Another day, another Tudor throwback. This time, Jeremy Corbyn has accused Theresa May of acting like Henry VIII by avoiding a vote in Parliament over the triggering of Article 50. ‘She cannot hide behind Henry VIII and the divine rights of the power of kings on this one’, he told the Guardian this week. ‘The idea that on something as major as this the prime minister would use the royal prerogative to bypass parliament is extraordinary – I don’t know where she’s coming from.’
We’ve been here before. Our politicians are addicted to Tudor comparisons: only last August, the Labour MP Barry Gardiner accused Theresa May of seeking ‘to diminish parliament and assume the arrogant powers of a Tudor monarch.’ (Can powers be ‘arrogant’? Was this a homage to the rhetorical device of hypallage?) May prefers to compare herself to Elizabeth I: ‘a woman who knew her own mind and achieved in a male environment.’ A worthy role-model, but awkward when neither Labour nor Tories can stretch their political vocabulary beyond the limits of a short-lived Welsh dynasty.
Gardiner and Corbyn are wrong on Henry VIII, of course. Corbyn may give the impression of a soggy-bottomed university lecturer defiantly lost on a freshers’ field trip, but he’s never shown much professorial expertise when it comes to Parliamentary history. As I wrote in August, Henry VIII relied on Parliament to enshrine his constitutional reformation in English law. He even invoked it to assent to his Will:
‘Perhaps the Tudors stuffed parliament with their own yes-men. But they paid it lip service as no previous dynasty had done. Henry VIII is notorious for his Act of Supremacy, which instituted a tyrannical Protestant loyalty oath – Thomas More, of course, refused to swear it. School children know that Henry kept changing his mind about the legitimacy of his children, retroactively doctoring his marital record with multiple Acts of Succession. But Henry’s chief concern, after the chaos of the Wars of the Roses, was to settle on an heir fully endorsed by the nobility and the major political institutions of the realm. Each one of those Acts of Supremacy and Succession went through parliament. (The clue is in the name.) To martyr his own Lord Chancellor, Henry had to invoke his parliament.’
Despite everything we know of Henry VIII, it was he who was most responsible for detaching the royal prerogative from the person of the king. It is depressingly ignorant to invoke Henry and in the very same breath to complain about a leader reluctant to consult Parliament. This isn’t just the stuff of History PhD theses: Jeremy could have found a nice little summary of the specifically Henrician growth of Parliamentary Power on the House of Commons visitor website.
Does it matter that Henry VIII cherished Parliament, rather than ignoring it? A little. It doesn’t change the fact that he ruled, from the 1530s on, as a bloodthirsty dictator. And in the age of Presidents Putin, Erdogan and Trump, we do well to remember that the most dangerous tyrants are those who know to use a democratic figleaf; who seek to entrench their self-serving constitutional changes in seemingly independent institutions. How many Parliamentary elections has Vladimir Putin’s party ‘won’, recently? How very Tudor. Men and women who consider Parliamentary approval the only guarantor of democratic liberty are poor guardians of our fragile state.
Does it matter that Corbyn, Gardiner, May et al continue to fall back on the same Tudor comparisons? Must we be obsessed with a few early modern monarchs? As Elizabeth I specialist, it suits me – it keeps me in business. But it shows a paucity of historical imagination, a firm limit on our understanding of our own parliamentary past.
In the case of Elizabeth I, our frequent comparisons – Maggie, Thatcher, Merkel – are a depressing marker of how few historical paradigms we can show for a woman really wielding hard power. More broadly, the omnipresence of the Tudors as a cultural touchstone hints at something needy in us Brits, particularly in the English. Despite the brilliance of their contemporary writers, our sense of Henry and Elizabeth is still visual, rather than verbal. We think of them in mammoth ruffs, golden cloaks – absurd, but an approximation of something we might call greatness. Tory or Labour, we’d all love our politics to have colours that gaudy, with England at the centre of the world.
In truth, England was marginal in the sixteenth century. Henry was a much-mocked oddball on the European stage; he was outshone by the monarch he emulated, Francis I of France, and he knew it. His greatest innovations, whether dance music or Protestant literacy, were imported; many of them under the influence of Erasmus, his Dutch mentor and the centre of a European ‘Republic of Letters.’ It was under Elizabeth that England moved from marginality to the beginnings of Empire, with London as a global trade hub. Patriotic Brexiteers, with their varying degrees of historical nuance, would do better to fight over her legacy than his.
We may be fading on the international stage. But modern Britain is still more powerful, more prosperous, than England ever could have imagined itself in 1533. So why our insistence on Henry VIII as a blueprint for the use of power? Historians will always argue for the importance of historical legacy. But we also know that the past is not the present.