Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Henry VIII by J.J. Scarisbrick

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has written a definitive, detailed, heavily annotated biography, with an extensive bibliography, which is probably out of date now.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

--Chiron, 6/30/09

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