With the recent passing of the 500th anniversary of King Henry VIII’s ascension to the throne, the previous year has re-established the Tudor King in the minds of the nation he once ruled over as well as foreign visitors.
With a plethora of exhibitions, books and the attraction of Hollywood, Henry is as much in demand as he has ever been. This current renaissance of England’s most notorious King has once again thrust his actions into popular psyche and led leading historians and amateur fans to once again ponder – “Was Henry really an evil tyrant or simply an effective leader and a product of the times?”
Recent portrayals of the 16th Century ruler paint him as a barbaric gargantuan of a man, a hard-hearted genocidal maniac with a lust for beheading wives. What tends to be overlooked is the reasons behind his behaviour and what influenced the actions that have left him demonised to subsequent generations.
Many events are used as evidence against the King, the most conjured tend to be surrounding his six wives. With the country being a firm catholic nation under the strict doctrinne of papal jurisdiction and authority, marriage was deemed a highly important union before God which was binding until the death of one partner. Henry’s “Great Matter” of the late 1520’s changed the fabric of the country from a deeply pious Catholic one to a divided country on the brink of another civil war, this time on religious lines between the followers of the “one true faith” and the new Protestants or Reformers influenced by the teaching of Luther on the continent.
Henry’s official reasoning for his attempt to have his marriage annulled by the Pope was due to a previous betrothal of his wife to his dead elder brother, thereby believing himself t be living in Biblical sin. The more likely reason is that after 20 years of trying for a son with wife she had only given birth to one surviving daughter after numerous others died in, during and after childbirth. What is often missed is that the older Katherine was in a marital abyss after the death of her husband, Henry’s elder brother Arthur. She was unwanted and unneeded by both England and her native Spain. Henry resolved to save this woman and married her as soon as he inherited the stone. Despite this however, his eagerness and obsession to have a healthy heir to the throne his father had physically won on the battlefield is what can most likely be attributed to his decision on annulment rather than religious conscience, his focus becoming more resolute as the young and virile court maiden Anne Boleyn caught his eye. Not receiving satisfaction and with a greater number of Protestant reformers and scrupulous new nobles within Henry’s influential circle than ever before, Henry’s idle threats began to become more serious and he withdrew his subservance to the Holy Father, isolating his kingdom from Europe and inserting himself as head of the new Church in England.
With far-reaching consequences that are still felt today, Henry instantly forced everyone to submit to his supremacy as he began his journey to becoming the most powerful monarch in the isles history. The outcome was that he married Anne Boleyn, exiled his shunned ex-wife and beheaded all who refused to accept him as the Supreme Head of the Church, including his mentor and friend Sir Thomas More.
After seemingly getting almost all that he wanted, namely the exotic and virile young Boleyn girl and the excessive power that comes with being God’s so-called “anointed one” in his Kingdom, Henry turned his world upside down yet again after Anne repeatedly failed to live up to her boasts of providing the as-yet heir-less monarch with a son. Her erratic and allegedly scandalous behaviour as well as the political aspirations of yet more new nobles prompted rumours of Witchcraft and the King aptly annulled the marriage, signed her death warrant and executed her and others for adultery and treason.
Contemporary defenders of Henry claim there was irrefutable evidence of her infidelity and the pious King may have truly believed he was in the midst of an instrument of the Devil whereas the more cynical historians claim it was simply the cruel King casting aside another woman only capable of providing a female child and moving on to yet another, younger, woman. Anne Boleyn’s story has captivated minds for centuries, her status as the most infamous Queen Consort in history a secure accolade. Contemporary theory painted her as a treacherous witch, whilst the truth is more likely that she was a willing pawn in the never ending and often fatal ambitions of noble families attempting to gain power of the King for personal greed. These families had everything to gain by having their blood linked to the King via the birth of an heir. No longer would they be struggling to remain in the good graces of an almost bi-polar monarch, but rather would be inextricably tied by plasma. In Anne’s case it was the scheming of her father and devious uncle, who as Duke of Norfolk was the most powerful noble in the land already, which led to her dramatic downfall, both of whom survived whilst she perished.
His short-lived marriage to plain but virtuous Jane Seymour resulted in the only mortal thing he craved, a healthy and legitimate baby son and male heir to the Tudor Dynasty. Her piety and good nature captured the King’s heart and when she died in the aftermath of a catastrophic childbirth Henry went into a prolonged period of mourning the woman he had elevated into a Madonna-type figure. An over-the-top reaction to a short marriage perhaps, but she became the prototype for perfection in the misty eyes of the King because of the fate of nature that was her giving birth to a male.
Resolving never to marry and even placing himself into semi-delusional retreat from court with only his fool for company, Henry’s right hand man Thomas Cromwell, and successor to Cardinal Wolsey as the alter rex, had began to grow alarmed at how the Protestant reformation he had fought hard to initiate was now stalling. Worried that the King, whom although broken from papal authority had yet to reject Catholic rituals, had gone cold on the process Cromwell felt that a Protestant marriage-cum-alliance was imperative to further the movement and also avoid England becoming isolated within Europe. He thus began probing the King. Finally succumbing to the incessant enquiries and on the assurance that his new bride was a beauty to soothe him into old age, Henry was enraged when he first came across his new wife. Considering Anne of Cleves a “flanders mare” he declared “I like her not” in a thunderous temper that within 6months had brought down his marriage and Cromwell’s influence. Apart from sexual attraction, Henry actually treated Anne well and moved her into many luxurious palaces where she was publicly lauded as “thy Kinges sister”.
Despite the setback, the King’s libido and lust had returned and the ever-alert Duke of Norfolk resolved to put another of his neices, Anne Boleyn’s precocious young cousin Katherine Howard, into the eyesight of his Lord. A promiscuous teenager whom knew how to use her womanly charms in a way made eternally famous by her tragic older kinswoman, she was used to ensnare the King with desire. Unbeknownst to him yet seemingly public knowledge amongst the court, Katherine was a vivacious lady with loose morals for the time, even continuing a love affair during her regency and unashamed to conceal it. After initially being disbelieving of the rumours, the King apparently sobbed for days before taking out complete wrath on all involved. Heads rolled, literally, and Katherine became the second Queen of her prominent family to be beheaded, although unlike Anne she remained unrepentant to the end. Taking one more wife more closer in age to himself and off an intellectual disposition rather than mere look, Katherine Parr nursed Henry to his death and helped patch up his fractured relationship with all three children, a small mercy that concluded the life of the most infamous married man in history.
Apart from the sometime brutal treatment of some of his wives, critics point at other aspects of Henry’s reign that support claims of barbarian behaviour. As briefly explored earlier, his break with Rome in order to secure a simple annulment from his first wife Katherine of Aragon directly led to many thousands of deaths and innumerable plots against the Crown that has never been fully eradicated. The battle of power and faith between warring denominations of Christianity may have eventually erupted without his significant input, but Henry’s vanity to be seen as “Supreme Ruler of England” and removing papal authority only accelerated it. Further influenced by staunch Protestant Cromwell, Henry allowed him to investigate and consequently pull apart old holy orders of monasteries around the land. Whilst enjoying a reputation for doing good work in the local communities, Cromwell’s investigations uncovered alleged corruption, fake relics and dubious moralist behaviour un becoming of priests. More significantly to the King, who’s vast inheritance and treasury had long been laid to waste with Palaces and War, the monasteries contained a gold mine of wealth which was instantly annexed to the crown. This once again helped enrich the King at the expense of his nemesis the Pope.
The brutal way Cromwell’s men dissolved the monasteries led to an uproar in the strong Catholic northern England and led to a rebellion called the “Pilgramage of Grace, led by Yorkshireman Robert Aske. Henry had the rebellion sharply and viciously suppressed at the hands of the Duke of Norfolk’s armies and had Aske and his collaborators executed en masse.
Having reimbursed his coffers with confiscated funds Henry continued to spend lavishly and recklessly, even commissioning Nonsuch Palace at a modern cost of £101m, whilst parts of his nation, although not uncharictaristically for the time, was ravaged with poverty and disease.
All of these events and actions are continually used against the ruler, painting him as a tyrannical despot, a temper tantrum throwing man-child who got what he wanted and simply executed people who dared to fall in his way. Cardinal Wolsely fell afoul of the Boleyn faction and was excluded until his mysterious death whilst being transported to imprisonment. Sir Thomas More was beheaded for refusing to cast aside his belief of the Pope being God’s only anointed head of the Church whilst Cromwell was also executed, all of whom were at one point or another his trusted number two’s. It is also estimated he ordered the deaths of between 50,000-75,000 people throughout his reign.
But what of the flipside? What good did King Henry VIII of England, France and Ireland do during his length reign, or was he simple the spawn of Satan and a genocidal, murderous heretic as believed by Continental Catholic Europe during his lifetime. One of the biggest disappointments of Henry’s later life was when his body began to let him down. The enduring view of him is that he was a gigantic man with a 50-plus inch chest who had to be lifted in and out of bed. In actuality, the King spent the majority of his life in fantastic shape, and was a wonderfully strong athlete whom regularly won jousting competitions amongst others. Whilst his body was the physical image and suitable metaphor for his strength as a King, mentally he considered himself a humanist and surrounded himself with learned scholars such as the aforementioned Sir Thomas More and Erasmus. He regularly agonised with the idealistic More over his duties as a humanist and his duties as a King. Central humanist principles such as peace simply didn’t collaborate with Kingly duties such as War. The famous conundrum of “is it better to be loved or feared” often gripped Henry in his younger days, his desire for the greater good often being overshadowed by his unrelenting responsibility for his Kingdom.
Henry was acknowledged as being a magnificently clever monarch and regaled in his in-depth debates with More amongst others granted such a distinction to speak freely around His Majesty. Deeply enamoured with Greek mythology and such new pursuits as Astronomy and the arts, Henry had a great desire to be a perfect King, an ideal combination of part academic, part warrior. He was greatly responsible for dragging the secluded island out of the dark middle ages and into the lavish and extravagant renaissance that was already in full-flow on the continent and which would be perfected under his daughter Elizabeth. His overwhelming desire to be considered the greatest King in Christendom directly led to his patronage of various artistic pursuits. Supporting and funding the best artists, musicians and poets in Europe, England was transformed from a ‘wild people’ into the leaders of European culture, which as briefly mentioned earlier peaked under his daughter’s “Golden Age” and Shakespeare.
A further policy of Henry which was to have dramatic effect within his Kingdom was that he allowed his daughters equal tutoring rights to males. Indeed, the Princess Mary and in particular Princess Elizabeth were two most well-taught youngsters in the land, something which inadvertently became useful when both ascended to the throne in their own right. On a similar note was Henry’s implementation of state education for children as opposed to their working as soon as physically possible. Despite his reputation as a King who jeopardised his country with his personal temper tantrums, the face remains that he took a troublesome, war-torn provincial island state and made it into a major continental power by the end of his substantial reign. Whilst his foreign policy was up and down, sometimes vain glorious and often constantly on the verge of war, his actions still established England as a regional super power.
His early peace treaties, albeit created by his trusted right-hand man and expert statesman Cardinal Thomas Wolsely established him as a respectable King and highlighted his promising humanist ideals in a world continually fractured by ambitious and war-mongering leaders keen to establish immortal reputations. Although the peace invariable crumbled , it was still an innovative ideal considering the tempestuous times.
A further implementation taken by Henry was his emasculation of the historic and often quarrelsome noble families, disempowering them and ending their right to raise private armies, something which had often been troublesome and in some cases fatal to previous monarchs. With the nobility losing much of their physical power, the crown subsequently became stronger than any time previous time, many felt this turned the King into a tyrannic dictator with complete control. The fact remained however that he had secured himself against renegade pretenders and allowed his realm to grow without the constant threat of the civil war that had decimated the people only a generation before. Whilst modern theory holds Henry guilty for the disastrous crime that was the dissolution of the monasteries for personal monetary gain, it is undisputed that some of the holy houses were engaging in duplicitous moral behaviour unbecoming of their station as well as severely undermining the King’s authority by paying homage and rent to a foreign power in the Pope. On the subject of money, a further allegation aimed towards the free-spending King was his obsession with new warships. He increased the nation’s fleet from 5 to 40, inadvertently becoming on of the recognised founders of the royal navy which would become irreplaceable in defending the realm and expanding the empire in subsequent centuries.
Whilst his break with Rome for personal, arrogant reasons has been condemned, he indirectly helped push the English language into constant growth until, 500 years later it has become the de facto language of the globe. Until Henry’s reign the language of court and thus officially was a mixture of French inherited from the Norman roots of the Plantagenet dynasty and Latin as the spoken-word of the church. English was a very fractured language radically different in the many distant communities. After the break from Rome Henry introduced the Tynsdale Bible, the first holy book written in a language other than Latin. The result was that for the first time a nation was, literally, on the same page and singing from the same sheet, bringing together the divided people.
Henry’s reign has seen many accusations levelled at him, both as a King and as a man. A tyrant, a despot, neglectful father and wife-killer are many of the labels thrown towards the monarch. It seems that despite honest, good intentions, the pious young man was irrevocably altered by court politics and the need to maintain a grip on his crown by being a ruthless ruler. What is indisputable is that his reign seems to be a case of means to an end. For all his faults, by the time he died his actions had left England on the cusp of becoming the world’s greatest superpower. He had taken a medieval, fuedal and unstable kingdom and set into action the policies and groundwork for what would subsequently become the most powerful empire in recent memory. So was Henry a good man who lost his way or simply an evil incarnation of the devil. As this article has proven, its never as easy as that.