Henry VIII “subjugated” by female historians paying attention to wives

henry.gifHistorian David Starkey is upset that Henry VIII isn’t getting enough attention.

Because I clearly didn’t concentrate all that much in history classes, and haven’t been watching the Tudors, I couldn’t actually tell you why Henry VIII is so signficiant. I mean, I remember he had lots of wives, and that I was taught all about him multiple times during my school career.

Probably the same is true of many people who’ve been through the British English school system, which, if it drums home anything at all about UK history, it’s Henry the bloody VIII and World War II.

Yet this is not enough for Starkey, reports the Telegraph. The fact that several female historians have begun to sketch out the characters and role of Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleaves, Katheryn Howard and Katherine Parr has driven him to distraction, and, more to the point, to create a whole series on Channel 4 putting the emphasis back where it belongs: on the white man in the big chair.

In an interview with the Radio Times, out today, Dr Starkey said: “One of the great problems has been that Henry, in a sense, has been absorbed by his wives. Which is bizarre.

I think that this can only be considered “bizarre” if you hold on to a very old-fashioned view of what’s “important” in examining history. Is historical importance only determined by “who was most powerful at a particular time and place and what they did”, or is it about what we can learn about the entire society, including those who were not considered powerful or significant at the time. Actually, the extention of historical interest to the women he was married to is still very inadequate.

“But it’s what you expect from feminised history, the fact that so many of the writers who write about this are women and so much of their audience is a female audience. Unhappy marriages are big box office.”

That said, it’s interesting how dismissive Starkey is about efforts to turn the historical lense on these women and the motivations for that. Maybe women actually want to read about the lives of these women so they can learn about what women’s lives were like in the 16th century, when women’s history has been systematically discarded by historians.

And, of course, there’s the implication that female historians writing for a female audience can’t possibly be legitimately concentrating on material of ‘historical significance’. Later on the Telegraph quotes Starkey admonishes historians for concentrating on the “soap opera” of Henry VIII’s personal life (of course, that “soap opera” included the introduction of divorce to England).

He said that in his new series, Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant, “we’re trying to say, ‘Hang on a minute, Henry is centre stage.’

“This is Henry – wives appear simply to explain or complicate the story of Henry. This is his development, his psychology and, above all, why he matters.”

Those women should really learn their place, in other words.

Actually, when historians write about “Henry’s wives” it’s hardly radical. These women are still only being written about, it seems to me, because of their relationship to a man in power.

Talking to The Daily Telegraph, Dr Starkey said that while writing about Henry VIII, “even I fell into the trap of subjugating the history of Henry … to that of his wives”.

Because it’s entirely appropriate to say that Henry VIII has been “subjugated” by historians beginning to pay attention to anyone other than the Big King in Centre Stage.

Dr Starkey went further, by saying that modern attempts to paint many women in history as “power players” was to falsify the facts.

He said: “If you are to do a proper history of Europe before the last five minutes, it is a history of white males because they were the power players, and to pretend anything else is to falsify.”

Like I said earlier, for decades hasn’t it been a bit old fashioned to view history as stories “what happened to the Kings and Queens of Europe”? Maybe we need to write about people not on the basis of whether or not they were “power players” but because they’re interesting or have something to tell us about the society they lived in. Women don’t have to have been in powerful positions at the time to make their stories worth telling.


For example, while he considered Elizabeth I to be a great monarch, “the way she is presented as some sort of female icon is ludicrous”.

During Victorian times her conduct was regarded as “perfectly deplorable”, he added.

So, even when a woman was actually the Queen, it’s a bit silly for historians to pay attention to her? Hmmm, I smell a rat.

Dr Starkey insisted: “I’m not joining forces with Fathers for Justice, it is simply saying that our new world has its own set of prejudices, its set of distinctive lenses, and we need to be aware of them.”

Erm, well. That would be the lense of not thinking the only people of interest or worthy of comment are white rich European men, he’s complaining about there.

He also stressed his comments were not a “value statement” about how he thought the world should be, but argued: “It is a great impertinence to impose our values on the past. It instantly reduces the people of the past from real people to mere straw men and women in our struggles.”

It strikes me that “writing a book about someone other than a white European king” isn’t the same thing as imposing “our values” onto the past. Also, I think the implication that Starkey’s perspective is somehow *more objective* because he’s focusing on Henry VIII is actually false, too.

Earlier this month Dr Starkey said he believed Henry VIII’s handwriting showed he had an “emotionally incontinent” personality because he was brought up in a female-dominated household.

And, there we have it. Starkey imposing his own values (the idea that living in a female-dominated household causes “emotional incontinence”) on the past. So it’s OK when Starkey does it, but ridiculous and a silly distraction when anyone else does? Right. Sure you’re not joining F4J, David?!

(H/T helen_nicola)