Inside the Court of Henry VIII
For 250 years, the most powerful and influential nation in the world has been a western country. Specially an English-speaking western country. First it was Great Britain. Then it was the United States. Dr. Jared Diamond thinks he knows why.
While doing research in New Guinea, a local asked him why it is that western people have so much stuff while they don’t. In Diamond’s 1997 book – “Guns, Germs, and Steel” – the professor gave the impoverished native a thoughtful response.
Diamond argues that its location on the globe gave Europeans an insurmountable advantage over the other peoples of the world. Europe’s access to hearty crops, metal weaponry, and resistance to deadly diseases allowed our ancestors to kick butt and take names over the planet.
Sorry, Dr. Diamond. I’m just not buying it.
Anglo-American government, industry, and culture is remarkable and unique. And geographical coincidence isn’t enough to explain it.
The evolution from Medieval barbarity to civilized greatness began under the tumultuous reign of Henry VIII. “Inside the Court of Henry VIII” shows us how the infamous king – by accident, not design – changed the course of English history. And the world.
Henry VIII was a paranoid, insecure leader. His father was a Welshman who came to power by defeating Richard III in battle. Henry VIII knew that his court was filled with ambitious noblemen who had a more legitimate claim to the English throne than he did. Meanwhile, Henry loved jousting, partying, and carousing a lot more than actual governing.
So the king came up with an elegant solution to his two problems. He delegated authority to educated commoners. Previous kings had run the country King Arthur-style – making important administrative decisions with guidance from trusted noblemen. Henry found the most capable men in the kingdom (Cardinal Woolsey, Thomas More, and Thomas Cromwell) and had them run the day to day affairs of England.
This set the stage for the modern way of running a country, where leaders are chosen by their merits rather than their blue blood (George W. Bush notwithstanding).
When the pope refused to give Henry VIII permission to divorce his wife so he could marry Anne Boleyn, his chief minister Thomas Cromwell came up with the clever scheme of going to Parliament to help get the king what he wanted. Up till then, Parliament had merely been there to approve tax measures. This time, Cromwell pressured them to pass a law that declared Henry the head of the Church of England.
This was the first step in establishing that the elected legislature is the real deciding force in government rather than the autocratic ruler.
Perhaps the biggest and most accidental change that happened under Henry VIII happened when the king – now the undisputed leader of the church – disbanded the Catholic monasteries.
When he took power, monasteries held 1/6 of the land in England. Henry wasn’t anti-monk, but he darn well wanted the revenue that could be made by selling their estates.
And who had the cash to get in on this land grab? Hard-working professionals and capitalists. The selling of the monasteries was a huge first step in the decline of the clergy and nobility in England and the rise of the industrious middle class.
Sorry, Dr. Diamond: the wool factories and war ships that made England a world power didn’t just spontaneously spring up because Britain is conveniently located. They were built by newly empow-ered capitalists.
And these capitalists could solidify their power and expand their industries by serving in Parliament or paying off politicians who were already there. It’s not a perfect system, but it seems to work better than all the others.
Jared Diamond is wrong. English speaking peoples don’t dominate the world because of geographical coincidence. We rule because of Henry VIII.