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Historian’s research suggests King Henry VII was ‘fake news’ pioneer

Henry VIII's exploits in battles and jousts appear to have been exaggerated.
Henry VIII's exploits in battles and jousts appear to have been exaggerated.
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‘Fake news’ has become a buzzword of late. But a Yorkshire historian has suggested Henry VIII may have been an early pioneer of dubious claims. Chris Burn reports.

We have all become familiar with the term ‘fake news’ in recent years; being used both to describe entirely invented false stories deliberately made up to either make people believe something untrue or attract website hits and articles that may contain some truth but otherwise contain misleading or inaccurate claims.

President Donald Trump has frequently used the term to apply to stories and media organisations which are critical of him and his policies; a controversial tactic which has been taken up enthusiastically by autocratic leaders around the world seeking to muzzle journalists.

But new research from a historian at the University of Huddersfield suggests that fake news is very far from a new phenomenon – and King Henry VIII appears to have be an active proponent of the technique.

Henry made sure that he was depicted despatching all-comers in battles and tournaments, but Dr Levitt has found that the facts tell a different story. She has analysed evidence that the much-married monarch commissioned pictures that depicted him as a mighty warrior who personally sent the French packing on the battlefield, and as a tournament superstar who could out-joust all-comers. In fact, he kept well away from the frontline during an invasion of France and his scorecard in the tiltyard was distinctly feeble.

But the man who was arguably the most controversial monarch in English history was desperate to project an uber-manly image, even after death. He ordered the design of a lavish tomb that would be topped by a life-sized statue of himself on horseback in “an active knightly stance”. It was never built, but would have cost the equivalent of more than £6 million.

“Henry was determined to construct a lasting image of chivalrous kingship and martial masculinity, even though his attainments in the military arena were rather slender,” says Dr Levitt, whose researches into medieval masculinity have included detailed examination of surviving scorecards from jousting tournaments of the 1500s and 1600s.

Dr Levitt has presented her latest findings at a major international conference of medieval historians in Leeds, including an analysis of two enormous paintings that Henry commissioned towards the end of his life. One of them depicted the aftermath of 1513’s Battle of the Spurs – “arguably more of a skirmish” – when the French fled. The picture shows Henry on horseback, in the thick of the battle, accepting the surrender of a French knight, despite the fact that he was actually behind the frontline.

Dr Levitt has argued that the king was desperate to emulate the feats of his warrior forbear Henry V, the victor of Agincourt a century earlier, but in the absence of victories abroad he used tournaments at home to establish himself at the top of the manly hierarchy.

In 1511 a lavish joust was held at Westminster in which Henry VIII led a team of three knights. They were the Challengers, and their opponents the Answerers. The event was vividly depicted in a Great Tournament Roll in the College of Arms.

“Arguably the most famous image from this roll is the membrane that shows the king tilting at the barrier against one of the Answerers. Henry is depicted in the foreground running from the left and shattering his spear against his opponent’s helm, in true knightly fashion,” says Dr Levitt. “However, when comparing this representation to the surviving Westminster score cheques, it is evident that the king did not break a single lance on the head of his opponents on either of the two days.

“Therefore, it is apparent that the roll represented an idealised version of the jousting match, rather than reflecting what actually happened.”

Henry’s participation in tournaments, and the designs for his unbuilt tomb are evidence of the martial image that Henry wanted to project. But perhaps the projected cost of the monument made even the king flinch, Dr Levitt speculates.

“It is indeed ironic that a king who lived in such opulence, who hosted such vastly expensive tournaments and pageants, whose court was known in its time as the most splendid in Europe, should lie in a plain vault, marked only by a marble slab.”

Dr Emma Levitt’s paper titled The whole stature of a goodly man and a large horse: memory, masculinity and the military status of Henry VIII was presented at the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds. She has authored a chapter on tournaments for the forthcoming Cultural History of Sport in the Medieval Age 600-1450, edited by Dr Noel Fallows and to be published by Bloomsbury. She presents on Tournaments and turbulence in the reign of Edward IV, the first Yorkist King of England at the 2018 Fifteenth Century Conference taking place at the University of Reading (September 6-8).