Henry VIII (r. 1509–47) ruled an island kingdom about the size of Pennsylvania inhabited by fewer than 3 million people nearly 500 years ago, and yet he remains instantly recognizable to this day, his barrel-chested and bejeweled figure immortalized by the brush of Hans Holbein the Younger. Meet England's most famous monarch, who provokes questions such as:
- What is greatness?
- How should we judge character?
- Who or what can be said to "make" or cause history?
A Famous Face ... but Why?
So what accounts for Henry's astonishingly familiar image? Is it because he employed a brilliant portraitist? Or is there more to the story?
This king, as one of his recent biographers has noted, "changed the heart, mind, and face of Britain more than anything between the coming of the Normans and the coming of the factory," not least by giving Protestantism its powerful purchase in the English-speaking world. And given Britain's later significance in world history—made possible in part by Henry himself—he must be accounted a towering figure of history.
Four Standout Features
Four accomplishments highlight this lecture series by Professor Dale Hoak:
The first is Professor Hoak's cutting-edge expertise. His interpretation of British history is often different from the traditional approach, thanks to his pursuit of the latest scholarly research.
The second is Professor Hoak's extraordinary personal command of the relevant primary sources, including documents such as the inventory of Henry's vast possessions made shortly after his death. No purely popular treatment will offer you this level of sustained, expert insight.
The third is the way Professor Hoak discusses Henry not only as a figure who commands our interest on his own terms, but as someone whose life and actions raise larger philosophical questions about what history is and how it is "made."
The fourth is Professor Hoak's shrewd discussion of Henry's personal wealth, including his properties, accoutrements, and art collection—Henry was a deliberately grand patron of the arts—as windows on the mind and heart of this king and his age.
Professor Hoak explores these thought-provoking issues in a way that arises naturally, even gracefully, out of the story that he himself tells from the primary sources.
About Those Wives
Who could forget that Henry had six wives? Each was a figure of drama and interest in her own right. One was a giddy, sexy teenager; another was a sharp political player who became the first queen of England to publish a book. One made Henry court her for seven years and had her coronation turned into the largest spectacle ever staged by the ceremony-loving Tudor dynasty; another Henry married sight unseen and then hastily rejected, ranting, "I like her not!" Still another became a member of the truly tiny club of people who upbraided Royal Henry to his face (publicly!) and lived to tell about it.
You'll learn the story of each of these remarkable women in detail (including the only one—do you know who she is?—to be buried next to Henry at Windsor Castle). Around two of these women, Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, swirled the royal divorce case that supposedly led to Henry's fateful quarrel with the pope. But did that famous quarrel really "cause" the English Reformation? Professor Hoak's answer might surprise you.
A Royal Revolutionary
How historically accurate are impressions that we take away from plays and films and Holbein portraits? Do they bring us any closer to the "real" Henry, the crowned revolutionary who wrenched history out of one course and into another by claiming "imperial" kingship (and with it, in effect, the sovereignty of the modern state and its laws), and then by bringing most of the English-speaking world into the Protestant camp during the early decades of the Reformation?
With these lectures by an historian who is intimately familiar with the actual documentary record, you can round out your own personal portrait of the Henry who comes to life in Shakespeare's words and in brilliant portrayals by Charles Laughton, Richard Burton, and Robert Shaw.
A Few Specifics
Here is a short list of facts from these engaging lectures:
- What Henry did with the fabulous wealth that he gained from his seizure and dissolution of England's monasteries—there were more than 800, and the takeover involved fully one-quarter of the best land in all England
- Why a law that Henry put through Parliament in 1533 (Act of Appeals) is more important to the history of constitutional development in the English-speaking world than even Magna Carta, and how Henry became an early (if unwilling) sponsor of free speech
- How Henry's reaction to a sensational 1514 London murder case prefigured a break with Rome decades later
- What it would have been like to visit Henry at court and see the king in the midst of both his business and his many and extravagant amusements.
The Real Henry
The Henry VIII who emerges from these lectures is a man of both great charm and terrifying, self-pitying ferocity (which predominates is for you to decide). And his limits are all too apparent. He harbored ruthless, vaulting ambitions and spun grand schemes, yet in the end was shadowed by the deep historical irony of expectations gone strangely awry.
The eighth Henry was a Renaissance prince but also in many ways a backward-looking man obsessed by medieval chivalry, a king who became an agent of the future—England's and the world's. He was an athlete who surrendered to self-indulgence. He was a romantic who is remembered for his failed marriages and his cruelty toward at least four of his six wives.
He combined exquisite taste and aesthetic sensibility (he was a superb singer) with a vulgar acquisitiveness. He was a trained theologian with a tender conscience who turned on the church for none-too-lofty reasons. He recruited awesomely talented advisors to help him with his plans, only to destroy the greatest of them.
Henry's reign contributed an important legacy to British history and the modern world: the revolutionary effect of the Act of Appeals was to make law itself, or the king-in-Parliament, the supreme authority. Parliamentary law became the basis of the new constitutional monarchy; the tax schemes of Henry's lord chancellor, Wolsey, would presage the beginning of modern bureaucracy; and Henry's navy was the first standing military force in his day.
With these achievements, Henry was a despot who became an accidental great-grandfather of English-speaking democracy. He built, as they say, "other than he knew." We might also say he built better than he knew. But what standards would Henry and his contemporaries have applied to judge such actions and achievements? In assessing Henry and his reign, should we prefer our own standards to theirs? Why?
Henry was a willing history-maker. But history is driven by patterns of causation that include, and yet are not exhausted by, human desires, even the desires of "great" men and women.
More than just the story of a larger-than-life figure with feet of proverbial clay—compelling as that story is—this series offers an invitation to reflect on these patterns of causation and the fascinating ironies they suggest.