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1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII by Suzannah Lipscomb

Posted By Claire on September 14, 2010

1536 by Suzannah Lipscombe“1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII” is a wonderful book by historian Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, former Research Curator at Hampton Court Palace and now a lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia. I thoroughly enjoyed this book because it’s nothing like the other Henry VIII books, it looks at the events of a specific year during Henry’s reign, namely 1536, and examines the dramatic impact they had on the King.

I have always struggled with understanding Henry VIII’s psyche, and what made him change from the “virtuous prince” (as David Starkey calls him) who came to the throne in 1509 to the monster and tyrant of the late 1530s and 1540s, and Suzannah Lipscomb has a fascinating theory regarding this. She doesn’t blame Anne Boleyn, she doesn’t blame his jousting accident, she thinks that it was a combination of factors and events which came to a head in 1536. I have to agree with her, 1536 really does seem to be “the year that changed Henry VIII” and her book really offers an insight into the man we’re all desperately trying to understand. Those of you who follow my post at The Anne Boleyn Files will know how useful I found this book when I was examining whether Henry VIII was a tyrant. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in Henry VIII and the fall of Anne Boleyn, it won’t disappoint.

Here’s my rundown of the content of “1536”:-


Here, Lipscomb explains how she came to be writing the book and how she became convinced that 1536 had something to do with changing Henry VIII from the “much fêted, glorious, and fun young monarch of the 1510s and 1520s, into the overweight, suspicious, ruthless tyrant who is commonly depicted as in popular culture.

Part One – Setting the Scene


An explanation of the beliefs that underpinned Tudor England: the belief in a divinely created order, with everyone having “their place and station, the belief in God and the importance of religion, and the belief that women were inferior to men, “weaker in mind and body and more prone to sin.” Lipscomb points out that women were thought to be more lustful and “the source and cause of sexual sin”, which is interesting when we consider the fall of Anne Boleyn.

Chapter 1 – The Change

In this chapter, Lipscomb looks at the image the general public have of Henry VIII, the wife-killing “fat guy”, and compares this to the Henry of 1509 who was gifted, handsome, gentle and brilliant. She makes the point that he obviously changed and looks at the various theories regarding when he changed. Lipscomb concludes the chapter with her own theory that his change was “accelerated by the events of 1536”.

Chapter 2 – Young Henry

Here, Lipscomb considers the young Henry: his birth, his change of status from second son to heir-apparent, his accession and marriage to Katherine of Aragon, his character and talents, his lifestyle and his “tendency towards obstinacy”. Although he could be stubborn and obstinate, Lipscomb points out that he did not have the “strong streak of cruelty” which we see from the mid 1530s, “especially in and after 1536”.

Chapter 3 – The Divorce

This chapter covers Henry’s Great Matter, his struggle for divorce. Lipscomb looks at Henry’s “very real anxiety about the lack of a male heir” which she feels suggests that he was completely “genuine in his conviction that his lack of a surviving legitimate male heir meant that he was, in some way, being punished by God, and that the Pope should never have given him the dispensation that allowed him to marry his brother’s widow.”

This chapter does not go into detail on all of the events leading up to the divorce and Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn but considers the reasons for Henry wanting the annulment, Henry’s belief that he was Supreme Head of the Church, the executions of More and Fisher, the resulting break with Rome and the rise of Anne Boleyn. The chapter ends at the eve of 1536, with Henry being happy and hopeful for the future.

Chapter 4 – 1536 and All That

A short chapter which acts as a chronology of 1536, Henry VIII’s “annus horribilis”, listing the major events of the year which made it so significant.

Part Two – The Crisis of Masculinity

In the introduction to Part Two, Lipscomb explains that the events of 1536 “cut right to the core of how Henry VIII saw himself as a man” and that the traumatic events which occurred between January and July of that year had a “cumulative impact” on the King, changing him “from a virile man in his prime, to a man who suddenly perceived he was ‘growing old’, and tried to fight this in ways that made him ‘a caricature of virility’.”

Chapter 5 – A Wife’s Death

This chapter examines the impact on Henry of the death of his first wife, Katherine of Aragon.

Chapter 6 – The King’s Honour

Here, Lipscomb examines the idea of “honour”, the characteristics of masculinity and the importance of the joust in demonstrating a man’s masculinity. When we consider this, we can understand how Henry’s accident, which led to him being unable to joust and suffering from obesity and health problems, had such an impact on his self-esteem.

Chapter 7 – The Fall of Anne Boleyn

This chapter is divided into sections:-

  • Anne’s Miscarriage – A section looking at whether Anne’s final miscarriage in January 1536 was the beginning of the end for her.
  • Jane Seymour – In this section, Lipscomb considers the woman first mentioned by Chapuys in February 1536.
  • The Still Before the Storm – Here, Lipscomb considers the state of Anne and Henry’s relationship in early 1536 and whether it was on the rocks.
  • So Why Did Anne Fall? – That’s the question we all want to know the answer to! In this section, Lipscomb considers the various theories regarding Anne Boleyn’s fall, pointing out that “the answer is crucial because on it rests our picture of Henry VIII and the effect of this year’s events.”
  • The Investigation – Here, Lipscomb examines the theories regarding what made Henry and Cromwell suspect that Anne was being unfaithful, Mark Smeaton’s confession, Anne’s altercation with Henry Norris, the arrests of the men, the trials and executions of Anne and the men.
  • Was Anne Guilty? – Lipscomb looks at “the several pieces of evidence that speak strongly of Anne’s innocence” and the reasons why she was still found guilty and put to death.

Chapter 8 – A Dearth of Heirs

A short chapter looking at Henry VIII’s heirs in 1536: both Elizabeth and Mary had been made illegitimate, Henry’s niece (Margaret Douglas) was imprisoned in the Tower and Henry’s only son, the illegitimate Henry Fitzroy, died in the July.

Chapter 9 – Masculinity and Image

Lipscomb considers Holbein’s portraits of Henry VIII which were painted in 1536, and the image they give of Henry. This chapter is divided into sections on the Thyssen portrait and the Whitehall Mural and Lipscomb looks at how Holbein has given Henry “strong, ultra-masculine qualities”, perhaps because of “the need to compensate for the events of 1536.”

Part Three – The King’s Religion

This part of the book argues “for the importance and impact of Henry VIII on the Church of England, not just in its creation but in its very shaping.”

Chapter 10 – The Reformation in England

A brief chapter giving an overview of the Reformation.

Chapter 11 – 1536: The Church Established

Here, Lipscomb looks at how Anne Boleyn’s fall did not lead to a reconciliation with Rome and how Henry continued on his path to royal supremacy. In this chapter there is a section on the Dissolution of the Monasteries and a section on the Ten Articles and Royal Injunctions. Lipscomb concludes this chapter by saying that “the church had been shaken up, while still maintaining conservative perspectives that would have disappointed those hoping for the sort of reform seen on the Continent. It was a peculiarly Henrician settlement.”

Chapter 12 – The Role of Henry VIII in Later Reformation

Lipscomb opens the chapter by talking about how historians are divided over Henry’s role in the Reformation, with some believing that Henry broke with Rome simply because of the need for an heir and that he was then manipulated by the likes of Cromwell and Cranmer, and the others believing that he directed the Reformation. If we are to believe that Henry did lead the Reformation, then, as Lipscomb points out, his “own devotion and religious fervour are very important.” She then goes on to look at Henry’s religious side: his faith, his feelings about the monasteries, his religious policies and the way he dealt with dissidents.

Chapter 13 – Henry VIII’s Theology

An examination of Henry VIII’s theology which seemed neither Protestant or Catholic, but somewhere in between. Lipscomb considers six key characteristics of the King’s theology: the royal supremacy, the preservation of unity in his kingdom, his belief in the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist, his belief in good and lawful behaviour as a manifestation of Christian belief, his duty to get rid of religious abuses in the church, and his belief that his policies would establish “a workable reformed way between the religious extremes of heresy and papistry.”

Chapter 14 – The Aftermath of the Reformation

Lipscomb looks at the impact on England of the Henrician Reformation and how Elizabeth I built on her father’s work. I love Lipscomb’s remark at the end of the chapter: “there was, between Catholicism and Protestantism, ‘Henricianism'”! A brilliant comment because Henry VIII’s views and beliefs didn’t fit either Catholicism or Protestantism and that’s why it looks like he swings from one to the other during his reign.

Part Four – Henry the Tyrant

In the introduction to this final part of the book, Lipscomb writes of how “by these latter years of his reign, Henry VIII had become intransigent, volatile, reactionary and dangerous to know.”

Chapter 15 – The Pilgrimage of Grace

The Pilgrimage of Grace was one of the events of 1536 which Lipscomb feels had a huge impact on Henry’s character and behaviour; here, she explains why. The chapter has sections on the “Reasons to Rebel”, “Henry VIII’s Reaction”, “The Question of Obedience and Tyranny”, “The Post-Pardon Revolts” and “The Pilgrimage of Grace and the King’s Image”.

Chapter 16 – The Mouldwarp Prophecy

Lipscomb examines this ancient prophecy, how seriously it was taken, how it was levelled against Henry VIII from 1536 and how “it signified the transition from Henry VIII being thought of as a splendid young king, to conjecture that he had become a tyrant.”

Chapter 17 – Courtly Dissent

Lipscomb looks at the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt, which criticised Henry’s tyranny, and also that of Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, which drew similarities between Henry and the Biblical King David, not in wisdom but in lustfulness. Members of the King’s court were criticizing Henry’s behaviour and his “increasing despotism”.

Chapter 18 – Did Henry VIII Become a Tyrant?

This chapter is divided into sections:-

  • Being a Tyrant – Lipscomb considers G R Elton’s argument that Henry was not a tyrant and that his rule was constitutional and limited, and arguments that Henry simply did what was necessary. She also looks at what being a tyrant meant in 16th century England, compared to the modern day definition, and, after looking at various examples of Henry’s behaviour, concludes that from the mid 1530s he was indeed a tyrant.
  • Henry VIII’s Revenge – Here, Lipscomb looks at Henry’s increasingly bad temper, his “spiteful interest in the manner of Anne Boleyn’s death”, the way he dealt with the rebels in the Pilgrimage of Grace, the executions which took place during his reign, his use of Parliamentary Attainder, the number of high profile/high status people who were attainted and the “savagery” of Henry’s reaction to betrayal.

Suzannah Lipscomb concludes her book with an epilogue, appendices containing a timeline of 1536, brief bios of Henry VIII’s six wives and a useful “Cost of Living in Henry VIII’s Reign”, along with full notes, a section on further reading and an index.

Final Words

After reading “1536”, I had to agree with Peter Furtado, former editor of History Today, who said of the book: “The paradox of Henry VIII is brilliantly unravelled by Suzannah Lipscomb as she reveals the multiple nightmares of the King’s annus horribilis.” This book definitely helps you to understand what made Henry VIII tick and what drove him to turn against and execute friends and wives.

“1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII” was published by Lion Hudson in March 2009 and is available from Amazon UK – click here – and can be shipped worldwide.


5 Responses to “1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII by Suzannah Lipscomb”

  1. Rob says:

    That certainly has to be high on the list of anyone wanting to research the character of our most well-known king. Wonderful review.

  2. Another well done review!
    I HAD to order this book !

  3. Lynn says:

    This book was fantastic! It will remain in my reference library as a “go to” for the events that defined the life and reign of HVIII.

  4. Claire says:

    I agree, it gave me a real insight into Henry’s psyche.

  5. […] Anne arrested.”(BBC: 2010) In addition, another key piece of evidence is – from the book, “1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII” of Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb – Eustace Chapuys’s letter after the beheading, in which Cromwell […]

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