Lessons about power from a Tudor court

The more things change, the more they stay the same. I was six when a sparkling new queen was crowned. I remember the event mainly through images of the royal couple turning up in homes and schools, including a wooden school ruler which I cherished.

Elizabeth took the throne after decades of depression, war and austerity, Charles after a bruising Brexit and a global pandemic. The British are hoping that like its predecessor, this coronation will be the dawn of a bright new era, but signs are not good.

When Charles got his crown amid all that spectacular pomp, I was also deeply immersed in another momentous time in that country’s history, courtesy of Hilary Mantel: the last volume of her spellbinding 2000-page re-creation of the tumultuous 1530s, centred on a bureaucrat in the court of Henry the Eighth. 

Mantel’s sudden death last year was a huge loss, but at least she finished this marvellous trilogy. Her deep dive into the mind of Henry’s consummate servant Thomas Cromwell and the doings of those around him – his and Henry’s families and households, nuns and clerics, nobles and flunkies, diplomats, jailers, tradespeople, street urchins and the rest – is awe inspiring, “the greatest achievement in British historical fiction” as the Times put it. 

Cromwell’s administrative brilliance brought direction and stability to a monarch and government that always teetered on the brink of dysfunction and chaos, but his success made enemies in the court who leaned on their king to get rid of him. Foolishly as it turned out, Henry had his most able servant beheaded.

The son of a blacksmith, Thomas Cromwell was a practical man. He knew all about how to win and use power, but it was snobbery – the class distinction that characterised Henry’s court and those that came after – that brought him down.

There’s a traceable line between that Tudor court and our own times. Charles Wooley wrote on Saturday of the new King Charles’s coronation orb, made for one of his two 17th century namesakes, the Merry Monarch, Charles II. There was also the headless one. A century after Thomas Cromwell’s death, a blood relative, Oliver, led the army that defeated Charles I and the parliament that had him executed. Sweet revenge.

Other connections may be less obvious, but they’re there all the same. The Tudor experience speaks volumes about the pursuit of power and the baser motives that go with it: class distinction, discrimination, racism. That was the British Empire, top to bottom.

The world was shocked when in 2021 a US president tried to hold office in defiance of his country’s laws and traditions, but it shouldn’t have been. A quick scan of governance down the ages reveals the brutal simplicity of the tyrant’s creed of power at any cost. Many of Charles III’s forebears including Henry VIII were just that, tyrants who gloried in power.

With the British Empire a faded memory and his country on the skids, Charles’s coronation was an object lesson in fakery, bringing to mind the red uniforms, bagpipes and cannon employed to intimidate Indians who fought to take back their country, the “jewel in the Imperial crown”, in the 1857 Mutiny. 

The sound of power speaking to the masses – bells and artillery, commands and chants, fanfares and choruses – went down a treat. The crowd loved it, because no-one understands theatre better than the British, and so did I, so long as I didn’t think about what lay behind it.

The coronation was an indulgence, for the British and us alike, a sideshow compared to questions like whether Australia should cast off the monarchy, and how to address the vast climatic and ecological forces that are beginning to shape all our futures.

The coronation’s pomp and ceremony hide another direct outcome of colonialism. Britain’s claim to Australia was based on the clearly false assertion that there were no people here when the First Fleet arrived.

For over two centuries that lie was locked into British and Australian law, expunged only by Indigenous voting rights and High Court land rights decisions. Over those wasted years, in their blind belief in racial superiority, settlers cut off a vital source of information – over 60,000 years worth of human knowledge and experience in this unique land.

Like all empires, the British one was built on subjugation, and this involved slavery in many forms. Seizing and transporting Africans to make money for the Empire’s American colonies was one; the kidnapping of Pacific islanders to work in Queensland canefields was another. 

The Crown is no longer about tyranny and power, but its legacy will haunt it forever.

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