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Thomas Betteridge and Suzanna Lipscomb (eds.), Henry VIII and the Court: Art, Politics and Performance (Ashgate, 2013)

Thomas Betteridge and Suzanna Lipscomb (eds.), Henry VIII and the Court: Art, Politics and Performance (Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 2013). ISBN: 97811409411857. 327 pp. Hbk. £63.00.

Reviewed by Tessa Marlou van Gendt


[1] Henry VIII and the Court, a collection of seventeen essays, takes a welcome interdisciplinary approach to the contradictory nature of Henry and his reign. The volume, divided into seven parts, is largely the result of the conference, ‘Henry VIII and the Tudor Court: 1509 to 2009’, celebrating the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession. Ranging from sections on ‘Writing about Henry VIII’, ‘Material Culture’ and ‘Images’ to those on ‘Court Culture’, ‘Reactions’ and ‘Performance’, the intellectual scope and vision of the collection are as refreshing as they are, at times, surprising. Though Henry VIII is hardly a new topic, the essays themselves have a strong focus on new areas of research, making it an engaging read for the seasoned academic, as well as the casual reader. In the Foreword we are reminded that too often, historians have tended to focus solely on the political narrative of Henry’s reign, ignoring ‘analyses of art, architecture, material possessions, literature, performance, gender and international relations at their peril’ (p. 6). This collection ventures boldly into these too commonly dismissed fields in Henrician scholarship, and more than makes good on its intentions. The book really distinguishes itself, however, in its willingness to engage with the interdisciplinary in order to dissect and understand the various cultures at Court.

[2] Opening with G.W. Bernard’s ‘Reflecting on the King’s Reformation’, the reader is rewarded with an almost intimate, behind-the-scenes telling of Bernard’s own ‘path toward seeing Henry as the dominant force in the politics of his reign’ (p. 14). His analysis, in particular, of Henry’s personal charm, equaled only by the jarring examples of his cynical ruthlessness, serves to give a new face to the King. His relation of the executions of Buckingham, Thomas More and the condemnation of Wolsey provide chilling glimpses of the man beneath the crown and serve to remind us that this King, no matter how bluff he would have us think him, did not lack in political astuteness – nor would he have had need of Machiavelli’s guidance. The Chapter sets the tone for the rest of the collection and offers an interesting appraisal of Henry as a strong ruler, refuting many of the claims made by Geoffrey Elton, David Starkey and Eric Ives on the manipulability of the King. Effortlessly weaving personal anecdotes into his scholarly discussion, this essay is a treat indeed and serves to remind us that reading history or historiography need not always be accompanied by the scent of faded tweed and of dust gathered in corners.

[3] No work on the Henrician court can be entirely complete without mention of the tragic downfall of Henry’s most notorious and, arguably, most popular queen, Anne Boleyn. Suzzannah Lipscomb, in ‘The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Crisis in Gender Relations’, presents the reader with a different perspective on the debate over Anne’s fall. Quickly, yet convincingly, sketching the various issues surrounding this controversial event, Lipscomb provides readers with an account that, as she herself mentions in general lines, closely matches that of Greg Walker in his article, ‘Rethinking the Fall of Anne Boleyn’(The Historical Journal, 45-1, pp. 1-29). Lipscomb’s exploration of sixteenth-century gender roles and relations, however, is an interesting angle and serves to entertain, as well as to instruct, in the world of courtly love. Her description of the social tensions between the sixteenth-century ideals of a ‘good and chaste woman’ and the notion of the inherent culpability of the female as the origin of sexual sin, relate persuasively to Anne Boleyn’s case and indictments. Her analysis of the discourses of courtly love within the confines of the rigid social structure of the Henrician court, lends credibility to the interpretation that it was, indeed, Anne’s words rather than her actions that caused her eventual demise. The essay is compelling, well-researched and intriguing. Its discussion of sixteenth-century ideas of manhood and impotence provide cause for amusement and enlightenment. The concept of sexual honour introduces an interesting and oft-forgotten angle to the debate, elaborating on the personal struggle Henry must have faced in charging Anne with adultery. The concern arises from the reasons for her supposed infidelity. Clearly, Henry’s ministrations in the bedchamber could be nothing short of entirely satisfactory, he was, after all, the King. It follows then that Anne herself must, in some way, be deficient to crave sexual fulfillment above and beyond what he could provide her. Although the Chapter does not settle the matter of Anne’s fall (nor is it, perhaps, entirely reasonable to expect it to, given the brevity necessary to include it in such a collection as this), it certainly sheds new light on the tensions between the sexes which arguably caused much of the appearance of guilt during her prosecution. An effective and engaging study of gender relations and underlying social currents that furthers our understanding of why, if not how, Anne was condemned, this is a must-read for anyone interested in Boleyn scholarship.

[4] The same constraints of brevity ensue upon this review, since it is not possible here to engage with the full breadth and depth of analysis which the scholarship of these seventeen essays warrants. ‘Wishful Thinking: Reading the Portraits of Henry VIII’s Queens’ derides the tendency to illustrate biographies with suggestive yet unidentified portraits of the six queens. Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, are a particular focus and Brett Dolman is quick to remind the reader that, in Anne’s case, no contemporary dated portraits survive. ‘Cultures of the Body, Medical Regimen, and Physic at the Tudor Court’ by Elizabeth T. Hurren offers a wonderfully detailed account of the famously rotund King’s diet and his progression from a young, virile prince, to a morbidly obese man who had to be hoisted onto his horse by aid of a specifically designed contraption. Fashionable pastimes and household medicines are also discussed and leave the reader with a strong impression, if not after-taste, of some of the more remarkable characters at court, such as a certain Sir Richard Cholmley, apparently said to have been ‘extraordinarily given to the love of women’ (p. 75).

[5] The collection as a whole gives an extremely entertaining, interdisciplinary overview of the wide-ranging debates and issues surrounding the arts, politics and performances at the Henrician court. It does more than just that though – what it promises from the outset, it certainly delivers. The volume extends the range of sources and paradigms through which the King and his Court should be considered. No less significant, it also appears to have fully mastered the all-important and oft-forgotten notion, to delight and instruct. This book serves as a reminder of why, even after 500 years, fascination with Henry VIII and his household endures. He may have been every inch a King, but never the gentleman.

University of Edinburgh, July 2013