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Henry VIII, Page Four

Article from the 1911 Encyclopedia


No less important was his development of the parliamentary system. Representation was extended to Wales, Cheshire, Berwick and Calais; and parliamentary authority was enhanced, largely that it might deal with the church, until men began to complain of this new parliamentary infallibility. The privileges of the two Houses were encouraged and expanded, and parliament was led to exercise ever wider powers. This policy was not due to any belief on Henry's part in parliamentary government, but to opportunism, to the circumstance that parliament was willing to do most of the things which Henry desired, while competing authorities, the church and the old nobility, were not. Nevertheless, to the encouragement given by Henry VIII. parliament owed not a little of its future growth, and to the aid rendered by parliament Henry owed his success.

He has been described as a "despot under the forms of law"; and it is apparently true that he committed no illegal act. His despotism consists not in any attempt to rule unconstitutionally, but in the extraordinary degree to which he was able to use constitutional means in the furtherance of his own personal ends. His industry, his remarkable political insight, his lack of scruple, and his combined strength of will and subtlety of intellect enabled him to utilize all the forces which tended at that time towards strong government throughout western Europe. In Michelet's words, "le nouveau Messie est le roi"; and the monarchy alone seemed capable of guiding the state through the social and political anarchy which threatened all nations in their transition from medieval to modern organization. The king was the emblem, the focus and the bond of national unity; and to preserve it men were ready to put up with vagaries which to other ages seem intolerable.

Henry could thus behead ministers and divorce wives with comparative impunity, because the individual appeared to be of little importance compared with the state. This impunity provoked a licence which is responsible for the unlovely features of Henry's reign and character. The elevation and the isolation of his position fostered a detachment from ordinary virtues and compassion, and he was a remorseless incarnation of Machiavelli's Prince. He had an elastic conscience which was always at the beck and call of his desire, and he cared little for principle. But he had a passion for efficiency, and for the greatness of England and himself.

His mind, in spite of its clinging to the outward forms of the old faith, was intensely secular; and he was as devoid of a moral sense as he was of a genuine religious temperament. His greatness consists in his practical aptitude, in his political perception, and in the self-restraint which enabled him to confine within limits tolerable to his people an insatiable appetite for power.

The original materials for Henry VIII.'s biography are practically all incorporated in the monumental Letters and Papers of the Reign of Henry VIII. (21 vols.), edited by Brewer and Gairdner and completed after fifty years' labour in 1910. A few further details may be gleaned from such contemporary sources as Hall's Chronicle, Cavendish's Life of Wolsey, W. Thomas's The Pilgrim and others; and some additions have been made to the documentary sources contained in the Letters and Papers by recent works, such as Ehses' Romische Dokumente, and Merriman's Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell. Lord Herbert of Cherbury's Life and Reign of Henry VIII. (1649), while good for its time, is based upon a very partial knowledge of the sources and somewhat antiquated principles of historical scholarship.

Froude's famous portraiture of Henry is coloured by the ideas of hero-worship and history which the author imbibed from Carlyle, and the rival portraits in Lingard, R. W. Dixon's Church History and Gasquet's Henry VIII. and the Monasteries by strong religious feeling. A more discriminating estimate is attempted by H. A. L. Fisher in Messrs Longmans' Political History of England, vol. v. (1906). Of the numerous paintings of Henry none is by Holbein, who, however, executed the striking chalk-drawing of Henry's head, now at Munich, and the famous but decaying cartoon at Devonshire House. The well-known threequarter length at Windsor, usually attributed to Holbein, is by an inferior artist.

The best collection of Henry's portraits was exhibited at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1909, and the catalogue of that exhibition contains the best description of them; several are reproduced in Pollard's Henry VIII. (Goupil) (1902), the letterpress of which was published by Longmans in a cheaper edition (1905). Henry composed numerous state papers still extant; his only book was his Assertio septem sacramentorum contra M. Lutherum (1521), a copy of which, signed by Henry himself, is at Windsor. Several anthems composed by him are extant; and one at least, 0 Lord, the Maker of all Things, is still occasionally rendered in English cathedrals. (A. F. P.)

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