Happy Thanksgiving! Looking for something to do while you digest that enormous meal? If so, the first of the interviews I did with Josh Gentry of Snack Reads is up on YouTube. Snack Reads has published two of my shorts stories: the humorous “Hamlet Revisited” and the action adventure “Servant of Death” (co-written with Fred Saberhagen). You can find the interview at http://youtu.be/yJUddPrC0-s. You can find the stories at www.snackreads.com.
Another way to work off all the food is to join me and Alan as we bop our way into the history of the last of the Henries… Henry VIII he am!
JANE: As we’ve worked our way through the Henries, a pop song has been jingling in the back of my mind. In broad Cockney accents (at least I think it’s Cockney), a man happily sings “I’m Henry VIII I am, I am…”
Such is the fate of one of England’s most famous kings in the ears of Americans.
The song in question is, of course, the 1965 release by Herman’s Hermits of “I’m Henry VIII I Am.”
ALAN: And the song reverses the actual historical situation. In the song Henry, the singer, explains that he has just married the widow next door. She’s had seven previous husbands, all of whom were called Henry. So he is Henry VIII!
JANE: Before we move onto the actual king, I found a cool piece of trivia about the song. I’d always thought it was original to 1965, but it was actually written in 1910 by R.P. Weston and Fred Murray. Nor did it languish in obscurity. It was the signature tune of the music hall star, Henry Champion.
Isn’t that cool?
ALAN: Absolutely it is! In the early 1950s, in England, there was a radio programme called The Billy Cotton Band Show. The band used to perform all the old music hall songs (particularly the Cockney ones, for they were themselves Cockneys). That was where I first heard the Henry VIII song. I was somewhat bemused when, a few years later, a Rock and Roll group of the time (Joe Brown and the Bruvvers) recorded it. I’d never thought of it as a rock song. Mind you, Joe Brown was also a Cockney.
The later recording by Herman’s Hermits was even more weird because Peter Noone, the lead singer, was a northern lad from Manchester (damn! Another Lancastrian) with no Cockney connections whatsoever.
But be that as it may, in real life, of course, it was Henry VIII who married multiple times. And he only had six wives (or, perhaps, four wives since two of his marriages were arguably illegal).
JANE: And those marriages, legal and illegal, were the basis for a good part of Henry VIII’s fame – or notoriety. Before we get to that, I’d like to fit this Henry into the puzzle of Henries. He was the son of Henry VII, but wasn’t his father’s original heir, if I remember correctly. That would have been his older brother, Arthur.
ALAN: Indeed so – Arthur was the first born son of Henry VII and was the heir to the throne. In order to cement a political alliance with Spain, Henry VII arranged a marriage for Arthur with Catherine of Aragon. Shortly after their marriage both Arthur and Catherine fell ill with a respiratory infection. Catherine recovered from the illness, but Arthur died.
Arthur’s death placed Henry under an obligation to return the very large dowry that had been paid and also threatened the Spanish alliance. He solved both these problems by hurriedly betrothing Catherine to his second son (also called Henry), though the marriage did not actually take place until after Henry VII died. Henry VIII succeeded his father and, declaring that the marriage had been his father’s dying wish, married Catherine in June 1509, two months after becoming king.
JANE: Several completely flippant thoughts here… One, obviously the Divine Forces thought it was a bad idea for England to have a modern King Arthur. The other is that the same Forces wanted another King Henry for us to write about, so they got rid of the competition…
And, sadly now, my image of the courting of Arthur and Catherine now includes a pile of handkerchiefs and lots of sneezing…
And, by the by, Shakespeare spells it “Katherine.” He is obviously not to be trusted where spelling is concerned.
Please, continue the tale and save me from myself.
ALAN: For a time all seemed well. But Henry became increasingly annoyed that Catherine could not give him a son. She had several children, including two sons, but except for one daughter, who she called Mary, none of them lived for more than a few hours.
JANE: That’s very sad. Even in an age when infant mortality was much higher, the strain had to have been terrible.
ALAN: Very much so – and Catherine would have felt it more than most because it was her duty to provide the king with an heir.
Meanwhile, Henry had fallen in lust with Anne Boleyn, a stunningly beautiful lady in the Queen’s entourage. Anne point blank refused to become Henry’s mistress, so he desperately needed to get rid of Catherine in order to entice Anne legitimately into his bed. He petitioned the pope for an annulment claiming that in marrying his brother’s wife he had acted contrary to the instructions in Leviticus 20;21:
And if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.
JANE: Interestingly, this is a similar logic to that which makes Prince Hamlet so horribly upset that his mother has married her husband’s brother. Of course, children weren’t a part of the equation for Claudius and Gertrude, but they would have been very important to Henry VIII and Catherine. Did the pope agree?
ALAN: No, the pope wasn’t having any of this and Henry began the process that would eventually separate the Church of England from the Church of Rome. This was the start of the reformation.
JANE: Of course, religious reform – or at least bucking the authority of Rome – was in the air all over Europe at this time. Henry was following in a trend that already had supporters in his own nation. How did he work it in his own land?
ALAN: Ever since Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517, there had been growing dissatisfaction with the power and influence of Rome. There was no doubt that change was coming. The Catholic Church responded viciously, and the delightfully named Diet of Worms declared Luther a heretic and outlaw. Nevertheless, Lutheran ideas continued to spread rapidly and many churches began holding Lutheran services rather than the more traditional Catholic services.
Henry was actually a very devout Catholic at the time. He published a spirited defence of Catholicism and Pope Leo X appointed him Defender of the Faith, a title that is still awarded to the monarch today (though Pope Paul III later rescinded it).
JANE: All this makes it harder to understand why Henry VIII broke away from Rome – although also more clear as to why Rome wanted a choke chain on Henry. You can’t have a Defender of the Faith who keeps getting divorced.
ALAN: It’s difficult to say exactly what caused Henry finally to break with Rome. It was a gradual process. A series of statutes began to redefine the relationship between the King and the Pope with serious penalties up to and including death for accepting papal authority over the authority of the king. These statutes culminated in 1534 with an act that appointed the king to be the supreme head of the Church of England. An Oath of Supremacy was introduced that acknowledged this, and a refusal to take the oath was deemed to be an act of high treason. The separation from Rome was complete.
But certainly it all started with the Pope’s refusal to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine which made Henry question the doctrine of papal infallibility. Once that comes into question, everything else follows logically.
JANE: I agree. So what happened after the break?
ALAN: Henry appointed Thomas Cranmer, who had Lutheran sympathies, to be Archbishop of Canterbury. Anne and Henry married in a secret ceremony. Anne fell pregnant almost immediately and a second, more public wedding took place. Cranmer declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine null and void and recognised the validity of his marriage to Anne. Catherine was stripped of all her titles and was exiled from the court. Two years later she died (there were rumours that she was poisoned). Henry did not attend her funeral.
JANE: So the arrival of the great Protestant Reformation in England and everything that came after was really due to Henry’s mid-life crisis?
ALAN: There are probably more sophisticated theological and political arguments that can be brought to bear, but they smack somewhat of casuistry. When you strip it down to its essentials, the Church of England was just a cunning plan that finally allowed Henry to have his wicked way with Anne.
JANE: I suspect you are being a bit flippant, but this is often the popular view. Very good. I notice we’ve only gotten through two of Henry’s six (or four) wives. There are still some very interesting developments that happened related to the events of this time – including a failure of special effects and the prominence of a science fiction writer whose works remain influential in the genre to this day. Shall we pick up with these next time?