Henry VIII “subjugated” by female historians paying attention to wives

// 31 March 2009

henry.gifHistorian David Starkey is upset that Henry VIII isn’t getting enough attention.

Because I clearly didn’t concentrate all that much in history classes, and haven’t been watching the Tudors, I couldn’t actually tell you why Henry VIII is so signficiant. I mean, I remember he had lots of wives, and that I was taught all about him multiple times during my school career.

Probably the same is true of many people who’ve been through the British English school system, which, if it drums home anything at all about UK history, it’s Henry the bloody VIII and World War II.

Yet this is not enough for Starkey, reports the Telegraph. The fact that several female historians have begun to sketch out the characters and role of Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleaves, Katheryn Howard and Katherine Parr has driven him to distraction, and, more to the point, to create a whole series on Channel 4 putting the emphasis back where it belongs: on the white man in the big chair.

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

I think that this can only be considered “bizarre” if you hold on to a very old-fashioned view of what’s “important” in examining history. Is historical importance only determined by “who was most powerful at a particular time and place and what they did”, or is it about what we can learn about the entire society, including those who were not considered powerful or significant at the time. Actually, the extention of historical interest to the women he was married to is still very inadequate.

“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.”

That said, it’s interesting how dismissive Starkey is about efforts to turn the historical lense on these women and the motivations for that. Maybe women actually want to read about the lives of these women so they can learn about what women’s lives were like in the 16th century, when women’s history has been systematically discarded by historians.

And, of course, there’s the implication that female historians writing for a female audience can’t possibly be legitimately concentrating on material of ‘historical significance’. Later on the Telegraph quotes Starkey admonishes historians for concentrating on the “soap opera” of Henry VIII’s personal life (of course, that “soap opera” included the introduction of divorce to England).

He said that in his new series, Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant, “we’re trying to say, ‘Hang on a minute, Henry is centre stage.’

“This is Henry – wives appear simply to explain or complicate the story of Henry. This is his development, his psychology and, above all, why he matters.”

Those women should really learn their place, in other words.

Actually, when historians write about “Henry’s wives” it’s hardly radical. These women are still only being written about, it seems to me, because of their relationship to a man in power.

Talking to The Daily Telegraph, Dr Starkey said that while writing about Henry VIII, “even I fell into the trap of subjugating the history of Henry … to that of his wives”.

Because it’s entirely appropriate to say that Henry VIII has been “subjugated” by historians beginning to pay attention to anyone other than the Big King in Centre Stage.

Dr Starkey went further, by saying that modern attempts to paint many women in history as “power players” was to falsify the facts.

He said: “If you are to do a proper history of Europe before the last five minutes, it is a history of white males because they were the power players, and to pretend anything else is to falsify.”

Like I said earlier, for decades hasn’t it been a bit old fashioned to view history as stories “what happened to the Kings and Queens of Europe”? Maybe we need to write about people not on the basis of whether or not they were “power players” but because they’re interesting or have something to tell us about the society they lived in. Women don’t have to have been in powerful positions at the time to make their stories worth telling.


For example, while he considered Elizabeth I to be a great monarch, “the way she is presented as some sort of female icon is ludicrous”.

During Victorian times her conduct was regarded as “perfectly deplorable”, he added.

So, even when a woman was actually the Queen, it’s a bit silly for historians to pay attention to her? Hmmm, I smell a rat.

Dr Starkey insisted: “I’m not joining forces with Fathers for Justice, it is simply saying that our new world has its own set of prejudices, its set of distinctive lenses, and we need to be aware of them.”

Erm, well. That would be the lense of not thinking the only people of interest or worthy of comment are white rich European men, he’s complaining about there.

He also stressed his comments were not a “value statement” about how he thought the world should be, but argued: “It is a great impertinence to impose our values on the past. It instantly reduces the people of the past from real people to mere straw men and women in our struggles.”

It strikes me that “writing a book about someone other than a white European king” isn’t the same thing as imposing “our values” onto the past. Also, I think the implication that Starkey’s perspective is somehow *more objective* because he’s focusing on Henry VIII is actually false, too.

Earlier this month Dr Starkey said he believed Henry VIII’s handwriting showed he had an “emotionally incontinent” personality because he was brought up in a female-dominated household.

And, there we have it. Starkey imposing his own values (the idea that living in a female-dominated household causes “emotional incontinence”) on the past. So it’s OK when Starkey does it, but ridiculous and a silly distraction when anyone else does? Right. Sure you’re not joining F4J, David?!

(H/T helen_nicola)

Comments From You

Laura // Posted 31 March 2009 at 4:44 pm

Great take down, Jess. What a dick.

NorthernJess // Posted 31 March 2009 at 5:13 pm

Henry VIII did not introduce divorce to this country, he forced his first wife into a divorce she did not want in order to marry his second, because his first wife was getting too old to bare more children and he ‘needed’ a son. He beheaded two of his wives because they reportedly had lovers, even though he had at least two children out of wedlock (one with his second wife’s sister), he took away what at the time was one of women’s only way of gaining free eductaion, health service and a retirement plan, and some form of power by desoloving all nunneries and abbeys and divorced a wife who he had previously never seen before the wedding because she was too unattractive. The guy was a ‘man of his time’ (ie an ignorant misogynist). This period in history is worthy of study, if only for the major social and political changes happening within it. The entire concept of Church and it’s role in England was altered and all we can remember is divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived! I don’t think that Henry’s wives themselves are worthy as as much attention as they recieve by historians, his family however were amazing- people, I am telling you read up on Lady Margaret Beaufort, HenryVIII’s grandmother, who practically invented adminstration and double-entry bookkeeping and sponsered colleges at Oxbridge (which for the time was a GOOD thing!) and Henry VIII’s sisters, Margaret of Scotland and Mary of France, who led amazing lives and were truly inspirational female leaders. And what about Ferdinand and Isabella, Henry’s mother and father in law, who united Spain, and their daughter, known as Joanna the Mad, who was massively betreyed by both her husband and father but refused to give up her mother’s kingdom to finance her father’s wars…there are so many stories from history that should be serving as a warning about how even women of supposedly great power were treated and regarded by men. Why is it in any way a bad thing for women to want to read about and take inspiration from great female leaders who stood on there own two feet and made a massive impression on the world around them at a time when so many other women were being persecuted because they were women like Elizabeth I? (albiet through allowing murder through piracy and religious persecution, which I am in no way condoning). Male historians clearly want to write about their role models, ignorant, selfish greedy misogynists. Fine. Compare and contrast, thats all I can say.

George // Posted 31 March 2009 at 5:44 pm


“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.”

You know what? Women academics have spent a large amount of painful time and effort trying to make sexist departments take their work seriously, and comments like this do nobody any favours.

Oh no, sorry, I forgot, all women academics want to write about the history of wedding planning or the philosophy of choosing shoes.

“If you are to do a proper history of Europe before the last five minutes, it is a history of white males because they were the power players, and to pretend anything else is to falsify.”

So, we pay attention to ‘power players’, and that is it? Of course, the only stuff that *really* happens occurs in men-only corridors of power (… … other than all the other day-to-day stuff that people actually encounter in their lives.)

Sarcasm aside, this approach could either means two things:

1) We only pay attention to white men with power, and thus are jiggered if we want to explain, say, um, The Peasant’s Revolt.

2) All white men have all power. Nobody else has ever had any at all. We just made Elizabeth I up.

Mind you, I don’t know why I’m even bothering to argue with his historiography – it’s blatantly obsolete.

“Earlier this month Dr Starkey said he believed Henry VIII’s handwriting showed he had an “emotionally incontinent” personality because he was brought up in a female-dominated household.”

Oh RIGHT! He’s just a misogynist! And one that believes in graphology! That sorted that one out, then.

Anne Onne // Posted 31 March 2009 at 6:54 pm

Wow, yes, history has so far been all 99% about how rich white men affected everyone’s lives, and now people are having the temerity to examine the contributions and roles of their partners? The nerve! How dare women (or men) want to examine the effect women had on history indirectly or directly,

I don’t think enough focus is placed on the people behind the scenes: the spouses, the servants, all the people who add up to who those considered history have been.

“If you are to do a proper history of Europe before the last five minutes, it is a history of white males because they were the power players, and to pretend anything else is to falsify.” Because of course nobody else existed in the whole of history but white men. How naive we must all have been for thinking that there were women and servants and peasants and all sorts of people contributing to the wealth of those overrated windbags so they could continue to invade countries or mess around or whatever it was they did.

You know, plenty of these non-kings left records of their lives, too. And even those that didn’t, did exist. Their lives are no less important because they didn’t rule a country: their lives represent the real exerience of the people of their day.

There are no records of my ancestors that I’m aware of, but they existed no less than the Tudors or the Plantagenets or Stuarts or all the other rich families. People’s effects, people’s esperiences,and what we can learn about them, are so much more than the ‘big players’. It’s like saying that if history programmes covered today’s world, they should only focus in ‘celebrities’ or the top politicians because they are all that matter. They clearly are not- many people make a difference, and all of our experiences matter. Why therefore does the argument stand in terms of history? Because a bunch of privileged white men rather like the idea of concentrating history even more tightly on people just like them. As if they didn’t have enough power. Sorry, it’s bad enough they controlled so much power, I’m not letting them have all the voices.

Henry VIII ended up creating the Church of England via breaking with the pope over wanting to divorce his first wife, so changing a good deal about religion as most people in the UK know it. Much as though I think he’s overrated and harped on a lot (Were there no other kings or queens with less sensationalist stories who contributed to history?) he, and the people around him, and the historical context are worth examining. Yes, people in history, even the literature of the past, are very much products of the past. That means we must understand that values were very different, and how they differed. But it also means we shouldn’t give them a free pass: if their behaviour was cruel, it was cruel, regardless of the conventions at the time.

Since he’s been covered quite extensively, it’s time the women got some play. They’re the reason he’s famous, after all.

Jennifer Drew // Posted 31 March 2009 at 7:03 pm

Excellent critique Jess of David Starkey’s misogynistic and white male supremacist claims. Starky’s claim that Elizabeth I’s conduct was ‘during Victorian times her conduct was regarded as “perfectly deplorable” shows that Victorian male historians imposed their sexual double standards on Elizabeth I. Studying Victorian society which means both women and men informs us how male-dominant ideas of female morality were used to depict Elizabeth I’s actions as “perfectly deplorable.”

A number of Henry VIII’s wives are still depicted as ‘sl…..’ whilst Henry VIII’s rampant promiscuity and belief women existed solely for him to sexually use and discard is not even critiqued because such male behaviour is ‘normal’ (sic).

History is not all about white, powerful male political leaders it is about how social systems operate and how gender is enforced and maintained- ergo male definitions of what supposedly constitutes history always focused solely on men’s lives. Feminist historians have worked tirelessly to erase a one-sided male-biased interpretation of social history and instead promote a definition of history which encompasses studying both women’s and men’s lives.

Henry VIII product of a female-dominated household!! Starky this just shows your credentials are sadly lacking with regards to claiming you are a Historian.

Henry VIII’s wives are important because each woman did not meekly submit to male supremacy but attempted to retain their autonomy within a male-dominant and female oppressive society. These women were not cardboard cut outs whose sole reason we remember them is because they married Henry VIII. Anne of Cleves for example, was not a stupid woman but all we remember is that she was supposedly ‘ugly’ which is why Henry VIII supposedly divorced her. History is always more complicated than male-defined interpretations, because ignoring women’s lives means half the human population supposedly does not exist!

Jess McCabe // Posted 31 March 2009 at 8:21 pm

@Anne Onne I think that’s a really good point about our individual histories. There’s a good reason that people are increasingly interested in researching their own families – because it tells a relevant story about the past and our connection to it, how the past shaped us. And it’s about ordinary people.

In many ways, chosing to focus on the king or queen tells a story which is almost entirely irrelevant to what most people experienced. They could have a massive impact, because so much power was left in their hands, but that doesn’t mean they were more important than anyone else…

Amy2 // Posted 31 March 2009 at 8:46 pm

How about female historians write about what they want, for an audience interested; and prats like this focus on bigging up dick- swinging males?

Maybe such admirable historian women have things to moan about with pigs like David Starkey.

Oh everything has to adhere to the way he wants to see things! – I think he should look up what a historian is, someone contributing different viewpoints. Maybe that’s his problem, people are helping things along adding ‘her’story, doing exactly the opposite of what people for centuries have been doing – covering up anything female, making it all white and male.

Maybe another name for white male historians like him should be ‘cover -up-ians’. It’s a case of the Coverupians vs Herstorians what Starkey’s moaning about. Shame he doesn’t make these labels clearer – i’d imagine some are taking him seriously.

And why does it not surprise me the one unquestionably powerful woman who won the British Empire and seas gets labelled ‘perfectly deplorable’? :P

Misogynist privilege- huggers are remarkable. The only people who can be intelligent and yet scarily sincere in the midst of pathetic, logic- damned outbursts.

Jess McCabe // Posted 31 March 2009 at 8:57 pm

@Amy2 Really good points…

Just about Elizabeth I – sure, she was significant, but obviously her role in building the empire was a really bad thing, of course… that is pretty deplorable (although people in England at the time would mostly not have thought so, we assume)

maggie // Posted 31 March 2009 at 9:08 pm

I’ve never liked the historical figure of Henry VIII. The man paid no respect to the women in his life and well, that was all the evidence I needed.

Great post and views.

Amy2 // Posted 31 March 2009 at 9:16 pm

Jess, i just meant it was obviously indicative of power, her actions which led to it – and a lot of people can’t hack her as being a woman who made that amount of difference. The Elizabethans loved her, despite being a sexist society, readily accepting her in a true seat of power. The Victorians once she was gone, and David Starkey obviously weren’t too keen.

With you on the Empire being horrible though! Historians like Starkey are big fans, and please forgive me if i sounded like him.

Lauren O // Posted 31 March 2009 at 10:43 pm

This is what I learned about Henry VIII in school (in America):

– had a lot of wives

– broke from the Catholic Church and started the Anglican Church in order to get more power and money (and, ostensibly, a divorce)

This is what I learned about his wives:

– there were a lot of them

– some of them got beheaded

Yes, truly, Henry VIII’s legacy was subjugated. A travesty, that.

By the way, I watched the first season of the Tudors recently, and if that’s any clue as to how we view that period of history, we are MUCH more interested in Henry’s personal frustrations and sexual intrigue than we are with any of the women he was married to.

Karen // Posted 31 March 2009 at 11:19 pm

Just a light hearted comment here, I am not well-informed enough about the ins and outs of history to add much here because I only got the official male version at school but I always remember that Henry’s description of Anne of Cleves was “a fat flanders mare”. There were no mirrors in Tudor times then? That remark has stuck with me as a judgement on a woman who he probably couldn’t otherwise fault so had to use the usual line of enquiry i.e looks. What about Joan of Arc for a powerful, inspiring, influential woman? Or Amy Johnson? Or Marie Curie? Aren’t these important historical ladies? We are more often viewed as hysterical than historical!

polly styrene // Posted 1 April 2009 at 8:04 am

During victorian times it was acceptable to rape children and beat your wife. Does David Starkey agree with them on that as well?

Surely the real problem here, though, is the way history focusses on the (male, white) ruling classes.

mary // Posted 1 April 2009 at 11:34 am

Oh bless.

It’s hardly like women started the trend of doing historical research which didn’t focus on the “power players”. E.P.Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class was published in 1963. It’s kind of impressive to be clinging to an ideal of historical research which is nearly 50 years out of date.

Jo // Posted 1 April 2009 at 11:57 am

Oh riiight, I get it now. We should only focus on the white male power players. I now understand – thanks to misogynist history 101 with Starkey – that they were certainly the only ones with any agency, everyone else was a mere subject, incapable of any action.

There I was, thinking that individual life histories (*even* those of women) had a phenomenally important role to play in our understanding of how past dynamics of power and oppression influence today’s society.

Did Starkey miss that one, or does he realise it, and that’s what he’s afraid of..?


Madeleine // Posted 1 April 2009 at 4:40 pm

Geez, poor ol’ Henry being brought up in a female-dominated household! No wonder he wanted to wreak revenge by divorcing or chopping off the heads of all those ladies.

And Dr Dave believes in graphology? Great science, great logic! I’m so impressed.

I get really tired of the way people like Starkey continually focus on aggressive white male historical figures and ignore or belittle any others. They made a lot of noise, but history is NOT all about them and I am sick of hearing about them.

RadFemHedonist // Posted 1 April 2009 at 4:54 pm

I just want to say there have been lots of really good comments, and that Starkey is a prat. Also, the history lessons we get have been heterosexual and cisgender dominated in addition to being white and male dominated, and able-body privileging too, I would futher argue that religious figures are privileged over those with atheistic and secular humanist-feminist views.

Jam // Posted 1 April 2009 at 5:12 pm

Thanks for a great post! I have long had arguments with my boyfriend about pretty much exactly this: as an avid history buff, he really struggles to understand why I am so turned off by most things ‘historical’, whether it’s in books, on television or whatever. I feel really strongly that my disinterest is a direct result of how I was taught history in school – all I can really remember is stories of powerful white men fighting each other, which I really struggled to relate to (as a feminist pacifist…!) If we were spending a term looking at a specific time period, whether it was the Tudors or WW1, then what I seem to remember usually happened was that we would have one lesson dedicated to the lives of women during that period, and then having got that out the way, the rest of the term would focus on the men in power at the time. No wonder then that I dropped history at the first possible opportunity and studied religion instead – which included ample opportunity to discuss the roles of women and various gender issues I could really identify with.

David Starkey clearly can’t see any problem with this – presumably the serious facts of history aren’t something for us girls to worry our pretty heads about anyway…! I haven’t watched or read pretty much anything about Henry and his wives (as I instinctively avoid history programmes for the reasons stated above), so can’t say for certain if there has been a shift towards the study of his wives and their experiences, characters and impact. However, even if there has, there is no way this is doing anything even close to redressing the balance. My experiences of the way most history is taught is that it completely reinforces the idea that men are more important, that they are naturally the ones in power, that women are passive by nature and that there is no worth at all found in studying anything that is traditionally viewed as women’s work – keeping homes, raising families, etc.

Clearly the way Starkey and his ilk would like to keep it!

Alice Dale // Posted 1 April 2009 at 5:48 pm

I’m assuming Dr. Starkey is willfully ignoring the fact that Catherine of Aragon was a much admired regent while Henry VIII was off fighting in France? She ran the country while he was showing Francis I what a big sword he had … I can’t imagine why that should be considered important. At all.

depresso // Posted 2 April 2009 at 1:58 am

British school system?

In 1509, I do believe the king was James IV.

Please remember that British and English aren’t wholly interchangable. Thanks.

Anna // Posted 2 April 2009 at 4:29 am

But… Starky… book…


Rachel // Posted 2 April 2009 at 8:35 am

It amazed me (perhaps I was naive!) when I started doing research in a university history faculty quite how much resistance there still is to history that doesn’t just concentrate on important white men. I wrote my MPhil thesis on gender history and literally spent 2 years justifying myself to most of my peers and the academics in the department.

Jess McCabe // Posted 2 April 2009 at 9:09 am

@depresso Erm, good point! I’ve changed it in the post…

maggie // Posted 2 April 2009 at 10:07 am

This is being discussed on women’s hour now….

Anne Onne // Posted 2 April 2009 at 10:48 am

@ Rachel: I know. Before this post I knew that (just like everything else), history and its research was biased in the favour of rich white men, but it’s still odd to see it so blatantly defended as being the only approach. As if nobody else existed.

Mind you, I had mostly female history teachers and my only male history teacher was gay, and we did concentrate on the effects of history on the lives of the populace. There has been a lot more emphasis on the less powerful people in history than there used to be, so I didn’t realise that some historians were still so obsessed with just focusing just on rich white heterosexual men. Proof, as ever, that we still have a way to go before equality.

If we had equality, he wouldn’t be defending the past and insisting we just focus on what the Big Men did, he’d be sad, as a historian, that the stories of so many people were silenced or lost. A historian should have a love of knowledge about people in all their complexity, not just an obsession with celebrity and prestige. Has he tried writing for Hello! yet?

VinegarSpirit // Posted 2 April 2009 at 1:41 pm

Mind you, I had mostly female history teachers and my only male history teacher was gay, and we did concentrate on the effects of history on the lives of the populace. There has been a lot more emphasis on the less powerful people in history than there used to be, so I didn’t realise that some historians were still so obsessed with just focusing just on rich white heterosexual men. Proof, as ever, that we still have a way to go before equality.

Sorry, but I’m a little uncomfortable with the implication that because a man is gay he is more likely to be interested in women’s issues/an ally. It seems to be based on stereotyping of gay men as somehow more like women than ‘real’ men, and hence more sensitive towards them.

David Starkey himself is famously and openly gay, and still makes misogynistic statements.

Anne Onne // Posted 2 April 2009 at 3:24 pm

Sorry, that’s not what I meant. I didn’t mean to imply that my gay teacher was interested in women’s history because he was gay* and that being a gay man makes someone empathetically in tune with women, a trope that perfectly explains why misogyny and homophobia are interlinked.

I was trying to say that I was fortunate enough to have teachers who were focused on being inclusive of the history of those who weren’t rich white heterosexual men.

I mentioned that my teachers were all women and gay men because this sometimes gave a very personal dimension to how they addressed certain issues, and the need to address the history of everyone because they were themselves marginalised, something the teacher in question actually brought up in class. I meant to refer my experience of lessons with these particular teachers, rather than a big sweeping statement about women or gay men in general.

The teachers I had made history enjoyable and did not marginalise the impact of the non ‘power players’ in history, and made me think that history could be more than stories about kings.

No generalisations were intended, but I can see, reading back over my comment, that the wording is very vague, so thank you for pointing it out. I wouldn’t want to propagate that trope wittingly or unwittingly.

It is of course perfectly possible to be a woman and against women’s rights, or LGBTQI and be against women’s rights, or female and be homophobic, despite different minorities having much in common, the kyriarchy does an excellent job of playing us against each other. We certainly could be natural allies to each other, but plenty of people find it easy to ignore what’s not happening to them, so we’re can only allies if we work at it.

* Though he happened to be a kickass PSHE teacher, incidentally, and kind of all-round cool. Looking back I’m happy to say I’ve had some amazing, equality-supporting teachers. I wish I could pay them back for their hard work.

depresso // Posted 2 April 2009 at 5:35 pm

Thanks Jess!

maggie // Posted 2 April 2009 at 6:37 pm

In Joan Smith’s book ‘Misogynies’, there is an excellent chapter on crusty ‘Oxford Don’ women hater types (with the inference being that they are closet gays).

Womens hour had Kate Williams and Julian Swan discussing Richard Starkey’s comments.

Kate Williams mentioned that the emphasis now was to vere away from ‘top down’ i.e. those who had the power and look at history from the ‘bottom up’ perspective as Anne Onne pointed out earlier.

MariaS // Posted 4 April 2009 at 5:41 pm

A new magazine of women’s history:


Clare // Posted 4 April 2009 at 10:19 pm

I learned about Henry VIII in my high school in Wales where we took Welsh exam boards so, to be fair, this isn’t just in the English school system.

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