A very long time ago – about, say, five or six centuries – the kings of England did not just reign, they ruled, and their subjects owed fealty to them personally. Then you could still sensibly speak of an absolute monarchy, as was certainly the case in France, and the rule of law was an idea whose time had not yet come. That was the case – more or less – with Henry VIII.
Donald Trump thinks that it should be the case for him – and he behaves as if it is. He is about half a millennium out of date, as are those despotic regimes, like Russia and Saudi Arabia, which Trump most admires.
His gross appearance, his blustering demeanour, his vulgarity, his arrogance, his sensuality, his cruelty, his hypocrisy, his want of common decency, are marked in strong lines.
Every word applies to Donald Trump, but it was written by a famous English critic (Hazlitt) about Henry VIII as seen by Shakespeare in the play of that name – and his Harry might be thought to be mild compared to the historical king. The play ends with the birth of the future Queen Elizabeth and before King Henry VIII became a retail terminator of his wives and first ministers.
Both Trump and Henry are – I will use the present tense for both – blustering, arrogant, sensual, cruel, hypocritical and lacking common decency. The essential thing about them is that each of them is so full of himself that there is no room for anyone else. Being a courtier to either is therefore tricky. No courtier, no matter how high, ever knows when his time might be up. The Prologue speaks of great people followed by a thousand friends –
…….Then in a moment, see
How soon this mightiness meets misery….(29-30)
Before looking at what Trump may have in common with Henry VIII – both in history and on the stage – we should notice some differences. Henry is intelligent, religious and intent on doing the right thing by the country he rules. None of that is true for Trump. He is a stupid man with no room in his ego for God or his nation. Sir Geoffrey Elton said that Henry was ‘intelligent, a capable musician, quite well-seen in theology, a patron of the arts and learning’ and that ‘foreign ambassadors as well as his own subjects praised him to the skies.’ How very different is Trump. But Elton also said:
Of all Henry VIII’s follies none cost his country dearer than his illusion that he was an old and experienced king who knew his business and needed no one to do it for him.
That’s Trump to his toe nails.
There are other differences. Young Harry was very well educated. Young Donald was not. Henry was fluent in four languages. Trump has trouble putting a sentence together in one. You would have as much chance of getting a definition of ‘subject’ and ‘predicate’ from Trump as you would of seeing his school report cards.
King Henry disrupted the body politic in order to give the nation a secure heir to the throne. That was his duty. President Trump disrupted the body politic in order to secure places for his family. That was a breach of his duty, and this vulgar family intrusion continues to generate conflicts of interest that would be laughable if they were not so gross.
What then do they have in common?
Each of the King and the President is a monument to the wisdom of the admonition ‘Put not your trust in princes’ (Psalm, 146:3). Indeed, one of Harry’s principal victims (Cardinal Wolsey) echoed just those words:
…..O, how wretched
Is that poor man that hangs on princes’ favours!
There is betwixt that smile we would aspire to,
That sweet aspect of princes and their ruin,
More pangs and fears that wars or women have.
And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer,
Never to hope again. (III, ii, 366-372)
A strong leader does not have to claim the authoritarian powers of Stalin or Hitler before he reduces his senior advisers to nervous wrecks who look like menials – and whose consequent apparent weakness makes them only a more likely target. They are made to look and feel servile. Trump and Harry have this in common with dogs – they can sense fear and this arouses them. They pleasure themselves by exploiting fear in others. For each of them, it is a double hit of showing off his power. They live to put people down and this means that neither has the mettle of a leader.
On this ground, too, neither has a sense of humour. That is one way that the rest of us oil our humanity, but for each of these man-eaters, a joke is just a badly disguised kick to the groin.
The play Henry VIII sees the fall of three eminent persons – the Duke of Buckingham, Queen Katherine, and Cardinal Wolsey – all engineered by the King. We also have a putsch against Archbishop Cranmer that is scotched by the King (and what high theatre we have there). The later execution of Anne Boleyn was little more than judicial murder. Whether it was more cruel than the casting off of Queen Katherine is a question on which reasonable minds may differ. The first minister, Cromwell, the prime author of the legislation giving effect to the Reformation in England, would also fall. And if he fell like Lucifer, the fall was also far more terminal – what Buckingham refers to as ‘the long divorce of steel.’ Wolsey escaped the axe; Cromwell and More did not. Some of Henry’s victims suffered death, but the list of Trump’s victims is so much longer – and in a much shorter time.
And yet, at least in the play, they all go quietly in the end. As did most victims of Stalin. The lethal reputation of the ruler induces a kind of resignation and acceptance.
This looks to be the case with the victims of Trump. With the exception of James Comey, of the FBI, most went quietly to their end, although as often as not that end was pronounced in the most cowardly and vulgar manner.
Henry VIII appears to be as much a bully as Trump is. The flip side of the bully is the coward. Harry fancies himself as a latterday medieval man of steel. Medieval kings had to rule in a personal way that does not apply to current presidents – at least outside of world war. The cowardice of Trump is notorious – from his evasion of military service, to his refusal to show his tax returns, to his cringing before real despots – but at least in one respect Harry shares that cowardice. In his recent biography Thomas Cromwell, A Life, Diarmaid MacCulloch says that Henry is ‘a thorough coward’ when it comes to ‘personal confrontations.’ Trump always gets a minion – like a demeaned three star general – to deliver the pink slip, and he could not bring himself to listen to the tape of the murder of a journalist – before he went ahead to acquit the murderer.
Although Henry is far more intelligent than Trump, we get the impression that both could be unduly swayed by the last person either spoke to. That disability is nigh on terminal for a judge, but it also creates disharmony in the court of a ruler. Courtiers suspected that both Wolsey and Cromwell had got to a position of dominance with King Henry.
He dives into the King’s soul, and there scatters
Dangers, doubts, wringing of the conscience,
Fears and despairs. (II, ii, 26-28)
That is precisely what we could have heard from some in the White House when Mr Bannon was closeted alone with the President, or when Mr Kushner gets to be so now. Both those gentlemen have the misfortune to look to be at their most dangerous when they look to be doing nothing. (It is hard to imagine anyone showing outright blankness in the way Mr Kushner does. Is anyone ever at home?)
Both rulers are relentlessly insensitive. Eleven days after Anne Boleyn’s execution, Henry VIII married Jane Seymour. It was rumoured that he was pleasuring himself at the moment of her decapitation, but Harry has a capacity for self-deception – delusion – quite equal to that of Trump. As he saw it, this marriage – his third – was his first proper one. On the day of the execution of Cromwell, Henry diverted himself by marrying Katherine Howard. Perhaps intercourse eases decapitation. Both Henry and Trump have an alarming capacity to violate basic decency.
Some may think it is hard to accuse Trump of hypocrisy. If you don’t believe anything, what is there that you can betray? But with our Harry, Shakespeare lays it on with a shovel. The middle aged man who is about to trade in his middle aged wife for a new model fairly wallows in his own moonshine.
O, my lord,
Would it not grieve an able man to leave
So sweet a bedfellow? But, conscience, conscience!
O, ‘tis a tender place, and I must leave her. (II, ii, 140-143)
Each ruler fairly glows with any praise. MacCulloch says that ‘Henry always showed a touching confidence in other people’s admiration of his abilities as a ruler, and the prospect of anyone in mainland Europe expressing unalloyed support for his marital troubles was additionally thrilling.’ For Harry to get sympathy in Europe for his penchant for divorce would be like Trump getting support in Europe for his soft spot for coal.
Each is very touchy and easily kindled to incandescent rage and a lust for revenge. Each is a born hater. ‘Anne was now victim of Henry’s ability to turn deep affection into deep hatred, and then to believe any old nonsense to reinforce his new point of view.’
That is vintage Trump. The original attraction may well have been affected, although the felt need to live in the present could make a sucker of both rulers; but the later loathing was sincerity itself. Indeed, both claim to have been let down so badly so often that they must concede that they cannot pick the right people to have with them. That is not a good result for a ruler.
Because neither can be trusted and each rules by fear, their court is a deeply unhappy place. One of Harry’s courtiers laments ‘he will never give credit against you, whatsoever is laid to your charge; but let me or any other of the Council be complained of, his Grace will most seriously chide and fall out with us’ It is notorious that loyalty flows in only one direction for Trump, but this Tudor cri de coeur leads MacCulloch to comment that ‘the leading men at Court eyed one another and judged the moment to plant a negative thought in the mind of their terrifyingly unpredictable royal master.’
It is hard to think of a better description of what goes on in the White House – except that things are much, much worse there because of the close involvement of the members of the family of the ruler, none of whom knows what to do. What you get is courtiers looking at each other with what Keats called ‘wild surmise.’
In truth, it is downright dangerous to walk into either court. Three different fates might await you. You might get it wrong, in which case a mere firing is an act of mercy. Or you may have to take a hit for the ruler because it is universally acknowledged that he can do no wrong. Or worse, you may put part of his gleam in the shade in which case you are really for it.
The Oxford History of England says that King Henry VIII was a ‘great king’. Their criteria for greatness may be a bit wobbly, since they also say:
Henry VIII was brutal, crafty, selfish, and ungenerous….and as the years passed, what there was in him of magnanimity was eaten up by his all-devouring egoism. His triumphant ride through life carried him unheeding over the bodies of his broken servants, and though he had an outward affability for use at will, he was faux bonhomme.
There again is Donald Trump á la lettre. David Hume said that Henry may have been great but not good, and that ‘every one dreaded a contest with a man who was known never to yield or to forgive, and who, in every controversy, was determined to ruin either himself or his antagonist.’
Courtiers are companions and councillors. Both suffer under each of the king and the president. ‘This enormous man was the nightmare of his advisers. Once a scheme was fixed in his mind he could seldom be turned from it; resistance only made him more stubborn; and once embarked, he always tended to go too far unless restrained….The only secret of managing him, both Wolsey and Cromwell disclosed after they had fallen, was to see that dangerous ideas were not permitted to reach him.’ Churchill said that of King Henry; Bob Woodward said much the same of President Trump.
It is remarkable how many good lives and careers have been ruined when people have strayed into the court of this king or this president. They seem to taint all whom they touch. So many were crooked before they entered the orbit of Trump that for some time now he has had trouble attracting decent people. Time spent with Trump does not look good on your C V now – how bad might it look in a few years’ time?
We had need pray,
And heartily, for our deliverance,
Or this imperious man will work us all
From princes into pages. All men’s honours,
Lie like one lump before him, to be fashioned
Into what pitch he pleases. (II, ii, 44-49)
Now let us see another difference. Trump has no time or respect for the Constitution or its organs. It would be silly to say he might leave a good legacy. The future is not his shtick.
There was next to nothing about religion in the Reformation in England. It was all about politics and England was much better off politically for getting its version of Home Rule. And because King Henry chose to split with Rome by acts of Parliament – mere royal fiats would not have done the job – its status was greatly advanced. We were on our way to the sovereignty of Parliament and the rule of law – and the colonies that would become the United States would be prime beneficiaries of this ascent.
Now may we end with something else that President Trump and King Henry VIII have in common? For some of us, hardly a day goes by with Donald Trump when we are not reminded of the deathless words of a Boston attorney named Joseph Welch who, after another outrage committed by Senator McCarthy, asked: ‘Have you no sense of decency, Sir, at long last?’ Nowhere is that want of decency more on show in this king and in this president than in their hunt for skirt and in their complete lack of judgment in how to go about it.
Well, at least the Tudors did not have to put up with wall-to-wall and coast to coast centrefolds, and the women allotted to King Henry were alleged to have some form of pedigree if not some kind of mind. These things are sadly different now in this uncomely Playboy swamp in the New World.