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Henry VIII

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Jan 2019

Henry VIII, Thornbury Castle and beyond!

You could have heard a pin drop. Not a squeak nor a splutter was uttered by the spellbound audience as the inimitable Professor Ronald Hutton forensically dissected Henry VIII for the January gathering of Thornbury History and Archaeological Society. Henry is the favourite king of the cinema, being played by leading males from Charles Laughton to Ray Winstone, from Richard Burton to Sid James. But one of the supporting actors is our own Edward Stafford, builder of Thornbury Castle, so we must give him a billing.

The Staffords had an enormous portfolio of lands across the country, of which Thornbury was a small but much appreciated part. Perhaps not as politically astute as financially, most Staffords managed to end up at the wrong end of an axe. The 1st duke during the Wars of the Roses, the 2nd executed by Richard III, and the 3rd, our Edward, was executed in 1521 on trumped up (an expression with new connotations) charges of treason. If Henry had had sons Edward would have survived, but because of his blood line he was a threat to the new dynasty and had to be eliminated. Thornbury Castle was de-roofed and later bought as a private house, otherwise it would probably not have survived the Civil War.

The episode gives us a clue to Henry’s character. Most of us recognise from Holbein’s famous full-frontal portrait that Henry did not lack self-confidence. This portrait was kept in his private apartments to admire every morning. (Much better that looking in a mirror!) He saw himself as Henry the Great rather than Henry the Eighth, a re-born King Arthur. He had his portrait painted onto ‘King Arthur’s Round Table’ in Winchester, believed at the time to be genuine. He attempted to make himself Holy Roman Emperor and his Cardinal Wolsey pope.

As a young man Henry was athletic and energetic. He could wear out 8 horses in a day’s hunting, eat hugely, dance, wrestle and joust. It was a jousting accident, which broke his leg and left him unconscious for 2 hours, that started his decline. (He kept eating though, and ended up with a waistline of 4 foot 6 inches). He was intelligent with an encyclopaedic memory, remembering every grant and favour and the names and salaries of all his servants. He was a people person; charming, generous and extravagant, spending hugely on gambling, jewels and on his 55 palaces. He could be magnanimous and forgiving, cruel and vindictive. With anything that threatened his dynasty he was utterly ruthless, as Edward Stafford found out. Before the treason charge, one of Henry’s servants had left him for a better job with Edward. Henry was not amused.

Politically, Henry was enigmatic. He liked to pick talented people to do his politics for him. He wasn’t technically a tyrant because he regularly attended parliament and relied on its consent. But perhaps with 330 political executions in 8 years he knew how to get consent. He cleverly maintained his position by setting court factions against each other. He would have loved being able to use twitter. He would instigate opposing policy threads, disown any failures and claim any victories for himself. As the French besieged Boulogne in 1546, his council advised sitting it out. He wrote these orders to the governor but hedged his bets by sending a verbal message to attack the French. That time he got lucky.

He obsessed about conquering France and Scotland but only managed to promote lasting feuds. With no money coming in from conquest he turned his attention to a softer target, splitting from the Roman Catholic Church and effectively from Europe. Brexit 1 was a political disaster but possibly a cultural success. Although it did not bring about a Protestant reform but a Catholic decay, many people were empowered and a cultural flowering started in England lasting through the Tudor period and culminating in William Shakespeare. The result of Brexit 2 will soon be apparent.

Ronald mentioned that Henry is not liked by latter day historians but I have a suspicion that he has a secret admiration for him. He certainly knows how to hold an audience, and we thank him generously for his excellent presentation.


The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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