What debunking the myth of Henry VIII can teach us about Brexit

Boris Johnson bears more similarities to the Tudor King than he realises – and not for the reasons he would prefer.

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It took writing a book about the wives of Henry VIII in the viral haze of a Brexit transition year for me to realise: I’ve been here before.

Break from supranatural European bloc? Rife social division? English exceptionalism cosplaying as patriotism? Adulterous manchild at the helm? It struck me: are we living in a Tudor fever dream? Might Brexit come to be seen as English Reformation 2.0, the sickly heir to its bloody throne? And if so, what lessons can we draw from history?

Boris Johnson might fancy himself the successor to Winston Churchill, but there’s more than a hint of Henry in our boyish prime minister. Overindulged but undervalued, more girth than strength. The naked desperation to be liked; the brattish sulking when rebuked. Intolerant of bad news and allergic to boredom. Less intellectual sweat; more scholarly eau de parfum. A prime candidate for gout. A man who sees himself as a shaper of history even while the public pants for signs of his next adultery. A ladykiller?

(Of course, King Henry had an almost phobic aversion to infection. You would not have seen him shaking any hands during the Plague.)

We tend to assume we are familiar with this period of history. Divorced, beheaded, died - we could recite it in unison. But despite our fascination for the travails of the Tudors, myths still persist.

For a start, King Henry VIII did not break with Rome because of his love for Anne Boleyn. He did not risk invasion, civil war, bankruptcy and the very damnation of his soul for a woman he had already had. Politics is always personal but it’s rarely about sex. 

When Henry finally tired of his struggle for an annulment from Catherine of Aragon and married the pregnant Anne in 1533, his excommunication by the Pope was simply the spark that lit the tinder. Protestantism, Lutheran reformation and Erasmian ideals of humanism had been sweeping the continent for decades, all of which deeply influenced Anne during her childhood in Burgundy and France. And like our own prime minister, Henry was fixated on his legacy: the lack of a legitimate heir, in his case. (Unlike Henry, Johnson never had such trouble.)

Then as now, the cause of “sovereignty” was invoked for the new political project. But the cries of “English laws for English men!” were just as dubious as they are today. Sovereignty is about power – and as always when power is reapportioned, cui bono? Under the umbrella of this new zest for sovereignty and using the old Statute of Praemunire, which banned obedience to foreign laws, Henry fined the entire English clergy for their deference to the Pope, declaring himself Supreme Head of the Church. As he said to the monasteries, “show me the money”. In the grand scheme of things, relatively few stand to benefit financially from the disruption of Brexit, but those that do will receive a king’s ransom.

This evocation of English sovereignty did not endear Henry to his closest neighbours: Ireland, Wales and the ever-worrying Scotland. The purging of “disloyal” advisers whom Henry believed had impeded his Great Matter, not least his faithful Thomas More and Queen Catherine, left him increasingly ill-served and paranoid. Estranged from his ancient European allies, excommunicated from the Pope and far from fully committed to his new religion – or indeed, his new wife – Henry needed reinforcements. 

Under advice from Thomas Cromwell, the King who had never truly served as Prince of Wales (unlike his brother, Arthur) laid down the Acts of Union that brought Wales under the English thumb. Brexiteers eyeing the renewed ferocity of the independence debate in Scotland may take inspiration from the comic doublethink necessary for Henry to decry foreign overbearance on the one hand, and annex his neighbours on the other, centralising power within his own court. So much for sovereignty.

Indeed, nor did this stop with Wales. Noblemen in what is now Northern Ireland were to feel the weight of anti-Catholic sentiment for years to come, while Scotland’s crisis after James V’s death can be traced back to Henry’s shaky conversion to Protestantism. The Union was tenuously forged from fear, aggression and posturing, and it looks as though it might fracture on the same fault lines. Westminster’s attempts to consolidate a post-Brexit United Kingdom, even while Northern Ireland and Scotland eye a return to the EU, look increasingly desperate.

Even the most casual observer can see that the Conservatives dislike learning the lessons of yesteryear – or indeed yesterday. But if anyone should know how high the stakes are, it’s Boris Johnson: a divorce is a broken covenant, and the economic and psychological damage is borne by the children. From the reign of Henry’s son, the Protestant King Edward VI, through that of his daughter, Catholic Queen Mary I, to Queen Elizabeth I and throughout all the years of her vacillation, the turmoil unleashed by the Reformation lasted decades. Far from uniting the people of the British Isles against the spectre of a common enemy, it turned them on themselves.

And when the dizzying power of all that sovereignty went to Henry’s head, he lost it just as irrevocably as Anne. Granted, it has taken hundreds of years for the truth about Henry the tyrant to reach public consciousness (and apparently, it has yet to reach David Starkey, the eminent Tudor scholar and noted Brexiteer who once described Henry as a “good husband”), but in the end, history will not be kind to its ladykillers. And if Brexiteers believe their great matter is settled now that the prime minister has “got Brexit done”, history suggests they are in for a rude awakening. 

Harriet Marsden is author of Don't Lose Your Head: Life Lessons from the Six Ex-Wives of Henry VIII, which is published this month

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