a book by Philippa Gregory
We are fascinated with Henry- so fat, so cruel, so treacherous. He is simply a mass of superlatives. Nevertheless, Henry deserves his day in court and Lacey Baldwin Smith’s splendid and erudite history, although written in 1971, is a must read for Tudor aficionados. Henry was a mortal, of course, behind the trappings of monarchy, and though he seemed almost larger than life to his contemporaries in this book we get as close to the man behind the mask as is possible to get. The author opens the book with Henry’s death. Like every mortal Henry must meet the Grim Reaper. He compares Henry dead or alive to a pebble tossed in a stream, where ripples get wider and wider until they encompass the whole stream. Alive or dead, Henry created ripples of massive proportions.
Henry was clothed in the emperor’s clothes, he was never naked and was “always adorned with the gorgeous gowns of divinity” because he was God’s vicar upon earth. Henry refused to accept responsibility as God’s anointed king and always blamed others for misfortunes. Amazingly, author Baldwin Smith considers Henry insecure behind all his braggadocio and boasting and the flaunting of power. Henry blamed his “ill conditioned wives” (accept Jane Seymour) as being unworthy of their royal station. When he lit on the Leviticus chapters that condemned a man for taking his dead brother’s wife and thus being unclean, he grabbed at that safety net with both hands and started the ball rolling towards his incredible repudiation of Katharine of Aragon and schism with the Catholic Church. Even if Henry had to coax God a bit to come around to his defense, God always obliged.
Interestingly, author Smith points out that Henry could have had Katherine murdered in her bed and nobody would be the wiser- but for the sake of his conscience he was obliged to wait six years to get Anne Boleyn into his bed, all the time feeling holier than thou. Years later, his daughter Elizabeth toyed with the idea of secretly assassinating Mary Queen of Scots which would have saved the Crown a lot of money as well as criticism of her, but she couldn’t do it. She had her father’s conscience as being a divinely- appointed sovereign.
Henry Tudor had no sense of humor and could only laugh at others, especially in their misfortune, but never at himself. His ego was huge. When he disguised himself and embraced Anne of Cloves who recoiled, not knowing who he was, he was highly offended, and it was perhaps her repudiation that poisoned him against her as much as the fact she was a Flanders mare and plain to boot. Henry might have laughed at that situation but of course he didn’t. Suppose Anne had hugged the totally unknown stranger back, he could have accused her of being wanton. But Anne of Cleves was far luckier than her sister queens.
Henry’s reaction to the perfidy of his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, is one of the most revealing of his character as he aged. He had gone through a bad and dangerous time when the ulcer in his leg closed and he was brought low by pain and fever. When he recovered, he celebrated by undertaking a massive progress to York, which was more like an invasion. He sent five thousand mounted troops ahead to announce his imminent arrival. Catherine gleefully cuckolded her husband all the way to York and back with Thomas Culpepper. And as usually happens, the husband was the last to know but the assignations were common knowledge. Henry did not react with the rage that fueled his destroying of Anne Boleyn, but by embarrassingly weeping copiously and then descending into self pity and melancholy. Word of Henry’s marital problems had caused delicious gossip in Christendom for years, a subject of many snickers, but Henry did get some sympathy from that old lecher across the channel, Francis I, who said Catherine “hath done wondrous naughty.”
The three monarchs of Christendom, Henry, Francis and Charles V became as they aged a “scruffy lot.” “A shabby, gouty emperor, a mercurial and disintegrating king of France, a broken titan of England, sick of body and melancholic of mind, still sat on their prospective thrones. But Henry found contentment and a measure of happiness when he married the twice-widowed Catherine Parr. As author Smith says, perhaps history has painted Catherine in too rosy a light, as she gathered Henry’s children, Mary, Elizabeth and Edward, together to form a family, but it’s likely she was quite loveable. When she ventured too deeply into religious mysticism she was in grave danger of being declared a heretic but she managed to clear herself (albeit frantically) and peace returned. to the royal threshold.
“Age and agony walked hand in hand” in that long ago century. Henry left the world in a quite undramatic fashion, having at the end fallen into a coma, drifting peacefully into death as a boat into a harbor.
Lacey Baldwin Smith’s book is extremely pithy and turgid with facts, including the ceaseless wars. This is a very comprehensive book, but I have gleaned for this review tidbits about Henry as a person. If one is interested in the battles constantly being waged among the three Kings, he will be rewarded with very vivid descriptions of the skirmishes. The writing is terse, witty and elegant, rich in historical detail. Highly recommended!
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