Notorious Henry VIII Reassessed

Historians appraise monarch's place on the 500th anniversary of his birth

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

STOUT, splayed legs. Full, broad figure festooned in finery. Replumed head balanced on a stubby tree-trunk of a neck. Face valanced by thick beard, with small, shrewd eyes fixed in a withering gaze.The description can only be that of one historical character: King Henry VIII. Few individuals from the past conjure up such a vivid image, not just in England, the country where he reigned, but around the globe. For sheer notoriety alone, it's not surprising that this year, the 500th anniversary of the monarch's birth, is being celebrated. Britain is, however, commemorating the man for another reason. This 500th anniversary coincides with a significant reappraisal of Henry that is shaking up the hallowed halls of academia. Until now it has been held that the Tudor king's claim to fame - or infamy - largely rests on a particularly fickle propensity for wives, coupled with the much ballyhooed break with Rome. No longer. It's currently being put forward that there was a great deal more to the monarch. If viewed according to the values of his own age, so the revisionist thinking goes, Henry's overriding concern to produce an heir at whatever the cost, for example, would certainly have been seen by the majority of his contemporaries as a highly appropriate preoccupation for someone in his position. As for destroying the monasteries and establishing the Anglican faith with himself as its head, this, too, contains no contradiction with 16th-century ideas about the divine origin and primacy of kingship, and indeed a widespread distaste for the corruption that was rife in the medieval church. Such arguments, in short, are part of a growing movement among British historians, led by one of the country's top Tudor scholars, David Starkey, to cut through the hype and folly to see Henry for what he was: a complex personality combining vice and virtue, but, most vitally, displaying all the characteristics of a Renaissance man of the first order. Meeting Dr. Starkey at Greenwich's Maritime Museum, amid the many artifacts that have been gathered together especially for this year's Henry VIII celebration, it becomes clear just how true this statement is. Starkey was recently asked to devise an exhibition that would provide the focal point of Britain's commemorative activities. The approach he has taken, incorporating this marked shift from the traditionally bluff and boorish picture of Henry, has sparked criticism, as well as some strong support, w ithin the academic world. Fittingly, this richly evocative display, on exhibit until the end of September, is to be found in a corner of London that played a particularly prominent part in the Tudor king's life. It was a mere stone's throw away at Greenwich Palace (the foundations of which are under the present-day Royal Naval College) that Henry VIII was born, on June 28, 1491, and spent much of his youth. Moreover, after his coronation at age 17, the palace retained the distinction of being his favorite. "The most important idea I hope people come away with from this exhibition," says Starkey, professor of history at the London School of Economics and author of a recently published biography, "The Reign of Henry VIII,is that our present Charles Laughton view of Henry is wrong. He doesn't throw chicken bones around. He is a man of refined eating habits: He eats off gold and drinks out of Venetian glass. 'Renaissance court' is a corny phrase, but it's true that the English court, under Henry and through h is patronage, became one of the greatest courts in Europe." Apart from conjuring up a strong sense of the period, what the exhibition does best is to convey the breathtaking array of activities and achievements that made up the monarch. It quickly becomes evident that there are many often overshadowed facts about Henry VIII. A superlative sportsman as a young man, he was also a highly skilled musician, mathematician, architect, fortification strategist, and ship designer - not to mention a cartographer, who was personally responsible for the beginnings of English mapmaking. He was, moreover, an accomplished scholar of theology, history, and philosophy, as well as an expert in heraldry and genealogy (important subjects in those days since most property changed hands through family descent). On top of this, he had fluent command of Latin and French, plus a working knowledge of Spanish, Italian, and Greek. STARKEY maintains, however, that, his considerable gifts and accomplishments notwithstanding, Henry VIII's foremost contribution was to give powerful impetus to the idea of a national consciousness, something hitherto quite alien to the 16th-century world. In so doing, he helped catapult England to a position of major influence in a variety of spheres. Before Henry, the country, small in scale and physically separate from the continent, was generally seen as an inferior place, forever vulnerable to invas ion. Not so after Henry alighted the throne, with his unprecedented emphasis on cultural acquisition and display. "One of the great problems," observes Starkey, "is that we know the importance of the 16th century in determining not only our 'Englishness,' but the English language, which is the dominant world language today; what I think we need to do, however, is revise which end of the 16th century is important. What this exhibition is trying to say is: Let's think again." Until now, of course, it has been widely taken as a given that Elizabeth I, Henry's daughter, was the country's most influential monarch, and that it was she who established the mood for England's greatest cultural efflorescence and what endures as our image of Merry Olde England. Yet the facts, notes Starkey, do not bear this out. "The Elizabethan Age," he says, "is, in reality, a very peculiar age. You have a crabbed personality running the country: She spends no money at all, does very little, is totally negative - and, yes, all those things are absolutely true. Elizabeth's whole attitude to policy is negative. She doesn't want [to acquire] more; she doesn't want to marry, she doesn't want to name an heir. And most of what we call 'Elizabethan achievement' is, in fact, Jacobean ; nearly all of Shakespeare's great plays, for example, are written after Elizabeth's death. The really creative age, the age that contains all the sort of things that we tend to identify with the 16th century - when the foundations and much of the architecture is fashioned - is, in fact, in the age of Henry VIII." This has, of course, the ring of exactly what people might be expected to say on a 500th anniversary. When put to Starkey, however, he emphasizes that this is not puffery. He has been scrutinizing the Tudor period for over 20 years, so his ideas have been long in the making. Where the anniversary has had its effect, he readily acknowledges, is in the opportunity it has afforded him to fully crystallize his thinking. In researching for the exhibition, he came across important new material on the reign. He is now all the more confident of his - what some would consider revolutionary - reappraisal of Henry. SURPRISINGLY, even Starkey's detractors, headed by Jack Scarisbrick, professor of history at Britain's Warwick University, agree that it's time to put to bed the centuries old propaganda-inspired myth about Elizabeth I. "I think very few historians would canonize Elizabeth any longer," he concurs. "That love affair is over... . Along those lines, I entirely agree with Starkey." When it comes to Henry, though, Dr. Scarisbrick's assessment of the monarch's actions is inextricably linked to his attitude toward the man's character. "I just don't think that he was a terribly nice person," sums up the professor. "And I think the general view ... that he was one of the nastiest people who ever sat on the throne of England ... is correct." The point of controversy here is subtle, but crucial: Starkey does not dispute Henry's more unsavory qualities, such as ruthlessness and supreme egotism. But for Starkey and like-minded colleagues, this does not mean that everything resulting from his reign was bad. "My view," argues Starkey, with considerable feeling, "is that what people do, and the impact that they have, has very little connection with moral virtue.... Henry's reign had some powerful creative aspects."

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