Today marks the birthday of one of the most influential men in history, influential beyond all expectations and potential. This man was the second son in a precarious dynasty that came to power after a long and wasteful period of dynastic struggle. In this turmoil the royal families had been largely destroyed allowing this man’s father, whose family was far from legitimate, to seize the crown from under a hawthorn bush at Bosworth. The throne was precarious, the country exhausted and certainly not a first rate power. I am of course talking about Henry VIII.
The second son of Henry VII was not expected to ascend to the throne and his upbringing was second rate to that of his brother, Arthur, who was groomed to be the perfect Medieval monarch. Brought up in the household Henry was not a perfect Medieval king and this was probably for the good because during his reign Europe moved from the late Middle Ages towards the early modern period. He was clever, romantic and believed in dangerous notions such as “love” and actually believed in his religion. It was the idea that he should love his wife that led to his many divorces and his actual and real belief in Christianity that compelled him to want a proper divorce rather than, as the Pope suggested, he put Catherine away quietly. To a greater or lesser extent he successfully navigated the turmoil’s of the age which included war, religious revolution and the brand new concept of inflation! During his reign the seeds sown in his fathers reign of the decline of feudal system, the growth of the power of merchants and professionals and the decline and dissolution of the monasteries came to pass.
Monastic lands enabled the creation of a new class of landowners, a vast influx of money to the crown and the sudden loss to society of the safety net of monastic charity. The crown responded to this crisis with new thinking. Thomas Cromwell brought the philosophy of the Commonwealth men to the nations problems and supplanted the monasteries with the Crown. Many of the modern public schools and remaining Grammar schools own their existence to the Merry Monarch. Cromwell established hospitals, schools and other benefits long before the idea of the welfare state became the core of Labours 1940s revolution. Cromwell transformed the finances of the crown to such an extent that he believed that the Crown would not need to tax the nation for three hundred years. The most shocking fact I know about Henry VIII is that he spent this money in ten years. Henry VIII transformed England from a medieval backwater into a pre-modern state. Processes set in action in this strange and passionate mans life led to the Church of England that has spread across the globe, Parliamentary democracy, the idea that the King should rule in Parliament and after a successor failed to learn this lesson and lost his life defending the Devine Right of Kings we have the modern state. Without Henry we would not have had the American Revolution we would have had a very different world but the world that Henry set in motion started all those years ago with the birth of a second son to a unsecure monarch in a second rate nation just off the coast of Europe.