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The slow death of a tyrant : learning to live without Henry VIII, 1547-1563.

By Alec Ryrie


Henry VIII stopped breathing on 28 January 1547, but although his body died, his political power did not. When such a political colossus finally topples, the resulting vacuum is disorientating to his allies and enemies alike. Politics cannot swiftly return to normal, if only because no-one knows what ‘normal’ is. In modern times, the examples of leaders as diverse as Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin or Margaret Thatcher demonstrate how bewildering the sudden departure of a dominant political figure can be, as well as the potential potency of their political afterlives. And so it was with Henry VIII, a king who had made himself the sun around which England’s political and religious universe turned. He might be gone, but the planets which orbited him had still to continue in their courses.\ud But even political giants die eventually, and the aftershocks of their fall fade. This essay is an attempt to trace how Henry VIII’s subjects, neighbours, friends and enemies came to terms with his absence in the decade and a half after his death, through to the early years of his younger daughter’s reign. It will argue that the loyal consensus that Henry had successfully forced on his people broke down only slowly, and that his memory continued to be politically potent. Evangelicals and conservatives alike tried to conscript the dead king to support their cause under Edward VI, but this contest was won decisively by the evangelicals; their successful co-option of Henry VIII was vital to their Edwardian triumph. Thereafter, both Catholics and Protestants became much more willing to dissociate themselves from the old tyrant, but he remained politically vital, an irreplaceable source of legitimacy and authority for both Mary I and Elizabeth I’s regimes – however uneasy those regimes may have been at the associatio

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Year: 2009
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