And There Goes Another Wife . . .

I recently finished The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser. What I found most astonishing about the events of 1500 C.E. was the willingness, the positive eagerness, with which various families backed certain matches. When any wife got shuffled off (divorced, beheaded), she didn't go alone; she took swaths of relatives with her as well as various political supporters.

And yet, oh, well, there's one down; now, who else can we promote?

Of course, a modern reader has the benefit of hind-sight. We know that number three wife (Jane Seymour, who died in childbirth) is the exception to the rule. Yet, it should have been reasonably obvious by the time the king reached Katherine Howard (after he divorced Anne of Cleves, which debacle Anne survived but Cromwell lost his head over) that it might not be the best idea in the world to have a pretty niece at court who might attract the king's interest.

Of course, there are some things people have no control over, and I'm willing to bet that when Katherine Howard caught the king's eye, her uncle (Earl of Norfolk) started practicing pre-execution speeches. (As a matter of fact, he survived her, but barely.)

Nevertheless, at the same time, hangers-on piled out of the woodwork, demanding kudos, rewards, estates, etc. etc. (it was the great age of patronage). And you'd think that a certain amount of uneasiness would have crept into the picture. That people would have, rather than running to attach themselves to this new, young and wholly reckless young woman, might have thought, "You know, I think I'll stay away from court for the next three years" (probably some did).

Because it wasn't only Henry who encouraged the divorcing, beheading of his queens. Every queen was surrounded by supporters and detractors, and the detractors spent an enormous amount of time trying to figure out how to get the queen and her supporters locked up in the Tower. Kind of like if Kenneth Starr and the Clintons, instead of holding legal proceedings and issuing press statements, had actually been trying to maneuver the other party in front of a firing squad.

But then, thinking of the Clintons and politicians in general, I decided that believing, "This time it will be different. This time, our queen won't do anything stupid to annoy the king" is what makes politicians tick. Otherwise, why would they bother?

Those who willingly (and consistently) play such dangerous (and quite often, petty) games must believe at some basic level that they have got their finger on the pulse this time. This time, it will all be different! (Yeah, right.)

It makes me very grateful for us boring middleclass types who just go to work and pay our taxes. Idealists and politicians may get all the credit for making history interesting, but at least the middleclass survivalists keep history going.

3 comments:

Joe said...

In relationships/politics Believing you will succeed where everyone else has utterly failed is a common major failing of intellectuals and egotists. For example, it isn't uncommon for a university to have a resident Marxist who all but, or even, openly proclaims that Communism Would Work Were He/She In Charge.

Then you have politicians who push a bill that fails and then announce a week later that they're doing it again and "This time it will succeed". Based on what? Did you not count heads last time? They're like little children constantly demanding a revote. (In addition to pure ego, I think this partially stems from the inability for many people to understand other viewpoints, even if they want to, which even more don't, let alone respect that the other side is just as sincere in their beliefs [The "just as" being a very operative phrase.])

Concerning Henry VIII specifically, I've wondered how aware or oblivious he was to all the Machiavellian machinations of his court.

Katherine Woodbury said...

I think Henry VIII was the kind of guy who convinced himself of his own innocence. By all reports, he was quite the intellectual. He used that big brain of his to assure himself at every turn that he was the injured party.

So the pope gives him permission to marry his dead brother's fiancee. Then, she bears no sons. So Henry convinces himself--with a lot of breast-beating--that he sinned against God by marrying his dead brother's fiancee and should divorce her. Everybody in the world, including the pope, says, "No way." But Henry believes it, so it happens.

I think he truly believed that Anne Boleyn was a witch when he sent her to the block. And that Jane Seymour was perfect (she died before she could prove him wrong) and that Katherine Howard was cheating on him.

Okay, I have to give him the last one. But he would never think, "Well, she cheated on me because I'm a monstrous egomaniac who kills wives who don't produce sons, and she was desperate to conceive."

The wife I like the most is Anne of Cleves because she managed to save herself--though not all her supporters--by convincing Henry that the idea to divorce her (and give her a separate income) was his.

Did he go on believing his versions of his wives' perfidies? I think he worked really, really hard to. He truly wasn't a scheming kind of guy. He was way more like Ahab from the Old Testament who is supposedly astonished when his wife connives to get him the vineyard (that he told her he wanted). Oh, really?! You arranged people's deaths? Oh, my, well, I didn't want that . . . but since it's available . . .

I highly recommend the 1970 The Six Wives of Henry VIII with Keith Michell: he totally captures Henry VIII! The viewer loathes and pities him at the same time (Anne of Cleves is Episode 4). Michell gets it; Jonathan Rhys Meyers from Tudors doesn't (probably not his fault; Tudors is a good example of writers not being able to separate weird/bad politics from CONSPIRACY THEORIES and ALL POWERFUL ORGANIZATIONS, as you mentioned; they can't conceive of any "bad guy" who isn't some kind of Jeffrey Dahmer evil genius loon).

Joe said...

You make me wonder if Henry VIII was really "cunning" or simply smart, convinced of his own rightness (with some justification) and ruthless about applying that.

A boss once accused me of essentially trying to overthrow him. Above all, he was convinced my emails contained double meanings. Quite the opposite; I wrote very succinctly about issues in a very non-threatening, but detailed way which allowed no wiggle room.

This guy was expert at appearing to do things while doing nothing at all. HIS emails were always full of double meanings, ambiguity and grand nothingness. I later concluded that he didn't understand anyone who didn't act the same way. Not understanding this, by being completely straight, I'd inadvertently required him to make an actual decision. (He thought I'd accused him of proverbially having no clothes, with the irony that all he had to do was make A decision and stand by it.)

So, is it possible that the bulk of Henry VIII's cunning was actually in the minds of the scoundrels surrounding him? And since there was no "hidden agenda", it befuddled those around him?

PS. In belated schadenfreude, my former boss led the way to one of the worse product releases I've ever heard of. And it failed in almost every way I'd outlined 18 months before. (Not because I'm Mr. Mensa, but because I'd seen it all before and I knew how inexperienced he and the lead engineer were.)