Seeing the wood for the trees

This is my review of Henry VIII (Penguin Monarchs): The Quest for Fame by John Guy.

The "Penguin Monarchs" series sets out to provide a separate concise and readable introduction to each of the British rulers from Athelstan to Elizabeth ll, written by a different specialist in each case. Well-known for his accessible coverage of the Tudor period, John Guy has chosen to focus on Henry's quest for fame. This was not achieved in quite the fashion intended, since he is mainly infamous for his often mistreated six wives, whereas his desire to be crowned in Paris as the rightful King of France or to become the "the arbiter of international disputes" came to nothing.

Perhaps because the details are quite condensed, the author succeeds in highlighting some key aspects of Henry's personality and the motivation for his actions. Charismatic in his youth, handsome, shrewd, interested in the arts yet also athletic, prepared to promote competent men of lowly origin like Wolsey or Cromwell, he could have left a positive legacy. Yet, childhood experiences of Yorkist rebellions triggered the fear which bred his almost paranoid mistrust of others, perhaps also fed by his calculating father's cynical example. With the additional effects of the physical excesses which ruined his health, and the impatience and arrogance which made some see him as "the most dangerous and cruel man in the world", inevitably many of his policies became corrupted.

To free England from papal authority and end the greed of the great monasteries may have been beneficial in the long-term, but these ideas were the unintended by-product of Henry's obsession to find a way to divorce an infertile wife for one who could provide the male heir needed to secure not only his dynasty but the security of the realm. Also, to use the monks' plundered wealth to finance unnecessary and abortive wars or to execute those who would not renounce the old faith were indefensible acts. Henry's concern to judge people via the legal system and to legalise change using Parliament was laudable but the resultant manipulation of justice by his henchmen and crushing of true democracy were tyrannical. His belief that the King of England really was Christ's deputy ironically led him to seek to re-impose what was in effect a form of Catholicism without the Pope.

The author's concluding points are telling: Henry's vast and costly wardrobe designed to impress, Holbein's portraits which revealed "the sitter's soul" in an unflattering way which Henry perhaps fortunately failed to observe, and, in true "Ozymandias" style, the grandiose planned mausoleum left unassembled in a workshop until the bronze was sold off a century later – to fund a future war. There's also a useful bibliography at the end for those who wish to know more.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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