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TV Historian's Leadership Lessons from The Tudors

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Dr Susannah Lipscomb, who is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the New College of the Humanities and regular tv presenter, entertained a large audience in the Great Hall of Bolton School Girls’ Division with her evaluation of how Tudor monarchs provided us with a long list of leadership lessons.

Quoting Historian G M Trevelyan, Dr Lipscomb told of those people that once walked the earth being not too dissimilar to ourselves and we should look to history to teach us things for the future. Appraising the gathering with the varied achievements of the Tudors, she singled out Henry VIII and Elizabeth I for particular praise.  She spoke of a time when England became separate from Europe, claimed its own sovereignty and set out on the Age of Empire.  She spoke of this being an age of discovery and colonisation as investment in the Navy, dockyards and shipbuilding burgeoned. She also told how it was a golden age in the Arts, a time of economic growth, of improvements in education and a period that saw the development of a civil service , all funded by the fact that England was no longer at war with France and through the dissolution of the monasteries.

She encapsulated the leadership lessons into twenty bite-size messages. Firstly, be impressive and burn brightly! Dr Lipscomb cited the example of how Henry VIII had dressed immaculately and opulently, and surrounded himself with royal regalia and 300 handsome halberdiers for the visit of Venetian ambassadors. Secondly she said, be charismatic! She referred to Elizabeth, who was adored by her courtiers and to Henry, who demonstrated his prowess in the battles that he fought. She said they were both feared as well as loved – an important trait for leaders! Another skill they both demonstrated was the practice of gathering brilliant people around them with figures such as Thomas Cromwell, Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Burghley, Thomas Cranmer, Sir Walter Raleigh and poets such as Sir Thomas Wyatt and Edmund Spenser. Equally important was the skill of stomaching those you dislike and making them feel special – she provided the example of Henry’s tolerance of Bishop Stephen Gardiner. Other important lessons were to befriend your followers and “be the flame, not the moth”. Using the example of Sir Christopher Halton during Elizabeth’s reign, she told of how all courtiers had to pretend to love the monarch. The Tudors demonstrated how it is important to take counsel, even from unusual sources and that you must be prepared, on occasion to make unilateral and unpopular decisions. Dr Lipscomb spoke about Henry, on his deathbed, deciding that Bishop Gardiner would not serve on the Council that would guide the heir, his 9 year old son. She also told how Henry demonstrated that you must remove those that threaten your vision and told the tale of the execution of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Henry VIII’s last victim.

Dr Lipscomb explained how the Tudors understood the value of gathering intelligence and how the era provided a nascent secret service with the likes of Christopher Marlowe gathering information for the queen. She also recalled how Lord Walsingham had employed a double agent who intercepted Mary Queen of Scots’ letters. Monarchs in this period also embraced change, another critical leadership quality, and this was illustrated by the ships no longer being solely troop carriers but becoming ocean going vessels which allowed Sir Francis Drake to circumnavigate the world. The placing of cannons on ships at this time helped secure the seas around our isles. The Tudors had a grand vision, realised by the building of the Empire, another leadership characteristic. Developing the Drake example, Dr Lipscomb told of how monarchs got others to take risks for them, his travels being funded by Sir Christopher Hatton.

The Tudors also provided instructive lessons in things to avoid as a leader, including irrational anger and over hastiness, indecision, Elizabeth I often dithered, and over reliance on one person. The lecturer spoke of how Henry VIII put several individuals on a pedestal only to have them brought down later and how Elizabeth did the same with Robert Dudley. The Tudors also demonstrated how you should not understand failure as a personal betrayal, Dr Lipscomb recounted how Henry conflated Wolsey’s failure with betrayal. She also told how it is important to avoid self-delusion and to face the truth and recalled how Henry could never do this. Lastly, she concluded, using the example of the bad weather hampering the 134 ship Spanish fleet during the Armada, be lucky!

Her talk was warmly received by the gathering of History pupils and teachers from Bolton School and other local schools as well as by friends of Bolton School and the local community. In a lively questions and answers session, Dr Lipscomb fielded questions including what lessons can be learnt from the Tudors that we could use for dealing with Brexit, what did the Tudors do wrong, how much in control was Henry by the later stages of his life, which modern day leaders reflect Henry VIII’s values and where did the Tudors receive their training from to be leaders? Dr Lipscomb spoke of executions often being undertaken on very flimsy ground, particularly by Henry who did not even try Catherine Howard and Elizabeth who burned numerous Protestants at the stake. Although a jousting accident left Henry maimed and he may even have had brain damage, it was a miracle that he was not killed, Dr Lipscomb believed he remained in control up until his last days when he appointed the Regency Council. She quoted Margaret Thatcher as a leader that perhaps shared Henry’s lack of hesitancy in dealing with situations. The young Henry, she believed, learnt from Catherine of Aragon who was 6 years older than him and also from Wolsey. Elizabeth, she felt, benefitted from watching Catherine Parr and by learning from what had not worked in her sister’s reign.

The lecture was the first Arts lecture in a series of Arts and Science presentations which are taking place at the School in the evenings and are open to the general public. 

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Dr Lipscomb with pupils ahead of her inspiring talk on the Tudors

Dr Lipscomb with pupils ahead of her inspiring talk on the Tudors

It proved an instructive and insightful lecture