It is perhaps a matter rather for regret than for surprise that so few attempts have been made to describe, as a whole, the life and character of Henry VIII. No ruler has left a deeper impress on the history of his country, or done work which has been the subject of more keen and lasting contention. Courts of law are still debating the intention of statutes, the tenor of which he dictated; and the moral, political, and religious, are as much in dispute as the legal, results of his reign. He is still the Great Erastian, the protagonist of laity against clergy. His policy is inextricably interwoven with the high and eternal dilemma of Church and State; and it is well-nigh impossible for one who feels keenly on these questions to treat the reign of Henry VIII. in a reasonably judicial spirit. No period illustrates more vividly the contradiction between morals and politics. In our desire to reprobate the immorality of Henry's methods, we are led to deny their success; or, in our appreciation of the greatness of the ends he achieved, we seek to excuse the means he took to achieve them. As with his policy, so with his character. There was nothing commonplace about him; his good and his bad qualities alike were exceptional. It is easy, by suppressing the one or the other, to paint him a hero or a villain. He lends himself readily to polemic; but to depict his character in all its varied aspects, extenuating nothing nor setting down aught in malice, is a task of no little difficulty. It is two centuries and a half since Lord Herbert produced his Life and Reign of Henry VIII. The late Mr. Brewer, in his prefaces to the first four volumes of the Letters and Papers of the Reign of Henry VIII., published under the direction of the Master of the Rolls, dealt adequately with the earlier portion of Henry's career. But Mr. Brewer died when his work reached the year 1530; his successor, Dr. James Gairdner, was directed to confine his prefaces to the later volumes within the narrowest possible limits; and students of history were deprived of the prospect of a satisfactory account of Henry's later years from a writer of unrivalled learning.
Henry's reign, from 1530 onwards, has been described by the late Mr. Froude in one of the most brilliant and fascinating masterpieces of historical literature, a work which still holds the field in popular, if not in scholarly, estimation. But Mr. Froude does not begin until Henry's reign was half over, until his character had been determined by influences and events which lie outside the scope of Mr. Froude's inquiry. Moreover, since Mr. Froude wrote, a flood of light has been thrown on the period by the publication of the above-mentioned Letters and Papers; they already comprise a summary of between thirty and forty thousand documents in twenty thousand closely printed pages, and, when completed, will constitute the most magnificent body of materials for the history of any reign, ancient or modern, English or foreign. Simultaneously there have appeared a dozen volumes containing the State papers preserved at Simancas, Vienna and Brussels and similar series comprising the correspondence relating to Venice, Scotlandand Ireland; while the despatches of French ambassadors have been published under the auspices of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs at Paris. Still further information has been provided by the labours of the Historical Manuscripts Commission, the Camden, the Royal Historical, and other learned Societies.
These sources probably contain at least a million definite facts relating to the reign of Henry VIII.; and it is obvious that the task of selection has become heavy as well as invidious. Mr. Froude has expressed his concurrence in the dictum that the facts of history are like the letters of the alphabet; by selection and arrangement they can be made to spell anything, and nothing can be arranged so easily as facts. Experto crede. Yet selection is inevitable, and arrangement essential. The historian has no option if he wishes to be intelligible. He will naturally arrange his facts so that they spell what he believes to be the truth; and he must of necessity suppress those facts which he judges to be immaterial or inconsistent with the scale on which he is writing. But if the superabundance of facts compels both selection and suppression, it counsels no less a restraint of judgment. A case in a court of law is not simplified by a cloud of witnesses; and the new wealth of contemporary evidence does not solve the problems of Henry's reign. It elucidates some points hitherto obscure, but it raises a host of others never before suggested. In ancient history we often accept statements written hundreds of years after the event, simply because we know no better; in modern history we frequently have half a dozen witnesses giving inconsistent accounts of what they have seen with their own eyes. Dogmatism is merely the result of ignorance; and no honest historian will pretend to have mastered all the facts, accurately weighed all the evidence, or pronounced a final judgment.
The present volume does not profess to do more than roughly sketch Henry VIII.'s more prominent characteristics, outline the chief features of his policy, and suggest some reasons for the measure of success he attained. Episodes such as the divorce of Catherine of Aragon, the dissolution of the monasteries, and the determination of the relations between Church and State, would severally demand for adequate treatment works of much greater bulk than the present. On the divorce valuable light has recently been thrown by Dr. Stephan Ehses in his Römische Dokumente. The dissolution of the monasteries has been exhaustively treated from one point of view by Dr. Gasquet; but an adequate and impartial history of what is called the Reformation still remains to be written. Here it is possible to deal with these questions only in the briefest outline, and in so far as they were affected by Henry's personal action. For my facts I have relied entirely on contemporary records, and my deductions from these facts are my own. I have depended as little as possible even on contemporary historians, and scarcely at all on later writers. I have, however, made frequent use of Dr. Gairdner's articles in the Dictionary of National Biography, particularly of that on Henry VIII., the best summary extant of his career; and I owe not a little to Bishop Stubbs's two lectures on Henry VIII., which contain some fruitful suggestions as to his character.
Putney, 11th January, 1905.
The Early Tudors
Prince Henry and His Environment
The Apprenticeship of Henry VIII.
The Three Rivals
King and Cardinal
From Calais to Rome
The Origin of the Divorce
The Pope's Dilemma
The Cardinal's Fall
The King and His Parliament
"Down with the Church"
"The Prevailing of the Gates of Hell"
Rex et Imperator
The Final Struggle
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