Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The King is Dead : the last will and testament of Henry VIII - Suzannah Lipscomb

I love books that focus on one incident or a particular period of a person's life. I sometimes enjoy them more than a grand, sweeping history that takes in centuries of time & a cast of thousands - although I love the odd grand, sweeping history too. Suzannah Lipscomb's new book focuses on the last few months of the life of Henry VIII & the immediate aftermath of his death.

The last will of Henry VIII has been a contested document for centuries. There have been debates about when exactly it was written, what Henry's intentions were & how competent he was to draft a will by the final weeks of his life. By December 1546, Henry was very ill. Obese, suffering from intermittent fevers because of the ulcer on his leg, distressed by the factionalism of his Court, with religious conservatives & reformers jostling for position, Henry was determined to leave England with a blueprint for the future of the realm.

The main players at Court by the end of the reign were the King's brother-in-law, Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, John Dudley, Lord Lisle & Sir William Paget, the King's Chief Secretary. Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester was the leading conservative clergyman & Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury was the leading reformer. Henry's last wife, Kateryn Parr, had narrowly escaped arrest for her reforming religious views just months earlier & since then, Gardiner had lost favour with the King. Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, uncle of two of Henry's queens, had fallen from favour along with his impetuous son, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who was executed for treason in the last weeks of the reign.

Henry began his Will with a list of the men who would constitute the Regency Council for his heir, Edward. He realised that he would be leaving his nine year old son to succeed him & he wanted to prevent the rise of one man as Lord Protector. He named ten men, members of his Privy Council, as his executors & members of the Regency Council & a further six men who were not Privy Councilors. Henry's personal control over the composition of the Council is evident in that men like Bishop Gardiner & Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk were excluded when they might have been thought essential members of the Council, as they had been close to the King for many years.

Henry VIII's desire to secure the succession influenced his actions throughout his reign. Would he have married six times if it wasn't for the desperate need for a male heir? Even in his final months, as his health declined, Henry's obsessive need to control the future of the House of Tudor & of England, fed into the drafting of his final will. After naming the Regency Council whom he envisaged ruling until Edward was old enough to take power, he enumerated many different scenarios if the unthinkable happened & Edward did not live long enough to marry & have heirs of his own. Although Henry's daughters, Mary & Elizabeth, had been declared illegitimate, Henry designated them next in line for the throne after Edward although he failed to legitimise them which caused trouble in later years. After his daughters, he ignored the line of his elder sister, Margaret, who had married James IV of Scotland & named the descendants of his younger sister, Mary, known as the French Queen after her short-lived marriage to Louis XI. She had later married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk & had two daughters. No other will of a medieval king had set out the succession in this way & the provisions caused discussion in later years as, one after another, Henry's three children ascended the throne & then died childless.

Henry also set out his religious beliefs. Henry's break with Rome had led to him formulating his own peculiar religious belief, somewhere between Catholicism & Protestantism.  He obviously wished that neither extreme should prevail but his wishes in this matter, as in so much else, were ignored. He also set out his bequests to his family & closest friends & servants. The will was dated December 30th 1546 & Henry died three weeks later in January 1547.

Controversy surrounds this last will & testament. Historians have debated Henry's fitness to make the will, citing his health. The fact that the King didn't physically sign the will (it was signed with a dry stamp, an impression of the King's signature that was inked in by his clerks) has led to accusations that it was contrary to his wishes or that it was tampered with after his death to favour Hertford & his faction who swiftly overturned the provisions for a Regency Council & became Lord Protector. Henry's death wasn't formally announced for several days & it has been speculated that Hertford & Paget had time to insert clauses that favoured them. Suzannah Lipscomb deals with all these theories very briskly. She discounts most of them by going back to the original sources, most importantly, to the will itself, which has survived & is in the National Archives. Where David Starkey has written that the last lines of the will are cramped & somehow added above the signatures of the witnesses (implying additions to the will after it was signed), Lipscomb disproves this by reproducing the last page of the will which is evenly spaced & written in the same hand as the rest of the document. The fact that his councilors did ignore the will so thoroughly & so quickly has led to speculation that a coup was planned before the King's death but Lipscomb believes that it's easy to see this with hindsight &, in reality, fear of treason kept Hertford & Paget from planning their takeover until literally the last hours of the King's life.

Suzannah Lipscomb does an excellent job of filling in the background of Henry's life before plunging into the more detailed story of his final months. Far from seeing Henry as a doddering old man at the mercy of his courtiers, she sees him as in control right to the very end. In her opinion, the will is consistent with Henry's beliefs & view of himself throughout his reign. That he could write, in his plans for the succession, of the possibility that Queen Kateryn might yet have a child or that he might remarry, shows an essential optimism that's quite touching. He believed that his councilors would follow his wishes for his son's reign & would have been horrified to know how quickly the provisions of his will were discarded.

The book itself is a beautiful object. The illustrations, many of the portraits of the main players are by Holbein, remind us that these names on the page were real people & how lucky we are to have Holbein's drawings to bring them to life. The entire text of the will is reproduced in the book as well as part of an inventory of Henry's belongings that gives a taste of his wealth & the magnificence of the trappings of the Tudor Court. The King is Dead is a fascinating look at the politics of the final months of Henry's life & the story of how the will was written emphasizes Henry's control of his Court. His hand was on the wheel until the very end, even though he was unable to ensure that his last wishes were followed.


  1. Like many others, I find Tudor history fascinating and your review has certainly made me want to read this book. I wouldn't mind betting Henry would have spun in his grave had he knowledge of what happened after his death when his wishes died with him.

    1. It's a really interesting look at the final months of Henry's life & I enjoy that level of detail. Henry would not have been amused!

  2. How interesting. Henry VIII is probably the English king I know best...all those wives. :) I'll have to see if I can get a copy of this one.

    1. Hopefully your library will have a copy, it's well worth reading.