Who is this King? CW as Contemporary Commentator in “Henry VII”

Book Summary: Henry VII
London: Arthur Barker, 1937

In the preface, CW says that the goal of biography is to distinguish between the subject’s “nature and his fortune.” I find that a difficult phrase to parse. I think in 21st-century terms that would mean how his personality interacted with the things that happened to him. So the biographer’s job is to show the difference between those two. Really? I suppose so. A biography wants to leave readers feeling like they now know the person and like they have a good grasp of how the subject responded to events. But I should also have thought that how the subject influenced events would be as important as, if not more important than, those things. I don’t read a lot of biographies, though, yet, so perhaps you can enlighten me on this point if you are a great reader (or writer) of biographies.

So then this leads to the question: If distinguishing between Henry VII’s personality and his responses to events was CW’s goal, did he achieve it? I think so, barely. I still find even his improved nonfiction prose style in the late 1930s so allusive that it’s extremely difficult for me to discover what he’s saying, much less remember it. Even now, having finished reading this biography a few days ago, I find I don’t remember much of it at all. If I hadn’t taken notes, I wouldn’t know what to write about.

On the personality: I have a sense that Henry VII was intensely practical, not spiritual, and not interested in ceremony or ritual except that they were necessary for political ends. I get the idea that he hated to spend money, but that he did so, lavishly, merely because a show of ostentation was expected of him as king and helped to solidify his precarious monarchical position. Here is CW’s summary of Henry VII, Henry VIII, Mary I, and Elizabeth I:

We can hardly say that that Henry enjoyed the people—or anything. His son enjoyed women and theology; and one granddaughter took joy in adoration and heavenly love and the other world, and one in culture and cerebral passion and this, but of the joy of the founder of their House there is no sign.

About events: I remember that Henry Tudor defeated Richard II at Bosworth Field. His claim to the throne was tenuous, and he was plagued by “pretenders” for much of his reign (I recall three particularly dangerous ones whom he had to kill or imprison for life to quash their claims). He was beset with marriage difficulties all his life, trying to find the most politically-savvy spouses for his sons and daughters. He faced the terrible grief of the death of his eldest son, Arthur, when that boy had only been married to Katherine of Aragon for a short time. This prevented there being a King Arthur of England in documentary history. Too bad!

But you could have learned all that from Wikipedia, to which I had recourse to investigate some of the juicier details (there was the whole dispute about whether Arthur and Katherine’s marriage had been consummated, after all). And Williams would have learned all of this, I think, from the books on the shelves of the OUP library. What did CW contribute to the field by writing this book?

Well, I’d say what I noticed that was a bit unexpected was CW’s subtle, occasional commentary on contemporary political events. Taken so soon after my summary of his play Judgement at Chelmsford, this biography reminded me of what Grevel Lindop has called CW’s leftist politics.

He claims that in his own time, “we” (who? British people?) have an “idea that to throw off lordship, as such, is a good thing, and that independence, as such, is better than obedience.” From the rebellion of the “Low Countries” “we owe the vague notion that a man cannot find freedom by continuously choosing to obey. Out of which idea, but a process of reaction and conversion, arise Fascisms, dominations, and all mortal totalitarian powers.” (34)

Wait, what? Am I reading him aright? Is he blaming the rise of Fascism on the Netherlands’ 16th-century desire for freedom from foreign control? Is that what he is saying? It does indeed seem to be so. And, now that I think about it, this is consistent with his vision of a hierarchical, unified European Romano-Byzantine Empire in his Arthurian poems. But a more politically-savvy writer than I shall have to say more about it.

(Good thing there’s a brilliant chapter by Benjamin D. Utter called “ ‘What Does the Line along the Rivers Define?’: Charles Williams’s Arthuriad and the Rhetoric of Empire” in the forthcoming Inklings and King Arthur, eh?)

In talking about the “oppression of the lower classes” in France, he calls taxation “legal tyranny.” (89). And on page 96, he quotes Lenin, saying that Lenin “was wrong only on one point,” but right on the rest of the items in the quote—which is:

In England, there is powerful popular control over the administration, but even there the bureaucracy has managed to preserve not a few of its privileges, is not infrequently the master, and not the servant, of the people.

The point Lenin got wrong, according to CW, is that the bourgeois did not create this situation, but they “have to put up with it.” This seems to me to be more like middle-class maintenance of the status quo, but I’m not quite sure. It’s hard for me to understand this, not being as familiar as I should be (and no doubt will be by the time I’m finished at Baylor) with the political and economic situation and parties of CW’s time. If you are, please help me out!

In discussing Sir Williams Stanley’s hesitation over which side to back in the final battle of the Wars of the Roses, Williams writes that “such double insurance of the future has always been a habit of great personages in English history…. It might, were there a present claimant to the Crown in France or Austria, be even to-day renewed.” (27)

And here is a long passage comparing that time to his own. In talking about Henry VII’s maintenance of supporters in Scotland, CW writes:

A minister in our day may reasonably pursue a policy favourable to some foreign government; he has not been, till recently, supposed to be in private communication with that government; still less has he been supposed to be in receipt of a private income from that government. When Europe is divided, as in the days of the Reformation and as in our own time, by great conflicting ideas, it is inevitable that such communications will exist. If England should ever be split into two parties, one of which was in strong sympathy with Moscow and one with Rom, it is pretty certain that the leaders of both sides would be in touch with sympathetic governments abroad. The question of taking money then becomes a matter of integrity and of discretion. Money may easily be sent to support a cause, and then to support persons useful to the cause. Other persons less useful, or perhaps not at all useful, will then tend to make themselves useful for the sake of the money. And future ages will denounce them.

Now I see that I have set myself a task too difficult. I am not verse enough in political science or history to know how to interpret this quote. I can see it is significant—this was published in 1937, after all—but I can’t see how. So I could use your help.

One other, unrelated, point that CW made about Henry VII that I thought was really good was his observation, repeated a few times, that Henry Tudor was the transition-point between the Medieval and the Renaissance. What do you think? Do you agree with that?

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About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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6 Responses to Who is this King? CW as Contemporary Commentator in “Henry VII”

  1. Joe R. Christopher says:

    Re: his nature and his fortune. I suspect a person’s influence is part of his nature. You’ve got the person in all his complexity on one side; you’ve got various things that he/she has no control over (in their appearance) on the other. Think of President Obama. Nature: moderate to liberal in world view, with a strain of legalism, naive at times (not always) about early world developments, little ability at schmoozing. Fortune: had to face the Great Recession; had for much of his presidency to deal with a Republican controlled House and Senate during a period when the Republican Party was not inclined to play the usual politics of negotiating for half loaves; had to deal with variously developing political chaos in the world. (Some will want to argue with my summary of the two sides, but I’m not trying to argue politics, just describe the situation as well as I can in order to illustrate the difference between nature and fortune.)

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  2. jubilare says:

    “This prevented there being a King Arthur of England in documentary history. Too bad!” Ah, but it preserves the mystique of the name and means we don’t have to clarify it. Though a man’s premature death is a high price to pay for such a privilege. Still, a part of me is very glad we have no historical King Arthur of England.

    I wonder if any of Lewis’s muses on the crux of how Politics and Christianity intersect had to do with CW.

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    • Yes, I suppose I do agree. No actual King Arthur could live up to the legend, so we might feel the name was tainted, and the poor fellow would have an impossible task.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        It makes me think of all the putting things in terms of ‘a new Elizabethan Age’ in 1952 – I don’t know I’ve ever seen anybody sketch out how that did and didn’t work out, since then (I’ve never tried to, though it’s an interesting thought).

        I still haven’t caught up with Kingsley Amis’s The Alteration (1976), but it comes to mind in trying to begin to imagine ‘a new Age of Arthur’, where brother Henry’s procreation was perhaps not looming as large as it ended up doing in history as we know it, and where English-Papal-Habsburg relations might have developed more like the ‘Gallican’ model, where Hispano-English exploration of ‘the New World’ from 1502 on might have been less rivalrous (though what that might have required, I don’t know), and so on.

        It probably would, as you suggest, have been an impossible task living up to to legend, but it might have been quite an alternative history. (There we have nature and fortune again, I suppose – among other things.)

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  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you – you’ve got me wanting to reread it!

    It seems somehow a fascinating thing to focus on Henry VII rather than his more (in)famous son – though I seem to remember some interesting glimpses forward, on Williams’s part. Since I first read it, I have enjoyed seeing the BBC mini-series about Henry VII and his age, The Shadow of the Tower (1972), and you’ve sharpened my wanting to get reacquainted with both, next to each other.

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  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    You’ve put your finger on lots of interesting political-historical questions, most of which I did not remember being there: more good spurring to (re)read this book!

    A couple thinking-out-loud thoughts:

    Your “we” question and jubilare’s Lewis-related one make me want to reread things like the bits in the Intro of Lewis’s OHEL volume about sovereignty and his little ‘Modern man and his categories of thought’ together with this book! The “we” may include a lot of Modern Western(-influenced) people. I still haven’t gotten round to reading (as opposed to browsing around in) Motley’s Rise of the Dutch Republic (and I haven’t even browsed in his History of the United Netherlands), but I have a sense of a lot of Eighteen- and Nineteenth-century looking to the Dutch experience (including, by the American Founding Fathers) which probably informs Williams’s remark.

    Your discussion of his reflection on Lenin’s analysis makes me think of Chesterton’s Short History of England,with its attention to Aristocracy and oligarchy.

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