Henry VIII. Routledge Historical Biographies

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Henry VIII. Routledge Historical Biographies

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By Lucy Wooding, 2008

A review by Nadine Lewycky

Probably no other English king looms so large in the popular imagination as Henry VIII, and few offer more important and more interesting problems to the historian. Yet Henry has been strangely neglected by historians. (1)

These are the opening lines of a review of J.J. Scarisbrick’s magisterial biography of Henry VIII in 1968, but could just as easily articulate a more recent appraisal of the historiographical neglect of arguably England’s most celebrated and controversial monarch. Despite the dominance of the figure of Henry VIII in the popular imagination, particularly as the nation launches its celebrations of the 500th anniversary of his coronation, biographies about the longest serving Tudor king are surprisingly few and far between. Henry’s reign has certainly received abundant attention from historians – scholars have engaged in intense discussions on the most monumental events and prominent themes for generations. Perhaps it is this profusion of historical debate which has led to the false assumption that studies about the monarch himself are copious. Perhaps it is the manner in which these events unfolded, and the degree of uncertainty surrounding their proceedings, which has preoccupied scholars. Perhaps it is the unfashionable nature of biography amongst the historical profession which has discouraged academics from writing such a work. Nevertheless, it is only after a hiatus of 40 years that a historian has attempted an evaluation of the persona of Henry VIII. Wooding’s biography, whilst not introducing a previously unconsidered primary source material or an innovative interpretation, is valuable as a summary of the past four decades worth of debate on the Henrician period, and as an easy introduction into the reign for a new audience.


Inevitably, a study of Henry VIII’s character and personality is also to a large extent an examination of the reign itself. The book is organised in a traditional biographical format: an introduction and the first six chapters describe Henry’s life chronologically beginning with his birth in 1491 and upbringing as a young child at his father’s court, and concluding with his death in January 1547, and the accession of his son and heir Edward VI. A concluding chapter considers historical opinions about him and his enduring legacy. Although largely a description of Henry VIII, it is inescapable that Wooding engages in the historiographical debate about the intellectual origins and stimulus behind the political and religious innovations which are credited by many as the beginning of modern Britain. Just as religion cannot be separated from politics, nor the sacred from the secular, nor the private from the public, the character of Henry as a person cannot be separated from that of Henry as the monarch.


In contrast with Scarisbrick’s biography of Henry, Wooding places great importance on his early life: the influence of his father’s stringent fiscal policies, and distrust of the nobility, and Henry’s childhood education at the hands of humanist-trained tutors, as fundamental for understanding the future king’s policies and actions once he succeeded his father to the throne. Wooding stresses the continuity between the reigns of the first two Tudors, as Henry mimicked his father’s obsession with securing the future of the Tudor dynasty on the throne. In this focus on Henry’s early life, Wooding is employing more recent scholarship on humanist education, which focussed on the curriculum and teaching methods found in humanist-inspired institutions, and its influence on contemporary politics, as well as the work of scholars, such as Steven Gunn, who have emphasised the necessity of understanding reigns within a broader temporal context. (2)  The political backdrop of the Wars of the Roses in which the Tudors came to power is vital for understanding the policies enacted during the reigns of the first two Tudor monarchs and their pre-occupation with securing the long-term stability of the dynasty on the throne.

Emerging from the discussion on Henry’s early life is a thread which Wooding carries through the second chapter covering the first ten years of his reign, and the third chapter, which breaks off just before Henry embarks on his ‘great matter’ – it is that Henry’s intellect was shaped by the past, in particular his childhood, his father’s reign, and the historical models presented in his humanist-influenced education. This serves to foreshadow the political and legislative initiatives of the 1530s, which separated the English church from Roman authority and revised religious practices, with the intention of placing sole responsibility for the remarkable events of that decade firmly within the hands – and mind – of the monarch.

That the third chapter represents the midway point of the book and concludes on the threshold of his divorce from Katherine of Aragon is significant because Wooding has highlighted the ‘King’s great matter’ as representing a watershed in the development of Henry’s character, and consequently the nature of his kingship. Celebrated on his accession by humanist scholars, the difficulties he faced in securing an annulment of his marriage to his first wife Katherine of Aragon, the objections raised by his closest and most trusted councillors, and the protests staged by his subjects, turned Henry into an ‘angry and vengeful’ monarch, determined to sustain widespread popularity and adoration from his councillors and subjects through intensive propaganda campaigns, while simultaneously imposing unpopular policies. (3)

Thus, the change in the king’s character brought about by his growing frustration at the delay he encountered in marrying Anne Boleyn, coupled with the formation of his personality and intellect in childhood, explain, for Wooding, the monumental events of the 1530s in which Henry repudiated papal authority over all spiritual matters in England, and set the stage for a domestically-controlled Church of England.

This is a controversial argument which engages with current debates about the nature of Tudor politics and early modern government. Historians have held a long-standing interest in identifying the intellectual origins of the break with Rome and the development of religious policy in the 1530s and 1540s. For the latter half of the twentieth century, this debate was dominated by G.R. Elton’s thesis that Henry VIII’s ministerial servant, Thomas Cromwell, was the impetus behind both the extrication of England from papal authority, and for directing the doctrinal changes in which many central features of Catholicism – the importance of good works, the existence of purgatory, and the value of monasticism – were rejected. (4)  This thesis has been categorically rejected by scholars who have sought to place the events of the 1530s in a broader temporal context. Wooding does not engage directly with this debate but her stance that Henry VIII was a ‘strong’ king, minimises the influence of Cromwell and Henry’s other advisors and administrators.

In taking this position, the book draws on theories about the nature of court politics and monarchy. Revisionist historians, such as David Starkey, emphasise the personal nature of sixteenth-century government and the importance of the personal qualities of the monarch for determining the nature and functioning of governmental organisations. (5)  Tudor England was a personal monarchy, a style of governance where the personality of the king was all-important in dictating the character of the reign and the events of the Reformation which established the Church of England. Thus, a study of Henry VIII’s personality will inevitably inform us about the early Tudor polity.

Wooding’s biography also utilises recent work on the importance of self-presentation for the exercise of authority by those in power. Historians, such as Michael Braddick, have borrowed from sociological theory on the nature of power, to argue that a study of early modern government should focus on the political actors who utilise the apparatus of the state institutions, rather than on the impersonal political structure itself. (6) Thus, a biography of Henry VIII focuses on the foremost political actor and the way in which he employed the apparatus of government to manage the kingdom at his discretion.

These historians also see early modern government as a process of negotiation among the kingdom’s political actors, a theme which emerges in Wooding’s biography. Henry wished to be seen as a Renaissance prince lauded by humanist scholars and loved by his people, and Wooding asserts that popular acceptance was necessary for early modern government to function effectively. The use of propaganda to enforce the royal will has also been a prominent theme in historians’ discussion of the relationship between central and local governments. This historiography previously examined the ways in which the crown implemented its policies by coercing obedience from its subjects through the employment of royal spectacles. For instance, progresses, celebrations such as the ringing of bells and bonfires, and the increased use of royal iconography in parish churches all affirmed the authority of the crown by commanding deference and undivided loyalty. (7)

Because Wooding is attempting to establish that Henry was solely responsible for the policies of his reign, she accords a disproportionate amount of time to the historiographical debate on the function of court factions in Tudor politics. While demonstrating that factional groupings of courtiers were not as influential as previous historians have contended in determining the course of Henrician policy is central to her argument, she fails to support her claim with historical evidence. Thus, her case strikes one more as opinion, rather than a carefully considered argument based on historical research.

It also reiterates the arguments made by George W. Bernard, whose influence is prominent throughout the work, and whose assistance is (unsurprisingly) acknowledged in the front of the book. It is difficult to accept Wooding’s contention, as Bernard had argued previously, that Henry followed a previously considered and moderate reform plan throughout the 1530s, since she fails to present any concrete evidence for its existence. (8)  Bernard’s own arguments, and his interpretation of the material on which he based them, have not received widespread acceptance among historians of the period. (9)  Thus, it is necessary to exercise caution in assessing Wooding’s argument since it parrots a dubious argument itself based on flimsy evidence.

One of the most positive features of the work is its appeal to both academic and popular audiences. Overall the book is extremely readable, and Wooding continually uses the writers’ trick of foreshadowing later events. This serves to reinforce her argument that Henry was the driving force behind the events of his reign. Further, Wooding occasionally makes allusions to modern comparisons such as NATO, to facilitate comprehension of Henry’s reign for the average lay reader. Unfortunately, her text is littered with the phrase, ‘of the time’, as though it is necessary to remind readers that the protagonists are sixteenth-century political actors.

The book balances an emphasis on Henry’s life and personality with the wider context of his reign, a challenge which faces all authors of political biographies. That said, readers should not approach this book expecting to learn about England during Henry VIII’s reign; there are many important subjects which are absent from this book. The general social and economic history of the kingdom, such as agrarian problems relating to depopulation, poverty and enclosure; economic stagnation and decline in some cities and their rural hinterlands; mercantile overseas trading, and the development of the textile industry, is noticeably absent.

Further, the debate surrounding the administrative reforms of the Tudor period, centring on the role of Thomas Cromwell in the 1530s, which gripped Tudor historians from G.R. Elton onwards, is passed over. And despite allusions to the recent work on the importance of visual propaganda for reinforcing the majesty of the king necessary for the exercise of his political authority, Henry’s engagement with the wider political nation (and Wales and Ireland) is marginalised. (10)  Another notable absence is any engagement with trends in Reformation historiography, where recent studies have focused on grass-roots politics in the parish for examining negotiation and the fluctuating dynamic between sacred and secular space. (11)  Overall, the people of Tudor England – in the parishes, in the provinces, the churches and the cities – do not feature.

Highlighting these deficiencies is not intended to be a (serious) criticism of the author, as the sheer volume and magnitude of the events during Henry’s reign have rendered an entire study of it nearly impossible to manage, and demonstrates another reason why few biographies have been attempted. A narrow approach is also necessary to keep the book to a length which would not discourage non-specialist readers. However, these exclusions need to be considered because they are not accidental or haphazard, but rather they were intentionally selected to reinforce the author’s argument. Thus, the narrative of Henrician England is restricted to those events which affected, or were affected by Henry’s personality most directly. Such an approach distorts the degree to which Henry controlled the events of his reign, and does so with a view to supporting Wooding’s argument that Henry was an all-powerful and dominating monarch.

Despite these reservations, Wooding’s biography is to be commended for presenting academic and popular audiences with an easily accessible introduction to a complex and important period in British history. Wooding skilfully combines description of the king’s personality with an account of the major events of the reign, and highlights the complexity of the interconnecting themes by raising important historiographical discussions. Wooding’s evaluation of Henry’s character is not novel in itself, but the book’s importance lies in the fact that it pulls together the past 40 years of historiographical debate and revisionist scholarship, while appearing deceptively simple.


  1. Wallace T. MacCaffrey, Henry VIII by J.J. Scarisbrick [Review], AHR, 74:2 (Dec., 1968), p. 592.Back to (1).

  2. Maria Dowling, Humanism in the Age of Henry VIII. London: Croom Helm, 1986; A. Fox and J. Guy, eds., Reassessing the Henrician Age: Humanism, Politics and Reform, 1500-1550. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986; J. Woolfson, ed., Reassessing Tudor Humanism. London: MacMillan, 2002; Steven J. Gunn, ‘The Structures of politics in Early Tudor England’, RHS, 6th Ser., 5 (1995), 59-90.Back to (2).

  3. Wooding, Henry VIII, p. 145.Back to (3).

  4. G.R. Elton, The Tudor Revolution in Government: administrative changes in the reign of Henry VIII (Cambridge, 1953).Back to (4).

  5. Christopher Coleman and David Starkey, ed., Revolution Reassessed: revisions in the history of Tudor government and administration (Oxford, 1986); David Starkey, ‘A Reply: Tudor Government: The Facts?’, HJ, 31:4 (Dec., 1988), 921-31; Diarmaid MacCulloch, ed., The Reign of Henry VIII: Politics, Policy and Piety, (Basingstoke, 1995); D.M. Loades, Power in Tudor England (Basingstoke, 1997).Back to (5).

  6. Michael Braddick and John Walter, eds., Negotiating Power in early modern society: order, hierarchy and subordination in Britain and Ireland (Cambridge, 2001).Back to (6).

  7. G.R. Elton, Policy and Police: The Enforcement of the Reformation in the Age of Thomas Cromwell (Cambridge, 1972); Sydney Anglo, Spectacle, Pageantry, and Early Tudor Policy (Oxford, 1969); J.P.D. Cooper, Propaganda and the Tudor State: political culture in the west country (London, 2003).Back to (7).

  8. G.W. Bernard, ‘The making of religious policy, 1533-1546: Henry VIII and the search for the middle way’, HJ, 41 (1998), 321-49.Back to (8).

  9. Ethan Shagan, ‘Book Review. G.W. Bernard, The King’s Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church, JBS, 45 (Oct., 2006), 889-91.Back to (9).

  10. Tudor Ireland and Wales are confined to a single paragraph, Wooding, Henry VIII, p. 222.Back to (10).

  11. Beat Kümin, The Shaping of a Community: The Rise and Reformation of the English Parish, c.1400-1560 (Aldershot, 1996); Katherine L. French, Gary G. Gibbs, and Beat A. Kümin, eds., The parish in English life, 1400-1600, (Manchester, 1997); Will Coster and Andrew Spicer, eds., Sacred Space in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, 2005).Back to (11).

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