Suzannah Lipscomb is the author of ‘The King is Dead: The Last Will and Testament of Henry VIII’, ‘1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII’, and ‘A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England.’
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Many thanks to Suzannah for answering my questions.
Why did you choose this subject for your book?
Henry VIII’s last will and testament is one of the most intriguing and contested documents in British history. Historians have disagreed over its intended meaning, its authenticity, and the circumstances of its creation. What we think about Henry VIII’s will tells us much about Henry in the last year of his life – the extent to which he had lost power and was being manipulated by factions, the final state of his religious faith, his intentions for the future – and dictated much of the course of the Tudor century that followed. It seemed to me that forensically examining his will and the environment in which it was drawn up might yield much insight into his reign – and it did.
And, when I was prevaricating about whether to write it or not, Dan Jones ultimately persuaded me to do it.
What does your book add to existing works about Henry VIII?
I hope that readers will agree that it gives an entirely new perspective on the last year of Henry VIII’s life. It challenges the existing orthodoxy about his will being the product of a conspiracy, which means a total re-reading of Henry’s character in his dying days.
Does Henry’s will differ in any major way from those of previous monarchs?
It differs greatly from those of previous monarchs. Kings like Henry VI and Edward IV spent the great majority of their wills apportioning their estates. Henry VIII’s will had a different raison d’être: it was dedicated to making plans for the succession – moving through a long list of different succession scenarios – and establishing a regency council who would govern during the years of Edward VI’s minority.
Was this really the last will and testament of Henry VIII or was it added to after this death?
It certainly wasn’t added to after his death, and no historians have contended that. Some have suggested that it was tampered with after signature, and that ‘minimal and subtle forgeries’ were inserted into it at that time, in the last month of Henry VIII’s life. In this book, I argue that the evidence adduced to support this position is flawed or flimsy, and that this was indeed Henry VIII’s will – the product of his own volition.
Do you think that Henry would have expected his plan for a regency council during Edward VI’s minority, to be so speedily over thrown?
I am absolutely certain that he would have been both astonished and outraged that his ‘entirely beloved’ counsellors, in whom he placed so much trust, overthrew his wishes so quickly after his death.
What surprised you most researching this book?
Some of the errors in previous analyses of the will.
Why do you think that Henry VIII included the heirs of Lady Frances (Jane, Katherine and Mary Grey) as possible successors to the crown but not Frances herself?
There is no indication given in the will for his reasons. I suspect it was either something in the character of Frances herself that made Henry think her unsuitable, or, more likely, the character of her husband, Henry Grey, would have been the de facto monarch. He is one of the only peers who is notable by his absence on the regency council.
Do you agree with Janel Mueller that the prayer book used by Lady Jane at her execution was written by and given to her by Catherine Parr?
Yes, this seems convincing to me. I include a picture of it in the book.
What does the will tell us about Henry VIII?
The whole book is dedicated to telling us what the will has to say about Henry VIII, so I probably can’t do it justice in a line, except that it serves both as a microcosm of Henry VIII’s life – he says his ‘chief labour and study in this world’ has been to establish Edward ‘in the crown imperial of this realm’, which could be his mission statement – and reminds us of his indomitable character, even to the very end.