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Henry VIII: a very English villain

Henry VIII: keeping up a fraud

I’ve gained a new perspective on the Reformation from watching the BBC’s 1970 serial The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Thanks to a mix of classical education and technical limits, old TV often watches like a stage play adapted for the screen – and I love it. Characters explain what they’re doing and why; there’s a synthesis of personality and ideas. Whereas modern dramatists would have Henry’s motivations expressed through copious amounts of rumpus-pumpus, the golden age relied squarely on innuendo and poetry. It’s far more powerful.

Take the messy ethics of the famous “divorce”. Henry (Keith Michell) needs a male heir and decides the best way to get one is to annul his marriage to his wife, Catherine of Aragon, on the spurious grounds that she was previously married to his brother and thus the second union was a sin. Catherine is usually cast in the role of a victim, but Six Wives makes it clear how much agency she really had thanks to her refusal to lie. No, she will not take a bribe and swallow the annulment. No, she will not enter a nunnery. No, she will not pretend her union with Henry’s teenage brother was consummated: she married Henry a virgin and thus, she is convinced, they are lawful man and wife. The paradox is that in her absolute devotion to her Catholic conscience, Catherine ends up imperiling the Catholic Church in England – to the point that Henry breaks with Rome to get rid of her and be with the delicious Anne Boleyn.

The rest of the drama explores the shadow that this first rupture – a kind of Original Sin – casts over every subsequent marriage. A precedence of anarchy has been set: if Henry could do that to Catherine, what could he do next? Boleyn also fails to produce a boy, is accused of adultery and sent to the executioner. Jane Seymour lives nervously with religious-inspired doubts about Henry; the sheer oppression of the court puts her in an early grave. Anne of Cleves fears for her life and negotiates a quickie annulment; the marriage to Catherine Howard is a tragic last hurrah for a desiccated old monarch looking for vindication in the bedroom (her eyes wander, she loses her head). Finally, Catherine Parr is a committed Protestant trying to survive just as politics and guilt are pushing Henry back in the direction of the Pope. But whereas Catherine of Aragon displayed a saint-like transparency, Catherine Parr uses her sexuality and cunning to escape with her head on her shoulders. Everyone lies because Henry’s one big lie put paid to all truth. Protestants and Catholics would spend the next few hundred years disguising their true beliefs from each other and the Crown.

It’s a lesson that you don’t have to be Catholic to grasp, that it’s exhausting to keep up a fraud and the world can always see through it, tainting all genuine accomplishment. This was understood in 1970 because back then people still saw marriage in moral and religious terms rather than as a disposable means to personal fulfilment. Today’s audience might actually find Catherine’s absolute commitment to the truth rather odd and could even interpret it as wounded pride, even though the queen herself would probably consider pride a sin. My own view is that she was desperately concerned with doing the right thing – to die with a clean heart.

I took a Scottish friend to the Tower of London last week (a day out, not a sentence) and he asked what I as an Englishman think of Henry VIII. The answer, God help me, is that I identify with him. I hate almost everything he did, but when I look at him – the way I suppose some Frenchmen look at Napoleon or Russians at Ivan the Terrible – I see the embodiment of my people and a reflection of our historical character and ambitions. Sorry, it’s the truth.

The English “dream”, if such a thing exists, is for liberty and the good life, the latter being the freedom to drink, feast and fool around; to be the king of one’s own castle. There is something splendid about the later scenes of Six Wives, as Henry decides to go off to war one last time and his gargantuan body is lowered by crane on to a poor, unsuspecting horse. This is England as it was before the cult of good manners descended in the 19th century.

Proof? An exhibit at the Tower celebrating its previous incarnation as a zoo. According to a sign on the wall, members of the public would bring along live cats and puppies to feed to the animals. I’m afraid that until fairly recently, we English were complete savages.

Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and Catholic Herald contributing editor