Sunday, April 30, 2017

Henry VIII's Last Will and Testament

The UK version of this book has a beautiful cover, emphasizing the document in question. Suzannah Lipscomb is the author of 1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII and A Journey Through Tudor England, both of which I have purchased, read, and reviewed. I borrowed this book, The King is Dead: The Last Will and Testament of Henry VIII, from our local public library on a rainy Saturday morning and read it through that day. The US version shows Henry VIII, large as life (please pardon the pun), dominating the cover. 

As Lipscomb wrote for History Today in 2015, the central issues of this book are 1) Henry VIII tried to control the succession of the Tudor dynasty from beyond the grave in tremendous detail, trying to account for every contingency, and thwarting the usual primogeniture rules for succession (ignoring his elder sister Margaret's family claims to the throne) based upon the Acts of Succession passed by Parliament that gave him this power. 2) Some historians, including G.R. Elton, believe that there was a conspiracy against the conservatives (the Catholics) at Court when Henry VIII revised his will. 3) For all his effort to control the future, Henry VIII's will was--except for the fact that Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I succeeded him as he planned--was not executed by those he'd given that responsibility:

A month before he died, on 26 December 1546, Henry VIII had amended his will, which was signed and witnessed four days later. This, his last will and testament, is one of the most intriguing and contested documents in British history.

It was also a document with unique constitutional clout. The Succession Acts of 1536 and 1544 had empowered Henry to designate his successor and to appoint a regency council, should his heir be a minor at the time of his death, through letters patent or his last will. As a result, Henry’s will is dedicated in large part to outlining possible succession scenarios. He may have died, but that didn’t mean Henry was prepared to cede power, and his will was intended to be his chief instrument of control from beyond the grave.

Historians have disagreed, however, about whether the last will really represents Henry’s final wishes. Until now, the consensus has been that the contents of the will were the result of a court conspiracy. This conspiracy theory argues that the will was the product of a coup, that it was not signed when it was dated, and that it was later doctored.

Lipscomb presents cogent arguments against the conspiracy theory of Evangelicals versus Catholics--which was also the centerpiece of Robert Hutchinson's The Last Days of Henry VIII: Conspiracies, Treason and Heresy at the Court of the Dying Tyrant--citing Henry VIII's control of events at Court up to his final illness. He was in charge and Lipscomb denies that he could have been manipulated by the Evangelical courtiers to act against the "Catholics" in leadership. I put the word "Catholics" in quotation marks because these courtiers had accepted and supported and even profited from Henry VIII's caesaropapism. Henry had his reasons for rejecting Bishop Stephen Gardiner's influence in his son's council and he imprisoned and attainted Thomas and Henry Howard because he thought they were trying to take the throne from his son. 

She offers her interpretation of Henry VIII's religious principles and notes that he does not reveal a particularly pious relationship to God the Father--although he does rely dutifully on the Paschal mystery of Jesus's death and resurrection and the Real Presence of Holy Communion in the sacrifice of the Mass--but almost seems to think himself an equal, ordained by the Father to rule England and the Church. He almost orders the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints to pray for his soul and his salvation (without really mentioning Purgatory but allowing for the contingency that he might not go straight to Heaven after he dies).

Certainly one way that Henry VIII's will was not carried out as he intended was that the Masses he required, the prayers that he wanted, the Altar near the Grand Tomb he desired--none of these signs of a Catholic belief in prayer for the dead were carried out. This also bolsters her argument against the Evangelical conspiracy/Henry VIII wanted the Evangelicals to succeed in England theory.

Very well illustrated, with excellent appendices and a comprehensive bibliography, Lipscomb's book to me demonstrates another facet of Henry VIII's hubris and his focus on controlling life after his death. Those attempts received the answer pride often does as his will was not fulfilled and his desires were indeed forgotten.

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