Wednesday, July 28, 2010


I've been reading a lot of historical fiction lately. I picked up The Other Boleyn Girl last summer and finally got around to reading it this summer. Once I started it, I really couldn't put it down. It's the story of King Henry VIII and his decision to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn (one of his many mistresses,) and his ultimate decision to have her beheaded. It's well written and compelling. Even though I knew what the ending would be, I still wanted to find out what happened next.

I've gone on to read two more of the author's novels depicting the life and wives of Henry and have another sitting on my bedside table. They are an interesting read on the role of women in the culture and make one grateful to be a woman now as opposed to then - jewels and castles notwithstanding. Ultimately, women were chattel, which I knew intellectually but I had never really thought about 'being property' in daily terms - what they would be required to do to serve the men who owned them, whether that be their fathers, brothers, uncles or husbands. It's sobering, to say the least.

Henry, as Monarch, had ultimate authority. There was no one above him - particularly after he made the decision to split from the Catholic church and papal authority. He declared himself head of the Church of England, as he was head of the government of England. He answered to no one which made him, of course, an extremely dangerous man. Dangerous to oppose, dangerous to disappoint.

While I would like to believe that Henry was exceptional and historians certainly allude to his prowess in many arenas (and certainly he was exceptionally self-involved and ultimately insane) I suspect that, truth be told, he was rather common. He was a man who believed that he could put himself above the rules - that the rules simply didn't apply to him. That attitude is not unlike the attitude we still see today. Men and women, boys and girls, all making the determination that they want what they want and they have every right to go after it, no matter who they trample on the way. Whether the "rules" are social codes, laws, moral precepts, or even simply promises or oaths one has taken, many seem to believe that those things are for others - not them.

We cannot turn on the news, pick up a newspaper, or access the internet without seeing evidence of this behavior everywhere. Celebrities, politicians, church leaders, common people - no group seems safe from this incredible sense of our own 'exceptionality.' But the lesson we can learn from Henry and his decisions is that no matter how powerful we are, ultimately our choices always have consequences. And though we may escape them for awhile, sooner or later they do catch up with us.

On the brighter side, I also have Monarchs in my garden. They come in the morning to visit my zinnias while I sit on the deck drinking my coffee. They've been keeping me company while I read about, and contemplate, the lessons of Henry.

Image of Henry -

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