The new face of Tudor history

The new face of Tudor history

Being around Henry VIII proved an unhappy experience for some women. Suzannah has been happily living with the tyrannical king for two years now, with no separation being contemplated yet, writes Reg Little in The Oxford Times, May 2009.

The historian David Starkey freely admits to having become obsessed, even a little in love, with the young Henry, about whom he has written and broadcast so extensively.

Ms Lipscomb does not go quite that far, but the Tudor monarch is clearly one of those personalities, heavyweight in every sense, from whom historians struggle to break free.

“I don’t dream about him yet, but he does watch me having a bath,” she confides, hastily explaining that a poster of Henry VIII now hangs on her bathroom wall.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession to the English throne. And 30-year-old Suzannah Lipscomb is proving one of the central figures in helping both serious academics and the general public to both celebrate and take a hard new look at the monarch.

The young Oxford historian is now working as a research curator at Hampton Court, the palace forever associated with the king, where she has been responsible for organising a whole series of exhibitions being held throughout the spring and summer. The ‘Henry VIII Heads and Heart’ programme, for example, will feature a ‘Henry’s Women’ exhibition, bringing together portraits of each of the king’s wives and his daughters for the first time.

But along with putting on family treats such as a spectacular Tudor river pageant and re-enactments of Henry VIII’s marriage to Kateryn Parr, Ms Lipscomb is also staging talks, debates and a major academic conference on Henry VIII and the Tudor court.

This international event at Hampton Court is being co-hosted by the Historic Royal Palaces and Oxford Brookes University, with the speakers including Ms Lipscomb’s former Oxford University history tutor Dr Susan Brigden, the woman who first introduced her to the words “you loke for ded men’s showys”.

The research work undertaken at Hampton Court in preparation for the numerous events has also inspired her to write a book, 1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII, recently launched at Balliol College, where she is a postgraduate student.

Given the number of books published on Henry, his wives and ministers in recent years, you might imagine it must have been a daunting prospect finding anything new to say about England’s most infamous monarch.

“We are a bit like cocky adolescents when it comes to Henry VIII,” argues Miss Lipscomb, who lives in Summertown. “We all think that we know him and all about him. The Holbein portraits, the profusion of television dramas and films, the novels and histories set in his world make him ubiquitous.” She readily recalls a column written in the Observer which pointed out that if you type ‘wife killing’ into Google, the first listing is a reference to Henry VIII of wife-killing notoriety.

“At around the time I read this, I overheard two men in Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford commenting on a damaged tomb whose heads of female figurines had broken off or worn away. One said to the other, ‘Henry VIII has a lot to answer for, hasn’t he?’.”

Ms Lipscomb is the daughter of two former senior London police officers. Her mother later worked in the Home Office and has been a major figure in helping British inventors transform ideas into products, even judging the British inventor of the year competition.

History was, however, their daughter’s passion at school in Surrey before she went on to study at Lincoln College, Oxford. Even before dedicating herself to Henry VIII, she had established herself as a specialist in the travails of women in the 16th century.

The topic for the doctorate she is still to complete is ‘Maids, Wives and Wistresses: Disciplined Women in Reformation Languedoc’. It has involved her spending months in Paris and Nimes going through 500-year-old manuscripts, something of a challenge even for a fluent French speaker, you might think.

“Actually, it is the writing that’s the problem,” she says matter-of-factly.

The idea for the Henry VIII book came after working through documents related to Henry at Hampton Court.

“I spent two years discussing different approaches to Henry. The more I researched and pondered the facts, the more I was struck that so many key events in Henry’s life happened in one year, 1536. I could not believe no one had written about it before. I’m interested in the psychology of people. That’s what fascinates me.”

Whether we are talking about Henry VIII’s character, health, religion, image, reputation or legacy, she concluded it was possible to talk of Henry ‘before’ and ‘after’ 1536.

The reason for Henry’s transformation from the handsome, fun young monarch into the overweight, loathsome Bluebeard has long been one of English history’s great mysteries.

Ms Lipscomb’s argument that so much comes down to one year of tumultuous events that ultimately broke him, certainly offers a neat way to unravel it.

The year certainly began badly, with the 44-year-old Henry left unconscious for two hours after being unhorsed in a January joust, with Anne Boleyn blaming her miscarriage a few days later on the shock of hearing the news of the king’s fall.

By the time Ms Lipscomb has taken me through the stories of marital betrayal, Boleyn’s execution, the death of his illegitimate son and mass rebellion, the present Queen’s annus horribilis is beginning to seem like a jubilee year. You could end up feeling sorry for the old monster.

“I became both more sympathetic, in terms of understanding that things affected him as deeply as they did, but at the same time more convinced that he would have been a terrifying figure to have met in real life,” said Ms Lipscomb.

Interestingly, she disputes the conventional idea that Anne Boleyn lost her head for failing to produce a male heir, resulting in trumped up charges of adultery monstrously invented by Henry or Thomas Cromwell.

Instead she argues that the innocent queen was not malevolently condemned.

Her apparent guilt simply convinced the king that she deserved to die. Now we were well into the subject of his wives, it seemed a good time to introduce the subject of Henry and the ‘F word’. So how did she feel about the recent thinly-veiled attack on female historians by David Starkey, when he lambasted the “feminisation” of history?

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

The smile tightens. “I have great respect for Starkey as a historian,” said Ms Lipscomb.

“But I was surprised by that, particularly when you remember one of his previous books was Six Wives, with a television series as well.”

The fact the headline-grabbing quote came on the eve of Starkey’s new series on Henry VIII, also did not escape her, not least because at that exact time she was seeking to promote a big Henry VIII exhibition in the Tower of London.

Given her youth and obvious ability to bring the 16th century alive, you wonder whether she could yet be the historian to succeed the ubiquitous Starkey, who must be close to running out of Tudor monarchs.

Slightly better looking than David Starkey, she is not hindered by Starkey’s Oxbridge clever clogs bearing that many find off putting, as he hammers home every point with total certainty.

She certainly thinks his near monopoly on popular Tudorism is undesirable.

“He has a fine academic background. The problem with his performance is that he tends to give one line — his position. So, it sometimes feels the public is only getting one interpretation.

“My experience at Hampton Court Palace has shown me that what visitors want to know about people in the past is, above all, how they felt.

“Yet it can be difficult enough knowing what one feels oneself, let alone understanding the feelings of any person at a 500-year remove.”

She has already appeared on BBC 1’s The One Show and the History Channel. She was also on Channel Four’s Time Team special on Henry’s palaces, which she hugely enjoyed.

But it was the Bodleian Library, rather than a television studio, beckoning as she headed off into Broad Street, the next task being to write a paper on Anne Boleyn that will be delivered to many of the county’s leading Tudor historians.

One way or another, my guess is that 1536 could well prove a turning point in the career of Suzannah Lipscomb.