Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Question from haven leigh - Manipulation of Henry VIII by factions

I have been watching the show The Tudors- I know very fake but JRM is very sexy but I digress
My question is On the show it seems like Henri is so easily manipulated by all the people around him. His friends, advisers, and in laws. The Boyeln men and Seymours. Is this realistic? Was he that stupid not to see that people just used him to score personal scores.
Als0- did he really just "dump" his children as soon as he was done with their mothers- Mary and Elizabeth.


PhD Historian said...

I hate to see a question go unresponded to, so I will jump in here.

In his recent psycho-biography of Henry VIII, which I "live-blogged" on this site as I read it, Derek Wilson argued that Henry VIII was indeed quite suspectible to being influenced by those around him, especially by those who had the means to make Henry feel better about himself. Wilson argued that Henry was deeply insecure, and that both individuals and factions were able to exploit that insecurity through a variety of means.

I think "dump" is perhaps too harsh a word, but yes, Henry did distance himself from his daughters Mary and Elizabeth following the end of his marriages to each of their mothers. In both cases, the distancing was probably a function of political strategy. Were he seen to remain close to them, it might call into question the divorces. After all, both Mary and Elizabeth were declared illegitimate following the end of their mother's marriage to Henry. It was hardly "politic" for him to remain close to those illegitimate daughters, in large part because the hoped-for birth of a son was intended to secure the Tudor dynasty, not Mary or Elizabeth. Henry needed to do all he could to minimize the chance of either daughter inheriting so long as their was even the remotest of possibilities for the birth of a son by any of his subsequent wives. Only when Katherine Parr convinced him, circa 1543-44, that no more sons were forthcoming did Henry re-embrace his daughters.

Then there is the issue of Mary's disobedience. It was exceedingly difficult to convince her to accept the religious changes brought about during Henry's reign. It would again have been impolitic for Henry to be seen as "close" with a daughter who was openly defiant of his authority.

But more than that, I am personally convinced that Henry was so driven in his pursuit of a male heir that it was difficult, especially after the divorce from Katherine of Aragon, for him to feel especially affectionate toward his children. It is always problematic to judge the parental attitudes of royalty from almost 500 years ago using modern parenting standards, but I do believe Henry was prone to long periods of emotional coldness towards his children, even his son Edward (though the evidence is only minimal and circumstantial). I believe Henry was too self-absorbed, and too insecure in his own sense of self, to be able to muster the necessary energy to reach out to his children.

Luv said...

Well according to historian Hester Chapman, Queen Katherine of Aragon believe Henry VIII to be easily manipulated. I believe Anne Boleyn thought the same thing as well, considering that she once blame Cromwell for encouraging Henry VIII relationship with Jane Seymore, and she blame Ambassador Chaupys for the reasons Henry VIII feeling change toward her. Neither Anne , or Queen Katherine seem to blame Henry VIII. Historian Derek Wilson believe that Henry VIII was well aware of the faction at court, and often play off them. Henry VIII surround himself with people he could use, and manipulated. Imo, it's hard to determine rather or not Henry VIII was easily manipulated, or rather he was the manipulator. It all the matter of perspective in which you view Henry VIII.

Kathy said...

I respectfully disagree, PhD Historian, but I think psycho-biographies are nothing more than psycho-gibberish.

Was Henry susceptible to manipulation from those around him? How you answer this is nothing more or less than political spin. I live close to Washington DC and see this in operation pretty much on a daily basis. For the sake of discussion, let's assume we are talking about a male so I don't have to complicate the syntax and can just use 'he". Here's the way the spin works:

A person you do not like changes his mind on something:
"This shows he is weak and vacillating and susceptible to manipulation by those around him."The same person (you do not like) doesn't change his mind on something:
"This shows he is inflexible and rigid in his attitudes."A person you like changes his mind on something:
"This shows he is flexible, able to evaluate new information, and adjust his attitudes and actions accordingly."The same person (you do like) doesn't change his mind on something:
"This shows he is steadfast in his beliefs and trusts his own judgment."If you don't like Henry VIII, he is the first person. If you do like him, he's he second person. Everything else is psycho-babble. BTW, Fox News is excellent at political spin. Watch them to get lessons in how this works.

PhD Historian said...

I respect your disagreement on psychobiography, Kathy. I might point out that I have repeatedly stated in this Q&A blog that attempts to psycho-analyze persons long dead is a very risky undertaking, since we have so very little evidence from which we can construct reliable psychological profiles for most individuals. And even within my blogging on Derek Wilson's book, I questioned many of his conclusions.

However, I do believe that there is sufficient evidence available for Henry VIII to suggest that he was indeed insecure and that individuals and factions at court were able to play to those insecurities and to manipulate Henry to a degree. But I never meant to imply that Henry was so weak that he was easily and always manipulated by everyone around him.

"Luv" raises a very interesting point that I should have mentioned myself: Just as Henry VIII was manipulated by those around him, so too he manipulated them in turn.

Politics inherently involves manipulation ... of people, events, opinions, beliefs, etc. For Henry or any other monarch or politician of the Tudor era to have been successful, he must necessarily have been capable of manipulating others. And he must also have been susceptible to some degree of manipulation himself. Politics involves compromise, and compromise is often achieved by manipulation. The intransigent individual seldom lasts long in politics. Henry was intransigent in only one sphere: securing the dynasty through a male succession. In all other areas, he was susceptible to some degree of compromise, often achieved by manipulation.

"Political spin" is very different from "manipulation." The former involves manipulating the interpretation of news-worthy events and controlling the political message put before the public. The latter involves the degree to which an individual is susceptible to the advice and opinions of others. In my opinion, the evidence that Henry VIII was suspectible to the attentions of young women that he found physically attractive and that those women (and their families) were able to influence his behavior using their physicality suggests manipulation, not ex post facto "political spin." Either Henry VIII responded to Anne Boleyn's charms and altered the course of English history or he didn't ... there's little "spin" involved there

Kathy said...

I probably didn't make myself clear enough in what I was trying to say in my previous post -- no surprise. I didn't mean to make my remarks strictly relevant to psychological histories or politics.

To state the obvious, actions of individuals are open to interpretation by observers in their own times and in the case of historical figures such as Henry, by researchers, psychologists, and, well, everybody else hundreds of years after they lived.

One of my main dislikes of psychological histories, other than that they apply tools to people in situations where they aren't really valid, is the psychologists themselves. To use a cliche, when the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems look like nails. Psychologists are used to dealing with psychological problems and see them everywhere whether a normal person would see them as problems or not. I think this bleeds over into psychological histories and they find problems in what others would view as normal behavior.

As for spin, it's political if it is used for politics, but it's basically a method which can and is used in other situations by other people including historians.

As regards Henry: Henry was convinced he needed a son. After a certain time it became clear that Catherine of Aragon was not going to give him one. He became involved with Anne Boleyn who certainly did use Henry to further herself and her family. That is obviously stating it in a very simplistic manner for the sake of argument, and with an attempt to put no judgement on anybody's actions.

But, if you like Henry and want to put a positive spin on him, you say he was a strong king who knew what he needed to maintain his kingdom and went after it, methodically getting rid of the obstacles in his path and negotiating his way to getting his desire.

If you don't like Henry, you say he was weak-willed and easily manipulated by women who got him to do exactly what they wanted him to do because it furthered their agenda.

Both of these conclusions could be drawn from the same set of facts -- especially at a distance of 500 years. Did Anne use Henry? Or did Henry use Anne? Or did they both use each other in pretty much the fashion normal people behave. Obviously it depends entirely on how you look at it. The spin comes in when you form an opinion as to character and motive and attempt to convince others of your opinion And there's room for lots of "spin" there.

Denise said...

I think that is one of the things that makes this and earlier periods so interesting because power is held so personally. Positions are inherited, and therefore authority is held by specific people who may not be up to the job and easily led astray. Also there are none of the checks and balances that we are familiar with in government today.
Therefore, it is appropriate to question the state of mind and desires of those with power because they are likely to be able to act on them. The whims of kings have caused heads to roll not just in Tudor times. And there are many examples of people raised high because of friendships and connections rather than ability.

While it is a good idea to question the motivation of the people in the court, where things go wrong is when we try to judge them. (This is where bad fiction fails too...) Today's standards just do not apply. Was Henry a bad father? In order to decide that we have to measure him against other 16th century fathers and English nobility. Henry II fought against all his sons. Mary and Arthur had separate households in Wales without being in disgrace. Many courtiers left their families at home. As PhD Historian points out, Henry's children were political dynamite and he may not have had the luxury of doting on them without compromising his position.

All we can do is speculate why they did what they did. It feels good to come up with a theory that fits all the points of data. But heck I can't even figure out why I do some of the things I do.

PhD Historian said...

Kathy, I have to agree completely with your "hammer and nail" analogy, even if I continue to believe that psycho-biography has merit when carefully and properly conducted.

But as you note, it is true that professional academic historians (as opposed to history writers for the general public) sometimes have a tendency to become too highly focused on a specific methodology. Indeed, as I noted in the lengthy blog on Derek Wilson's psycho-biography of Henry VIII, the endlessly repetitious insistence that Henry was sexually inadequate weakened the overall thesis, simply because the hammer kept striking the same nail long after it was well and truly driven in.

In our defense, any academic who has spent literally decades training in a specific methodology is likely to become blindered. It does take conscious effort to look beyond those blinders. Historians of women see everything as an issue of patriarchy and misogyny. Historians of religion see religion in everything. Sadly, it's the nature of the beast. Most of us do make a strong effort to remain aware of our own little obsessions, with varying degrees of success.

But I have to object to the idea that if we (i.e., academic historians) "like" a historical figure, it shapes how we write about that person. I also object to the notion that we might "want to put a positive (or negative) spin" on some historical person or event. We are trained, carefully trained, to be aware of and to avoid personal bias in our research and writings. Any good and respectable academic historian will either successfully avoid his/her biases or will admit them upfront. There is a minority, nonetheless, who are less successful in avoiding bias, and that minority sometimes overshadows the larger community.

But long story short, yes, it would be a gross over-statement to say that Henry VIII was easily and always subject to manipulation by individuals or factions. But it would also be a gross over-statement to say that he was a supremely powerful and utterly self-confident ruler who exercised complete personal control over his realm. The point here is that the iconic "Great Harry" so often depicted in popular histories is a characterization, and an inaccurate one at that. The real Henry Tudor was almost certainly a "normal person," and all "normal" people are responsive to the influences of those around them. Any individual who is totally unresponsive to the opinions and influences of others is a sociopath, and Henry was no sociopath. As you suggest, Henry "used" and manipulated Anne Boleyn and her family to achieve his goal of siring a male heir. And at the same time, Anne and her family "used" and manipulated Henry VIII for their own goals of self- and familial-aggrandizement. The manipulation ran in both directions, contrary to those who may think that Henry was too self-assured and self-aware to allow himself to be manipulated.

Kathy said...

Ph.D Historian, I probably should have used "approve" rather than "like" as I did regarding historians. It's a slippery area. I came to this time in history trained in literature and linguistics, where a shade of meaning on a word can connote a major difference in attitude or meaning. So I am extremely sensitive to word choice and I find "manipulated" or "subject to being manipulated" to have very negative connotations.

I also have a bit of personal experience regarding historians of the Tudor era. I carried on an email correspondence for a couple of years with a historian (with a Ph.D as you have) who owned and managed his own publishing company in the US. He initially emailed me in response to a website I had set up and managed that had nothing to do with the Tudors. But over the years he would send me copies of books that his company published and copies of books that he had written. From what I could tell, all of his books were published by his company but they published other books as well. Some of the ones I got were reasonably decent books. But he eventually started posting on my bulletin board and in emails about items that ventured into Tudor areas and I could see then that he was a rabid Catholic whose entire view of Tudor England was through that lens. In his eyes, the Pope and the Catholic Church could do no wrong, and Henry VIII and Elizabeth I could do no right. He even called Elizabeth a "hooligan" and a "gangster". ( I wish I had gotten some more details from him on those allegations, but I didn't. )

Instead I emailed him citing one of the proposals that Cardinal Campeggio put forward when he came to England to hear Henry VIII's divorce petition. That proposal was the one that Henry and Catherine's daughter, Mary, marry her half-brother Henry Fitzroy. I asked my email friend if marriage to a half-sibling represented an example of the infallibility of the Catholic Church in the 16th century. He was so infuriated that I dared to criticize the Catholic Church that he broke off the correspondence.

That more or less firmed up my belief that academic degrees are not really an indication of the soundness of views or ability, no matter what the recipients were trained to do. Eventually prejudices come through. I hasten to add that I am not accusing you of anything of the sort. It's just that I have seen this in action and continue to do so. From the experience I had I have a somewhat sceptical view of historians and historical research.

I'm off to Jamestown, Virginia early in the morning and will be gone for the weekend, so I won't be able to continue this very interesting discussion in a timely fashion, but if you would like to continue it further, Lara has my permission to give you my email address and I will give you more information about the historian I was discussing.

PhD Historian said...

I am always saddened when an entire profession ... any profession ... is judged based on a single experience with one non-normative individual. Every profession has its loose cannons and crackpots, certainly. But I do tend to believe that the majority of the members of any profession, including academic historians, are competent, responsible people who abide by the tenets of their chosen field. And history as a field of research does have a set of guiding tenets, including those that address personal bias and "prejudice" and their intrusion into historiography.

If one becomes "skeptical" of an entire field of knowledge and its practitioners based upon a single experience, how does one then engage with that field of knowledge in future? If one has a bad experience with a single physician and becomes skeptical of all medical research, how does one get medical care? Or if one has a bad experience with a single airline pilot and becomes skeptical of all pilots and of aeronautics, how does one then travel long distance? History is perhaps less critical to daily life than is medicine or air travel, but it does nonetheless play a major role in the human experience. How does one approach history if one is "skeptical" of all its practitioners and their written product?

Yes, personal prejudices may eventually come through ... in anyfield of human endeavor. But most true professions (as opposed to those who call themselves "professionals" despite a complete lack of specialized training, advanced degrees, or licensure) carefully train and monitor their members using specified codes of conduct, and usually censure those who violate the codes. Professional academic historians are, in my experience, fairly rigorous in that regard. Since your experience was with someone who was self-published rather than published by a peer-reviewed press, I have to wonder whether or not he/she has, in fact, been censured in the past by the larger body of history professionals.

I too am sensitive to words and their meanings and their positive/negative connotations. And while I do not find "very negative" connotations in the word "manipulate," I will agree that there are perhaps other terms that could be used, terms that may be more nearly neutral in the reactions they evoke. However, the original question used the word "manipulate," so I felt it necessary to respond in the questioner's own terms.

And for the record, I cannot think of any historical event or person prior to the twentieth century of which I personally "approve" or "disapprove," "like" or "dislike," "admire" or "disdain" to the degree that I would allow my feelings to color significantly any research and writing about them. And that includes my primary interest, Jane Grey and women in the Protestant Reformation. As I have repeatedly said in this Q&A blog, it is hugely problematic for persons living today to claim to understand fully, or even to judge, persons from several centuries in the past. I do have my personal biases, to be sure, but I do try at all times to keep them in check when writing in my role as a professional historian.

Kathy said...

Oh, dear, as usual, I didn't explain myself very well. I am "skeptical" to the point not of discounting outright everything every historian says that I disagree with, but of now being extremely wary and doubting of many assertions until I find independent proof of them and of looking for an underlying bias in research. Personally, I'm not sure that's a bad thing.

Also I think I was more upset than anything that my email correspondent was unable or unwilling to debate an issue in a scholarly manner. I am very used to academic give and take and enjoy it enormously. I participated in one argument in a Shakespeare class regarding interpretations of Hamlet that I half expected to end in a fist fight. It didn't though, because everybody involved was professional enough not to be personally invested in their arguments. (The professor incidentally grinned through the entire hour and eventually said that was one of the finest classes he had ever taught.) Also, I got raked over the coals in my oral defense of my thesis. But I expected that and was prepared. I certainly held no personal animosity to any of my committee members. As far as I was concerned, I was just throwing out my well-researched and well-presented ideas for academic debate.

I can't think of anybody in history or literature that I like or dislike so much that I feel personally invested in how they are received by the rest of academia or the public in general. I finally decided that my historian correspondent was just so deeply involved in his religion that it colored his entire view of the Tudors. I know if he got so upset over my fairly obvious question, that he wouldn't be able to handle more learned criticism. than mine. It did make me wonder what kind of experience he had had in graduate school because it had to have been very different than mine.

I don't know what my correspondent's experiences were with peer review or if that is why he chose to self-publish. His company does seem to be a legitimate publisher that publishes matter other than his own and some reasonably decent material at that. Also I haven't run across his final work on the Tudors (if it has been published yet) but I haven't been looking either. If I find it, I'm not going to waste the money on buying it.

Speaking of publishers though, I think they are also responsible in large part for negative material. When I talked to Alison Weir back in February, she said she was completely dependent on her publisher as to what she could write. I know she isn't an academic, but her work is certainly influential on how the public perceives various Tudors and how they are willing to perceive them, which in turn is bound to influence what comes out of academia. She says the only thing publishers really seem interested in at the moment is salacious material about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.

I think this also may be responsible in large part for David Starkey and his endeavors. For instance, his recent television series on "Henry VIII - The Mind of a Tyrant". I've watched every episode and I can't find anywhere in there that he goes into any detail on Henry being a "tyrant". I know you could probably argue that view, but he doesn't. He just says Henry was "one of the most important and original monarchs ever to have sat on the throne." Of course, that view wouldn't sell a television series, so we end up with "tyrant" in the title because that would sell better.

A bit of a digression -- a short while back I watched the movie The History Boys. I have no idea how accurate it was in presenting prepartion to studying history at the university level in England back in the day, but it did show some interesting ways of looking at history when you encounter it. I suspect Starkey thoroughly subscribes to the "Irwin method" of presenting history.