The Clean Light of Morning

The Tudors captivate our imagination, and they cultivate our multi-media screens—and in honor of Open Letters Monthly’s 10th year of publication, Steve Donoghue revisits one of the journal’s most popular features by embarking on A Year with the Tudors: The Second – looking at the year’s crop of new books telling the gaudy, fascinating stories of the Tudor dynasty.So Great a PrinceBy Lauren JohnsonPegasus Books, 2017It's important to remember the glory of the full Tudor morning. Not the dawn, which went from fiery red glints on the horizon to a calmer, more fecund growing light, but the full morning with the day's new son in the sky.King Henry VII had seemed old even in his prime, a vaguely spidery figure, a counting man, not only incapable of the job's big gestures but inherently distrustful of them – nobody more so than a usurper will reflexively squint at the sham element of all monarchies. And he had seemed to recognize this about himself; he tried to invest the rise of his son and heir Arthur with all the panoply he himself ignored. He found for Arthur a magnificent wife, the beautiful young daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, and he gave him a magnificent court on the Welsh Marches, a well-funded establishment complete with banners and envoys and tournaments and coinage. And if Arthur never seemed quite up to the task, a faineant prince, Henry might have told himself the boy would grow more comfortable with the bluff and public business of kingship. Henry never had, but the boy was starting young.There were two problems with this: first, Arthur seems to have been no more adept at that bluff and public business than his father, and second, Arthur sickened abruptly and died. Henry and his Queen, Elizabeth of York, were devastated, but as a later Tudor wise man would observe, grief always pauses but never changes human nature: Henry went right on with his ways, including the penny-pinching, accounts-beetling that had allowed him to amass a healthy treasury in a short span of time. He shuttled Arthur's bride, the Spanish princess Catherine, out to the countryside, confiscated her dowry, and, after the death of his wife in 1503, even made noises about marrying the girl himself, to preserve both the dowry and the alliance.Fate, as the novelists say, intervened. Henry died in 1509, and his second son, Prince Henry, aged 17, came to the throne uncontested.It's important to remember the full glory of that accession, because Henry always remembered it. The memory of that glory haunted all his later disappointments, and when that glory went sour, a great deal of Western history went sour with it.The vision of the world after 1509 is as clear and taunting as a dream: Henry recalls Catherine from her genteel banishment, they wed in a ceremony the likes of which hadn't been seen since King Edward III, and Catherine bears Henry half a dozen healthy children, the eldest of whom, little Prince Henry, is of course the heir to his father, who's not yet 20. Thanks to old King Henry, England is wealthy, peaceful, and allied to the most powerful nation in the Western world. King Henry VIII rules for forty years, beloved by all, and perhaps his most important achievement is the hosting of an international synod dedicated to making sweeping reforms in a Church that all agree badly needs them.This, or some close variation of it, was the dream of the Henry who came to the throne in 1509, the Henry who is the subject of Lauren Johnson's new book So Great a Prince, the subtitle of which, “The Accession of Henry VIII: 1509,” clearly alerts readers that they are about to enter the territory of Robert Hutchinson's Young Henry from 2012, an account of England's most notorious king before the notoriety, before the signs of desperation and even madness that came to define both his reign and his historical legacy. This is a Henry who doesn't yet know that his life will mostly taunt him; he has not yet been led by pain and mania and unfettered freedom to kill people or ruin lives or upend the settled order of his world. This is a teenage Henry who's tall and straight and baby-faced and athletic, a prince able to discourse with equal ease on abstruse points of theology or the trivia of the hawking ground.Johnson, an Oxford-educated historian, is quick to stress in her thoroughly enjoyable book that golden promise of this morning obscured some sure signs of trouble to come.Henry's father, the usurper Henry Tudor, had spent years in exile before claiming the crown from Richard III; he had experienced both powerlessness and penury, and the experience had marked him. As soon as he was king, he set about concentrating both the power and the wealth of the crown. He took the embryonic bureaucracy he found already in place in London and Chichester, and he force-matured it through his personal supervision into a vast web-work of dunning and counting. He strengthened existing methods of mulcting and taxing his subjects, and he invented new methods as well. More in his reign than in any that preceded him, the public of England began to feel the financial burden of the monarchy, and since the monarchy had the contracts, the courts, and the halberdiers, the machinery of compliance was everywhere.That machinery needed tending, and throughout his reign, Henry VII had found men to do the work, men to serve the extemporaneous writs, men to scrutinize the submitted accounts – men to turn the screws on Henry's subjects high and low – fiscal screws, but always with the unspoken threat of the metal kind if anybody dared to object, dared to point out that such taxes and fees and fines had never existed before, that the sheer extent of them amounted to state-enacted theft on a grand scale.Henry tended to pick “new” men for such work, men who would owe their entire prominence and fortune to him alone (Steven Gunn explores this tactic brilliantly in his new book Henry VII's New Men and the Making of Tudor England), and for years prior to Henry's death in 1509, two of the most notorious of these new men were Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley, two sharp, rapacious operators who had the realm's most powerful and wealthy nobles fawning on them for scraps of favor.As soon as Henry VII was dead, 17-year-old Henry VIII's advisory council had Empson and Dudley arrested. They had no wish to disrupt or even much soften the screw-turning, but they acted immediately to make examples of the two men who were its most public face. And eventually (“It was one thing to denounce and imprison royal ministers,” Johnson writes of the young king's months-long delay in carrying out their sentence, “but quite another to have them executed simply for serving their old master too diligently”), Empson and Dudley were put to death:
On 17 August 1510, Empson and Dudley were escorted out of the shadows of the middle gateway of the Tower of London to meet their fate. In one regard at least, the king was merciful. They were to escape the full traitor's death of hanging, drawing and quartering. Not for them the shameful, painful haul behind a horse to Tyburn. Their sentence was commuted to a public beheading. They walked to their execution on Tower Hill through crowds eager to see the despised royal councillors finally get what they deserved.

The gesture largely worked. A country that had been groaning under the predation of the old king took a largely-symbolic comfort in the execution of two such prominent predators. And Henry was free to concentrate on what he considered more pressing issues – mainly, producing an heir, which was, as Johnson seems to delight in pointing out, a matter of frightful logistics, particularly when Catherine thought (mistakenly, it turned out) that she was pregnant with their child:

Henry had no permitted outlet otherwise for his sexual desires. The church forbade sex between husband and wife during her confinement and for the month or so until her 'churching', when she returned to the world of men. Royal and noble women usually employed wet nurses, so Henry would at least be spared the further restriction on marital sex while his wife was breastfeeding. These rules were just the tip of the iceberg when it came to religious proscriptions of sexual activity. Sex was also forbidden on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays; throughout Lent, Advent and Pentecost; before major holy days; when a woman was menstruating; three days before Communion; during daylight hours; naked; or in any position other than missionary.

“Marriage was the only moral outlet for sexual activity and even then the participants needed to ensure they were not enjoying it too much,” Johnson adds, “St Jerome had written that in the eyes of God, taking too much pleasure in one's spouse was tantamount to adultery.”Catherine's phantom pregnancy was followed by a real one, but little Prince Henry lived for less than two months, and when a healthy child eventually was born, it was a girl, the future Queen Mary I. Johnson is entirely right to point out that although the wording of all official notices of the little prince's death denoted sorrow, the main emotion emanating from Henry's court was anger. Stillbirths, phantom pregnancies, a daughter, a son who didn't live two months … even as early as spring of 1510, Henry might have begun to fear some blighting pattern. He would later self-servingly describe that pattern in Biblical terms, as divine punishment for marrying his brother's widow; Johnson describes at some length the old Medieval concept of Fortune's Wheel. In any case frustration in the nursery must have leant other aspects of kingship added allure. Tudor historian Polydore Vergil writes, for instance, that Henry considered it “his duty to seek fame by military skill,” and hovering over Johnson's account of this single year is the specter of the intermittent warfare with France that Henry would conduct throughout his reign.Johnson is intent on dramatizing her story in addition simply to reconstructing it (her previous publishing credit was a historical novel called The Arrow of Sherwood), and as she follows the year 1509 through its course, the violence of the battlefield – the place where the Tudor dynasty was born – is never very far in the background. Young Henry comes to his throne hot for war and impatient with councillors who advise patience. Readers are told that the king's future alter ego Thomas Wolsey (“the portly son of a Suffolk butcher”) “saw what some of the royal council still could not: that for all his inexperience, Henry was determined to rule himself, not to be ruled by his elders.” This impatience applied even to the battlefield's domesticated cousin, the jousting yard, as Johnson lays out in novelistic detail:

As the sun set on Henry's eighteenth birthday, the tournaments celebrating his coronation came to a close. As Henry and his queen handed out prizes to the knights and enterprisers of his celebratory jousts – Pallas Athena's crystal shield, Cupid's golden spear, Diana's hunting dogs and the scholars' swords – was it with a twinge of jealousy? For Henry had never been permitted to play anything but the role of spectator and judge of these contests. It was a part that his father had been content with, but the energetic young king was of a more active bent. Did Henry's hand itch to take up the lance himself?

These dramatizations – questions of what Henry gazed upon or pondered or itched to do – are now all but requirements of the kind of popular history So Great a Prince clearly aspires to be, as is the gesture of giving readers a narrow, restricted focus in order to make the sprawl of scholarly research more approachable: one single year rather than, say, Henry's first decade. The dramatizations are usually at best inferences, although Johnson does a uniformly energetic job of them, and the narrow narrative focus is of course an impossibility – readers get large, sometimes distractingly large, amounts of background-filling exposition on everything from the deep history of Henry VII's reign to the calendar of holy days to the nature of Court life to the intricacies of the Tudor legal system.And always the exposition comes back around to the tall, red-haired teenager at the heart of the book. It's naturally tempting, when reading an account like this, to see the tree in the acorn, tempting to find in the 17-year-old Henry the germs of all the traits that would be so prominent in the 30-year-old Henry, or even the 50-year-old Henry. It's to her credit that Johnson usually resists this temptation; for her Henry, it's the morning of a new era, and all things are possible.____Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston. He reviews for The National, The American Conservative, The Washington Post, and The Christian Science Monitor. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.