When I was a history major in college, probably in my senior year, I took my first psychology course. Psychology turned out to be a fascinating subject and made me think about how it could be applied to history. The thought of a course in psycho-history crossed my mind but unfortunately my school didn’t offer such a course! Little did I know at the time Lacey Baldwin Smith was writing his seminal work on King Henry VIII and that is was a masterful psycho-history biography.
Many people had recommended this book to me and it was gripping from the very first chapter. Smith begins with the dying king secluded in his chamber and describes the loyal servants around him and their behavior. As many Tudor history fans know, there may have been some shenanigans during the king’s fateful final illness, especially regarding his will. Smith explains that Henry had his full faculties up until the end, perhaps blissfully ignoring the fact he was dying. But we do know there were changes made to the will and it wasn’t signed by the king’s hand but with a dry stamp. All this is very intriguing.
The book then goes into flashback so to speak to around the time Henry married Catherine Howard and most of the book recounts the years from 1540 until his death in 1547. Smith explains how Henry was given an in-depth humanist education but he certainly wasn’t the most intelligent man at court. What he was good at was remembering many minute details of all the business of governing of the realm. There are many records with Henry’s own notes written by hand that still exist to this day.
There is a most interesting chapter regarding Henry and his thinking as Supreme Head of the Church in England. Henry’s conscience was responsible for the spiritual life of all his subjects. Smith gives us a most interesting insight into what a precarious position this was for Henry and how this affected his view of the church in his kingdom. Smith examines some of the foreign policy of Henry in the later years recounting the delicate dance of power between the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and King François I of France.
Woven throughout Smith’s narration is how Henry’s psychological perspective and views of his place in the world influenced his reign. His insights go a long way in explaining why he did what he did in making decisions, marrying so many times and executing valuable servants. I found all of Smith’s arguments to be very absorbing and they gave me a deep understanding of not just Henry but the mindset of Tudor England overall. I couldn’t put this book down and was sad when I finished it. I can’t recommend it enough. Any reader will definitely have a better understanding of the standout king and his reign.