Sarah Hoyt addresses the elephant in in the doublet:
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.