Diarmaid MacCulloch

  • Selling the Tudor Monarchy: Authority and Image in 16th-Century England by Kevin Sharpe
    Yale, 588 pp, £30.00, April 2009, ISBN 978 0 300 14098 9

The recent fuss over the fifth centenary of Henry VIII’s coronation (we will all be heartily sick of him by the end of 2009) has concealed the real surprise in the Tudor achievement: the rebranding of a failed cross-channel state as an island kingdom. In 1485, Henry’s father seized power in what had once been an example to all Europe of how to centralise government in a monarchy. The example had been set by the Anglo-Saxon monarchs of Wessex, who with the help of the Church manufactured a national fiction called England, only to have their achievement hijacked by a shrewd representative of Scandinavian carpet-baggers, William of Normandy. William’s Angevin successors then created a power of continent-wide importance, an Anglo-French polity that represented these islands’ best effort yet at European integration; but it had fallen apart three times: successively in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. On the two occasions when competent and ruthless kings rebuilt it (Edward III, then Henry V), infuriatingly self-indulgent kings lost it (Richard II, then Henry VI). The uselessness of the two latter monarchs had led to their murder by ambitious would-be replacements; nobility had been so unimpressed by the victims’ performance on the throne that they stood aside and let the assassinations happen.

Henry VI did rather better after death than Richard II, because ordinary Englishmen were perplexed by his frequent insanity (and wetness when occasionally sane), and then shocked at his unnecessarily sticky end. They decided that all this could be explained only if he was a saint. St Henry was an asset that the Tudors were not slow to exploit when they succeeded the two Yorkist brothers whose family was responsible for Henry’s murder. Tudors rather than Henry VI gave us that incomparable monument of late medieval English Gothic, King’s College chapel, but the Protestant Reformation made it difficult to exploit a royal saintly cult. After some spirited ceremonial experiments in the opening months of the reign of Henry VIII’s son Edward, another boy-king who was the sixth of his name, Henry was allowed to fade away, remembered only in the grateful public prayers of his beneficiaries on King’s Parade.

What remained was a dynasty with as ridiculously weak a claim to the throne of England as any monarch since William the Norman. The root of it was a marriage: a love-match between Henry V’s French widow, Catherine of Valois, and her Welsh servant Owen Tudor; a marriage certainly valid in the eyes of God, but in English law made illegal by an act of parliament, since it had not obtained the royal permission which the act required. Not surprisingly, this piece of legislation disappeared from public view around 1485, to be recovered only in the 20th century from its lurking place in the borough archives of Leicester, whose Tudor mayors might have been highly alarmed if they had known of the explosive document they were harbouring. Henry VII’s victory at Bosworth Field was one of the most astonishing political reverses in English history, the culmination of long-term plotting spearheaded by his formidable mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, the most successful politician in 15th-century England. Her role, largely forgotten for centuries and thrillingly rediscovered by Michael Jones and Malcolm Underwood in The King’s Mother (1992), might usefully have played a greater part in Kevin Sharpe’s admittedly already massive study of Tudor spin-doctoring.

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[*] Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery (Wiley-Blackwell, 392 pp., £19.99, October, 978 1 4051 9413 6).