Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Our most important ruler?

Yesterday, in his Guardian column, the environmentalist George Monbiot, considering England’s current democratic deficit in the light of its colonial past, explained how he was ‘indifferent’ to the country of his birth. I find it hard to believe that anyone is indifferent to the country to which they belong. They may hate it (as I suspect George does and, as Orwell pointed out, many English left-wing intellectuals do), they may love it to pieces, or like it just a little bit. But indifferent? Was he unaffected by the monument to British worthies that stands in the grounds of his stately public school, Stowe? Did he not engage with the politics of his father, a former deputy chairman of the Conservative party, or his mother, an Oxford councillor? Aren’t his present politics in some way a reaction to his impeccably English upper middle class background? No, it seems George bestrides the world of which he is a ‘global citizen’ in some strangely numb and wholly objective manner, averse to the prejudices of we lesser folk. Oh to think such pure thoughts.

It is impossible to feel indifferent towards Henry VIII. Yesterday, Dr David Starkey, member of History Today’s advisory board, was at the British Library to unveil a love letter from Henry to Anne Boleyn. Probably written in January 1528, it has been hidden away in the Vatican collections for the best part of 500 years, and will be on display in a British Library exhibition on the king which opens on April 23rd. Dr Starkey is rarely short of an opinion, one of the many reasons why he is one of our most compelling historians, and declared at the unveiling that ‘Henry is not only England's best-known king - with his wives, his girth and his bloodthirstiness - he is also our most important single ruler. When he came to the throne, Henry was the pious prince who ruled an England at the heart of Catholic Europe. When he died, he was the great schismatic, who had created a national church and an insular, xenophobic politics that shaped the development of England for the next 500 years.’ Two questions arise from that statement. Was the politics that shaped England from the Tudor age to the present day really marked by insularity? Can empires be born of insularity? Is not curiosity about the world beyond a motivating factor, as it was in the rise of science in England? And is Henry really ‘our most important single ruler’? Cases can certainly be made for William I, Henry II, Elizabeth I, Cromwell, among others.


Elisabeth Wheeler said...

I agree with David Starkey. I think Henry was one of our most important rulers. Henry had a problem in regard to the succession. The time came when he had to make up his mind where he stood in regard to the Church of Rome. What a brave step he took to challenge the Vatican regarding his first marriage. What courage. He knew he had a case and went for it. The Pope had no intention of giving way. What followed and the break from Rome was inevitable and satisfied well those powerful people around him who were following Lutheran thought. How this king withstood the pressures of this time is amazing. Henry was at the birth of change and dealt with it; whereas Elizabeth stepped into it when, by her time, there was no turning back. Please read my recently published book available now: 'Men of Power'
(ISBN 9781872882017).
Elisabeth Wheeler

Anonymous said...

I think the assessment of whether Henry VIII was 'our most important ruler' depends entirely on the definition of 'important' used by the person that makes the claim.

Owing to the emphasis placed on Tudors by national exam boards and the national curriculum, Henry VIII is certainly probably one of our most familiar monarchs.

The claim made by Dr Starkey shows well that history is a public activity as much as it is an academic discipline. Perhaps we should not be asking 'do the Tudors have importance' as much as 'why have we chosen to attribute importance to this particular dynasty?'

Elisabeth Wheeler said...

I have to come back thanks to the comments of fionakisby. I did not positively say that I agreed with Dr Starkey's supposition that Henry is our most important ruler. I agree, he is - but with a reservation added "when viewed in his own time along with his counterparts on the continent". How he stands in regard to our history both before and after his reign I am not competent to judge.
Henry was not a tyrant in my view. My area of special interest is in relation to his wives. I admire his strength to carry on in spite of the political, religious and personal factions at home working
to alter the succession.

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