It is been an EXHAUSTING week living in the present; I’m retreating to the past. To my favorite period and my academic specialty: the Tudor era. Before they were as fashionable as they are now due to an explosion of cultural depictions in the last decade or so, I set my sight on this dynasty. This is a big day in Tudor history as it marks the death of its founder, Henry VII, and the accession of his (second) son, the much-more notorious Henry VIII. These were very different men, very different kings, very different Tudors.
King Henry VII of England (r. 1485-1509) & King Henry VIII of England (r. 1509-1547); 1677 print, National Portrait Gallery, London.
I’ve always preferred the father to the son. Henry VII was a reluctant warrior-turned king: disciplined (physically reinforced by his slender physique), a bit defensive, definitely wary, prudent, calculating, somewhat severe, on the job. He was determined to bring order, stability, and prosperity to England after the tumultuous Wars of the Roses, and equally intent on liberating the Crown from parliamentary and noble interference. These two policies had both positive and negative consequences: increased industry and trade, a more centralized administration, an “isolationist” foreign policy which shifted England away from the Continent, the Court of Star Chamber, revenue collection that ventured into the realm of “avarice” according to the Tudor historian Polydore Vergil. It could just be the so-called “Tudor myth”, but England seems dark and divided at the commencement of Henry VII’s reign and more illuminated and integrated at its end. And then came Henry VIII.
Henry VII in life, death, and after: British Library MS Arundel 66, c. 1490; portrait by Estonian court painter Michael Sittow, c. 1505, National Portrait Gallery, London; deathbed scene by Sir Thomas Wriothesley, BL MS Additional 45131; the avarice label sticks: Thomas Edwin Mostyn’s 1919 painting, King Henry VII Fining the Citizens of Bristol Because Their Wives Were So Finely Dressed, 1490, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.
Henry VIII is of course a more iconic figure than Henry VII, more so because of his personal life and portraits than his policies. As momentous as it was, the English Reformation cannot trump the six wives in the public mind, although scholars are not so similarly focused. I drag my students through the “Tudor revolution in government” (a point of continuity between the two Henrys) and the Reformation, but I know we’ve also got to cover the wives: Anne Boleyn, in particular seems to have become an object of singular obsession for this particular generation. And when I show them pictures of the young Henry, they gasp, so fixed in their mind are the Hans Holbein images and their derivations. Because of the emphasis on the personal, Henry VIII seems to have emerged as a more human figure than his father, warts and all. He is portrayed and perceived as both pious and gregarious, educated and arbitrary, charming and tyrannical. Everyone seems to agree that he was self-indulgent and wasteful, lacking his father’s discipline in all matters, but somehow compensating for this weakness by his larger-than-life personality. He does indeed get bigger and bigger in his contemporary portrayals, and ultimately this magnitude extends to his historical image. Henry VIII’s ability to project his image transcended that of his father–he had more at stake and more tools at his disposal–but there is no getting around the fact that Henry VII was the first Tudor.
Henry VIII through the ages: at about 30, in a c. 1520 portrait by an anonymous artist, and in a c. 1536 portrait after Hans Holbein, National Portrait Gallery, London; Henry handing down the word of God in the frontspiece to the “Great Bible” of 1538, British Library, and among (above!) the Barber-Surgeons of London in 1541, Hunterian Museum, Glasgow; a rather romantic image of a key moment in the “King’s Great Matter”: Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon before Papal Legates at Blackfriars, 1529 by Frank O. Salisbury, 1910, Palace of Westminster Collection.