Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Dead King Watch: Henry VIII - Greedy Bastard

Henry VIII died on 28th January 1547, which makes this the 459th anniversary of his death, and Dead King Watch could have hardly missed this occasion. Henry is famous not just for his size but 'for having been married six times and for wielding the most untrammelled power of any British monarch'. This power came from his Parliament's passing of several Acts from 1529 onwards which severed the English Church from the Roman Catholic Church - the 'Protestant Reformation' - and established Henry as the supreme head of the Church in England. This boosted the power of the monarchy over the clergy immeasurably - and when followed up with the suppression of the monasteries in 1536 -9, undertaken to try and solve a growing financial crisis, clearly showed the real agenda of Henry VIII. This was not about trying to create a popular mass movement against the power of the Catholic Church - after all still the ideological lynchpin of the feudal system across Europe - it was about establishing an effective modern independent absolutist monarchical state in England. Parliament was tolerated, but real power lay with the King through his Privy Council and a network of local Justices of the Peace.

AL Morton describes Tudor Government at this time: 'There was no standing army and only a small paid bureaucracy. But by medieval standards it was costly enough and soon outran the old sources of revenue that had changed little since the Middle Ages. Henry VIII started with the immense accumulation of funds left by his father but soon spent it. The extravagance for which he is notorious was not merely a personal weakness, it had political motives. The Kings of Europe in this period aimed at attracting the nobles to court, and, by turning them into courtiers, weakening them as political rivals. For this purpose a lavish expenditure was necessary and kings and nobles competed in display on an every increasing scale. Where the feudal nobles had shown their importance by the size of their armed following, their descendants were judged by their dress and the style of their houses.'

This was the great age of chivalry, of jousting and so on - and Henry who had come to the throne in 1509 aged just 18 was a great athlete and sportsman (apparently inventing 'Royal Tennis'). Yet as Morton notes, all this display was very costly and 'Henry, always apt to develop political necessity to the point of mania, seemed to take a political delight in squandering his resources. In addition, the wars to which the balance of power policy committed him proved expensive and brought no return. Finally, as the century went on, the influx of gold and silver from America began to increase prices without bringing any corresponding increase in revenue' - which led him to plunder the Church as described above.

It seems Henry VIII was also something of a homophobe, indeed passing the first anti-gay law in England, the Buggery Act 1533. The Act made buggery (anal sex) with man or beast punishable by hanging, a penalty not finally lifted until 1861, when life imprisonment was substituted. Yet even then the law survived until 1967, and the tabloid press demonisation of Lib Dem Simon Hughes shows that for all the talk of 'new Britain' and 'modern Britishness' - some very old and nasty prejudices still remain. It might also be noted that 'the direct effects of this law were not restricted to England. Because of England's success as a colonial power, and its tendency to impose its entire legal structure on the ruled areas, legal prohibitions against homosexual activity derived from this law extended well outside England. In Scotland, for instance, (which has a separate legal system) the law was not changed until 1979. In many American states "sodomy" laws are still on the books, as also in former British colonies in the Caribbean.'

Yes, Henry was definitely a man with an eye for the ladies. According to Wikipedia, he was an accomplished musician, author, and poet and he wrote the popular folk song 'Greensleeves' for one of his lovers and future Queens, who had rejected Henry's attempts to seduce her.

'Alas, my love, you do me wrong,
To cast me off discourteously.
For I have loved you well and long,
Delighting in your company.

Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves was my heart of gold,
And who but my lady greensleeves.

Your vows you've broken, like my heart,
Oh, why did you so enrapture me?
Now I remain in a world apart
But my heart remains in captivity.

I have been ready at your hand,
To grant whatever you would crave,
I have both wagered life and land,
Your love and good-will for to have.

If you intend thus to disdain,
It does the more enrapture me,
And even so, I still remain
A lover in captivity.

My men were clothed all in green,
And they did ever wait on thee;
All this was gallant to be seen,
And yet thou wouldst not love me.

Thou couldst desire no earthly thing,
but still thou hadst it readily.
Thy music still to play and sing;
And yet thou wouldst not love me.

Well, I will pray to God on high,
that thou my constancy mayst see,
And that yet once before I die,
Thou wilt vouchsafe to love me.

Ah, Greensleeves, now farewell, adieu,
To God I pray to prosper thee,
For I am still thy lover true,
Come once again and love me.'

However, before we build up too strong a romantic image of Henry VIII, it might be worth remembering exactly which future Queen he had in mind when he wrote this love song - one, er, Anne Boleyn. She ended up getting beheaded of course by her 'lover long and true'...

He died from obesity and 'the service of committal was interrupted when his coffin burst forth offensive matter and filled the church with a most obnoxious odour'. There, thats a nice image to leave you with...



At 9:44 am, Blogger Cie Cheesemeister said...

Ack--I like the song Greensleeves. Can I pretend that I don't know it was written by this lardass who makes me look slim 'n' svelte although I'm trying to lose at least 50 pounds? (About 25 kilos)
Of course it irritated me that this jerk had his wives killed when they bore girls rather than boys. But to add insult to injury he made it so that gay people couldn't even have any enjoyment without a death threat over their head. Not that anyone's life could have been very enjoyable under his reign, I imagine.
I always learn a lot from you. I don't always post because sometimes I simply have no idea what to say and don't want to sound lame. But it's always interesting.
The Cheesy 1

At 10:28 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Cheers, I appreciate the feedback.

At 9:19 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

According to some, Green Sleeves is a tenth century folk song which would make it about a half a century older than if Henry VIII wrote it. But I love your commentary and the pic is most interesting. He must have been much younger than most of the painting we usually see of him. And I don't ever remember seeing any portrait of Henry that so prominently displays his cod-piece!

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