What did Henry VIII die of? After reading and watching Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, both by Hilary Mantel, this book, The Last of Days, by Paul Doherty, caught my eye. Did Henry die in bed after sending so many opponents to the torture, fire or headsman’s axe? Was it Congestive Heart Failure, Diabetes, Renal and Hepatic failure, or Syphilis?
Probably not the latter, but all the others are real possibilities. Chatting at the bus stop the other day with a woman who asked about my Plantagenet fleece, I learned from her that it is also suggested that Henry’s jousting accident, when he fell hard and was thought to be dead for quite a period of time before reviving, may have caused brain damage,an explanation for how the handsome, clever and attractive young monarch could become the bloated, suspicious tyrant who sent one after another of his ministers, and two of his wives, to their deaths.
The real interest in this novel by a historian is the view of Henry’s last years, when married to Katherine Parr. Older, ill, massively overweight even though he was over six feet tall, with a leg ulcer that never healed and caused a smell offensive to all, an unpredictable and always suspicious tyrant, living in an atmosphere of political manoeuvres by conniving and plotting aristocrats. Not an attractive portrait. The author’s suggestion as to the cause of death arises from this context.
What I learned in High School about the history of the period could probably have been summarized, even when I still remembered it, in two paragraphs: one on the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and the other on the six wives and the heirs. That is not what I would now consider an adequate adult awareness of the history of the country.
My littlest granddaughter, four and a half years old (the half is important to her) is currently interested in George Washington but is being steered away from stories about cutting down cherry trees even though “Father, I cannot tell a lie” is a sentence any parent should be eager to inculcate.
Historic truth is important, though ultimately unknowable and always seen from a particular perspective, as I discovered in reading Wolf Hall in which Thomas Cromwell’s point of view is presented. This week, the remains of King Richard III were reburied in pomp and with state rituals, watched by millions as the events happened in Leicester. Was he the evil plotter for power and murderer of his nephews, or was he a relatively enlightened medieval ruler? And are his bones worthy of more dignity than the bones in the grave next to his beneath the car park at the time of the discovery? And then this week too I went to my grandson’s school end-of-term Easter program, held at the parish church just past the village school. Part of the program was a re-telling by the children of the last week of Jesus’ life. It’s the pivot of all history to me, of overwhelming meaning and importance, but I found myself wincing at the words (rhymed couplets) and the probably unconscious portrayal of the historicity and meaning of the events which lay behind them. Not how I understand the events at all.
There are so many issues opening here. We understand according to our age, experience and educational background, and need to keep digging deeper all our lives long. We see events of the past through a prism of today’s light, which both shapes our response to the past and leads to judgments about the present.
When reading about King Henry VIII, I was aware in the back of my mind of Idi Amin, of Chairman Mao and many others. I looked at the courtiers’ responses and considered the modern responses to tyrants. I remembered the courage of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, returning to Germany and joining in a plot to assassinate Hitler, unable to do nothing while the evils grew, but always aware that assassination was evil too, and, in the end, acting as he felt he must and hoping for divine grace. (I probably just mangled the history and thought of one of the great ethicists of the twentieth century, but I’m open to wiser comments.) “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” (Desmond Tutu)
I am a mouse not an elephant in the historic narrative, but I find history (including novels such as this one) and biography really help me to see the world and respond.