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The Love of History and Humanities: The Manifesto of a Passion

Yesterday I was talking with a friend about how I’m excited to go to the Spanish Archives in Simancas, north of Madrid, where all of the letters from Eustace Chapuys are displayed. He was the Spanish Ambassador to England when Henry VIII was giving the middle finger to the Pope in order to marry Anne Boleyn, and his letters back to his court paint a colorful picture of a man who was firmly on the side of Catherine of Aragon, and watching the relationship crumble.

My friend joked that I might need to camp out beforehand because of the queue that was certain to stretch around the block, and then he more seriously asked if someone had dropped me on my head when I was a kid, given my nerdy and obscure interests. As much as I can joke that I fly my nerd flag proudly, I think making too much of a joke about it devalues the importance of these kinds of subjects and relegates them to the drawer labeled “obscure nerdy things” rather than “living, breathing, exciting subjects that continue to affect us today.” And I’m going to start spending more of my writing time delving into the living-ness of the subjects about which I’m passionate, to demonstrate their continued importance and value in our lives today.

Let’s take Henry VIII and these letters from Chapuys, shall we? During the time that Chapuys was prolific in writing hundreds and hundreds of pages of letters home, Henry VIII was negotiating with the Pope to grant an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. This in itself wasn’t unusual. Monarchs got annulments all the time. Wives were regularly put aside by those who could afford it so that the husbands could remarry someone younger/hotter/more fertile. This was what Henry wanted. He needed a male heir desperately. The 15th century Wars of the Roses were still very much in his mind; when he became King it was the first transfer of power in over 75 years that didn’t involve bloodshed. There were still some Plantagenets alive, considering pressing their own claims to the throne if Henry died without a good succession plan. A girl just wouldn’t do, however much he might dote on her (and Henry did dote on his daughter Mary when she was young).

Henry had also fallen in love with Anne Boleyn.

Henry VIII looking only a little crazy

Henry’s big problem was the fact that the Pope was being held hostage by Catherine of Aragon’s nephew. He wasn’t going to allow his aunt to be slighted and put aside for Anne, who was a Protestant. He controlled the Pope, and the Pope, however sympathetic he may have been to Henry’s need for male issue, simply wasn’t in any position to give Henry what he wanted. And so we came to a stalemate that lasted almost a decade in which church courts were set up to try the validity of Henry’s marriage, ambassadors were sent back and forth, and a lot of ink and time was spent negotiating.

Henry’s story is one of hubris (there have even been theories that he had a rare blood disorder which made him mad) not unlike what we see in modern politics (especially with the current slate of Republican Presidential candidates — I won’t name names — ok, I will, Trump, ahem). But Henry had his own motivations for doing what he did, besides just his desire to possess Anne Boleyn. By the end of his marriage to Catherine, he had truly come to believe that his marriage to her was cursed, according to the Leviticus verses about how a man shouldn’t marry his brother’s widow (Catherine had originally come to England to marry Henry’s older brother Arthur, who died shortly after — she maintained that they never had intercourse and she was a virgin when she married Henry). We can see what happens when people start to believe that their side of the story is capital T Truth, and have the power to annihilate anyone who doesn’t agree with them.

Chapuys was right in the thick of it all, talking with Catherine, talking to people at Court, and finding out exactly what was happening. He was sending all the information he could back to the Spanish/Hapsburg court, using descriptive colorful language, like calling Anne the “concubine.” His letters are almost five centuries old, but we can still see them, can examine his handwriting, can be right next to an object that may have been written in haste in order to catch the ship headed to Madrid, or may have been written late at night when he was exhausted but needed to get the events of the evening down before going to sleep. These objects are still alive, telling their stories, if people take the time to listen.

anne boleyn, with her head still intact

Henry’s story is huge, and there’s a reason why he is the most famous monarch in British history. He did more to change the face of the monarchy than most, and his personal story of ruthless tyranny is compelling, even now. Beheading his old tutor and a famous philosopher (Thomas Moore) because he wouldn’t agree to recognize Henry as the Supreme Head of the Church reeks of insanity and a disregard for life that still has the power to make us nervous. Not only are there still people who act the same way (and worse) today (North Korea, anyone?) but the story itself is powerful and gripping, and is worth knowing and being passionate about simply because it is such damn good drama. There are people today, right now, making a living writing about reality television stars for Us Weekly. Chris Harrison (bless him, I do love him) is a very famous host who keeps a straight face while talking to idiotic-but-sexy 20-somethings who search for “love” in exotic locations (and yes, I am a reluctant member of Bachelor Nation). The stories of history rate just as much attention, words-written, and screen time as the reality tv career of Chris Soules. More, because they have such longevity.

What I’m trying to say is that, rather than being an obscure nerdy hobby, these subjects — history, the humanities and human expression over time — should be mainstream. We should be the ones who are normal, and the Duggar fans should be considered obscure. After all, these passions encompass the entire human experience over centuries with every conceivable form of expression and vice included. These passions are way more broad and inclusive than a real housewife of somewhere. These passions are what is real, are what matter to humanity over time, are how people express their souls.

My passions are not just dates and battles to be confined to the “memorize for a test and then forget” pile. They are alive and telling their stories even now, for people who take the time to listen. The rewards are great. Jump in with me, please?