'Was Henry VIII the First Brexiteer?' asks David Starkey
Famous historian, broadcaster and Kent resident Dr David Starkey, CBE, is passionate about one of our local landmarks. Indeed, he declares: “I know Hever extraordinarily well,” as we chat a few days before he brings his talk, ‘Henry VIII: The First Brexiteer?’, to the castle’s outdoor theatre on August 8, as part of its summer programme of special events.
David has been touring with this partly historical, partly interactive debate – which examines the key parallels he believes exist between King Henry VIII’s Reformation and the issue of Brexit – all over the country. So it seems only right that the revered academic should also come to Hever to discuss the similarities he believes lie between King Henry breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church so he could divorce his Spanish wife, Catherine of Aragon, to marry Anne Boleyn, who grew up at the castle.
“It’s the place, I’m increasingly convinced, where the key event of that first Brexit actually takes place,” states David, who has also curated the castle’s new Tudor exhibition, which will be unveiled in October.
“It was where, during the Christmas holiday of 1526, Anne Boleyn actually decided she would accept Henry VIII. Hever is a place of beauty, of charm but also of extraordinary significance because of the Reformation, and Anne Boleyn was a central player in this the first Brexit.
“The position Henry VIII took to break with the Roman church at the beginning of the 1530s is a direct analogy, a direct parallel, and indeed the actual predecessor of the Brexit debate,” he continues.
“The Roman Church was a super-national organisation with its own system of law, its own language, governance and own system of taxation. In other words, exactly like the European Union! And it’s no accident at all that the EU was founded by the Treaty of Rome.
“So, I would argue that one of the reasons why England – not Scotland, not Ireland – why England has had this extraordinary fraught relationship with the EU right from the beginning is that we’ve had 500 years, since that first Brexit, of propaganda which is partly true, partly false and partly exaggerated that we are different; that we are distinct. That the way things are done on one side of the Channel are different to how they are done on the other side.”
David says he believes the link between the Reformation and Brexit is totally ‘obvious’ and that the latter runs deeper than just saying it’s all about ‘wicked racism or all to do with Nigel Farage’.
“That seems to me to be very trivial. The question of our relationship [with Europe] has always been fraught ever since Churchill. On the one hand he was a passionate believer, following the Second World War, in European unity – particularly of France and Germany – in order to make sure the horror of conflict doesn’t happen again. But he was profoundly ambiguous on the relationship between a British Empire and that European entity.
“Churchill represents in so many ways the process that I’m talking about [on stage]. He has this passionate awareness of English history, of its distinctiveness, the extraordinary balance which, historically, we’ve been able to strike between liberty on the one hand, and continuity and good government on the other.
“Remember, hardly any European country had an experience of limited government that was more than 100 years old. And I think that we really do have to start saying things like this.”
Now in full passionate spiel regarding our position – or lack of it – in Europe, David goes on to draw further comparisons to historical events and today’s current Brexit deadlock.
“Churchill was a complete contradistinction to our present day politicians. He’s somebody who is in history, and was a considerable historian, and was aware of this process. So it seems to me that what we need to do as part of the national conversation we should be having on this is to put the whole Brexit debate into an historical context.”
Which brings us back on to the topic of the six-times-married monarch again, and David’s imminent visit to the place he describes as being ‘one of the great King Henry VIII sites’.
I ask him whether the First Brexiteer debate will involve any input from the audience, to which he quickly responds: “But of course! It’s an absolutely essential part.”
David Starkey is well known for being outspoken about things, and our chat proves no exception as he serves up a volley of criticism at the current Prime Minister to galvanise his reasoning further.
“One of the great problems of public debate – and you see it most clearly with someone who is terrible at it, like Theresa May, is the complete lack of confidence in engaging with an audience.
“Again, a politician like Churchill, far from being put off by heckling or rough questioning, he actually rejoiced in it!
“One of the terrible failures we have at the moment is how bad our public conversation is. It’s not led by anybody, and as I actually enjoy public speaking – and the occasional rough and tumble – my show will indeed include questions from the public.”
David says that he will talk for ‘an hour or so’ before he opens up the floor to around 30 minutes of questions and debate.
“It seems to me to be essential,” he says. “I try to treat audiences seriously and put serious arguments to them, so part of that process is to then listen to what they have to say back to you.”
What, I wonder, are David’s views on the current crisis surrounding Brexit? Again he pulls no punches with his answer: “Well, like everybody says, it’s rapidly turning into an absolute disaster whatever your position – be you a Remainer or a Leaver. It illustrates desperately, and I make these kinds of points in my talk, the need for serious leadership.
“King Henry VIII was viewed as a monster and a tyrant, but he was an unbelievably able politician.
“He confronted an absolute breakdown in relationships with the Pope in 1529, when the latter effectively said ‘No, I will not divorce you’, which is a similar situation David Cameron found himself in when Angela Merkel said ‘No, I won’t flex the rules’. Cameron then had to call the referendum.
“But what Henry did, which no modern politician could or would dare to do, is he stops; he thinks; he researches; and he sets up a think tank to look at the situation to find ways forward.
“We are used to thinking of people like Henry VIII as absolute dictators, which is not true at all. We had a Parliamentary system of government then in the same way as we do now.
“It takes Henry three years to get the Reformation through Parliament. It’s a bit like Theresa May now, he couldn’t get it through so he had to work at it with patience, with cunning and with occasional bribery – all the techniques of the government!”
And, finally, putting politics aside, what does David think will be so special about staging this talk at Hever?
“Well, it’s the context, and I’m an enormous believer in places having echoes. I almost expect a ghost or a voice coming from the wings saying ‘No, I didn’t say that, you’re wrong!’”
Whatever your political views, it might just be worth going along to find out…
Dr David Starkey appears at the Hever Festival Theatre at 8pm on Wednesday, August 8. To book tickets, which cost £17, visit www.heverfestival.co.uk