Although both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I mounted huge propaganda campaigns that were bought into by many later historians, it is the sad truth is that both were wastrels and neither gave a toss about the people they were leading, subjecting them to famine, warfare, beheadings (if they were lucky enough not to be tortured or burned at the stake) for shifting winds of political and religious belief, and a thorough dismantling of the social protections once provided by church and state. Both were vain, tyrannical, and monstrously selfish as well as being ever on the lookout for usurpers. "Being of royal blood was a very mixed blessing in the England of the sixteenth century," writes Meyer; "the tenuousness of the Tudors' claim to the throne inclined them to see kinsmen as potential threats."
Henry was beyond reprehensible, building palace after palace while the people were starving and coming up with a convenient little concept called "the divine right of kings" that let him do anything he damn well pleased, everyone who disagreed be damned (literally).
|Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I attributed to George Gower|
Meyer is also the author of a book about the Borgias (The Borgias: The Hidden History), who have gotten a lot of play recently because of the lavish Showtime series about them. (I'm personally looking forward to Sarah Dunant's new historical novel Blood and Beauty, focusing on Cesare and Lucrezia). Here's the beginning of his background chapter on the Renaissance papacy.
What is called the Renaissance papacy will stink in the nostrils of history to the end of time. Its story is a litany of violence and deceit, of greed and pride and murderous ambition — finally of a corruption that reached such depths as to defy belief. It is an embarrassment to every Catholic who knows about it, a gift to anyone wanting to believe that the Catholic Church is really the Whore of Babylon.
However, it had essentially nothing to do with Henry VIII's destruction of the old church. Tudor England was too far away to be much affected by or even very aware of it, ancJ in any case the worst was already over when Henry came to the throne. By the time he was killing the likes of John Fisher and launching his attack on the monasteries, a new era of reform was dawning in Rome itself.
The papacy had touched bottom when Henry was a child, during the dozen years when the Spaniard Rodrigo Borgia ruled as Pope Alexander VI. A man so vile that when he died in 1503 the priests of St. Peter's Basilica refused to bury him, Alexander had begun his career as the nephew of an earlier Borgia pope thanks to whom he became a bishop, a cardinal, and finally vice-chancellor of the whole church…. Once he was pope himself, Alexander devoted his reign to advancing the fortunes of the favorites among his numerous bastard children, the most notorious of whom were his son Cesare (a ruthless adventurer who became archbishop of Valencia at age seventeen, and for whom Machiavelli wrote The Prince) and his oft-married daughter Lucrezia.
[Above: alleged portrait of Lucrezia in 'The Dispute of St Catherine' fresco by Pinturicchio in the 'Borgia apartment' of the Vatican.]