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Farewell, Henry VIII, we barely knew ye.

January 28, 2016

Henry viii

This is my favorite portrait of Henry VIII.  I bet it’s yours too.

I suppose this is how we all like to remember Henry VIII – jovial, lecherous, living it large, perhaps prone to decapitatory fits of bad temper, but basically lovable.

But it turns out he wasn’t all belly laughs and sunshine.  Oh dear me.  Not at all.  And when he died, 470 years ago today, it was hard for anyone to give him any advance warning.  “Imagining the King’s Death” was (and remained for hundreds of years) a definition of Treason.  There’s such a thing as “speaking truth to power”, but nobody in January 1547 felt in a position to say “here’s the thing, you’re about to snuff it mate”.

Apparently Thomas Cranmer made it to the royal bedside but only when the King was past all speech.  And so, at the instant he died, the boy king Edward VI became England’s first and most Protestant king – one of those rare monarchs who cared about religion for its own sake, for its own doctrines, rather than for its potential for political consolidation.

Henry VIII was a reluctant and uncertain Protestant.  Having been awarded the title of “Fidei Defensor” by the Pope for his attacks on Luther, he retained the title long after he’d thrown off allegiance to all Popes.  F.D. remains on British coinage to this day.  For most of his life, he felt more doctrinally Catholic than Protestant and at no point in his reign could protestants feel secure – not even his final rather protestant wife Catherine Parr.

In fact, Henry VIII, was not unlike the not very Christian Emperor Constantine – who was less interested in religious doctrine than in finding a flag that would rally troops to fight on behalf of the glorious cause of quashing one or more of Constantine’s many rivals.  But Henry did like to think of himself as religious, and liked nothing more than a theological discussion.  And by “discussion” he meant saying a bunch of holy sounding stuff and while a group of bishops stood around him and nodding and saying “very true Your Majesty.”

I’ve recently been introduced to the suggestion that the “Imperial” pretensions of the Tudors were derived ultimately from Henry’s breach with Rome since mere kings could be reduced by papal edict whereas emperors (Holy Roman) had established autonomy.  To claim imperial authority was, initially, a statement not of territorial extension but of radical independence.  The origins of England (and then Britain’s) imperial identity lie with a version of politic protestantism in other words.  Hmmm.

Of course, it’s hard to keep claiming you’re an empire is your territorial possessions are far more limited than those of your European rivals.  This anomaly would be rectified in subsequent generations.



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