Is There a Problem Looking at History with our 21st Century Eyes and Hindsight?

Posted By on February 16, 2011

If only we could travel back in time...

This is one of those questions that I wake up with in the middle of the night and then that niggle me and just won’t let go. I try so hard to be balanced and objective but I think that we all find it impossible to look at past events and historical characters without our views being coloured by the context in which we live and the knowledge we have about what happened after those events.

Here are a few examples that have got me puzzling over this question and tossing and turning at night:-

  • Anne Boleyn – As I wrote in my recent article “Anne Boleyn – The Mysterious and Maligned One”, people have a tendency to label Anne as a “homewrecker”, as a “martyr” or as a “Protestant Reformer”, the queen who changed history, BUT, if we had our tardis and travelled back in time would we really see her like that? People call her a homewrecker because they see her as the woman who caused the breakdown of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, but that’s just not an accurate description of what happened is it? Some call her a martyr or saint because of her impact on England and on the English Reformation, but it is more true to say that Anne was a catalyst, not a direct cause of the Reformation. Anne Boleyn’s faith and her views do not fit the label “Protestant” and she was more interested in reforming the Catholic Church than starting a new one. Anne did not die for her faith and it is only with hindsight that we can see that she had an impact on the history of England.
  • Henry VIII – All this fuss about a possible exhumation so that we can solve the answer as to why he was such a tyrant and whether it was he who was responsible for his wives’ “reproductive woes”, but we can label him as a tyrant, as a monster etc. because we are horrified by what he did and how he treated people BUT if we travelled back in time would it change our views. Was he really a tyrant or was he just a monarch of his time, a strong King who kept control of his people, his wives and his country? Yes, he executed a lot of people but he was living in a time when the punishment for treason was death and so he executed people who were deemed to have committed treason, people who challenged his authority and who were a threat to him and his realm.
  • The place of women – With our 21st century eyes and ideals, we see people like Thomas Boleyn, the Duke of Norfolk and the parents of Lady Jane Grey as manipulators, as people who uses their daughters and nieces for their own gain, regardless of the consequences. But, they lived in a time where women were second rate citizens, where the only use for a girl was to marry her off well so that the family did not have to provide for her and so she could actually help her family. They also lived in a time of arranged marriages, where love matches were rare and frowned upon. Girls were meant to do their duty and marry for the good of their families.

  • Sexual harassment – Karen Lindsey, author of “Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation Of The Wives Of Henry VIII”, sees Anne Boleyn as a possible victim of sexual harassment , writing that “Today, Henry’s approach to Anne would be instantly identifiable as sexual harassment. Anne however, had no social or legal recourse against a the man who ruled the country. She continued, as so many women before and since have done, to dodge her pursuer’s advances while sparing his feelings. It didn’t work.” Now, while I agree that Anne Boleyn had no choice in her relationship with Henry – who can refuse a king? – I don’t agree that Henry sexually harassed her, he simply did what a King did, a case of “I want that woman and I’m going to get her” and I think that Anne was actually unusual in saying “no” at the outset. The word “Today” in that quotation from Lindsey’s book is the key here, in today’s world we would accuse Henry of sexual harassment, but surely we need to judge him from a standpoint in his world.
  • Paedophilia – I have seen comments online and read things in books accusing various Tudor men of paedophilia because they married or slept with what we deem today as young girls. Hello! They were living in a rather different world to our own and even today, where I live in Spain, the age of consent is 13. There are arguments over the date of birth of Catherine Howard and author and historian Joanna Denny, who believes that Catherine was born c1525, writes of how Catherine was around 11 when her music teacher, Henry Manox, had some kind of relationship with her, boasting that he would “have her maidenhead”. Shocking! We immediately see Catherine as a victim of sexual abuse, BUT, and I’m in no way condoning paedophilia here, Catherine lived in an age where “the onset of puberty was regarded as an acceptable age for sexual and matrimonial consent” and where it was quite normal for girls to marry from the age of 12. Denny points out that Henry VIII’s grandmother, Margaret Beaufort married at 12, and we know that she gave birth to Henry at the age of 13, and also Catherine Howard’s mother, Jocasta Culpeper, married when she was 12.
  • Religious Persecution – We label Mary I as “Bloody Mary” because of her persecution of Protestants, we judge Thomas More harshly for his belief in executing heretics etc. but we don’t take into account the religion of the day, the beliefs that they held. Mary, as a staunch Catholic, believed she was doing the Lord’s work by stamping out heresy, by ridding her country of people who she saw as doing the Devil’s work, people who were undermining the True Faith. Mary, and people like Thomas More, would have truly believed that they were risking their souls and disobeying God if they did not do their utmost to defend the Catholic Church and faith. Here we are today, living in our rather secular world and judging them for their beliefs and actions. Am I defending fanaticism, terrorsim and intolerance? Of course I’m not, but we cannot really label these religious characters as bigots without looking at the context they were living in.
  • Henry VIII the womanizer and serial husband – We look at Henry VIII and see him as the ultimate historical womanizer, the King who had a number of mistresses and six wives, a man who moved from woman to woman and who was incredibly fickle. BUT, if we take into account the time and world he lived in, wasn’t he just a typical 16th century monarch? A King doing his duty? It was normal for kings to have mistresses, to have women who kept them happy while their queen was pregnant or in confinement, and it was a King’s duty to produce a male heir and secure the line and throne. We see Henry as being obsessed with having a son, but so he should have been. He knew that he was surrounded by people with a claim to the throne, he knew the danger of not having an heir, he was simply doing his duty in finding a fertile woman to provide his country with a Tudor prince.
  • Religion, superstition and curses – Henry VIII got his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled on the grounds that a papal dispensation should never have been given because Catherine was his brother’s widow. Henry argued that the marriage was contrary to Biblical law in that it went against the law found in Leviticus 18: 16 “If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an impurity; He hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.” Now, many people today think that this was just a convenient excuse that Henry used to get out of the marriage, but Henry consulted many people on this matter and he seems to have been completely convinced that his marriage had not been fruitful, i.e. it had not given him a surviving son, because he had broken God’s law. We also see Tudor people as superstitious fruitcakes with the way they believed in curses and crazy cures, but can we really judge them when some of us today won’t fly on a plane on Friday 13th or walk under a ladder? Tudor people were living in uncertain times, when death was all around and who can blame them for looking for signs and relying on the advice of “wise” men and women or their faith to sustain them?
  • Execution victims – We see execution victims like Catherine Howard as tragic victims and are shocked by the brutality of their punishments, BUT, wasn’t the punishment the expected one for the crime? Wasn’t Catherine guilty of treason? Wasn’t the punishment for treason death? Please don’t think I am arguing for capital punishment or even saying that Catherine deserved such an awful fate, but she was deemed to have committed treason by her actions so she was put to death. Horrid I know, but just for those times.

I am sure that you can think of many instances where our views have been coloured by the world we live in today, by the knowledge we have and by the ideals we live by. Please let me know your thoughts on this.

Another thing that niggles me is the obsession we have for finding an explanation. For example, we feel the need to explain Henry VIII’s “tyranny” with a medical cause, we cannot accept that Henry was just like that. We cannot accept that Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn had miscarriages that were just one of those things, bad luck, and, instead, want to find a cause – perhaps Catherine had an eating disorder, perhaps Anne was Rhesus Negative… Funny isn’t it?

Apologies if I offend anyone by what I have written, I am simply playing Devil’s advocate and I am as guilty as the next person of judging history with my 21st century eyes. Sorry!

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