The sentiment which propelled and ultimately secured the vote for Brexit is not new, and its genesis can be traced to the actions taken by a 16th century English monarch, known for his six wives, to deal with his romantic affairs, says a prominent British historian.
The influence of King Henry VIII (reigned 1509-47) on subsequent history is far deeper than just a new religion for his realm, contends Suzannah Lipscomb, a senior lecturer in Early Modern History at London’s New College of the Humanities (set up by philosopher A.C. Grayling) and presenter of various TV shows on British history.
“The religious aspects (the decision to break with the Roman Catholic Church and set up a separate Church of England) overshadows all other aspects. Using the ‘Reformation Parliament’ for his objectives led to the parliament emerging stronger,” Lipscomb, who was here for the Jaipur Literature Festival 2017, told IANS in an interview.
In 1526, Henry VIII, who had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn (a lady in waiting to his Queen, Catherine of Aragon), decided to annul his marriage since his wife had failed to give him a male heir but got no relief from the Pope.
He turned to parliament, which from a session beginning in 1529, passed major laws leading to the English “Reformation”, including making it a criminal offence to appeal to any external authority (such as the Pope) on any situation within England, stopping the remitting of church taxes to Rome, annulling Henry’s present marriage, and making the monarch the head of the English church.
Lipscomb said that the break also impacted the defence situation of England, which now was vulnerable to attack by other European powers since the Pope had excommunicated Henry VIII.
“It led to the strengthening of England’s defences, coastal defences, but particularly the navy, which grew from five-seven ships to over 100, of which 57 were still operational (at the end of his reign). So it was Henry VIII who can be called the “Architect of the English Navy”, which, in the centuries to come, went on to lay the foundations of the British Empire.
“Ramifications of historical events can be huge and unseen,” she said.
“On the other side, his actions also helped create England’s idea of itself… an England isolated and threatened from the European continent. Brexit (supporters) played up to this rhetoric,” said Lipscomb, who was among the 300 leading English historians that opposed the vote for Britain to leave the European Union.
On what attracted Henry to Anne Boleyn, Lipscomb, who spoke at a session entitled “Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn: The Lovers who Changed History” at the litfest, said she was an intelligent woman, a good dancer, skilled in playing musical instruments, courtly and good at conversation, and thus likely to appeal to the king.
But Boleyn, who has been presented in a wide range of portrayals, from seductive temptress to victim, in scores of novels and films, was actually “hard to know”, she added.
“She is hard to know. She didn’t have a diary.. there are no substantive documents, and she has been much villified. She was not guilty of the charges laid against her but guilty of what she said,” said Lipscomb, who believes it was her outspokenness and flirtatiousness that doomed Boleyn, whose marriage lasted less than three years before it was also annulled (for failure to give him a male heir, though their daughter would reign later as Elizabeth I) and she being executed on charges of treason.
She also sought to set the record straight on Catherine, who has been deemed “boring” for the vigorous Renaissance Prince that Henry was, noting this might have come out of her pious nature, but she was intelligent too.
Lipscomb, whose books include “1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII”, (2009), “A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England” (2012) and “The King is Dead: The Last Will and Testament of Henry VIII” (2015), says she is now working on a book on ordinary women during the 16th century, then has to do one on witchcraft and will also write about the six wives of Henry VIII.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at email@example.com)