TAC Bookshelf: Henry VIII, I Am

Jude Russo, managing editor: Good aphorisms make bad history. At the same time, it is not entirely wrong to say that, in the Anglosphere, everything starts with the Tudors. Two of the three great pillars of the English language, the Book of Common Prayer and the works of Shakespeare, were laid under their eyes. (The third, the Authorized Version, would have to wait for the reign of the first Stuart.) The beginning of English naval supremacy, the ambiguous status of Ireland, the expansion of the English-speaking peoples into the New World, and (via the Reformation Parliament) the germ of legislative and hence popular sovereignty that would come into its own in the English Civil Wars—it all starts in this short-lived, complicated dynasty, a not-quite-exactly cadet branch of the House of Lancaster, not quite medieval, not quite modern.

Its second king, Henry VIII, embodies the Tudor equivocality. On the one hand, he was (or attempted to be) an English king in the great medieval mold of Henry V—a warmaker, a vast figure on the European stage, a devotee of courtly love. He received an the enormous fortune from his father, Henry VII (who, if historical memory were about justice, would be remembered as one of the greatest English monarchs), and, after years of war and high diplomacy and disastrous romance, died a few months short of bankruptcy. On the other hand, he singlehandedly laid several foundation blocks for Anglophone modernity—particularly the doctrine of the Royal Supremacy, which, by a marvelous transmogrification under the Stuarts, became parliamentary supremacy, and the idiosyncratic English Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries.

J.J. Scarisbrick’s 1967 biographic monument, Henry VIII, set the pace for modern scholarship of the Tudors. Scarisbrick, a Catholic, eschewed both the hagiographic Whig Protestant account of a triumphal English progress toward modernity and the salacious gossip-mongering of the worse sort of popular writers. Instead he presents a Henry who, though venal and fickle, is also a canny operator who oversaw a wholesale revolution in English public life, the thoroughness of which would not be seen until the French Revolution or the modern totalitarian movements.

Scarisbrick argues that Henry’s reign and consequent Tudor history are primarily to be interpreted through this rupture with the past. This paradigm was itself a small revolution, giving birth to an entire school of early modern English historiography, the most notable product of which is Eamon Duffy’s study of the English Reformation, The Stripping of the Altars. You get the sense that, for Scarisbrick, now retired at 96, all of life has been permeated with a disillusionment with the myths of modernity. With his late wife, he founded and led Britain’s largest anti-abortion charity, Life.

Everything starts with the Tudors. Everything may end with them, too. Our era is characterized by a devolution from legislative supremacy toward rule by executive camarillas and agencies—the latter-day descendants of Privy Council and Star Chamber—even as Anglophone public life recedes from the free, putatively non-ideological public square of late modernity toward increasingly stringent state-sanctioned dogmas. We are walking backward toward the Royal Supremacy; in Scarisbrick’s Henry VIII, we can see further into the past, and thus, perhaps, into the future.

The post TAC Bookshelf: Henry VIII, I Am appeared first on The American Conservative.

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