson implies that Henry became somewhat of an attention-seeker as a result of living in his brother’s shadow during his first, formative decade.

Wilson argues that the death of Arthur in 1502 and of his mother in 1503, as well as the near-simultaneous removal of John Skelton as his tutor, had a profound effect on Prince Henry’s character, especially his ability to form lasting relationships. Without saying so explicitly, Wilson implies that Henry developed “abandonment issues.” This actually seems reasonable to me, and may explain the speed and seeming coldness with which he would later dispose of those who crossed him. It is a widely accepted concept in psychology that those who feel threatened will often assume an offensive posture and attack the perceived source of the threat rather than waiting passively to be attacked. Perhaps in later life Henry abandoned (discarded) people before they could abandon him?

Wilson makes much of the instability of the Tudor dynasty during Henry VII’s reign, and argues that Henry’s desperate grasping in later years for a male heir was in fact the result of having inherited his own father’s insecurities regarding the dynasty. The elder Henry became reclusive following the deaths of Arthur and Elizabeth of York, and confined young Henry to the court. Rebellions arose frequently and repeated, threatening the throne. And the Tudor dynasty came to power at precisely the time at which continental European realms were consolidating and emerging as major powers. Much of the area of modern-day France came under the actual control of the French crown at this time, following centuries of mere feudal allegiance. The many small kingdoms of Spain united as a single realm under Ferdinand and Isabella. Henry VII had to struggle to make England (or England, Wales, and Ireland) a “player” among those larger powers. Did Henry inherit from his father a sense of inferiority as an European power and a ever-present feeling that the dynasty would topple to rebellion at any moment? That seems to be Wilson’s implication.

Wilson also argues that Henry VIII was the victim of a Freudian Oedipus complex, engaged in a child-parent rivalry with his father. The elder Henry had won his throne through military conquest; young Henry inherited his peaceably. The elder Henry cherished Arthur most and invested in him the hopes for the dynasty; young Henry was forced to compete aggressively for his father’s attention. The elder Henry refused to train his son in kingship; young Henry perceived his father’s lack of confidence in him and became fundamentally insecure as a result. The elder Henry valued bookishness and a strong work ethic; young Henry was instead naturally inclined toward athletics and self-indulgence.

The argument has merit. Wilson has used the same argument in relation to Charles I, himself a “spare heir” until the age of 12. Others have used it in relation to George III’s rebellious son, the Prince Regent and future George IV. Edward VII had a difficult relationship with his mother, Queen Victoria, resulting, perhaps, in a troubled personal life as an adult. George V was also a “spare heir” who endured a poor relationship with his father, Edward VII. George’s adult life was marked by fundamental insecurity, reactionary chastity, and submission to a domineering wife. His own son Edward VIII became infamous for his rebelliousness and estrangement from his father, and the results of that struggle are known to all. The “spare” who stepped in upon Edward’s abdication, George VI, was a life-long stutterer who was successful only, perhaps, because his wife was as capable and domineering as his father’s wife had been.

Even before the end of this first chapter, Wilson has firmly established the future Henry VIII as a deeply flawed, troubled young man full of insecurities and driven to compensate.

Anonymous said...

My observation about Chapter One...

This isn't new. Amateur physchologists have come up with these theories before, but their remarks haven't been thought important enough. In fact, they have been poo-pooed with the statement that it is extremely difficult to psycho-analyze figures from hundreds of years in the past.

Is it because Wilson is a good/famous/revered historian that what he says is now 'true'?

Is it because these theories (presupposing the rest of the book is focused in the same direction) have all been grouped into one biography?

This may be truly sinful...but with all the other new bios out there featuring Henry VIII, could this be Derek Wilson's way of getting into the topic via a different angle, thus making sure his work is noticed?

I will continue to follow along with this discussion. I actually find this more interesting than the last blog wonderfully done by PhD.

Thanks for your time, PhD!!

Anonymous said...

Well, Tracey, frankly I'm not quite sure what to make of your comments, but I will take them in good spirit.

The use of "amateurs" seems to imply that only "amateur" psychologists have come up with these same theories. In fact, a number of NON-"amateurs" have done so, not least of whom is Erik Erikson, one of the leading researchers on identity formation in childhood. His book on Martin Luther started the trend back in the 1960s. But the trend got out of hand and therefore subsided of its own weight.

I do agree with you that psychoanalyzing historical figures is a very suspect undertaking. And I have repeatedly said so in this Q&A blog. There are, however, exceptions. The danger lies in attempting to psychoanalyze persons for whom there is limited evidence, e.g., Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell, Bess of Hardwick. But when there is a large body of evidence extending over several decades and literally from birth to death, it is less dangerous to attempt rudimentary psychoanalysis. Still dangerous, but less dangerous. And examples of figures for whom we have such a large body of evidence are extremely rare, often limited to monarchs or persons who were at the social and cultural apex from birth to death.

No one has yet said that Wilson's conclusions are "true." What I have said is that they make sense so far. It remains to be seen what other professional historians will make of his work. It also remains to be seen whether Wilson can sustain his argument throughout the book.

But do bear in mind that what Wilson proposes here is his interpretation, not a hard-and-fast "truth." He is taking part in a larger debate among historians, not asserting a final "gospel truth."

I'm not sure that Wilson has any real need to seek "notice" at this point in his life, with more than 50 books to his credit. And his "angle" is not "different," at least in terms of his own writing. Most of his biographies employ some degree of psychoanalysis. He is more successful in some than in others.

Glad you are finding this "live-blog" interesting.

Anonymous said...

A slight gap in postings ... as usual, I am swamped with work and responsibilities. So no Monday posting, but I do promise one for Tuesday evening.

Anonymous said...

No disrespect intended, PhD. Just curiosity about an author I'm not that familiar with...surprisingly.

I read Wilson's work on The Dudley's, but that's been the extent of my reading of his words. I essentially wanted some feed-back for thoughts that bounced into my head.

Thanks for responding and for taking my comments in good spirit :)

djd said...

I just want to say that I have thouroughly enjoyed your previous book blogs, P.h.D., and I am very much looking forward to reading this one. My background is in mental health nursing, and though it is not possible to psychoanalyze someone so far back in history, it sure is fun to theorize about Henry's possible pathologies. I myself have diagnosed him with several conditions from my limited knowledge base and my opinions change as I learn more about him. Keep in mind that I am not a historian and only think about things like that for my own amusement. I wish I could do my graduate project on something like this, but I don't know that a thing like this would be accepted in the world of graduate nursing. Thanks to all for your comments about Tudor history. I have learned more from this site than anywhere else.

Tamise said...

Like Starkey, Wilson implies that Arthur’s being born at Winchester was a publicity stunt. ‘Henrt VII ensured that his first born was brought into the world at Winchester.’ (p10)

Wilson raises an interesting question about whether Henry would have been a supportive Duke of York to Arthur’s King going by his later character?

PHD Historian - I am glad of the break in posting. I don't have time to read a chapter a day.

Anonymous said...

Chapter Two : Camelot

Wilson uses the Arthurian legend to build this chapter, and in so doing implicitly presents Henry VIII as a second King Arthur, complete with the legendary hero’s own faults. Wilson even argues that Henry saw himself as the embodiment of the once-and-future king. It is somewhat ironic, in light of the usual narrative that presents his older brother as the Tudor dynasty’s hope for resurrecting Camelot.

As presented in this chapter, Henry is an immature, spoiled brat, ever seeking center stage and commanding that all around him keep their eye on him alone. At first glance, it almost seems like an extreme and unfair portrayal. But Wilson presents a relatively solid body of evidence to support his thesis.

It is not difficult to imagine, for example, a young man who just a few years previously had been living in the shadow of an older brother but who now finds himself the focus of an immense, long-running public pageant. Wilson argues that Henry built blatantly self-aggrandizing palaces rather than following the customary modest practice of founding colleges and chantries. He paid more attention to “collecting” artists, musicians, and poets than to recruiting able bureaucrats. He performed in court masques himself rather than having them performed by other before him. He triumphed at jousting because his opponents were coached to throw the matches so as not to overshadow their king. He even became petulant when he lost at gambling to foreign envoys who had not been diplomatically informed in advance as to what was expected of them at the tables (i.e., that they should lose). All was surfaces and beauty, with less depth and substance than there should have been ... at least in the early years of the reign.

Wilson’s Henry even wanted to be the center of the Church’s temporal attention, rather than allowing bishops and abbots to look to Rome. Indeed, one of the more intriguing ideas presented in this chapter is that Henry began the process of creating a thoroughly English church from the very beginning of his reign, rather than waiting until forced by desperation and dynastic necessity to seize control from Rome.

A couple of stylistic observations:
The text is engaging and well written, very accessible to any level of reader. This is certainly not stuffy academic history, but neither is it Showtime-esque glitz.

Footnotes are distressingly few and far between. Only 30 in the first 60 pages, for an average of one footnote for every two pages. I like footnotes; their absence makes me uneasy.

Anonymous said...

This is wonderful! Thankyou PhD! This is my first live book-blog, and I am thoroughly enjoying the experience.

Anonymous said...

For those of you perched anxiously on the edge of your settee in anticipation of the next installment, I do apologize for the delay. I've been ridiculously swamped with responsibilities lately. But here at last is the next chapter:

Chapter Three: For Harry, England, and Saint George

The title of this chapter is of course drawn from Shakespeare’s Henry V and the title character’s speech preceding the climactic battle on St Crispin’s Day, an event that led directly to the English claim over the French crown. Wilson explores in this chapter, among many things, Henry’s famous desire for military conquest in France.

Several critical issues emerge from this chapter. One is Wilson’s explanation for the rise of Wolsey as Henry’s “go-to” man. Wilson seems almost to admire Wolsey, especially for his (Wolsey’s) ability to manage almost every aspect of the business of the realm while simultaneously climbing the ladder of personal success and enrichment, all without offending his master the King by overshadowing him. After the loss to fire of the Palace of Westminster, Henry became peripatetic while Wolsey remained relatively stationary at York Place in London. Wolsey took on the sedentary responsibilities of rule while Henry enjoyed the many benefits. But Wilson does not see Henry as a lazy playboy given to self-indulgence. Instead, he sees him as a wise judge of who could serve him best and free him from the less-appealing aspects of being a monarch, enabling him to pursue his self-perceived Arthurian destiny as a conquering military hero on the international scene.

And "the international scene" means, of course, the reclamation of vast territories in France once held by the English crown beginning with Henry II in the twelfth century. Lost by Henry II’s sons, the territories were partly reclaimed by Henry V, but lost again upon his untimely death. As the many duchys of France fell to the control of the French crown in the late fifteenth century, and as the several kingdoms of the Spanish peninsula simultaneously became united under Ferdinand and Isabella, Henry looked for a way to assert his equality with his brother monarchs. His alliance with Spain offered him that opportunity, since it freed the Spanish crown to pursue its own ambitions on the Italian peninsula without fear of France. With Spain busy in Italy, Henry was free to invade France.

And it is here that Wilson falls a bit short, in my opinion. He assumes that his readers are familiar with the intricacies of the rivalries and disputes between Spain, France, the Italian city-states, and the Papal States. He also assumes that readers are already aware of the disputes within the Roman Catholic hierarchy, especially the infamy attached to a succession of notoriously corrupt and dissolute popes in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. In my opinion, readers unfamiliar with these internecine feuds will be less likely to fully appreciate the degree to which Henry was playing in an international sandbox.

Conversely, Wilson presents one of the best analyses of the scandal surrounding the marriage of Mary Tudor, widowed by the French king after only 12 weeks of marriage, to Charles Brandon, Henry VIII’s boon companion and head “yes-man.” Wilson makes it quite clear that he is suspicious that Henry’s indignation over the unapproved marriage was only partly genuine. Wilson suggests that Henry used anger and bluster as a way to avoid issues, storming away from them rather than dealing with them directly. By making a grandiose and protracted show of anger toward his sister and her new husband, Henry was able to save face before the international community, for whom the marriage of a king’s sister held great import. But by not punishing Brandon with anything like the severity Henry used against later transgressors, Henry gave tacit approval to the marriage. And that approval was itself a nod by Henry toward intense public opinion within England against a proposed second French match for Mary. Henry was so insecure, Wilson argues, that he bowed to public opinion on a matter that should have been his sole royal prerogative.

Henry’s insecurity cannot have been bolstered by his wife Katherine’s successes as Regent in her very successful pursuit of a military campaign against Scotland at precisely the same time when Henry was failing in France. The English armies, under the indirect leadership of Katherine, vanquished and killed James IV of Scotland at the Battle of Flodden Field, effectively eliminating Scotland as a northern threat for a generation. Henry was essentially upstaged militarily by his own wife, though she was exceedingly careful to frame it as his victory. If Henry was indeed as personally insecure as Wilson claims, one is left to wonder what effect, if any, this turn of events had on their marriage and what role it may have played in the eventual dissolution of that marriage.

Bearded Lady said...

PhD Historian – really enjoying this one. Can’t wait to read the book. But I don't know how you read so fast!

Using bluster and anger to save face – very interesting. I have never heard anyone suggest that, but it seems entirely plausible.

Tamise - Do you agree with the theory that the changes in the church would have taken place with or without Henry? I am having a harder time wrapping my head around that one.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Bearded Lady.
Grad school is one of those places where you either learn to read a book quickly, or you sink. It's common to have to read 3 or 4 "serious" academic books per week in grad school.
The problem for me is not reading them, but having the hour or so needed to sit down and write carefully about what I have read for this blog. I often do not have that time.

If I may weigh in on your question to Tamise, I will say that yes, I do believe the English church would have changed with or without Henry VIII. Would it have become Protestant, or even independent of Rome? That is debatable. But would there have been serious reforms, especially in the monastic communities and among the clergy? I believe the answer is "yes, certainly."

Very few realms of Europe escaped some significant degree of religious change during the sixteenth century, yet only England had a Henry VIII-type leader intent on "using" religious reform as a vehicle for achieving a personal objective. France, still a traditionally Catholic country today, endured the Wars of Religion in the last half of the century as it struggled with the question of reform and Protestantism. The German territories of the Holy Roman Empire suffered similar upheavals and unrest, even civil rebellion and war in some areas. Many of the Scandinavian countries became Protestant. Only Spain escaped relatively unscathed, but it had the infamously terrifying Spanish Inquisition for enforcing orthodoxy.

The English church would have changed, even without Henry VIII, but we will never know how extensive that change would have been.

Tamise said...

Bearded Lady – I am interested to see what changes between church and state would have happened anyway. I have been trying to think of an answer to this (I haven’t studied the church during the reign of Henry VIII since A-level History) and am glad that PHD Historian jumped in.

I agree with him that changes between church and state in terms of reforms would have been likely based on the evidence of what happened in other countries.

As PHD Historian wrote, ‘only England had a Henry VIII-type leader intent on "using" religious reform as a vehicle for achieving a personal objective.’

I know speculation is pointless but if the Pope had granted Henry his divorce then Henry probably wouldn’t have broken with Rome. He would have had no reason to. Although once he realised the power that would come from being head of the Church, would he have wanted that power?

Anonymous said...

Chapter Four : Waging Peace

This chapter deals primarily with Henry VIII during the years between 1516 and 1521. A critical issue for Henry during this time is his relationship with Wolsey.

The period was a largely peaceful one in that there was minimal open warfare being waged on the continent. It was therefore a frustrating one for Henry, since one of Henry’s main “goals in life” was to become a glorious military hero who vanquished all his enemies. In the absence of any real opportunity to lead armies, Henry chose instead to lead diplomatically, with the able assistance of Wolsey.

Actually, Henry emerges from this chapter as something of a figurehead, with Wolsey as the actual power. Wilson argues that Henry wanted the fame and glory but was disinclined to do the actual work. He therefore contented himself with giving Wolsey a largely free hand to conduct virtually all of the business of state, from setting tax rates to spending the revenues, from setting diplomatic policy to enacting those policies.

One critical area that emerges to foreshadow future conflict is that of religion and England’s relationship, both theologically and diplomatically, with Rome. Wilson argues that Henry was sincerely religious and essentially orthodox theologically. But while Henry had a interest in the “new learning,” he did not share its proponents' call for radical reform of the church ... at least not at this early stage. Nonetheless, Henry’s personal insecurity left him anxious about the degree to which he had direct control over the clergy within his realm. The ecclesiastical establishment was massive, and if its entire membership looked to Rome rather than to Westminster for authority, Henry’s place in the world hierarchy would be diminished. The seeds were sown for later events.

Wilson also presents an intriguing thesis for Henry’s marital problems and failure to produce a male heir: that he was sexually dysfunctional. Specifically, Wilson alleges that Henry may have suffered from psychogenic impotence, or an inability to perform sexually caused by his own anxieties. Wilson suggests that his failure to father a viable male child with Katherine may have had a more severe psychological impact than has previously been appreciated, especially since securing the dynasty through a male succession was one of the issues with which Henry struggled for decades. Wilson goes on to note that Henry sired very few children after 1519, when he was only 27. Daughter Elizabeth was born in 1533 and son Edward in 1537. Henry Fitzroy had been born in 1518, but Henry had no other illegitimate children (according to Wilson) despite several known mistresses. And Wilson implies that Henry’s later insistence on only a certain physical type in a wife, one with extreme personal sexual appeal, was itself a sign that Henry knew he could not function unless properly stimulated.

However, Wilson fails to account for the many reported miscarriages (and others possibly unreported) suffered by both his wives and his mistresses. If surviving children are the measure of potency, one might argue that a majority of men in the sixteenth century were impotent!

Nonetheless, I believe Wilson’s thesis has merit. It just needs to be reshaped, with all the variables accounted for, and presented in a more logical fashion.

The chapter ends with the Field of Cloth of Gold, perhaps Henry’s greatest triumph of self-aggrandizement. Henry struggled mightily ... or, more precisely, Wolsey struggled mightily on his master’s behalf ... to keep England at the center of European international affairs mostly as a sop to his own ego. And in so doing, Wolsey made many enemies, which did not bode well for own future.

This chapter is packed with fascinating material, and it is impossible to address here every issue raised in the book. And as I write, I am suddenly very conscious of how the book is organized. There is, of course, an effort to follow a chronological stream. But at the same time, some of the issues encountered require "backstory" explanation and forward-looking reference to later events (e.g., Henry's alleged impotence and his selection/rejection of later wives Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, and young Katherine Howard). I am inclined to wonder if this book might not have been more easily absorbed if organized more thematically, taking Henry's political role and relationship with Wolsey as one chapter, his relationship with religion and the church as another chapter, and his personal domestic relationships as another chapter. The problem, of course, is that every issue is intricately intertwined with all the others, so that even a thematic approach might be confusing. And that may be the whole crux of the matter: Henry VIII was an exceedingly complex many living in an equally exceedingly complex era of rapid change, so that any real "understanding" of him is necessarily limited by the nature of those complexities.

Anonymous said...

Chapter Five : All People Cursed ...

Wilson begins to tackle in earnest in this chapter the issue of religious reformation, noting that while the common perception has it that the English Reformation occurred in the 1530s, that later decade was instead one in which the change was codified by statute law. Real ideological change actually occurred in the 1520s in the wake of the debate over Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. The publication of Tyndale’s English translation of the Bible in 1525 had made that text immediately available to most people, essentially for the first time. Roman Catholic tradition limited direct access to the Bible by laypersons on the grounds that it was too complex for untrained minds to interpret correctly. The result of direct access to the Bible, Wilson asserts, was “changed lives, emancipated lives, and lives which ... had become ‘surprised by joy’ in the 1520s” (p. 128). Priests of the Catholic Church could not promise salvation to individual parishioners, but “the plain word of scripture taught seekers that they could trust completely in the finished work of Christ. This was heady stuff” (p. 129). Wilson’s fairly lengthy discussion of the intricacies and impact of the religious changes of the 1520s is remarkably well written and easily understood in this chapter.

He then enters a discussion of Anne Boleyn’s role in the English Reformation. She had, he says, the greatest impact of any individual woman on the course of English history. Much of that impact was the result of her adherence to the evangelical reform movement and her presentation to Henry VIII of one of Tyndale’s later books, The Obedience of a Christian Man, a book that facilitated Henry’s own change in religious viewpoint.

Anne Bolyen is a very popular figure on this Q&A blog, evidenced by the large number of questions about her submitted over time, as well as among fans of Tudor history generally. That popularity owes largely to her “tragic” story and the “touch of mystery” that surrounds her name, making her something of an “enigma” (138). How did Anne gain such a strong hold over Henry that he was willing to carry through with a religious revolution in order to marry her? Wilson notes that by the time Henry met Anne, he was approaching middle age, gripped by anxiety for the future continuation and stability of the ... his ... dynasty, feeling trapped in loveless marriage, frustrated by the awareness that his aging wife was past giving him the desired male heir, diminished by his failure to win the garland of a conquering military hero while his younger continental cousins in France and Spain each added almost daily to their own territories and triumphs, and humiliated by a series of rebellions against his policies and rule.

Anne offered a sense of hope to Henry. But how did she succeed in “playing a reluctant king like a hooked salmon for six years,” Wilson asks. He answers his own question by arguing that Henry was driven by both lust and desire for a male heir, both of which might be satisfied in the one woman ... if he could somehow manage to free himself to marry her. And Wilson argues that the idea to marry Anne was Henry’s own, sparked by the knowledge that he had perhaps only 20 years of life left, every day of which was needed to birth, raise, and prepare the next king. Henry’s needs were immediate, and Anne was the only readily available legitimate option. Wilson sees Henry’s personal drive to provide a male heir to the Tudor dynasty as so compelling that he was prepared to attempt the extraordinary and bring forward his illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, as his heir if no legitimate solution was immediately forthcoming. Henry therefore turned to Wolsey to transform into reality his wish to rid himself of Queen Katherine.

Wolsey, however, was becoming very unpopular. His reputation among the general populace was a poor one fro several reasons, and his supporters among the nobility were abandoning him in droves. Indeed, the Howards, long jealous of Wolsey’s influence, gained a valuable ally in the Boleyn family and in Anne in particular, speeding Wolsey’s fall from favor. And affairs on the continent seemed to work against Wolsey as well, with the Papacy becoming all but captive to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who happened to also be Queen Catherine’s nephew. Even Henry seemed to hamstring Wolsey, concealing from his advisor his desire to marry Anne (or so Wilson asserts) lest the divorce appear to be for “lurid” reasons.

Anne made up for Wolsey’s lack of success in the divorce suit by introducing Henry, through Tyndale’s Obedience of a Christian Man, to the notion that men need look only to holy scripture directly to find positive commandments to break prior oaths taken in contravention of God’s law. Under Henry’s own interpretation of Leviticus 20:21, his marital oath binding him to Katherine was a false oath that could not be made true by any papal action. Henry found in Tyndale the excuse he needed to separate the English church from allegiance to the foreign power of the papacy, and to free himself from the power of the papal representative, Cardinal Wolsey.

Wilson argues that Henry allowed factions to develop during this period, some of which supported Wolsey, others of which supported the Howards and the Boleyns, and others which were driven by other agendas. In Wilson’s view, Henry’s failure to prevent factionalism is a sign of inherent personal weakness and the first in a cascade of symptoms indicating an “unraveling” character. It is a harsh judgment, and it will be interesting to see if subsequent chapters can sustain the verdict.

A note on style: as with the previous chapter, this one is absolutely packed with material. It almost requires a very solid prior grounding in the issues and events under discussion in order to follow and understand Wilson’s evidence and argument. In grad school, we referred to this kind of writing as “dense” ... meaning that the reader must pay closest attention to each and every word, sentence, and paragraph because each contains multiple ideas and concepts that are or will be linked to multiple other paragraphs and chapters. In other words, this is not casual light reading for an airplane flight or while waiting for the bus. This is serious “sit down and study it”reading.

kb said...

Wilson's idea that the growth of factions speaks to Henry's weakness as ruler is very intriguing.

Especially as other historians have debated factionalism in the Elizabethan court as both a sign of her weakness and a sign of her cunning statecraft.

Anonymous said...

Could the factions in Henry's court have been deliberately permitted by the monarch?

For a long while, Henry had Wolsey to blame for all mishaps, bad taxes, unpopular wars, etc. When he was deposed there was nobody for Henry to blame. So allowing factions, playing them off each other (which is what I believe happened) and then if/when a final decision by the monarch went wonky, there was the faction to point the naughty finger towards.

Henry was a powerful enough personality to control these groups, albeit only towards a certain point. Interfere in his love-life and and his emotions took over...until it went wrong and then he'd take out his frustration/rage on the factional family.

Anonymous said...

Tracey. Wilson argues that Henry did not have a strong enough personality and character to control factions. And his argument is convincing, at least to me. We'll have to wait and see how it plays out in coming chapters, but I have the impression that Henry's reputation for destroying so many of those who tried to serve him was actually the result of him feeling threatened when he felt unable to control someone and instead had them executed or exiled. Excution was, in effect, Henry's only way to effectively control people.

Anonymous said...

The question has popped into mind as to how Wilson will handle the injury which Henry sustained to his thigh.

How much of a factor was that sore leg during Henry's later years? Was the lashing-out at people due to the horrendous pain?

I have a bit of a problem with the psychological aspect of Wilson's work, although it is realized that is his specialty. It is with continuing interest that this thread is being followed.

Again...thanks PhD, and please bear with me and my comments/questions. I guess I've never truly sat down and thought about Henry's mind.

Anonymous said...

I do apologize again for the repeated delays in submitting new posts. Unbelieveable as it may sound, my reason this time is that shortly after sending the response to Tracey on the 22nd, we had a massive windstorm and sandstorm here (I live in the desert in Palm Springs). Winds of 70 miles an hour, palm trees snapped in half, regular trees uprooted, a 20-foot tree blown into my swimming pool, 300 square feet of roof blown off the house, and the blowing palm trees and roofing took out the power lines. SoCal Edison just got the power restored about 2 hours ago. And of course I have spent all day today cleaning up debris.

I did get the entire book read by candlelight, since I had nothing else to do last night. But now I need a bit of time to write it all up.

Lara said...

I heard about that storm and was wondering if you took any damage (someone else I know in the area was keeping a close eye on palm trees). Hope the roof damage isn't too bad and can be fixed quickly!

I have to admit though that I like the mental image of you reading the book by candlelight... it feels somehow appropriate to the time period. :)

Anonymous said...

What dedication!!! Reading a book by candlelight :)

Too bad your property suffered so much damage. You'd almost think a hurricane came through...and I've had experience with those.

Sweep, rake, and haul to the landfill and do what needs doing to get your life back in order. Henry will wait...unlike the real person you can just close him up when you want!

Lara...a question as far as this thread is concerned. Can it be moved to the top of the blog list? Eventually it's going to vanish below other entries.

Lara said...

I think I can change the date on it, which will move it back up. But you can also bookmark this thread specifically if you want to keep checking on it. Here's the permanent link:

And if you use an RSS feed aggregator, you can choose to subscribe to the comments of this thread if your browser shows "RSS" up in the address bar. (Sorry if it that doesn't make any sense on your computer... I'm using Safari on a Mac.)

Bearded Lady said...

A hooked salmon? ha! interesting analogy. Phd Historian and Tamise, thanks for answering my question about the Reformation. I am just getting caught up now. (I read this blog about as fast as you read a whole book!)

The factions as weakness theory is interesting because I have always thought that Henry let opposing factions develop to balance power. It would seem impossible to not let ANY factions develop.

The Henry as impotent seems plausible especially considering the hi-jinx that went on at Anne's trial.

I hope you get power back soon…

Lara, thanks for moving the post up. I was having a really hard time finding it.

Anonymous said...

After a delay for bad weather and power outages, it’s time to resume this blog! At least I was able to finish reading the book during the power outage ... reading by candlelight. But now everyone needs to cross their fingers, since we are having a lot of earthquakes. We have had more than 100 over the past 2-3 days. The largest was a 4.8, which woke me up at 4:30 AM the other day ... while the power was already out! And I hear that our little earthquake swarm even made the evening national news today. So cross your fingers that “The Big One” does not come before this book is fully “blogged”!!

Chapter Six : Restoring the Faith and Religion of Christ

With Wolsey’s fall from favor, the Boleyn faction rose to prominence, aided by their kinsman, the Duke of Norfolk. Anne is presented as something of a leader of the Boleyn faction ... a “termagant,” in Wilson’s view ... whose assertiveness resulted in serious discord within the court, “creat[ing] a poisonous atmosphere reminiscent of the worst kind of television soap opera” (p. 177). Henry, for his part, became emotionally dependent upon Anne because of his “vulnerab[ility] to stronger personalities.” Emotionally weak and inclined to avoid direct confrontation, he began to rely on others to do his confronting for him, third hand.

Anne emerges from this chapter as a deeply religious woman committed to the evangelical reformist religious cause, and is portrayed by Wilson as a prime-mover of the entire English Reformation. Wilson even goes so far as to compare her to Esther of the Old Testament, an ancient queen who had such influence over her Persian king-husband that she was able single-handedly to save the Israelites from persecution. This is a characterization entirely at odds with the usual mythology that presents Anne as a thoroughly secular, sensual, self-absorbed woman.

Wilson notes that Anne presented Henry with several printed books ... each of which happened to be banned within England ... that supposedly inspired Henry with the rationale and justification he needed to sever ties with Rome and to have himself declared Supreme Head of the Church in England. Anne was ably supported, of course, by Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell, whom Wilson refers to as “the TCs.” Together they constituted a triumvirate that skillfully manipulated Henry to do their bidding and to accomplish a religious revolution in order to make one of their number the new Queen Consort of England. Or so Wilson argues.

Anne was also supported by her brother, George Boleyn (later Viscount Rochford), who was himself an intellectual and who “wore his evangelical faith on his sleeve” (p. 186). (Questioner Marie may be interested to know that Wilson sees George’s wife, Jane Boleyn, emerging in this early period as one of Anne’s principle enemies.)

Wilson further argues that Henry was easy to manipulate because the whole concept of royal supremacy played perfectly on Henry’s own insecurities. By capitalizing on Henry’s barely-concealed lack of self-assurance, Anne, “the TCs,” and George were able to chip away at Henry’s resistance. What kind of king was he really, they asked, if a foreign power held significant authority within Henry’s realm and even had the power to dictate to Henry whom he should and should not wed? If Henry were made head of the church in England, he would then indeed be second only to God, a heady prospect for a man in need of ego-building.

Wilson’s thesis is supported by the evidence of Henry’s actions toward those religious figures who were one day his heretic enemies and the next day his allies merely suffering momentary misguidance. Having written against Luther, Henry now blamed his writings on Wolsey and praised many of Luther’s ideas. Wilson sees Henry as entirely unprincipled and able to shift allegiances at a moment if such shifting was likely to give him the outcome he desired. Wilson’s Henry seems to have had no guiding principle beyond instant self-gratification.

There is, of course, a huge amount of important background matter contained in this chapter, ranging from the negotiations with Rome over the divorce from Katherine to the Parliamentary maneuverings over the religious agenda to the impact it all had on international relations. As with previous chapters, the twists, turns, and shifts in focus are sometimes difficult to follow, and substantial prior knowledge about the various persons and events referred to will make the reading easier.

PhD Historian said...

Chapter Seven : These Bloody Days...

Henry ... or more precisely, Cromwell ... is successful in getting the Act in Restraint of Appeals through Parliament, ensuring the king’s ability to divorce Katherine and to marry Anne. Ironically, Cranmer could not assume office as Archbishop of Canterbury and pass judgment on Henry’s divorce until he had received the necessary papal bulls, which arrived only days before the Cromwell’s Act was introduced. And Henry, of course, was already wed to Anne, even before Cromwell’s Act passed and before Cranmer rendered the divorce from Katherine. Self-gratifying Henry wanted what he wanted when he wanted it, and no mere anti-bigamy law was going to stop him.

Anne’s coronation occurred shortly thereafter. Wilson judges it “the ultimate propaganda exercise,” a way for Henry to compensate for his own insecurities through the presentation of a massive public display of his own defiance of the pope, of Katherine’s nephew the emperor, and of “anyone else” (p. 221). Wilson notes that images of the closed “crown imperial” were used everywhere to reinforce the notion that England was itself an empire and therefore Henry could consider himself the equal of his continental cousin-monarchs.

Wilson offers a variety of contemporary views on Anne's coronation. Hall’s Chronicle presents an “adulatory” account of the event, as though there was no dissent. The “bitchy reports of diplomats” conveyed less glowing reports, noting among other things that Anne was “ugly,” that Henry and Anne’s monogram, HA, was read by many with laughter (“ha, ha”), and that others in the crowd looked on as though observing a funeral. Wilson summarizes, probably very rightly, that the actual reaction was probably mixed, since many continued to support Katherine for years to come, while others welcomed the religious changes that Anne brought with her.

Wilson sees Henry’s break with Rome as another sign of Henry's weakness and relates it to the earlier argument on political weakness. By breaking with Rome, Henry allowed factions to develop in the religious sphere, just as they had done in the political sphere following the ouster of Wolsey. While the English church was under Roman control, heterodoxy was controlled and suppressed, and there was no opportunity for changes in how the church was administered bureaucratically. But by opening the door to change, Henry invited in all manner of innovation well beyond what he apparently intended. Wilson believes that Henry saw the break with Rome as an end to the reformation debate, while almost everyone else saw it as the beginning, the difference being evidence of the “paucity” of Henry’s political understanding (p. 225). The argument has merit, and later events reveal Henry attempting unsuccessfully to put the theological genie back in the bottle.

And for all his troubles, all he got was a daughter by Anne. Instead of “divine approval,” Henry received only “humiliation.” But Henry’s character and personality never allowed for self-blame, so blame was instead focused on others in a fury of prosecutions and executions. A popular public figure who had spoken against the divorce, Elizabeth Barton, the “Maid of Kent,” was among the first to be brutally tortured and executed. Even those who espoused the new Protestant doctrines suffered, such as John Frith, who denounced the Catholic doctrine of purgatory and was burned at the stake for it. Even the highest officials suffered. Thomas More and John Fisher, both Henry's former favorites, were each executed for refusing to accept their king as simultaneously head of the English church.

Wilson lays the blame for the blood-letting, and the period of religious unrest that followed, squarely at Henry’s feet. Henry’s “paranoia” and “massive ego” would not allow him to act reasonably. Instead, they forced him into ever more “irresponsible and mutually contradictory actions” (pp. 238-9). And there was also Henry’s advancing age and failing health to consider, both of which only served to increase his sense of desperation to secure the dynasty and make a “success” of himself in the mold of King Arthur and Henry V.

The issue of Henry’s leg has come up in this Q&A blog often. Wilson offers a very logical opinion on that problem. He notes that Henry’s waist measured a massive 71.5 inches in 1535. By modern standards, that constitutes morbid obesity, itself a life-threatening condition. One common complication of morbid obesity is poor circulation to the legs and feet, resulting in thrombosis (blood clots) and phlebitis. Untreated, those conditions can progress to cellulitis, a generalized infection of the tissue. Wilson believes Henry’s painful, ulcerative, and malodorous leg complaint was in fact cellulitis resulting from obesity rather than osteomyelitis resulting from a jousting injury.

Whatever the precise nature of the condition, it carried psychological baggage in addition to the expected physical pain and suffering. Wilson suggests that the condition forced Henry to confront the prospect of being vulnerable and of being dependent on others, both of which fundamentally conflicted with his own powerful self-image. Humiliated, Henry resorted to denial and to lashing out irrationally at others as a form of distraction. And Wilson also observes that there was a religious-moral component to the illness. Moralists of the sixteenth century viewed outward physical decay as a sign of inward moral decay, so that Henry’s diseased leg was seen by contemporaries as a physical manifestation of his inner diseased soul. And Henry would have been well aware of this potential interpretation, which would only have increased his anxiety and “acting out” (my term, not Wilson’s).

Henry’s “acting out” toward Anne presents a problem for modern historians who seek a rational answer to the question “Why?,” as Nassa recently asked. Wilson believes there is no rational answer because Henry was not thinking rationally. Henry had poured all of his hopes and dreams into Anne, burdening her with almost impossible expectations, while simultaneously allowing her unprecedented personal power and freedom of action. Wilson sees Anne as deeply devout and intent on setting a “morally impeccable example,” a view at considerable odds with the popular myth. And in setting that devout, morally upright example, Anne created many enemies among those religious conservatives who saw her reformist efforts as too radical and even heretical. And Anne was her own worst enemy, Wilson argues, in that she was an uncommonly assertive woman in an era of enforced female submissiveness. Her personality was stronger than Henry’s, and once his sexual passion waned (as it was bound to do, if he was indeed psychogenically impotent, as Wilson claims), his own insecurities left him feeling threatened by her strength of character. Therefore Henry rejected Anne pre-emptively, in the same way that he rejected all of those whom he perceived as likely to reject him.

Wilson implies that Henry’s eye roamed during his marriage to Anne(p. 244) but that no sexual activity likely occurred until the spring of 1536. But the fundamental problem lay in Henry having married Anne for love, and any “roaming” suggested to Anne that the “love” had ended, leaving her feeling threatened, so that she took it out on Henry. Anne’s enemies, perceiving an opening, forced the gap wider in an effort to rid the court of an overly assertive, religiously troublesome woman. Enter the Seymours. They seized on the opportunity provided by Anne’s miscarrying of a reportedly male fetus in early 1536 to begin tempting Henry with a new sexual toy, Jane Seymour. Though Wilson characterizes her as “vapid,” he nonetheless believes Jane was coached by her kinsmen to follow the precedent set by Anne and to refuse Henry any sexual favors until the previous wife’s destruction was complete.

Wilson argues that Anne’s destruction was accomplished by Cromwell but was engineered by the king himself. Wilson argues that the scheme to be rid of her, involving as it did a misinterpretation of the treason laws and a massive personal smear campaign against Anne, was likely an expression of Henry’s deep-seated feelings of sexual inadequacy. Henry’s “fevered brain” was beset by “resentments, fears, jealousies, and suspicions,” (p. 259). Those anxieties were confirmed by the testimony (under torture) of several of Anne’s friends and of even her own sister-in-law, Jane, Lady Rochford. Wilson sees Rochford’s testimony as the linchpin, since it was she who made public Anne’s reported account of Henry’s lack of sexual prowess and ability. Henry’s only recourse against so many imputations of sexual inadequacy, and the harsh physical evidence of that inadequacy presented by only two surviving daughters and no sons, was to lash out at Anne and to destroy her completely, as though she had never existed.

I have the impression throughout this chapter that Wilson is quite sympathetic to Anne, perhaps even an "Anne fan," as one contributor here describes himself-herself. Wilson is what modern historians call an apologist, meaning his analysis of Anne serves to rehabilitate her image and present her in a more positive light. Unfortunately, the entire effort is based largely on circumstantial evidence. Henry was sufficiently intent on totally destroying Anne that very little direct documentary evidence survives to support the notion that she was as rehabilitation-worthy as Wilson claims. I might point out, for example, that the forty pages of the chapter contain just twenty-nine footnotes. For a narrative and analysis of this scope and importance, I would have expected fully two or three times as many footnotes.

Bearded Lady said...

PhD Historian, thanks for the dedication in keeping up with these posts. I know I keep saying this but I am really enjoying these posts.

So that’s an interesting theory about the Cellulitis, but I am not sure it fits completely. My dad almost died from untreated cellulitis that originated from a blister. I remember the doctor telling him that when Cellulitis goes untreated it quickly lead to Sepsis (blood poisoning) which kills very quickly by infecting the heart. Henry suffered through his leg injury for years and years. I would think Cellulits would be far more serious before antibiotics? Does Wilson provide a medical source for this theory? Are there any nurses or doctors reading this who know more? And how about thrombosis? Can a person really suffer from it for years and years?

And Julia Fox presents a really good argument for Jane NOT being the incriminating evidence against Anne. She spends a whole chapter tracing the source of the rumor to John Foxe’s ACTS AND MONUMENTS. According to Fox, Jane is not mentioned in Foxe’s 1563 addition, but does appear as a marginal note (not in the main text) in a 1576 addition. The marginal comment is “It is reported of some that this Lady Rochford forged a false letter against her husband and Queen Anne her sister” (p. 304). Fox supports her argument by stating that Sir John Spelman who sat in on Anne’s trial wrote in his notebook that Lady Wingfield provided the main evidence to convict Anne. And she also says John Husee, another person who sat in on the trial, stated that the Countess of Worcester gave the incriminating evidence. I have to wonder if we know enough to place the blame on Jane?

Overall, you sound like you were not as impressed with this chapter?

PhD Historian said...

Yes, Bearded Lady, a person can suffer thrombosis and phlebitis for years and years. My own grandfather has had it since I was a teenager, and I am not 50! And as I've said before, my first career was in the medical field (I am an RN and a PA-C), and I am very accustomed to seeing people with long term low-grade cellulitis in the lower extremities. I think Wilson's theory is medically quite sound.

No, I was quite impressed with this chapter. I did not mean to imply that I was not. But Wilson's writing is so dense ... so filled with new ideas that are sometimes very jarring in how they differ from the common mythology ... that it takes quite a bit of thinking and mental work to digest it all. Anne Bolyen as a quasi-fanatic in the area of religion is such an odd concept that it takes some getting used to. And while I am prepared to accept Wilson's argument that the image of Henry VIII as "big," powerful, and self-assured is nothing more than a carefully constructed persona, it too takes a bit of getting used to ... especially since Wilson seems to hammer at the notion rather incessantly (more on that in my summation).

PhD Historian said...

Chapter Eight : Moloch

With “dominatrix” Anne out of the way, Henry married “submissive” Jane Seymour, but not before burying his only surviving son, the illegitimate Henry Fitzroy. Wilson continues to argue the point that Henry was unpredictable and perhaps even unstable by noting that he first ordered a secret burial for Fitzroy, then upbraided the Duke of Norfolk for following that order. Wilson also argues that the Succession Act of 1536 declaring Mary and Elizabeth both illegitimate and barring them from the succession was in actuality a first step in the legal process of naming Fitzroy as his heir (had Fitzroy survived, of course). I am inclined to agree with Wilson’s thesis in this regard. Henry was now 45 years old and would be a very elderly man before any future legitimate son would be old enough to succeed him as an adult. If the security of the dynasty was Henry’s first priority throughout his life, he must have been making contingency plans for dealing with the possibility that he might never have a legitimate son.

Thomas Cromwell, the first and most important of “the two TCs,” emerges from this chapter as the new Wosley, the new power behind the throne. Cromwell filled court offices with men of his own choosing who were presumably as loyal to him as they were to the crown. The conservative faction led by Norfolk was outgunned. But like all of Henry’s deputies before him, Cromwell managed to create new enemies even as he overcame the old ones. For Cromwell, the issue of religious reformation became his Trojan horse.

Wilson argues that the English reformation conducted by Cromwell was really Henry’s own doing and largely an egotistical attempt to impose his authority in a new sphere. But because Henry’s personal theology was so changeable, and because Cromwell was willing to play both sides of the religious divide against each other, the process became a troubling one, leading to widespread dissent and rebellion. Henry, for example, insisted on passage of the Act Abolishing Diversity of Opinion, know today as the Act of the Six Articles. No sooner was it passed than Henry chose not to enforce it. The entire English reformation, Wilson argues, was a mish-mash of plans and counter-plans, constantly changing direction and lacking in any real focus, largely because Henry himself was “unstable” and too insecure in his own beliefs.

The background for the religious debate was, of course, the marriage to Jane Seymour and the birth of a son in October 1537, followed immediately by Jane’s death, probably from post-partum infection. Henry suddenly found himself unmarried and with no surviving former wives, possessed of the son that he had moved heaven and earth to obtain, and now free to marry ... or not marry ... for purely diplomatic reasons. But Wilson again hammers the point that Henry’s choice was driven by a “need [for] strong stimulus in order to be able to perform in bed” (p.276). Though “drooling” over the prospect of marrying the young Christina of Denmark, Anne of Cleves presented the better political option because her brother was a potential wedge between France and the Holy Roman Empire/Spain. Christina might hold more appeal to Henry sexually, but she lacked the ability to keep Henry in the international spotlight, something Henry craved more than sex.

Wilson argues that the cause for the failure of the match between Henry and Anne lay in Henry’s stupidity in presenting himself to Anne fro the first time in disguise. Henry failed to realize that Anne did not comprehend the medieval English chivalric tradition of lovers appearing to each other in transparent “disguises.” Never having seen Henry before, Anne rightly rebuffed the advances of a “stranger.” Henry, over-confident in his ability as an aging man to “wow” a young woman, reacted in a manner consistent with his past: his bruised ego and overwhelming personal insecurity compelled him to reject her in “knee-jerk” fashion. Though forced to proceed with the formalities of the marriage, the psychological damage resulting from Anne’s behavior left Henry incapable of physically consummating the match. To hide that psycho-physical inadequacy, he shifted all blame to Anne ... and to Cromwell for having pushed for the match in the first place. In Anne’s place, he seized on the young and sexually precocious Katherine Howard, niece of Cromwell’s principal enemy at court. Cromwell fought back against the rise of the Norfolks but only made more enemies in doing so, sealing his own doom.

There is a significant portion of this chapter devoted to the dissolution of the monasteries and isolated episodes from within that larger narrative, as well as to the Pilgrimage of Grace and Henry’s reaction to it. I have chosen, for purposes of this “blog,” not to focus on those topics because they do not contribute significantly to Wilson’s overall thesis regarding Henry VIII’s personality and character. Wilson’s evidence and argument are much stronger in areas of Henry’s relations with individuals rather than his relations to groups and movements.

PhD Historian said...

Chapter Nine : God Will Not, I Hope, Allow This Tyranny Much Longer

With Cromwell’s execution, Henry VIII found himself all but alone. There was no able advisor for him to turn to, Wilson argues. Instead, he was left with “lightweights [and] second rate men.” And even though he probably realized that his end was near, he made no substantive preparations, as his father had done, to leave the realm in optimal condition for his heir. Instead, he left a bankrupt nation at war with France and Scotland and torn internally by a religious divide. This is not the picture of an effective leader.

Wilson characterizes the last years of Henry’s reign as “messy,” fraught with vacillation and indecision and changes of mind. In the area of religion, in particular, Henry’s mind was far from settled ... as one might expect from those faced with their own mortality. His own theological positions were contradictory and mutable, with distinctly conservative, pro-Catholic components. Wilson discounts the usual notion of factionalism, in large part because Henry’s inner circle and Privy Chamber was still peopled largely by Cromwell’s men, all evangelicals. The Privy Council, however, was largely pro-Catholic. This division between Chamber and Council would seem to indicate blatant factionalism, to me at least, but Wilson argues that Henry’s failing health made him more dependent on Chamber than on Council.

Sexual inadequacy rears its seemingly omnipresent head again, this time as Henry pursues the young and appealing Katherine Howard, a member of the Council faction. Wilson claims that Henry was driven by a desire to “prove to the world his undiminished virility” by getting “nymphet” Katherine pregnant. Cromwell’s fall was largely the result of his failure to sense the king’s own sense of urgency in the matter, Wilson argues, leaving time for the Council party to engineer evidence against Cromwell. And Henry was too foolish to be able to perceive the machinations going on right under his nose, largely because he was essentially obsessed with his new sex object, Wilson implies.

Wilson takes a somewhat apologetic, even revisionist, approach to Katherine Howard, offering her sympathy on account of her youth and inexperience. Katherine was possessed of a “natural warmth,” Wilson argues, so that her frequent violations of courtly protocol should be interpreted not as an absence of dignity but as a desire to put others at ease. As for Katherine’s indiscretions with Thomas Culpepper, Wilson blames these on the folly of youth and Henry’s own ... you guessed it! ... sexual inadequacy. Wilson further argues that Henry may have actually tired of Katherine, as he had of Anne Boleyn, when it became clear that Katherine was unlikely to become pregnant. Her barrenness was a constant reminder to Henry of his own failure as a man. And Wilson goes one step further: “No woman could satisfy [Henry] because he could satisfy no woman. He was psychologically and probably physically incapable of love” (p. 312).

Having lost interest in Katherine and rid himself of her, Henry turned to the other avenue most often used by men to confirm their manliness: warfare. And not content to wage one war, Henry over-compensated by waging war on two fronts, France and Scotland. Wilson argues that Henry was out-manned on both fronts to the extent that his continental rivals led their armies personally while Henry could not, and his Scottish rival, the Earl of Arran, simply outfoxed him.

Henry re-married, for the infamous sixth time, to Katherine Parr. Henry was not seeking additional male children in this instance, Wilson suggests, but rather the “ego-massaging” that Tudor wives were expected to deliver. And Katherine brought with her significant experience in dealing with elderly husbands in ill health, though it is not clear that Henry gave conscious consideration to this portion of her resumé. Nor is it likely that he considered her evangelical religious beliefs, though those beliefs did eventually influence his own as well as those of Edward and Elizabeth, and Katherine’s connections eventually shaped the religious future of the realm.

But by the beginning of 1546, it was clear to all, perhaps even to Henry himself, that he was dying. Henry’s personal wishes for the realm became less critical than those of the leaders of the various factions jockeying for power upon the old king’s demise and the new king’s expected period of regency. Court factions focused on Katherine Parr and Thomas Howard, the perceived heads of the progressive and conservative parties, respectively. Attempts by Gardiner to topple Parr failed. And though Howard apparently surrendered to the seemingly inevitable ascendancy of the evangelical party, he nonetheless found himself under arrest and imprisoned in the Tower in the last weeks of the king’s life, ostensibly on charges of attempting to gain control over Prince Edward in anticipation of Henry’s imminent death.

Henry died just days later, without having signed Howard’s death warrant. The realm was left to a child, albeit a male one. Oddly, Wilson makes no comment here on the new and novel circumstances, nor does he comment in any substantive way on Henry’s will and the controversy that has surrounded it and its questionable authenticity. Perhaps the Epilogue will deal with some of those issues.

PhD Historian said...

Epilogue : So, Who Was the Real Henry?

Wilson offers what he calls an “Epilogue” but which might more properly be called an “Afterword.” And it is precisely the kind of “wrap-up” chapter that this book needed. It reads like a well-written essay, neatly summarizing his principal arguments and conclusions, call carefully organized thematically.

Wilson begins by noting that the debate over the nature of Henry VIII’s life and achievements began just as soon as he was dead, with his contemporaries immediately weighing in from both the positive and negative sides. And indeed, entire volumes have been written on the Tudor-era histories of Tudor history, noting how very difficult it is to separate the facts from propagandizing.

On the “Pro” side, Henry left his throne secured by a male heir and freed from potential challengers. The Crown was more powerful at the end of his reign than it had been at the beginning, and England had become an effective player in the international community. England had the beginnings of a strong navy that would serve her well into the modern era.

On the “Con” side, his sole male heir failed to survive, and the entire dynasty failed to survive beyond his own three legitimate children. The realm was all but bankrupt, the coinage was massively devalued (an issue barely mentioned before now), and the people restless from over-taxation. Military victories on the continent had been wasted and territories lost. Relations with Scotland were so poorly handled that a wedge was driven between the two that took decades to remove.

And as regards the royal navy, Henry himself cannot be credited with that legacy. It was instead almost the sole “invention” of John Dudley, Lord Admiral in the last years of Henry’s reign and the first years of Edward’s. Wilson notes, quite rightly in my opinion, that despite the development and availability of a strong navy, Henry “failed in imagination” and did not exploit that possibilities offered by that navy. Where Spain and Portugal opened up empires in the Americas, Asia, and Africa, England essentially failed to look so far afield until the Stuart era. But I think it can be argued that there was a silver lining in this failure: Spain became entirely dependent economically on the influx of gold and silver from the Americas, and when the mines played out Spain very nearly collapsed. Perhaps England did well to wait until the Industrial Revolution and the growth of international market economies before becoming aggressively involved in empire building.

A question arose recently on this Q&A asking whether the English church would have undergone such profound changes had Henry not decided to divorce Katherine of Aragon. Wilson rhetorically asks the same question and answers with a firm “yes.” He argues that Henry’s personality was such that he would inevitably quarreled with Rome over the issue of control within the realm of England. And in his insecurity, he would eventually have demanded absolute personal control, regardless of other circumstances. Wilson also notes that religious change was occurring in every country where the church was not controlled entirely by the crown. In essence, Spain, with Inquisition under direct Crown control, as the only realm that could have and did escape “reformation.” Wilson asks whether Henry was a true religious reformer. His own answer is “no.” Henry was a “control freak” (my term, not Wilson’s) and would have used religion as a means to gain greater control, altering his personal theology at will to meet his psychological needs. Henry was an opportunist, not a committed theologian.

So was Henry a tyrant, as some historians have suggested? Was he a sixteenth-century Nero or Stalin? Wilson argues not. If anything, Henry was less personally tyrannical than Charles V of Spain, and less autocratically tyrannical than Frances I of France. Henry was “no more extreme than his brother monarchs” (350).

Was Henry a “brilliant, cultured prince?” Wilson again answers “No.” While he did cultivate a court of intellectuals and artists, the credit for recruiting those talents must go to others. Thomas More brought in Erasmus; those two together convinced Holbein to come to London. Wolsey brought in architects and artisans. Henry merely accepted the credit. And Henry failed utterly to develop native English intellectuals and artists. (Art historians routinely lament the utter dearth of competent portrait artists in England following Holbein’s death until the last two decades of the Elizabethan period. Native English intellectuals did not appear in number until the Stuart era.)

And of course, no chapter can end without a return to the recurring theme of sexual inadequacy. Wilson seems totally convinced that Henry suffered a life long sexual dysfunction and that his deep-seated need to mask that de-masculinization of that issue was the driving force in his life.

Wilson’s concluding assessment is that Henry VII was correct in believing “that his younger son would never amount to much.” In Wilson’s judgment, Henry VIII indeed did not amount to much, really, other than a carefully constructed but utter false image of personal majesty.

Summation :

On the whole, this book is an enjoyable enough read, though I am not sure that it is at all appropriate for “beginners” in Tudor history. It fairly races through the historical narrative and assumes the reader has huge chunks of in-depth prior knowledge. And though the prose if exceptionally well written, the organization is somewhat disjointed. And if I never hear the name “Henry” and the word “impotence” in the same paragraph again, I will be happy! Wilson seems to hammer this one idea ad nasueam, so that by the end of the book I was inclined to completely dismiss the idea simply out of negative reaction to over-argumentation.

In graduate school, we students used to strive to review books as written rather than looking at them with an eye to how we would have written them ourselves. But if I may indulge briefly in the latter, I do think the central thesis of this book, i.e., that Henry VIII was psychologically tormented, could have been argued more effectively in a single long article rather than a 350-page book. The thesis has merit, and there is some evidence to support it, but not 350 pages worth. Sometimes less is simply more.

I do apologize for taking so long to complete this "live-blog." It's been a hectic three weeks. I hope most of you were able to maintain some interest during the long pauses.

Lara said...

No need to apologize! Thanks so much for doing this and giving us all of your insight.

Foose said...

PhD Historian, thank you for presenting your very intriguing and comprehensive thoughts on Wilson's book. I started on it late in your blogging and I agree with you that he dwells quite a bit on Henry's alleged sexual dysfunction. (In some ways I think his thesis was a sort of harking back to earlier narratives that emphasized Henry's domestic inadequacies and his easy manipulation by court factions and favorites, rather than completely original.)

An interesting pendant for Wilson's Henry might be David Loades' new Tudor Queens of England. I quite like Loades' previous works but in this one he seems to relentlessly advertise "sexual frustration" as a driving force for almost every queen, ranging from Catherine de Valois to of course Elizabeth. It became rather tiresome after a while. I think there is a modern tendency to assign sex an absolutely central role in the motivations of 16th-century people that I am not sure is justified.