The recent fuss over the fifth centenary of Henry VIII's coronation (we will all be heartily sick of him by the end of 2009) has concealed the real surprise in the Tudor achievement: the rebranding of a failed cross-channel state as an island kingdom. In 1485, Henry's father seized power in what had once been an example to all Europe of how to centralise government in a monarchy. The example had been set by the Anglo-Saxon monarchs of Wessex, who with the help of the Church manufactured a national fiction called England, only to have their achievement hijacked by a shrewd representative of Scandinavian carpet-baggers, William of Normandy. William's Angevin successors then created a power of continent-wide importance, an Anglo-French polity that represented these islands' best effort yet at European integration; but it had fallen apart three times: successively in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. On the two occasions when competent and ruthless kings rebuilt it (Edward III, then Henry V), infuriatingly self-indulgent kings lost it (Richard II, then Henry VI). The uselessness of the two latter monarchs had led to their murder by ambitious would-be replacements; nobility had been so unimpressed by the victims' performance on the throne that they stood aside and let the assassinations happen.
LRB 19 November 2009 | PDF Download