Henry VIII—“What of His Character”? “Ah”
August 15, 2020
The three magnificent ships of Henry VIII land ashore and Henry leaps out of the most magnificent in a single bound. He splats in the mud. He landed on his feet, to be sure, but it was his not exactly the grand entrance he had envisioned. It was more like that Far Side cartoon in which the head alien trips and tumbles down the gangway, landing with his nose to earth, and the ones still aboard the ship say, “So much for impressing them with awe and grandeur.”
Deathly silence prevailed among all on show and yet afloat—that’s how ‘A Man for all Seasons’ presents the landing scene. Would Henry erupt in fury at his crew for “botching” the landing? Would he turn his wrath upon the household of Thomas Moore, whose castle he had come to visit? You did not want to cross the king! For seconds that seemed like hours all held their breath.
“Ha Ha!” Henry bellowed out at last, savoring the fine joke that nature had played upon him, and everyone knew it was safe to breath.
He loved it that way—everyone holding their breath awaiting his next move! Bold and larger than life—this portrayal is so much like Henry. At any rate, I instantly assume that the movie has it right. It squares perfectly with the image built up by Dale Hoak, the professor conducting ‘The Age of Henry VIII’ Great Courses series.
When I listen to CDs such as this, I become what they said about Paul at Acts 17:18–that he was a “chatterer.” (babbler—NIV, KJV, know-it-all—CEV, pseudo-intellectual—HCSB, word-sower—Douay, blabbermouth (!)—ISV, ignorant show-off (!!)—CSB) The word literally means “seed-picker,” denoting a bird that picks up a seed here and poops it out there. Only ‘Young’s Literal Translation’ renders it just that way—as seed picker. Accordingly, I drop something in conversation, and people assume that I am as smart as Dale Hoak. They do not realize that I have just said everything I know. Press Dale Hoak for details and he will regale you for hours. Press me for details and I will change the subject to Gilligan’s Island.
The bold portrait of Henry VIII striking a defiant pose that everyone will recall, and if not they will know it when they see it, is not anatomically correct. Body proportions are altered by the artist (Hans Holbein) to heighten the sense of majesty. What was Henry’s purpose on earth? Pretty much to enjoy himself—Professor Hoak infers this but does not outright assert it. His reign over England? Kings of that age ran their domains pretty much as a business. His foreign policy? Whatever made him look good and contributed to his glory—that Professor does assert repeatedly.
Does he not remind me of a certain customer of mine from long ago, a doctor, a fellow I used to describe as a man who expected that the world revolve around him? Upon hearing that description, friends would sympathize with me for how unpleasant it must have been to deal with him. Not at all, I would tell them. As long as the world did revolve around him, he was very pleasant, so I—I was in business, after all—tried to ensure that it did, until one day that it just got to be more trouble than it was worth, and I let a certain hour of decision blow whichever way it would.
Henry was like that—jovial and pleasant as long as the world revolved around him—but the moment it didn’t.... Now, this doctor wasn’t imposing like Henry at all. He was a petty stickler impressed with personalities whose staff poked fun at him behind his back. Spying through the blinds the young couple touring the manor for sale next door, he exclaimed to his wife, “They can’t afford that house! They’re just a bunch of grungy hippies!” However, it turned out that the grungy hippie was a rock star. Afterwards, the doc would tell everyone how he live right next to so-and-so and they were on the chumminess of terms.
But back to Henry:
At first, you almost feel sorry for Dale the Professor having to cover such a lout—it’s like being a celebrity reporter for Inside Edition, only to discover that many celebrities that look so shiny on the outside are in reality not so hot. At first, it really does seem that if you know the Herman’s Hermits song, you know all you need to know about Henry VIII. But sometimes the pivotal moments of history are steered by overbearing louts—they just are. One must get used to it.
Henry’s reign is pivotal because it marks a break from the Church—severing a connection of only 1500 years (!) to found what became known as the Anglican Church. He made the break, popular opinion says, because he wanted a divorce from his first wife and the Pope wouldn’t give him one. Professor Hoak doesn’t declare this nothing—it is a factor, he says, but he advances a greater reason: Henry needed the Church’s money. The Church was fabulously rich, and he had squandered every penny that had come his way. Not just in wartime did he squander it—that was to be expected—but even in peacetime his expenditures bore no restraint. With 50 palaces around the country, all them hosting gala bashes constantly to impress whatever dignitaries might come around, and certainly the one he occupied at the moment—like the Jurassic Park guy who “spared no expense” on anything, he needed the dough. Badly.
Doesn’t it remind one of what Samual told the people in Bible times when they demanded a king?
“Samuel told the people who were asking him for a king all the words of Jehovah. He said: “This is what the king who rules over you will have the right to demand: He will take your sons and put them in his chariots and make them his horsemen, and some will have to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself chiefs over thousands and chiefs over fifties, and some will do his plowing, reap his harvest, and make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be ointment mixers, cooks, and bakers. He will take the best of your fields, your vineyards, and your olive groves, and he will give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grainfields and your vineyards, and he will give it to his court officials and his servants. And he will take your male and female servants, your best herds, and your donkeys, and he will use them for his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you will become his servants. The day will come when you will cry out because of the king you have chosen for yourselves, but Jehovah will not answer you in that day.” (1 Samuel 8:10-18)
Yeah. That’s pretty much what Henry did—drained the country dry. You wouldn’t think it possible for one man to cause such cash flow chaos—but there it is. He broke with Rome and dissolved the monasteries. All that was theirs became his.
‘Retrospect’ is the title of Professor Hoak’s last lecture, and here he turns pontifical. Maybe you have to do this if you’re an historian—you just can’t say, “the guy’s a jerk.” What was Henry like? “By what criteria, whose criteria should we judge him: yours, mine, his subjects, those who knew him, himself?”—the professor sets the stage for consideration, and first starts out with what he considers the good: He was a “brilliant player of the game of princes, of intelligence taste, training, of record for princely pursuits. A man for the renaissance.” Great.
A short list of his attainments. He cherished music, his compositions are really good, his playing might not have landed him a philharmonic spot, but it was surely good enough “for the Boston Pops.” He was a great athlete, first rate with bow and arrow, tops at tennis, wresting, horseback, feats of arms. He was a great dancer! a master of the “art of conversation!” he could write in several languages. He had fantastic artistic tastes! his tapestry collection “the greatest ever assembled!”
He “understood the requirements of princely magnificence!” He “set a very high standard of princely high conduct! And his war-making! The professor quotes some author who describe renaissance monarchies as “machines for the battlefield,” and in this Henry excelled!*
Got it. He knew how to play the game. Is it only me who wishes to be remembered for things more meaningful than this?
“But what of his character?” the professor says. “Ah.”
“We must admit that the character of any person ultimately remains unknowable, even enigmatic. But I think it is possible to draw a few tentative generalizations based on what we clearly know of the king’s behavior.”... and with that Dale goes on to mention “the executions of two wives, a cardinal of the Church, a bishop (John Fisher) lord chancellor (that’s Thomas More) a duke, a marquis, two earls, a viscount, a viscountess, four barons, and hundreds of subjects, commoners who resisted his authority.” Well, yes—that might give a clue as to his “character.”
Look, the professor is an historian. He has to do it. His job is not to judge history—it is to relate it. But I kind of miss the Bible accounts that sum up this or that king by saying he was a real rotter. “He did on a grand scale what was bad in Jehovah’s eyes, to offend him,” we read of one. And as to what a person might hope to be remembered for, who can beat the prayer of Nehemiah: “Remember me, O Jehovah, for good”?
*Henry is also listed as renowned for his “theology.” Professor Hoak mentions his interchange with the Pope, and I wish he had explored it more thoroughly, but he didn’t. There were other factors involved, but the Pope annulled marriages all the time. If Henry had just asked him to override scripture, he might have done it—he was the Pope, after all. But instead Henry sought to debate scripture (Leviticus 18:16, 20:21—his first marriage was never valid because it violated these two passages) with the Pope—as though he was equally qualified—and you just KNOW that will arise the ire of the latter.
Oh, and Thomas More, the “man for all seasons” from the first paragraph? He lost his head. It was chopped off. Literally. He was supposed to cheerlead for Henry’s break from Rome and he just couldn’t do it.