Henry VIII and His Desperate Dynasty

Sarah Hoyt addresses the elephant in in the doublet:

Is that a fat joke?

Anyway, so every author agrees Henry VIII as a young man was a true renaissance man, good at everything and so very good looking.  And every author wonders what dread disease caused him to turn not just into a murderous tyrant, but a stupid murderous tyrant in old age.

Except if you dig in you find that when his dumbest moves were made was after he’d killed his two ministers, first the great one and then his apprentice.  (Wolsey and Cromwell.)  Which brings us to… was he really that brilliant or were they great at manipulating him.

She goes on to question his authorship of his books and music, the quality of his poetry, and the wisdom of his policy, given that despite helping himself to the centuries-old wealth of monastic England, he still left the kingdom in debt.

Which is nice to see, because I’m plumb tired of Henry VIII and really, all his dynasty. The Tudors (1485-1603) are a vastly overrated family, as a ruling group, and as people. Their accomplishments are dwarfed by the attention afforded them.

The best thing that could be said of their rule was that England survived – which was not as small an accomplishment as that makes it sound. England in 1485 was bloodied and humiliated by the loss of the Hundred Year’s War and the resulting Wars of the Roses. It was reduced to a second-tier power, compared to France and the coming Hapsburg Empire, and would remain so throughout the Tudor Period.

Henry VII was a usurper, who won the crow via treachery against the last of the Plantagenets, Richard III, and who spent his entire reign looking over his shoulder. He was desperate to be recognized as a legitimate sovereign, and so determined to keep a marital alliance with Spain, to the point of securing a papal dispensation for his younger son to marry Katherine of Aragon when his elder son died.

Henry VIII, that younger son, felt only slightly less dynastic pressure as the son of a usurper (he also had Plantagenet blood through his mother Elizabeth of York). His desperation for a male heir is well-known and hilarious (considering that both his daughters succeeded to the throne), but his true desperation was to display his significance. His ambition and his circumstances never met. In the great geopolitical conflict of his time, between the Valois and Hapbsburg, Henry could play no larger part than that of an engrossed gadfly. He spent his reign flitting between the two powers, hungry for a chance at glory that never came. His religious policy is best looked at as part of the overall subjugation of spiritual to temporal matters in the modern age: England became Protestant out of raison d’etat.

Edward VI, the fruit of that religious policy, was desperate to make England a Reformed Protestant power, and to secure that succession. Most of all, he was desperate to live. Neither happened, and he became his dynasty’s footnote.

Mary I, England’s first true Queen Regnant (Matilda, the foil of King Stephen in the 12th century, doesn’t count), was Edward’s polar opposite, desperate to return England to Rome and have the Catholic family she was denied in her youth. Her marriage to Phillip II of Spain was a sad and miserable affair, and she proved utterly out of her depth at soothing the religious tensions of the previous reigns. She died lonely and hated, still hoping for someone to love.

Which brings us to Elizabeth I, the longest-reigning and most successful of the Tudors. She deserves most of the good press that comes her way, as alone among her family she was patient, practical, and kept her goals small. Recognizing the dangers that lurked around every corner, she set survival as her policy and did not deviate from that. She was desperate to keep religious wars out of England, desperate to keep the Spanish at bay, and desperate to avoid being entangled in any wars save the occasional raid on Cadiz and police action in Ireland. The cost of this was her celibacy and the end of her family. But her success enabled England to thrive and lay the foundations of the maritime power it would become in subsequent centuries. But even she lived and reigned in fear.

The Tudors made for a fine soap opera, but at best, they managed only to hold on.

5 thoughts on “Henry VIII and His Desperate Dynasty

    1. I tried to think of a way to mock Elizabeth, but I couldn’t. She really did the best she could within the circumstances she had. Only her grandfather (the second-best Tudor, IMO) would have done as well.

      My greatest disappointment in the Showtime series is that they did not even think to dramatize Henry 7. He was twice the man his son was, and a faithful husband, too.

      1. Yep. I’m reading a novel about Katherine of Aragon by Jeane Plaidy and the eye rolling has started. I realize it is a novel, but the a-historicity of it is driving me nuts, including pointed out Henry VIII’s anointed state in childhood as the best of his parents’ kid. Actually the indications are that his father was scared he would make a scary-bad ruler, while Arthur was the properly trained son. (BTW the other thing driving me nuts is her making Arthur small and slight and sickly — when in fact he was described as tall and strapping and smart. Also, the belief now is that he died of testicular cancer which took about two months to kill him.) I realize part of this is validating Katherine’s continuous insistence her marriage wasn’t consummated with Arthur… which is highly unlikely to be true. (And still wouldn’t make her second invalid, since they DID have a dispensation to cover for that, specifically.)
        Mind you, Elizabeth was, by our standards, a nutbar. But she was a shrewd and fairly conscientious nutbar.And she did the best she could under truly horrible circumstances.
        The best you can do for mocking her is that there is evidence the ONLY guy she considered seriously marrying/might have fallen in love with was a crossdressing French prince. But that’s not so much funny as the inevitable consequence (I think) both of her being a very strong woman in a position of power and of her having seen her crazy father and how he treated her stepmothers. She might have conflated “Strong and heterosexual” with “Insane and led around by his dick.”

  1. I personally am a great admirer of Elizabeth I . She overcame incredible odds to govern as unruly group of people as ever lived. Politics today are mild in comparison to the contretemps that went on back in Elizabeth’s day. Anne Bolyn was more than a merchants daughter. Its a shame she miscarried the heir, but the writing was on the wall for her as Henry was never faithful sexually. He was also not very nice to either daughter. It was his last wife Catherine Parr who made him understand their value beyond pawns on the european marriage market.


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