The Canon. Henry VIII by J. J. Scarisbrick

November 5, 2009

"Return to your garret in Oxford. Sadly I do not think that I can be of great help to you, but I am sure that you are on the right lines." It was with these words that Professor J.J. Scarisbrick said goodbye to me at Leamington Spa station, some time early in 1979, having spent a day listening to me pointing out to him why his account of Cardinal Wolsey's foreign policy was fundamentally flawed. Within a month I had a publisher for a biography of Wolsey - having had, I should add, no success up until then, and I have no doubt at all that this was due to Scarisbrick's efforts on my behalf.

Looking back at this episode of my life, I almost cringe with embarrassment - I was in essence applying a form of moral blackmail: you, Scarisbrick, owe it to the scholarly world to ensure that a refutation of your work is published - but there is no doubt that my meeting with him changed my life.

Scarisbrick, on the other hand, comes out of this episode extremely well, but what about the book that resulted in the meeting? It might appear from what I have said so far that I did not think much of it, but that would be far from the truth. I first came across his Henry VIII, which had appeared in 1968, when teaching an A-level "special subject" on the Henrician Reformation. I had immediately taken to it - as indeed I think did most of my pupils - and this despite the fact that it is in some ways an odd book, one oddity being the amount of space devoted to Wolsey's foreign policy. Other topics, such as the divorce, loom slightly larger than perhaps they should, and generally one gets the impression that there were things that interested Scarisbrick and plenty of others that did not.

Of course, the fact that he was interested in them tended to make them more interesting to the reader, but I do not think that it was just a question of what one could consider to be self-indulgence. What was revolutionary about the book was how comparatively little space was devoted to Thomas Cromwell and the Tudor revolution in government, and the view that went with it of Henry VIII as "a bit of a booby and a bit of a baby". The view was, of course, Sir Geoffrey Elton's, and it is difficult now, and for the younger Tudor historians almost impossible, to appreciate the dominance that he and his famous postgraduate seminar at the University of Cambridge had over Tudor studies at that time. Scarisbrick's book came as a breath of fresh air, and in the process it changed the face of Tudor history.

Thus the fact that in my view he got Wolsey's foreign policy wrong does not matter at all for me. The great feature of Scarisbrick's book is its intelligence and openness - qualities, not surprisingly, also to be found in the man. To find out these things, read the book.

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