Friday, June 13, 2008

Thinking about Henry VIII

I have been reading Henry VIII: The King and His Court by Alison Weir. The subtitle is accurate, in that the book is not a history of Europe nor England during the Tudor epoch. Rather it is a book about the operation of the court during the time of Henry VIII. If you are writing about the time or if you are fascinating by the life style of the rich and famous, this is the book for you. Otherwise, it will tell you more about menus, clothes, and other life style choices than you probably want to know.

There are some interesting things. I learned that I had misunderstood the Reformation. I had thought of it as primarily about the creation of new churches in competition with the Roman Catholic church. Henry VIII, at least, did not see himself as starting a new church, and died believing himself to be a Catholic. If you think about it, there have been efforts to reform the Catholic church that include Vatican II, the creation of Franciscan, Dominican and Jesuit orders, and many others which did not result in the creation of alternative structures. Indeed, there is a face-off between the Chinese government and the Vatican as to the power to appoint Bishops in China which is somehow reminiscent of the dispute between Henry VIII and the Pope.

I was trying to figure out how exceptional a man Henry VIII really was while reading the book. It seems clear that he was exceptional in that he was athletic, intelligent and learned. Weir includes many quotes from observers at the Court testifying to his outstanding qualities. But how much credence can we put in those reports?

Certainly the Court of Henry VIII was seeking to increase his prestige, and indeed he was capable of the most severe sanctions against those who challenged his majesty. He, like other monarchs, engaged in "progresses" traveling in state from town to town in order to impress his subjects with his wealth and power. It was a time in which the myth of the divine right of kings was widely promoted, and there . The King and his Court used conspicuous consumption as a means of distancing themselves from the commoners. They even promoted the position that the wealth of the king and his expensive Court were signs of the degree to which God favored his anointed king, and that his exceptional personal characteristics were similarly signs of divine favor.

I think the effect is not simply a sign of the ignorance of the Middle Ages, nor of an eccentricity of the English (who continue to accept and subsidize the wealth of a royal family which has exhibited all sorts of failings over the centuries). I have seen people react to candidates for high political office in this country with apparent idolatry. I also saw first hand the mystique of the presidency. Even today you find those who work in the White House seem to be enthralled by the President. On the one hand, we are social animals, and we pick up on the status attributed to a person by others in our and his/her surround. On the other hand, we deffer to the alphas in our surround, and the most alpha is the head of government and state in the most powerful nation in the world. I think we are likely also to be willing to attribute that person more stellar qualities than even those required to reach that exalted status.

Henry VIII unfortunately seemed to accept the impression he saw in those in his Court of himself as accurate. The romans had someone behind the emperor whispering that he was not a god. Not a bad idea! Except in our system the aid might whisper, "you ain't even as good as you think".

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