At the conclusion Chapter XVIII of A Child’s History of England Charles Dickens expressed his disapproval of Henry VIII in very clear terms: “The plain truth is, that he was a most intolerable ruffian, a disgrace to human nature, and a blot of blood and grease upon the History of England.”
This is a view that must have coloured many little minds, for the book, which first appeared in serial form in Household Words in the early 1850s, was on the curricula of English schools right through to the Second World War. We now have a slightly more nuanced view of this Tudor giant, but the image of him as a boorish tyrant still informs a lot of popular culture. The truth, rarely pure and never simple, is that Henry in a very real sense was the first true ‘sovereign’ in English history.
I’ll clarify this point a little later but first a word or two on the context of his reign, on the political forces that shaped his style as a ruler. Yes, he was a particularly dominant figure, more so than any of his predecessors on the throne. His more tyrannical actions are explained in large parts by the shallow roots of the Tudor dynasty, planted with uncertainty after a long and bloody dynastic war. It could be dangerous to be alive in his reign, chiefly for those unfortunate enough to have a better claim to the throne, something they were well-advised to keep quiet about.
Henry had one overriding obsession: to secure the future of his line and, in the circumstances of the time, he believed it essential that he had a son. A daughter simply would not do. We can look forward to the reign of Elizabeth, one of the most successful monarchs ever, but Henry could only look back to the example of Matilda, the daughter and heir of Henry I, whose rightful claim was usurped by her cousin Stephen, a preamble to a lengthy civil war.
When Henry came to the throne England had two separate legal systems – the common law of the land and the canon law of the church. Two sets of laws meant two sets of courts, with the ultimate arbiter in all matters affecting canon law being the Vatican. This included all family law, issues pertaining to wills and, of course, marriage and divorce. This was the basis of Papal power in England, which by the early middle ages was considerable.
Although Henry had several children by his first queen, Catherine of Aragon, only their daughter Mary had survived infancy. By the 1520s, on the threshold of middle age, he believed it imperative that the marriage to Catherine, no longer capable of bearing children, be dissolved. An appeal had to be made to Rome. It might have been a relatively simple matter but for one thing – the pope of the day, Clement VII, was in the power of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who just happened to be Catherine’s nephew. The ensuing English Reformation began, therefore, as a matter of dynastic politics.
I hinted above that prior to the reign of Henry English kings had never been fully sovereign. The country, like today, was part of a wider union, subject to the authority of the Universal Church. It was a dangerous thing for an English king to challenge the power of the pope, as Henry II and his son John discovered to their cost.
There is much debate in the press today about the repatriation of powers from Europe, with Prime Minister David Cameron making vague nods in this general direction. But Henry did not talk; he acted. Exasperated by the delays caused in the settlement of his marital affairs, he effectively brought to an end the duality in English law; he ended the power of Rome.
With the aid of Thomas Cromwell, his chief minister at the time, Parliament was persuaded to pass the Act of Restraint of Appeals in 1533. This had the effect of ending all appeals to Rome, allowing matters to be settled on the spot, declaring to the world that England was an empire, not subject to the rule of a foreign princes or courts
This measure is one of the most significant in English history, going far beyond offering Henry, as head on an independent English Church, a way of breaking the Roman logjam. It was a declaration of political sovereignty, an Act of Parliament rather than a royal proclamation.
The Act was so successful that even during the Catholic reaction of Henry’s daughter, Mary, it was never repealed. For all her orthodoxy Mary remained Supreme Head of the Church, effectively the Pope in England. There were no more appeals to the Papal Curia, no more foreign laws.
Now think of us today, think of the steady erosion of our national sovereignty, think of us subject to the legal vagaries of the European Court of Human Rights, which recently ruled that we could not deport a foreign terrorist, a man with no connection to this country, a man who is a positive threat to our national security. As I wrote elsewhere, if only we could have a new repatriation, an Act of Restraint of Foreign Legal Stupidity.
History has been reversed. We are far more in thrall to the new Roman power than we ever were to the old. How I admire the audacity of Bluff King Hal. For me he is not a blot of blood and grease on the history of England. He is, rather, an avatar of freedom.