The recent fuss over the fifth centenary of Henry VIII’s coronation (we will all be heartily sick of him by the end of 2009) has concealed the real surprise in the Tudor achievement: the rebranding of a failed cross-channel state as an island kingdom. In 1485, Henry’s father seized power in what had once been an example to all Europe of how to centralise government in a monarchy. The example had been set by the Anglo-Saxon monarchs of Wessex, who with the help of the Church manufactured a national fiction called England, only to have their achievement hijacked by a shrewd representative of Scandinavian carpet-baggers, William of Normandy. William’s Angevin successors then created a power of continent-wide importance, an Anglo-French polity that represented these islands’ best effort yet at European integration; but it had fallen apart three times: successively in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. On the two occasions when competent and ruthless kings rebuilt it (Edward III, then Henry V), infuriatingly self-indulgent kings lost it (Richard II, then Henry VI). The uselessness of the two latter monarchs had led to their murder by ambitious would-be replacements; nobility had been so unimpressed by the victims’ performance on the throne that they stood aside and let the assassinations happen.
Henry VI did rather better after death than Richard II, because ordinary Englishmen were perplexed by his frequent insanity (and wetness when occasionally sane), and then shocked at his unnecessarily sticky end. They decided that all this could be explained only if he was a saint. St Henry was an asset that the Tudors were not slow to exploit when they succeeded the two Yorkist brothers whose family was responsible for Henry’s murder. Tudors rather than Henry VI gave us that incomparable monument of late medieval English Gothic, King’s College chapel, but the Protestant Reformation made it difficult to exploit a royal saintly cult. After some spirited ceremonial experiments in the opening months of the reign of Henry VIII’s son Edward, another boy-king who was the sixth of his name, Henry was allowed to fade away, remembered only in the grateful public prayers of his beneficiaries on King’s Parade.
What remained was a dynasty with as ridiculously weak a claim to the throne of England as any monarch since William the Norman. The root of it was a marriage: a love-match between Henry V’s French widow, Catherine of Valois, and her Welsh servant Owen Tudor; a marriage certainly valid in the eyes of God, but in English law made illegal by an act of parliament, since it had not obtained the royal permission which the act required. Not surprisingly, this piece of legislation disappeared from public view around 1485, to be recovered only in the 20th century from its lurking place in the borough archives of Leicester, whose Tudor mayors might have been highly alarmed if they had known of the explosive document they were harbouring. Henry VII’s victory at Bosworth Field was one of the most astonishing political reverses in English history, the culmination of long-term plotting spearheaded by his formidable mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, the most successful politician in 15th-century England. Her role, largely forgotten for centuries and thrillingly rediscovered by Michael Jones and Malcolm Underwood in The King’s Mother (1992), might usefully have played a greater part in Kevin Sharpe’s admittedly already massive study of Tudor spin-doctoring.
Sharpe’s subject is the considerable range of devices which the Tudor family employed as a distraction from their unconvincing genealogy: public pronouncements such as proclamations and preambles to parliamentary legislation, literature, architecture, painting, artefacts of all sorts. Many of their subjects proved anxious to help, and in the process, over more than a century turned England from a dowdy, unfashionable outlier on the European cultural scene into the country of Shakespeare and William Byrd. Byrd is indeed an exemplar of Tudor success: a Roman Catholic who in his religious outlook represented that diminishing but always significant minority which did not buy into the Protestant project of the last of the Tudors, and yet was still the chief ornament of Elizabeth’s Chapel Royal. Sharpe is as concerned to represent those disloyal to the dynasty as he is its supporters.
In reality, 16th-century people did not normally think of ‘the Tudors’ or ‘the Tudor Age’. They thought of Henry VIII and his children. They did not think all that much of Henry VII, despite his best efforts to bludgeon his image into the national consciousness with his megalomaniac chantry foundation, stapled ostentatiously onto the eastern extremity of Westminster Abbey. Knowingly or unknowingly, this point is emphasised on the dust-jacket of Sharpe’s book, which is dominated by Lucas de Heere’s painting from the 1570s now at Sudeley Castle, its subject precisely Henry VIII’s family. It is a portrait with no sense of chronology. The old king sits in full vigour on his throne, handing over his sword to an Edward who is well into his teens. On the king’s right hand is his elder daughter, Mary, with the husband who by the 1570s was something of an embarrassing national memory, Philip II of Spain. While Philip and Mary are depicted with perfect fairness, and in what might be considered the position of honour, they yield in size and body language to the star of the picture, Queen Elizabeth. The only figure as big as her is the female whom she appears to be introducing to the gratified company, the personification of Peace. The message is clear: after all the upsets caused by her jovial but terrifying parent and her unsatisfactory siblings, Elizabeth is complacently pointing (literally) to her own achievement, a nation united in harmony.
Of course it was not that simple, but Elizabeth’s embrace of peace, a stance which came naturally to someone who combined nuance with theatricality, was an adroit disguise of her father’s massive failure. Central to Henry VIII’s vision for his reign was his attempt to fight his way back into the major league in Europe. Manifestly, his real position was inferior to that of the Big Three: the Holy Roman Emperor and the kings of France and Poland-Lithuania. Consistently, Henry tried to act as if he was their equal, and apart from humiliating reverses like the Field of the Cloth of Gold (a celebration of Anglo-French amity that led nowhere), he never succeeded in being another Edward III or Henry V. He was obsessed with giving reality to his empty claim to be king of France, a claim which took up 50 per cent of the royal heraldry of the realm. In raising money to pay for French victories, he made a vast and easy profit at his subjects’ expense, debasing the currency, previously one of the most respected in Europe, with which none of the equally selfish and unscrupulous monarchs of the 15th century had tampered.
To gain even more cash for a series of up-to-date coastal defences against French invasion, in 1538-39 he turned the selective closure and reform of monasteries into wholesale dissolution, a policy of which there had been no sign even a year before. And all for what? Maybe the French were indeed deterred from invasion by St Mawes or Walmer Castles (such forts did not stop the Spaniards landing and causing mayhem in west Cornwall in 1595). But despite his posturing in various campaigns across the Channel, Henry scored a net gain of only one French city, Boulogne, which the Privy Council had the sense to give back to the French three years after his death. After that, there was only Calais, which the incompetence and neglect of his daughter Mary’s government delivered into French hands in 1558 after two English centuries. Now England’s mainland empire was gone, despite occasional plaintive squawks about Calais from Queen Elizabeth. It took the Hanoverians to bring substantial mainland territory back to the English, and then only by a dynastic alliance which was broken in 1837. The loss was the responsibility of bluff King Harry, who did not have the realism forced on his successors to confine his French crown to his coat of arms. His subjects might have been spared much misery if he had contented himself with what he had.
A clear narrative emerges from Sharpe’s account. Henry VIII put a good deal of effort into persuading, manipulating or bullying his people into accepting policies which most of them did not like: the annulment of a marriage to a popular and conscientious royal spouse; marriage to another who was dismayingly clever and a bit flash; a breach with a reassuringly distant Holy Father in Rome and the rebranding of him as Antichrist; the closure of the monasteries; monetary debasement. Henry’s success against very considerable apparent odds was a tribute to his personal magnetism, still powerful enough to make plays about him saleable a century after his death. The successive groups of evangelical politicians who helped Henry’s son Edward VI travel towards manhood put much of their propaganda efforts into showing how a boy could lead a national religious revolution from above, and why a boy could be as good a king as a man.
They had the Bible to help them in their task. The Old Testament told with relish the story of a boy-king who was an undoubted Good Thing: Josiah of Judah. This precocious youth had caused the books of God’s law to be discovered in his temple, and had then put his energies into destroying all the idols that offended God throughout his kingdom. God had been duly pleased. Go figure, as Protestants all over Europe were soon saying with gleeful frequency about Edward, though usually in Latin. Sharpe quotes an unjustly celebrated text purporting to be Archbishop Cranmer’s address to Edward VI at his coronation in Westminster Abbey in 1547, in which the young king is duly styled a second Josiah – and many historians have cited it before him, including myself. But alas, we must all subtract this supposed sermon from our databases on the Edwardian regime; it is an unscrupulous ultra-Protestant forgery from the 1670s, and it has beguiled us for too long.
The Edwardian show was going well until the principal actor had abruptly to leave the cast, indisposed. His Catholic half-sister, Mary, started with some adroit expenditure from her father’s deposit account in the national memory, which won her an extraordinary triumph against Queen Jane Grey in July 1553. It is one of the finest achievements of Tudor image-manipulation to make Jane Grey ‘the nine days’ queen’, in line with a proverbial expression for brevity which must then already have been well established, when in fact she reigned for a fortnight. We have forgotten the wider reality of this event: a rebellion and coup d’état by the Lady Mary against Queen Jane, whose claim to the throne was not at all weak, but whose drawback was not being Henry VIII’s daughter (this perspective appears very clearly in the new study of those extraordinary events by Eric Ives).Yet Queen Mary then had something of a problem in establishing a brand image that wouldn’t entail her royal prestige being absorbed into the far more formidable power of the Habsburg imperial regime. Poor woman, she was torn between wanting just such absorption, as a dutiful wife and mother to the son and heir who would perpetuate her Catholicism, and her family urge to self-assertion as Henry VIII’s daughter. The contradictions are exemplified in her refusal to give up the title ‘Queen of Ireland’, a kingly claim which her father had unilaterally created to emphasise his defiance of the pope and replace the ‘Lordship of Ireland’ supposedly granted by the 12th-century papacy.
Elizabeth, the most controversial Protestant monarch in Europe at her accession, and subsequently the only monarch to be declared deposed by the Vatican, had a daunting task in maintaining her position and prestige. But she emerges in Sharpe’s story in rather traditional fashion as the heroine, possessed of keen emotional intelligence and highly developed acting skills. Monuments were spontaneously erected to her around the country after her death, with no pressure from national government, rather like local war memorials after 1919. Moreover, and most significantly, Sharpe shows how the nature of the paraphernalia selling monarchy changed during Elizabeth’s reign. Most of what he describes in the time of the earlier Tudors stemmed from royal initiative, from actions by the narrow political elite around the monarch, or from efforts by literary chancers hoping to gain royal attention and favour. By 1603, there was a much wider royal souvenir industry: medals, miniature portraits of the queen, commemorative pottery, posters – even for the first time, a pack of national-themed playing cards, with the picture and heraldry of the queen diplomatically placed on introductory cards additional to the set, so that no one would actually cheapen the royal image by gambling with it.
This was the small change of a ‘public sphere’ in English politics a century and more before Jürgen Habermas detected it in Central Europe: the outward and visible expression of a national society which had a much more ancient consciousness of being a single, centralised unit than anywhere else of similar size in Europe. Paradoxically, in an age when many monarchs were trying to achieve a polity at least as integrated as the Tudors had inherited from their predecessors, the longevity of the English monarchical machine made it difficult for the Tudors’ successors to build up new power in the fashion of their European contemporaries; centralised English institutions were too complex and well established to make drastic change easy. The ruler who achieved most in the short term was Oliver Cromwell, who brought radical change indeed, to the extent of creating a single British Isles for the first time in the history of the Atlantic archipelago. The trouble was that his triumph was bought with the backing of a large army which most of the English detested, and no amount of spin would alter that. Cromwell proved a much less successful paterfamilias to the nation than Henry VIII: the ignominious sidelining of his harmless and agreeable son in favour of another Stuart – Mary’s coup d’état of 1553 replayed as farce – showed the advantages of the glamour which royal families enjoyed, just as Charles I’s fate had demonstrated the pitfalls.
Sharpe’s writing is vigorous and his overall picture convincing and informative. He is judiciously sceptical where he needs to be, for instance about the exaggerated account of Henry VIII’s consistency recently provided by George Bernard, and his keen eye ranges over a rich variety of sources, both visual and literary. There are more little slips in the text than there should be. My fear of confirming a reputation as a joyless pedant restrains me from rounding them up, with the exception of a passing reference to ‘Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s dressing as Edward II [sic] and Philippa’. Those Victorians! That must have been one hell of a transvestite ball.