Friday, 9 September 2011

Review: 1536 The Year That Changed Henry VIII by Suzannah Lipscomb

One of the best knownfigures of British History, the stereotypical image of Henry VIII is of acorpulent, covetous and cunning king whose appetite for worldly goods met fewparallels, whose wives met infamously premature ends, and whose religion wasever political in intent. Moving beyond this caricature, 1536 – focusing on apivotal year in the life of the King – reveals a fuller portrait of thiscomplex monarch, detailing the finer shades of humanity that have so long beenoverlooked. We discover that in 1536 Henry met many failures – physical,personal and political – and emerged from them a different man: a revolutionarynew king who proceeded to transform a nation and reform a religion.

From the moment I picked this book up I could barely put itdown. I was hooked from the word go, and thoroughly enjoyed every moment that Isat down and read this book. So much so that I finished it in a little undertwo days. In fact I would say that this book is one of the best books on HenryVIII that I have ever read, for the sheer fact that is completely unlike anybook on Henry that I have ever read. In fact it concentrates on one single yearin Henry VIII’s reign, and a year in which a lot of bad things seemed to happento Henry VIII, things that went some way to making Henry into the tyrant thatwe all think of today. In fact the amazing thing about this book is that itgoes some way to explaining the psychology behind the change in Henry VIII, andlooks in some details at particular events during this year that changed HenryVIII. And in fact Suzannah Lipscomb presents compelling arguments here to saythat it wasn’t just one event that changed Henry; in fact it was a mixture ofevery single event that happened throughout this year that changed him. Somehistorians blame Anne Boleyn; some blame his jousting accident, some blame thePilgrimage of grace but Lipscomb puts across that it can’t be just one thing.It has to be a number of contributing factors that changed him from theVirtuous Prince that Starkey talks about into the obese tyrant that we all loveto hate today.

Lipscomb presents her book in a very readable style, keepingthings short and to the point and tying them all in wonderfully. It makes thewhole book incredibly readable and a sheer joy to curl up on the sofa with. Herwriting style makes the book move along at a fast pace, and it is far from drylike many Tudor books out there. The chapters are presented in short, bitesized chunks – some of them clock in at just a couple of pages – which give theinformation needed but don’t run on for pages and pages with information thatreally doesn’t help the reader understand anything. I honestly wish that someof the books and articles I had to have read at University had read like this.

The first few chapters concentrate on “setting the scene”;giving the reader the sense of what Tudor England was like up to 1536. We learnthat every person from the lowest common person up to the highest person in theland had their place in society; we learn how important religion was to thepeople of England and most of all we see exactly where women came into play.They were seen during this time as the weaker sex, the sex that brought sininto the world and who had to be kept in place by men. Following this, Lipscomblooks at the theories surrounding the changes in Henry VIII’s personality,those that blame the change on certain events and different dates.  Her own theory then comes into play that 1536was the year that accelerated the change in Henry, pushing him towards beingthe tyrant that everyone thinks of today. Of course, more background isprovided and we are shown that even in his younger days Henry was stubborn andcould be cruel, and then we are shown his divorce. Henry’s divorce came aboutthrough his wish for a male heir and his worry that after 20 years of marriageto Katherine of Aragon that his dynasty was in peril. After all, the Tudorswere still relatively new on the dynastic scene and nothing would be certainunless Henry could provide a strong male heir to continue the dynastic line.Lipscomb suggests here that he was convinced the reason he was being declined amale heir was because he was being punished by God, and that the Pope shouldnever have granted his dispensation to marry Katherine.

From here on in, we start getting to the nitty gritty of1536 and the events that made this year Henry’s annus horribilis. This whole section is dedicated not only to theseevents, but of the masculine crisis that Henry would go through in this year.At this point, Henry VIII was getting towards old age and things beganculminating which he himself commented, made him feel like an old man. Thefirst event of the year was the death of Katherine of Aragon, and whilst thismay have been an important moment for him, it was just the beginning of thingsto come. And then we are shown how important honour was to Henry, and the ideathat jousting was the best way that any man could show his honour. We are givena taster of how the jousting accident that happened in this year and stoppedHenry from jousting was a severe blow to his honour.

The Fall of Anne Boleyn was a major event in this year, andan event that really would have affected Henry. Lipscomb runs through Anne’sdownfall in a prompt manner, explaining her miscarriage of 1536 would have beenthe beginning of the end, bringing in Jane Seymour and showing how quicklyHenry became enamoured of her, the investigation and the arrests of Smeaton,Rochford, Wyatt, and Norris etc. We then look at the reasons as to why Annefell from grace so suddenly and so dramatically – was it all Cromwell? Was itJane Seymour and her family? Did Henry prompt Cromwell to do it because hewanted her out of the way or was she really guilty? But, despite the evidenceLipscomb puts forward to Anne’s innocence, she was still found guilty andLipscomb takes us through the reasons why Anne was still put to death despitethe evidence that Anne was actually innocent of all the charges. And Lipscombpoints out that even though Anne was innocent, the fact that her apparent guiltconvinced Henry she should die.

The next major event in this year was the death of Henry’s illegitimateson Henry Fitzroy. This along with the fact that both of his daughters were nowillegitimate meant that he was now without heirs at all, and this would havebeen a huge blow for the aging monarch.

We are then given an overview of religion at the time, andhow this affected Henry. His break from Rome caused the reformation that is soembedded in our minds and this was a major thing for Henry – he saw himself asHead of the Church and he believed that everyone else should see it that way.We are shown how despite the fact he still held true to a few Catholicpractices, he completely changed others and woe betide anyone who went againsthim! He put his foot down with anyone who disagreed with him, executing thosewho he believed were heretics and executing others for not conforming to hisnew religion. It seems he went for the middle way, but took a hard line withit. Of course, we are also shown how he held to his Act of Succession, and howhe dealt with those who refused to swear the oath also. His daughter Mary hadbeen forced to sign, and men whom he had once held close (i.e. Thomas More) hadalready been put to death.

The next huge event in 1536 was the famous Pilgrimage ofGrace, a massive uprising in the north of England against the religiouschanges, suppression of the monasteries and most of all against Henry’s councillors.By this point, it seemed as though Henry had become a dangerous man to know –as Robert Aske would find out when despite doing what the King said and helpingto put down the rebels he once lead, he still ended up in chains, left hangingto rot. Mixed in with this, following the rebellion, prophecies became muchmore ardent and something that Henry was determined to put down. Henry wasconstantly being labelled as the mouldwarp from the prophecy of the same name.We are told how seriously this was taken, how prophecies were banned and mostof all how people were put to death for calling Henry the tyrant spoken aboutin these prophecies.

The book is finalised with a wonderful chapter named “Howdid Henry VIII become a tyrant?” and this is basically a conclusion to thewhole book which summarises each point in turn. Here Lipscomb runs back overeach point she has made, the fall of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s jousting accident andthe effect it had on his honour, the death of his son Henry Fitzroy and the Pilgrimageof Grace and she pulls them all together. She shows us how each of these eventsgave rise to the tyrant we know and that by this year, more so than any other,Henry had become a seriously dangerous man with a violent temper. Because afterall in this year the Act of Attainder was used on more and more people,something which had previously never been done before, and it meant that hecould have people executed without a trial. All the warrant needed was hissignature. Indeed, Lipscomb comes to the conclusion, through looking at all ofthis and then the definitions of a tyrant in both the modern day and in the 16thcentury, that by 1536 Henry had indeed become the tyrant that we, as readersand historians, all want so desperately to know.

All in all a fantastic read and one I would definitelyrecommend to anyone that is new to Henry VIII. This really was a wonderful bookand a great attempt at unravelling the mystery of how Henry became such atyrant. I’m glad it wasn’t any longer because I think had it been then it couldhave quickly become dry. Instead the length was just right, and made it apleasure to read. It’s certainly one I will be going back to again.

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