Wednesday, 13 September 2017


In 1534 Henry VIII exited England from Europe - that is he severed the nation's links with Western Christendom by declaring that he, and not the pope, was Head of the Church in England. He didn't hold a referendum to consult his subjects' wishes. But that doesn't mean that he didn't care what they thought or that he took no steps to gain popular support. He knew he could count on widespread resentment at the Catholic ecclesiastical bureaucracy, its financial exactions and its interference in the lives of his people right down to parish level. Even so, he and his team of tame academics left nothing to chance. They cobbled together proof texts from any old manuscripts they could find and then put their own gloss on them (the mishmash of truths, half-truths and lies was called the collectanea satis copiosa). They bombarded the literate population with pamphlets and put up charismatic preachers in pulpits all over the land to stir up nationalistic sentiment. They bought the support of many of the nobility and landed gentry with promises of financial reward from the soon-to-be-confiscated lands of the Church. And they pushed their campaign through parliament in a series of statutes that took seven years to complete the divorce process. Yet, after all this effort, the result was a damned close thing. Within months the northern counties rose against Henry's religious policy and put an army of 40,000 in the field, which the king only managed to disperse with false promises and duplicity. When calm was restored over 200 rebels were left hanging from gibbets and church towers. But it was worth it to tell Johnny Foreigner where to get off.

All this was done for the good of the country. Anyone who still thinks that it happened so that Henry VIII could ditch his first wife and marry a younger bit of stuff who had caught his fancy does old Bluff King Hal a great disservice. England needed stable government and that meant a male heir to continue the Tudor dynasty. If, in the process, Henry became the richest king in Christendom, well that was just a bonus. Anyway, he needed the money. His policies had not gone down well with the major continental powers, France and the Holy Roman Empire (egged on, of course, by pestilential popes). That meant that the king had to spend all the lovely lolly from England's biggest ever act of nationalisation, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, on extensive coastal fortifications and a large permanent navy.

Still, he had made his point, hadn't he? Thanks to his hard exit from the Catholic fold, England was by the end of his reign, a proud, strong, united independent nation, able to look forward to a bright and prosperous future. Well, perhaps, not quite. One of his own ministers grumbled 'We are at war with France and Scotland, we are at odds with the pope and have no assured friendship with the Emperor ... Our war (Oh yes, I forgot to mention that Henry launched a futile invasion of France which cost many lives and gained nothing) is noisome to our realm and to all our merchants that traffic through the Narrow Seas ... We are in a world where reason and learning prevail not.' He might have added 'and we are stony broke', because Henry had been forced to subject his people to crippling taxation and had promoted hyperinflation by debasing the coinage.

But it was all worth it to establish a united Protestant nation with its own identity. Er ... well, Henry had discovered, much to his surprise, that his subjects wouldn't believe what he told them to believe. Some hankered after the old religion. Some embraced the new. Some even wanted to go further along the Protestant route. From top to bottom the kingdom was bitterly divided. Some say Henry lamented the state of the nation to parliament with tears in his eyes. Perhaps some well-chosen executions of prominent Catholics and Protestants would make the king's subjects realise what side their bread was buttered on. Nope, English men and women began to emigrate to escape persecution.

All this had a long, a very long aftermath. Edward VI pushed Reformation further. Results: trashed churches, popular rebellions, and top men jostling for power, more executions, Catholics fleeing abroad. Mary Tudor tried to put the clock back. Results: just under 300 Protestants burned at the stake, many Protestants emigrating, Henry's laws revoked, England tied into an unpopular Spanish alliance. Elizabeth I attempted a settlement. Results: many Catholics executed as traitors, many more continuing to worship in secret, England dragged into war with Spain, severe laws against Catholics. So it went on in this hopelessly divided kingdom. A hundred years after Henry activated his exit strategy England was embroiled in civil war.

Still it all turned out alright in the end, didn't it? We eventually came together as one united, happy nation when Catholics were restored to full citizenship once 1829. 

How comforting it is to know that history doesn't repeat itself.

Monday, 7 August 2017


I've been asked surprisingly often whether I think Donald Trump is some kind of re-incarnation of Henry VIII. My first reaction is that it's absurd to set the Trump mouse alongside the Tudor lion. My second reaction is that I'm no psychoanalyst, nor do I set much store by psycho-history. However, the nature of tyranny and the rise and fall of despots are certainly subjects grist to the historian's mill. So it may be worth considering whether the antics of the current U.S. president throw any light on those of the 16th century English king, and vice versa.

What 'every schoolboy knows' about Henry VIII is that he had six wives and disposed shamefully of four of them. Trump is only on his third at the moment. There are many reasons for failed sexual relationships but self-love is certainly one of the basics. Henry flaunted his masculinity - in the tiltyard, the tennis court and various displays of athletic prowess. He believed (or, at least, liked others to  believe) that he was no end of a stud. What other message was being conveyed by the best-known painted image of the king, with its thrusting codpiece? Women existed, first and foremost, for his pleasure. Although there was a dynastic purpose behind his marriages, his choices of bride were always based on sex appeal rather than policy. The French king sourly compared Henry to a coper at a horse fair who expected eligible princesses to be paraded before him for his appraisal. Only once, as far as we are aware, did Henry fall in love. His passion for Anne Boleyn is revealed in the oft-quoted love letters he wrote to her. Love involves vulnerability and also seeking the pleasure of the beloved above one's own. That's why egotists are bad at it. There is some evidence that the king was no great performer in bed. One reason for Anne Boleyn's fall was her ill-judged private mockery of her husband's sexual prowess. Trump has made no secret of his attitude towards women. His public references to them have gone beyond adolescent, laddish boasting. If we are to take him at his word, it would seem that sexual relationships exist to provide him with pleasure and boosts to his own self-esteem. Is he, too, a poor lover? I haven't the faintest idea but, as I have suggested, many egotists are.

Henry's ruthlessness extended to his ministers. Few monarchs have been served by more faithful and talented advisers. Wolsey, More and Cromwell were all remarkably accomplished and their service to the regime is beyond question but they were thrown aside when their royal master thought they had exceeded their usefulness. Loyalty, in Henry's book, was a one-way street. As well as being bad for the development and implementation of consistent policy, this encouraged political in-fighting among rival councilors. It was enough to cast doubt on the reliability of a trusted adviser for the king to remove his support. Then, the victim was doomed. In this department of Machiavellian politics Henry does seem to be outclassed by Mr President, who. I guess, learned stony ingratitude running the family firm. Trusted aids go in and out like yo-yos. The atmosphere in the court of King Donald must be toxic. An egotistical ruler needs fall-guys. It is inconceivable to any self-obsessed despot that he can be wrong. So, when policies come unstuck it has to be someone else's fault. When Henry passed the buck to his aides they they did not dare protest (it was, perhaps, a small price to pay for the considerable perks of high office).

What the despotic Tudor king got away with is quite eye-widening. Few opponents were brave enough to stand up to him and most of those who did payed a high price for their presumption. The 'bare ruined choirs' across the land and the full diaries of public executioners are testimony to the king's methods of dealing with opposition. The only individuals who consistently held up his record to scrutiny were men like Tyndale and Pole and they operated from the safety of foreign bases (not all that safe, in point of fact: Henry sent assassins after Pole and was complicit in Tyndale's arrest in Antwerp). Yet, even Henry's bravado had to face one serious challenge: though he was victorious over the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536-7, the outcome could have been different. He won by a mixture of force and duplicity. Bodies hanging from church towers across the North were dramatic proof of his defiance. Capital punishment is not a weapon in Trump's armoury (much to his regret?). He has to fall back on a poor substitute - character assassination. Senators, representatives, and most of the UK and foreign news media are branded as stupid, malicious, un-American liars. They must always be wrong because Trump must always be right. Presidential inerrancy seems to be the key doctrine in Trump's creed.

His main way of imposing it on the nation is by showmanship. And here there is certainly a close comparison to be drawn with the second Tudor. Henry was a born performer. He spent hugely on court entertainments and public spectacles. The costly diplomatic farce of the Field of Cloth of Gold (1520) was only the most OTT example of the king's spare-no-expense-to-impress strategy. And in every single display Henry had to be the centre of attention (He was furious when Francis I beat him in a wrestling bout in 1520). Trump, too, lives for the limelight and cannot bear to be upstaged. He only appears in public at carefully-prepared rallies where he is supported by crowds of cheering fans.

However, mass sycophancy by itself is no guarantee that a ruler can cling to power. The king understood the need for a wide support base. It's not immediately obvious that Henry cared about what his people thought. He did - not because he was remotely interested in their wellbeing but because it made sense to keep his finger on the common pulse. So, he relied heavily on propaganda. Having taken on the power of the Church, he needed to sell his policy to the political class and even to the public at large. This he did through a campaign of proclamations, sermons, books, pamphlets and the managing of parliament, backed by an effective campaign of censorship. I can imagine Trump drooling over Henry's manipulation of the media or control of the political machine. Even with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress he can't impose his will. This, I assume, lies behind his assuming the role of one-man publicity machine, using Twitter to go over the heads of the politicians and the pundits and telling the people what he thinks they want to hear. These bite-sized statements are the equivalent of Tudor royal proclamations, with the added advantage that they don't need to be explained or justified. The principle seems to be that if you say something, however outrageous, often enough and loud enough people will believe you. Well, bombast and showmanship worked for Henry Tudor for 37 years but the political class took over as soon as he was gone. His failure to establish a dynastic autocracy was partly due to bad luck (being succeeded by an under-age son and two daughters). Today it is the checks and balances of political systems that prevent tyrants and their offspring turning democratic nations into personal fiefdoms. The American people may not like the the political establishment but at least they have the power to change it periodically.

Henry VIII inherited a considerable fortune, spent every penny of on his grandiose designs and left his country shattered, broke, overtaxed, at war and bitterly divided. Why? In his early days he may have been dazzled by stories of King Arthur and Henry V. He may have dreamed of 'making England great again'. But towards the end he was driven by what can only be described as egomania. Is Trump in the same category? Your answer will depend on how you judge his motivation. Does he love his country or himself? Is he there to serve his people with a raft of well-considered, carefully-costed policies aimed at nothing but their wellbeing or does he simply tap into populist prejudice? Are his 'privy chamber' staff men who have the capacity and the commitment to cope patiently and constructively with America's internal and external challenges or are they yes-men? Is he a shrewd politician or does he believe his own rhetoric? Egotists are so wrapped up in themselves that it's difficult to determine exactly what they do think, and why. After 500 years we're still trying to understand Henry VIII. Perhaps Trump's behaviour will give us some clues.
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Wednesday, 5 July 2017


On an October day in 1517 an obscure 33 year-old friar in an obscure German town pinned up a public notice. The world hasn't been the same since. Martin Luther's famous 95 Theses were not a programme for violent revolution - simply an invitation to fellow academics to discuss some aspects of church practice that Luther questioned. How, then, did this end up rending the seamless robe of Western Christendom and plunging Europe into devastating wars of religion that lasted 130 years? The Reformation was a bubbling cauldron of political rivalries, social discontent and intellectual conflict. The eastern border was menaced by a resurgent Ottoman Empire, under the leadership of Suleiman the Magnificent. The houses of Habsburg and Valois were locked in a war for the control of Europe. Communities were devastated by sweating sickness and syphilis, diseases hitherto unknown. State rulers were rethinking their relationship with the pope and questioning the nature of his jurisdiction. The opening up of long distance sea routes to East and West brought exciting new commercial possibilities but it also gave rise to a sense of unquiet, as people realised that the world was not the place they had always supposed it to be. Academics were asking new questions, exchanging their hypothetical answers via the revolutionising medium of the printed word. Everywhere there was a miasma of anxiety, a suspicion that old certainties would no longer serve. Among the more popular books of the period were works of satire, scepticism and humorous jibes directed at the clergy who, it was widely believed, did not measure up to the ethical standards they promoted in their sermons (e.g. The Ship of Fools, The Decameron, In Praise of Folly, etc.). Change disturbed people to such an extent that they were ready to listen to the prophecies of apocalyptic doom-mongers. Yet, despite all this unease, few were bold enough to challenge the doctrinal basis of the Catholic church. This was the only thing that gave cohesion to sixteenth-century life and to discard it would be to throw away the only belief system which made society work. To support that system (and their own status) church leaders defended with mounting ferocity the ancient truths. They made bonfires of books and men. They extended, wherever possible, their political power. And, then, along came Martin Luther. What he did was aim an arrow at the theological heart whose beating kept alive the febrile body of Latin Christendom. He exposed what he believed to be the intellectual and spiritual inconsistencies of the system. And people all over the continent read his protest. It seemed as though there was a sharp intake of breath across Europe as people came to realise that they did not have to believe what they had always been told to believe; that there was another - and more ancient - kind of Christian truth and that, in embracing it, so many of their questions were answered and their anxieties stilled. This liberating truth empowered the individual. It inspired many to face hardship and even death. It profoundly changed societal relationships - not least those between men and women. It transformed, not only what people did when they went to church. It affected the whole of their lives. In the words of the historian Jacques Barzun
'It fostered new feelings of nationhood. It raised the status of vernacular languages. It changed attitudes towards work, art and human failings ... by emigration to the new world overseas, it brought an extraordinary enlargement of the meaning of the West and the power of its civilization.'
It prepared the ground for the cultivation of democracy. The Reformation sundered church and state. It made possible the evolution of secular society. Yet, paradoxically, its aims were the reverse of this. Far from de-Christianising society, it aimed to provide humanity with a clearer vision of God, one from which the mists of 'false' doctrine had been rolled away.

What that dynamic vision was will be the subject of a conference to be held from 16 to 20 October in the magnificent setting of Lee Abbey, on the North Devon coast. The relaxing yet also stimulating setting of this beautiful place will enable us, through talks and seminars to explore in depth the history of the world-changing events being widely celebrated in this centenary year - Reformation 500. For full details go to .