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The Review - FEATURE
Published: 18 June 2009
Portrait of Henry VIII - circa 1509 Unknown artist
Portrait of Henry VIII - circa 1509 Unknown artist
King Henry VIII: the first of the Eurosceptics

Next week marks 500 years since England’s most famous, and infamous, monarch ascenced to the throne. Historian David Starkey writes exclusively in the New Journal about the fractious reign that, centuries later, is still influencing British society

HENRY VIII is the one English king that everybody knows about. He is the most infamous monarch of them all, remembered for his ­monstrous size, his glorious palaces and the long list of beheadings that characterised his rule – and which included two of his six wives.
The image of Henry that grips the popular imagination is the bloated tyrant he had become by the end of his reign. A rare engraving by the Flemish artist Cornelis Metsys depicts Henry in 1544, just three years before his death, with the face of a nightmarish Humpty Dumpty.
There was, however, another, different Henry. On June 24 2009, it will be exactly 500 years since he ascended to the throne of England, every inch the dashing young prince. An atmosphere of hope surrounded his coronation in 1509, and in the early years of his reign visitors to the his court were bowled over by his elegance, learning, sporting prowess – and his good looks.
The Venetian ambassador reported that Henry was “the handsomest potentate that I ever set eyes on… a round face so very beautiful that it would become a pretty woman.”
His transformation from Renaissance prince to obese tyrant constitutes the best and bloodiest soap opera in English history. However, the transformation Henry wreaked on the nation had consequences comparable in magnitude to the Norman Conquest – and which continue to shape our lives five centuries later.
I believe that the seeds of Henry’s transformation were sown at his mother’s knee. While his elder brother Arthur, as Prince of Wales, had the sort of male-dominated upbringing typical of a Tudor, upper-class boy, Henry – the “spare” – spent his formative years surrounded by women.
Documents from his early life show that he was raised at Eltham Palace with his sisters and their ladies-in-waiting. A new exhibition at the British Library, which I have helped curate, displays Henry’s handwriting alongside that of his mother, Elizabeth of York. Visitors to the exhibition will be able to see for themselves the striking similarities that indicate that Elizabeth herself probably taught Henry how to write – exerting an influence over her younger son that was highly unusual for the time.
By the time that Arthur’s untimely death in 1502 made Henry heir apparent, the die was cast. Despite his outward demonstrations of ostentatious masculinity, particularly his passions for hunting and jousting, Henry remained a man who needed the love and approval of women.
This impulse was at the heart of his conviction – by no means common in his day – that love and marriage ought to be inextricably intertwined. As Henry fell out of love with his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and began a ­passionate affair with Anne Boleyn, he could justify to himself that a loveless marriage was an unbearable – even unnatural – state of affairs.
His solution was the divorce that brought about the break with Rome and set the course of English history for the next five centuries.
Amazingly, thanks to a series of 17 of Henry’s love letters to Anne that have survived, we can pinpoint the moment he made the fateful declaration. The letters were stolen by one of Anne’s ladies, then spirited to the Vatican, where they have remained ever since. Letter number five, which goes on show for the first time at the British Library exhibition, is the most devastating. In it Henry pledges to marry Anne, vowing that this is his “unchangeable intention” and sealing the deal with the words “either that or nothing”.
This is one of those rare documents upon which the whole of English history turns. The Pope was at that time a virtual prisoner of Catherine of Aragon’s nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and was in no position to grant the divorce Henry so desperately sought. This resulted in his break with the Roman Catholic church and the establishment of the Church of England – with Henry as its supreme head.
The rupture marked the start of Henry’s personal degeneration. His character coarsened and he increasingly enforced his will through the execution of anyone who stood in his way – most famously, Anne Boleyn herself and his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, but also in the cases of hundreds of others, regardless of rank.
Rebellions in the north, such as the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, were met with ruthless reprisals. Lords, knights and abbots were among those put to death by a king determined to establish his supremacy. It is usually the case that the poor suffer the most, while the rich get all the pleasure – during Henry’s reign it was more often the elite that bore the brunt of his fury.
If Henry’s reign had momentous consequences within his kingdom, its effects were no less significant abroad. From being a good Catholic country in the mainstream of European affairs, England became a 16th-century rogue state.
In plans for the elaborate coastal defences that Henry commissioned we can see how England no longer defined itself as part of Europe, but as separate from it – a nation apart. Catholic Europe was now the threat, the launch pad for invasion. In other words Henry was the first Eurosceptic: the xenophobic, insular politics he created have helped to define English history for the past five centuries.
And inevitably, in turning away from Europe, Henry would redirect the nation’s expansionist energies towards the Indies and the New World. Before Henry’s reign, there was no trace of imperial ambition beyond the traditional battlegrounds of France and Spain; after Henry, we find the great age of Elizabethan discovery and four centuries of British empire-building.
Can one man really have such a monumental effect on everything that follows him? Had Henry – like so many of his ancestors and contemporaries – succumbed to the sweating sickness in his early twenties, would England today really be so different?
For a start, we would have remained a Catholic country, with the all the social, legal and cultural trappings that implies – for example, we would have a much stronger tradition of visual art.
Had we retained our connection to the Papacy and the European monarchies, we might not have felt the urge to strike out towards North America, India and Australasia. A Dutch-speaking America could have been the result, while the British Empire as we knew it almost certainly would not have developed.
For better or worse, the unmistakable figure of Henry VIII stands at the crossroads of English history. Anyone who truly wishes to understand our present must get to grips with this supreme shaper of our shared past.
? Henry VIII: Man and Monarch runs until 6 September at the British Library, 96 Euston Road, NW1.

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