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Henry VIII

The Quest for Fame


John Guy


Penguin Monarchs Series

London: Allen Lane, 2014

Hardcover. xiv + 141 p. ISBN 978-0141977126. £10.99


Reviewed by Jean-Pierre Moreau

Université Paris III, Sorbonne Nouvelle




This neat, concise psychological and political portrait of Henry VIII (1491-1547) is a very good introduction to a most publicised but highly complex figure. Clearly aimed at the “general reader”, it never sacrifices scholarly rigour or in-depth analysis. If he did not mean to replace such a classic biography as J.J. Scarisbrick’s, John Guy, one of the leading specialists in the field of Tudor history, has nevertheless managed to pack a lot of totally reliable information in only 115 pages and to provide food for thought in an elegant, enjoyable style. Not to be neglected, 8 pages of colour plates adorn the book, adding to its attractiveness.

The subtitle highlights the central theme and seems to imply only partial success in the quest for fame. And this is precisely what Guy demonstrates: recognition abroad was far from obvious and authority at home was maintained by often brutal means. But at the same time Henry VIII contrived to lead his country in new directions which have not changed: not only did he devise a new religious settlement but he was careful to rely on Parliament to impose it on the nation, thus enhancing the powers of the legislature, a hallmark of modern Britain.

John Guy wants to understand the character and motivations of a baffling personality starting from a far from gilded childhood threatened by Yorkist conspiracies, marked by the early death of a beloved mother and by the cold cynicism of a calculating father. Probably the origin of Henry’s future mistrust of everybody around him. Blessed by nature with physical and intellectual abilities, he also received a very good education, especially in the liberal arts and he inaugurated his reign under favourable auspices two months before he was 18, welcomed as a relief after his father’s most unpleasant last years – propitious conditions to feel oneself a paragon of virtue if not the centre of the world. 

As king, he began by seeing himself as “The Pope’s loyal son” [20-39], anxious to please Rome (and to be given a title similar to that of the “Most Christian king” of France). Under Wolsey’s guidance, he indulged in complex and not too rewarding military or diplomatic manoeuvres on the European stage. Evolution was slow in such an overdeveloped ego but a painfully acquired realistic approach to international problems led to a more cautious attitude towards chivalrous dreams of conquest – and towards Rome. Yet no cloud was in sight there, so far.

The well-known story of the divorce from Catherine of Aragon, his dead brother’s former wife, the break with Rome, Anne’s Boleyn’s fate and the new religious régime are dealt with in the third Chapter [40-60] in the light of recent historiography. The long-term ascendency of G.R. Elton’s interpretation of Thomas Cromwell’s role in a “Tudor revolution” is toned down. More importance is given to Edward Foxe and Thomas Cranmer in adumbrating the extended supremacy of the crown over clergy and laity alike at the expense of Rome’s traditional authority.

Together with renewed military and diplomatic attempts in Europe, Henry’s own brand of theology lies at the core of Chapter 4 [61-81]. If two short-lived rapprochements with the German Lutherans took place, they never went as far as accepting the Reformers’ central tenet of “justification by faith alone”. Yet, Guy argues, a radical shift occurred when “God’s Word” as set forth in the Bible was officially considered as “equivalent to a ‘super-sacrament’, the cornerstone on which all the other sacraments were built” [66]. Contrarily to many interpretations, Guy does not see the famous Act of Six Articles (1539) as a return to more traditional, Catholic doctrine since consecration at the Mass is not said to be achieved by the priest himself but by ”Christ’s mighty Word”. After the break with Rome, the king’s theology remained hesitant and changing but it always steered clear of orthodox Catholicism – one more proof of an obstinacy exemplified by his slogan of “By God, I trust no one but myself”.

An unusual and most welcome chapter follows [82-97] on Henry’s tastes, revealing as much of his personality as his actions or decisions. All kinds of tastes, but all denoting excess, self-complacency and thirst for recognition: lifestyle, dresses, art collections, tapestries, buildings – his own gigantic mausoleum, never finished, never assembled. Religion always loomed large; he wanted to appear as a sort of Old Testament patriarch – Solomon or David – majestic, directly covenanted with God. One man was able to reveal what lay hidden behind the veil of pomp and pride: Hans Holbein the Younger whose paintings probe into some unsavoury aspects of the king’s psychology. A good analysis of the artist’s portraits is provided, stressing Holbein’s genius at depicting “the sitter’s soul rather than the features of his body” [97].

An “Epilogue” describes the rather gloomy last years of the reign: the king’s illnesses and obesity, his absurd, monstrous diet, his paranoia, the succession settlement, the struggle for power around him – that is control of his son during his minority. A nuanced, balanced conclusion rounds off the portrait [109-115]. Neither the crimes and failures nor the strength and achievements of this exceptional monarch who “dragged England into the mainstream of the artistic Renaissance” [110] are underrated: a fascinating if also, at times, highly repulsive personality “with an elastic, self-serving conscience” and finally, according to John Guy, an autocrat more than a despot.

No doubt, in spite of its great qualities, such a book cannot please every reader. Concerning the general assessment of the reign, many will see the ledger in a different perspective – so many lives butchered! Some will find the general theme – quest for fame – too reducing, others will question the author’s stress on Holbein or the somewhat flimsy treatment of the dissolution of the monasteries. Yet we must thank him for avoiding many pitfalls, in particular the litany of the six wives, and for maintaining throughout a high level of academic probity.

Every important statement in the book is given reference in 12 pages of close-set notes at the end – especially primary sources in England and abroad (United States universities and Vatican archives in particular). A “Further reading” list gives valuable information on, and evaluation of, all important studies – not simply biographies – published in recent years; the reader will then know where to look for more detailed or specialised material, as a complement to this excellent primer.



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