Draw two two-inch triangles, tip to tip, one on top of the other. A little way down the left flank of the upper triangle, take a perpendicular line out to an inch, then turn your pencil at a right angle and continue another inch. Repeat on the other side. Next, draw two short, splayed lines down from the base of the lower triangle. Finally, put an acute accent, an inch long, about two inches above the whole. What have you got? According to Dr David Starkey, who performs this trick at schools all over the country, Henry VIII in 13 lines. Apparently he is recognisable in this form as far afield as Japan, America, and even France.
Each generation makes history in its own image and we, preoccupied with spin and profile-management, are impressed anew with Henry for his genius in this field. Recent popular narratives of Henry’s life have emphasised this in the monuments he made to his own magnificence, particularly in the art and artefacts formerly overlooked as historical evidence: seals, stained glass, maps, instruments, illuminations. This has now been done fairly exhaustively. What is the biographer to do who is coming along on the back of this with mere words? David Loades’s solution is somehow indicative of his independent minded and calmly impressive approach to the task. Of course he has an excellent plate section full of unusual things. But his nod to spin is in following the fortunes of Henry’s image after it fell out of his own hands — that is, by supplying a concise historiography where the judgments of the last 500 years are beautifully compressed. Any reader of this book therefore gets the benefit of dozens of others and a course of further study set out for him, if desired.
The general reader, at whom this book is directed, may be tempted to skip the crash-course in Henrician historiography. Don’t! Because this is the key to the book and the answer to the question of why we need another biography of Henry VIII. The answer is this: we need one to show all that has happened to Henry since the prime of Sir Geoffrey Elton.
The great Elton (uncle of Ben, by the way, which accounts for the subversive genius of the Blackadder series) may be gone, but he is far from forgotten amongst the senior historians — now in their fifties and sixties — who struggled up under the broad shade of his ubiquity. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the whole generation rose in reaction to Elton’s picture of Henry as ‘a bit of a baby and a bit of a booby’, lucky enough to have in Thomas Cromwell a genius of a minister to devise effective policy and enact it using a newly invigorated parliament. Two parricidal strains in particular have emerged: the first returns power to the household and the court (extreme example: David Starkey). The second argues for Henry’s autonomy in matters of policy and the formation of the English church (extreme example: G. W. Bernard).
Having encapsulated these arguments in his preface, Loades needs never allude to them again directly. He just gracefully assumes them into his own narrative and avoids engagement with their authors. He seems to have no taste for adversarial scholarship and his book has an air of being cooly even-handed, balanced, even ginger in its avoidance of controversy. A typical Loades sentence is : ‘It might be an exaggeration to describe them [Wolsey and Anne Boleyn] as allies, but at least their aims were congruent.’
It is not a long book compared to the standard work by J. J. Scarisbrick (himself a student of Elton) which it seeks to supplant. Quite a lot, accordingly, has had to go. Some of the things you don’t get in this biography include: colourful accounts of Henrician court life and culture; polemical argument; intrusions into the character of the king or his chief ministers; chestnuts about the King’s personal life; analysis of court faction. The fact that Loades has written ‘more books than I care to remember’ on the Tudors, and must expect to write even more, has probably influenced his selective policy. One of his books was about Henry’s six wives; another, about the Boleyns, is in the pipeline. These two facts may be behind his brisk, elliptical dealings with the king’s marital career and his reluctance to give much detail here about the operation of faction at court.
In the course of writing these many books — including works on Henry’s navy and the standard biography of Mary I— Loades has probably handled every document of the King’s 37-year rule. That shows beautifully here. He is fascinating on the subject of Henry’s finances, shaping his narrative round a series of sums which shows how the need to float the King dominated the people lower down the ladder of society as well as those at the top, and affected every aspect of the reign.
What we do get in this biography is a perfect understanding of the reign’s supporting structures. Henry’s laws, deeds and policies are worked into the coolly fluent narrative with admirable deftness. The account of the King’s divorce is a case in point. Loades has absorbed every detail of that tortuous six-year legal case and given it back to us so that we can fully understand the arguments, fully appreciate the terrible slowness and backsliding that drove the king to desperate measures, but not so that we feel (as we can with Scarisbrick) that we are experiencing the divorce in real time. Loades’s book is a triumph of cool-headedness and concision.