Simon Heffer: Thank Henry VIII for laying those foundations of freedom

Roundup: Talking About History

History is now a multi-media theme park through which many choose to pass for light entertainment. The journey is often superficial and conducted by the inexpert. Occasionally one travels first class, such as with Dr Richard Holmes, the peerless military historian, or Dr David Starkey, the Tudor titan. However, these men who rely on serious documentary research in order to present the public with a version of the past no less entertaining for being true and revelatory find themselves jostled by hucksters and mountebanks.

Dr Starkey has done a superb job on Henry VIII, the quincentenary of whose accession falls today. Yet, as a shrewd businessman as well as a fine historian, Dr Starkey knows that the abundant elements of soap opera in the life of a man who began as a model of catholic chivalry and ended as an uxoricidal monster make him box office. It is certainly a good story; but not, I think, one that is quite so interesting as its consequences.

Every half-millennium or so an event occurs in our history that changes the basis of society. The Romans come, the Romans go. The Normans come; and between their arrival in 1066 and the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 there is one seismic event after which society sets off (after a false start or two) on an entirely new course: the Reformation in England. When the Convocation of Canterbury of the Church in England agreed in March 1531 to accede to Henry's demands about church governance that included the clergy's recognition of him as head of the English church, it also triggered a process of such profound economic and political change that even today there is still dispute about the extent of the consequences. Let me add my three ha'porth: without the Reformation we would not have had what Seeley called "the expansion of England", we would not have had a middle class educated and powerful enough to initiate the industrial revolution, we would not have had the empire we did, and would not have had the land and sea power that kept us free from invasion and foreign influence: not to mention the theological consequences....

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