Redeeming the Black Lord Herbert

The title page of Edward Herbert's history of Henry VIII.

The title page of Edward Herbert’s history of Henry VIII, 03-935 General.

Edward Herbert of Cherbury wrote The Life and Raigne of King Henry the Eighth between 1630 and 1645. Edward, a unique character in his own right, is the often forgotten older brother of the Welsh poet George Herbert.

Edward Herbert’s adventurous spirit clashed with his political obligations. He studied at Oxford, but preferred traveling, court life, and the occasional illegal duel. His political connections earned him an appointment as England’s Ambassador to France in 1619. Following his time in France, Herbert served King Charles I in the first Bishop’s War, which resulted from the king’s attempts to impose the English liturgy on the Scots. He then entered Parliament and served on the Council of War. In the years leading up to the English civil war (1642-51), Charles I clashed with Parliament and the English people over his perceived Catholic leanings. Ever the diplomat, Herbert could not pledge his full loyalty to either side, and consequently he was forced to surrender his country castle, exit politics, and devote the remainder of his life to writing in London.

An engraving of Henry VIII.

An engraving of Henry VIII.

King Henry VIII, the subject of Herbert’s work, ruled England from 1509 to 1547. During that time Henry VIII became one of the most well known figures in history. From his marriage to Anne Boleyn to his clash with Sir Thomas More, Henry’s life made for drama. Edward Herbert wrote The Life and Raigne of King Henry the Eighth nearly a hundred years after Henry’s death, but the Herbert family owed much of their rise to wealth and political prominence to the Tudors. Furthermore, the repercussions of Henry’s actions as king were still being felt during Edward Herbert’s lifetime. England had been in political and religious flux since the 1534 Act of Supremacy. The country switched between Protestant and Catholic, before returning to Protestantism under Queen Elizabeth. While Edward served as Ambassador to France, he saw religious tension between Catholics and Huguenots (French Calvinists), despite the Edict of Nantes’ declaration of a truce between the two groups (1598). In France, Herbert was also exposed to moderate religious thought as a friend of the Duke of Montmorency. Especially in the twilight of his political career, Herbert adopted a moderate stance on religion, which made him a friend to neither the Crown nor the Parliament. During this period, an individual was defined by his loyalty, whether to the pope or to the king, and Herbert’s unwillingness to pick a side resulted in the downfall of his political career and reputation. He was infamously dubbed “The Black Lord Herbert.”

It is hard to know for certain why King Charles I commissioned The Life and Raigne of King Henry the Eighth. Attempting to push his own religious reforms, Charles may have sought to compare himself to a monarch who bent the church to suit his own agenda, as well as remind his dissenters of the power that he wielded thanks to the Act of Supremacy. Charles’s first choice to author the biography, Sir Francis Bacon, turned down the job. For Herbert, it is conceivable that he thought this work might secure a place for himself in history, as his short-lived political career did not. Based on his other religious and philosophical works, some historians believe that Herbert used the subject of Henry VIII to criticize the political and religious unrest since the Church of England’s break from the Catholic Church.

A decorative engraving on the last page of text in "The Life and Raigne of King Henry the Eighth."

A decorative engraving on the last page of text in “The Life and Raigne of King Henry the Eighth.”

The period of religious turmoil in which Herbert lived certainly had an influence on the entire body of his literary work. Herbert may have been an early proto-deist based on his other major writings. In De Veritate (1624), he claimed that all religions are valid and knowledge of God is natural to all human beings. Being a religious rationalist, Herbert’s account of Henry’s reign differed from other confessionalist, contemporary histories that portrayed Henry VIII as either a Protestant hero or an anti-Christ. Herbert explained that he sought to portray the king “other wise either good or bad, but as he really was.”

Herbert showed that Henry VIII was, above all, a man whose character changed based on the influence of his advisors and his own self-interest. Early in his reign, Herbert emphasized Henry’s prudent policy-making and official appointments. He also commended his diplomatic and military accomplishments in the early 1500s. Herbert cited Cardinal Wolsey as the instigator of Henry’s decline from a capable and pious ruler to a stubborn and egotistical prince. Herbert agreed that the Catholic Church needed reform, but criticized Henry’s inability to compromise for the sake of religious unity because of his personal marriage issue. He concluded that Henry was a great prince of his time, and he applauded the king’s active role in church reform and foreign policy. Henry’s downfall was allowing jealousy, ego, and willful ministers like Wolsey to manipulate his decisions. Herbert’s balanced account of Henry’s reign and his reliance on primary source documents (which he cites heavily) contributed to an account that should be credited as far more accurate and objective than most Henrician historiography during this period.

Edward Herbert’s The Life and Raigne of King Henry the Eighth is available for your perusal in the Burns Library Reading Room or online via EEBO (Early English Books Online) to B.C. Community members. If you have questions, please contact the Burns Library at 617-552-4861 or

  • Amanda Sacilotto, A&S, BC ’10, GA&S ’13

This blog post is drawn from the exhibit “Making History Public: Books Around the World: 1400 – 1800.”   This exhibit was curated and organized by Professor Virginia Reinburg’s Fall 2012 HS600 class, in collaboration with the Boston College University Libraries.  From April – December 2013, the “Making History Public” exhibit is on display in the History Department, Stokes 3rd Floor South. Stay tuned for more posts from this exhibit!

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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