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Henry VIII by J. J. Scarisbrick

Henry VIII (1968)

by J. J. Scarisbrick

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Yale English monarchs (1509 - 1547)

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Maybe Henry was no more unaware and irresponsible than many Kings have been; but rarely, if ever, have the unawareness and irresponsibility of a king proved more costly of material benefits to his people

Scarisbrick's biography published in 1968 cannot resist looking at its subject from a moral viewpoint entrenched in the 1960's. His final chapter which is akin to a balance sheet of good points and bad points suffers the most from this stance, which is a pity because what had gone before was a detailed examination of the public life of one of England's most notorious kings. Henry VIII was fated and revered after his death as one of the great Kings and there is no doubt that a cold hard look at his life would redress the balance, but Scarisbrick for me does not quite give the reader enough context in which to make his own judgement.

Coming in at over 650 pages there is more than enough here to satisfy the amateur historian who wants to find out in some detail the workings of Henry VIII and his government. Scarisbrick is particularly strong on the religious and political arguments that lead to the break with the Pope and the church of Rome. There are well over 100 pages that provide a blow by blow account of the arguments and diplomacy that resulted in Henry's policy of Royal Supremacy. Scarisbrick managed to make this all very readable with some insightful commentary on the religious issues involved; that allows the reader to gasp the main points of the struggle. He was apparently the first historian to make use of hitherto unused documents from the Vatican library and so this aspect of Henry's life features very strongly in the Biography. It was perhaps the most important aspect of Henry's reign and I think the time spent on the issues rather than the characters involved (the Boleyn family for instance) gives the Biography an historical weight. The biography also provides plenty of details concerning Henry's ambitious foreign policy and his dealings with Francis 1st of France and Charles of Spain the Holy Roman emperor.

The Biography rightly centres on Henry VIII and his motives and actions providing a good insight into his character. Scarisbrick explains convincingly the reasons for his matrimonial difficulties even speculating a little as to why Henry's relationships were so fraught. From our 20th century perspective it is impossible to know or even understand all the reasons for Henry's difficulties. It is clear he was a volatile character supremely confident in his right to be king and ruler over his domain and he was Machiavellian in the extreme, but in keeping speculation to a minimum Scarisbrick serves his subject well.

I wanted to read a Biography that would provide me with a background for my reading of Early Tudor literature and this Biography fits the bill exactly, as far as kingship and politics are concerned, however it is lacking in social history and so anyone not familiar with the first half of 16th century England might need to read more widely.

This is a solid biography in many respects, there are many other books on the period and the characters surrounding the king, but if you really want to get to grips with the issues that Henry VIII faced as King of England then this is a good place to start. A four star read. ( )
1 vote baswood | Apr 29, 2014 |
An excellent biography and analysis of the role of the king of England in the complex environment of the times. The author makes it very clear that Henry was bright, as a young man beautiful, energetic, and not that interested in the role of being a serious king. Against this backdrop Wolsey makes sometimes successful efforts to keep the peace, even anticipating the UN, and controlling Henry, but not fully succeeding. The author credits Cromwell, Wolsey's successor with "a high concerpt of the 'state" and for national sovereignty". and being an "idealist". It was he who managed the breach with Rome. According to this book it is not really clear why he fell and met execution.

According to this book, Henry had no successor to Worley or Cromwell the last years of his life.

The most valuable aspect of the book is the author's readable, but well orchestrated explanation of the complications of having the Holy Roman Empire, the Vatican, Spain, France and England all given their appropriate places in the backdrop in front of what Henry operated. That Henry himself aspired and actively sought election to become Emperor, that Wolsey took steps to be Pope.

At the end of his life the author shows how Francis, Charles, and Henry continued the conflict but it simply ground down. ( )
  carterchristian1 | Dec 21, 2011 |
This book focuses on two intertwined matters that occupied the life of Henry VIII - how to divorce his first wife, and how to separate England and the crown from papal and Roman Catholic authority. The author spends a lot of time putting the documentary evidence in order. The story telling is smooth and compelling, although the reader is required to pay attention.

This is no literary version of "The Tudors". Little time is spent on personalities (other than that of Henry himself). For example, the 'legal murders' of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell and others are handled briefly and with very little passion. The forfeiture of the royal jewels by Catherine are described in half a sentence. However, the description of the hunt for his fourth wife is humorous, and the exasperation of Campeggio and Clement in dealing with Henry's bullying are wonderfully described.

Throughout the book, the author deals objectively with all matters; however, the surprise is in the last chapter, where he really gets stuck into Henry: that he used religion for his own benefit - the production of an heir and for making war, that the utter spoiling and destruction of church property resulted in worse outcomes for the general population, and that Henry did not take advantage of many opportunities to improve life for his citizens. ( )
  robeik | Dec 10, 2010 |
Anyone wanting to seriously study Henry VIII will need to read this book. I think that it takes a number of books to get an idea of "Great Harry's" life, but this has unique information. I believe that Scarisbrick was the first historian permitted to use the Vatican archives to research Henry's annulment/divorce. Scarisbrick, for example, analyzes the divorce/annulment of Henry and Catharine of Aragon in careful details, and comes to a somewhat surprising conclusion. Also very carefully examined are the course of the Henrician church, and Henry's ever-shifting foreign policy.

I have one small comment. Scarisbrick expresses surprise that Henry persisted in using the somewhat eccentric argument from Leviticus. I think the reason is clear: Henry wanted something that could not be resolved by dispensation. As Retha Warnicke says in The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, "[...] Cardinal [Wolsey] [...] could and did find better reasons than Henry's for ending his marriage, but his arguments (like those of other scholars) can all be characterized as legal technicalities that are by their nature subject to retroactive dispensation. In contrast, Henry's reasoning is straightforward: the pope could not dispense from Biblical law [...]." This cavil does not diminish Scarisbrick's achievement. ( )
1 vote juglicerr | Sep 22, 2009 |
The Tudor period has long held a fascination in my life, and the shelves of books I have on the period range from the truly thorough and scholarly to historic/romantic fiction. Scarisbrick clearly falls into the category of the former. When it came out, a lost review touted it as the definitive biography of King Henry the VIII. I began to read it some forty years ago, but found it too technical for my limited knowledge of the period at the time. In conjunction with the Showtime special, The Tudors, the time seemed right to have another go.

Scarisbrick has written a definitive, detailed, heavily annotated biography, with an extensive bibliography, which is probably out of date now. The work is organized around the major events of Henry’s reign, rather than a straight chronological rendering of his life and times.

A great deal of information was added to my store of knowledge. For example, the divorce from Catherine of Aragon took up much more time and effort and became much more complicated than I thought. Likewise, Henry’s diplomatic maneuvers with Charles I of Spain (aka Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire) and Francis I of France filled literally hundreds of pages of this 500+ page volume.

Despite the length, the text is eminently readable, and sometimes I would begin and end a 60-page chapter in a sitting.

The parallels between Henry of the 16th century and America in the 21st, never failed to astound me. For example, when Henry became King in 1509, he could have followed in his father’s footsteps, but he choose to “reject his father’s notion of a king’s function, quickly dissipate his inherited treasure, set Scotland once more at violent odds with England and pay so little attention to the Americas and Asia that, when overseas exploration was resumed over forty years later, his country would find that Iberian ships had meanwhile gained an advantage which it would take her generations to rival” (21).

Substitute Middle East for Scotland, the US for England, industrial might for exploration, and Chinese for Iberian, and the parallels become even clearer. To paraphrase the quote from Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it, because they have been overcome by megalomania and/or greed.” 5 stars

--Jim, 6/30/09 ( )
11 vote rmckeown | Jun 30, 2009 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
J. J. Scarisbrickprimary authorall editionscalculated
Strong, RoyIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Yale University Press

2 editions of this book were published by Yale University Press.

Editions: 0300071582, 0300072104

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