Will the Real Henry VIII Please Stand Up?
Henry VIII may be our most famous monarch, a man who still bestrides English history as mightily as he dominated his kingdom nearly 500 years ago – but how well do we really understand him? Eric Ives looks for the man behind the bluster.
It is for you to ensure that the execution of my grand design does not miscarry. Keep their every step and every word under constant scrutiny.
English opinion could be equally damning. The young Jane Austen wrote:
The crimes and cruelties of this prince were too numerous to be mentioned, and nothing can be said in his vindication but that his abolishing religious houses and leaving them to the various depredations of time has been of infinite use to the landscape of England.
Go even further back to student plays at the Jesuit seminary at St Omer in the early 1600s. One ended with Henry being dragged down to Hell, in close anticipation of Don Giovanni.
Talking pictures brought this monstrous Henry to life. The archetype is Charles Laughton’s Oscar-winning king in The Private Life of Henry VIII (Alexander Korda 1933). This established the macho, totally self-regarding, totally self-absorbed Henry, and, incidentally the popular notion that the Tudors had no table manners. The message of the film is clear. Henry VIII’s reign can be reduced to wife trouble. The opening announces that Katherine of Aragon will not appear because ‘her story is of no particular interest – she was a respectable woman so Henry divorced her’, and the film ends with the king saying of Katherine Parr – more a bossy nurse than subservient wife – ‘Six wives and the best of them is the worst’. Laughton is a lustful monarch, a cock among a bevy of sweet chicks, each with eyes on the royal bed; a man who sees women as objects. That, too, is the Henry of Carry On Henry, the most widely circulated of all later films about the King. Television’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970) served history better and Keith Michell’s performance was more deeply drawn than Laughton’s, but as the title made clear, the focus was once again on Henry the married man. In his Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003) even David Starkey, who knows better, had to succumb to the expected.
The alternative Henry is the Henry of the Reformation. Indeed, the battle of Protestant versus Roman Catholic was for many years fought out over his character and motivation. Henry himself established the Protestant reading. The Great Bible, to which each of his subjects had access by law, has an engraved frontispiece of Henry enthroned, with God in the margin endorsing him with texts such as ‘I have found a man after my own heart who shall fulfil all my will’. The opposing Catholic view was put by Henry’s cousin Cardinal Reginald Pole. He wrote in 1536:
At your age in life and with all your experience of the world, you were enslaved by your passion for a girl. But she would not give you your will unless you rejected your wife, whose place she longed to take.
Henry driven by lust was hard for Protestants to counter. Bishop Burnet fell back on an omnipotent God who uses frail humans to achieve his will. It was a good line, often repeated, but Catholics undoubtedly held the high moral ground. For good measure, they could also accuse Henry of greed in destroying the monasteries and so producing massive social distress. That even persuaded the non-Catholic William Cobbett who declared:
The reformation was engendered in beastly lust, brought forth in hypocrisy and perfidy, and cherished and fed by plunder, devastation, and by rivers of English and Irish blood.
Henry and sex, Henry and religion. The King’s first major biographer, Herbert of Cherbury, argued that together these explained the posthumous collapse of Henry’s reputation.
It may truly be said, all his pomp died with him; his memory being now expos’d to ...obloquy... either by discontented clergymen (for his relinquishing of papal authority, and overthrowing the monasteries) or offended women (for divers severe examples against their sex).
More nuanced and secular interpretations only begin to appear in the mid-nineteenth century. James Anthony Froude presented Henry as a statesman who had led England out of medieval bigotry to moderation, saved it from invasion and religious war, and the British constitution was in large measure built ‘on foundations laid in his reign’. Henry’s faults were great but forgivable in ‘a sovereign who in trying times sustained nobly the honour of the English name and carried the commonwealth securely through the hardest crisis in its history’. A.F. Pollard dismissed Anne Boleyn in a sentence: ‘her place in English history is due solely to the circumstance that she appealed to the less refined part of Henry’s nature’. His monumental biography of the King claimed a deep symbiotic relationship between the monarch and the people of England and an astute, perhaps instinctive, identification with the contemporary zeitgeist. That in making omelettes Henry smashed a large number of valuable eggs was beside the point; the alternative was civil strife and bloodshed on a huge scale.
Since Pollard’s death in 1948 historical knowledge has been revolutionized by research on a scale he could not have imagined. And not simply scale. From the late fifteenth century, source material for English history begins to expand in both quantity and subject matter. Froude and Pollard were pioneers in exploiting this but, understandably did not fully appreciate the radically new approach that was required. It was, for example, no longer satisfactory to infer motivation. Under Henry VII the purpose of a statute has to be assumed from its text; there is no certainty that it even represents the King’s wishes. Under his son, not only can we now follow the drafting of the legislation but often much of the actual debate which lay behind it. And what is true of statutes is true generally. The statements ‘Alfred the Great decided’ and ‘Henry VIII decided’ are of quite different orders.
Compare Henry’s last will with that of his grandfather Edward IV (d.1483). On his deathbed Edward, so the Croyland Chronicle says, made ‘sagax dispositio’– ‘a wise settlement’ for governing during his son’s minority. Precisely what this sagacity amounted to we do not know; neither evidence nor the final will and codicils survive. For Henry VIII, we have will-related material and eye-witness accounts of what took place at the royal bedside. Research has demonstrated, for example, how wrong Cardinal Pole was when he wrote to Henry after Anne Boleyn’s execution: ‘God has got rid of the cause of all your mistakes. Cutting off her head has removed the chance for further offences and God has given you a good new wife’. What explains Henry’s commitment to religious change is not lust but self-image. This was neatly summed up in the inscription beneath Holbein’s great 1537 wall painting in Whitehall Palace, showing the King with his parents and his wife Jane Seymour. It compared the achievements of Henry VII who established civil peace, with Henry VIII who
born to still greater things, turns unworthy men away from the altars and brings in men of integrity. The presumptuousness of popes has yielded to unerring virtue: with Henry VIII bearing the sceptre in his hand, religion has been restored, and with him on the throne the truths of God have begun to be held in due reverence.
The sum of this half-century of research has, ironically, been to recover Henry’s personality and private life for the serious history of his reign. For example, we now know that late in the reign a ‘dry stamp’ of the King’s signature was produced. This was politically risky; it might fall into the wrong hands, but how else to get over the problem that even minutiae required the King’s signature. Otherwise, a chronically ill Henry would, in the last four weeks of his life, have been pestered to endorse over eighty papers including a letter of thanks for a gift of fruit trees, and a missive to a London widow recommending a suitable second husband.
So out with the cartoon Lawton and in with the monograph. For the hugely influential Geoffrey Elton, Henry was a negative, ‘far from masterful, competent or in charge’. The result was a vacuum filled by others. Jack Scarisbrick saw Henry as more of a force but essentially selfish: ‘Rarely, if ever, have the unawareness and irresponsibility of a king proved more costly to the material benefit of his people’. To L.B. Smith, Henry was the universal spider. David Starkey, has advanced the opposite view, ‘Henry the vulnerable’, with ‘the essential features of his rule [being] determined by other intelligences and shaped for other purposes’. The conclusions differ, but for all of them the character of Henry is central. It is a view which would have been passionately endorsed by the King’s contemporaries.
What, then, should readers of History Today make of Henry? There are two indisputables. First, Henry was personally dominant in both court and government. As James Gairdner put it,
Strictly speaking Henry was not an unconstitutional sovereign; all his doings were clothed with legality. But the whole machinery of the state, both legislative and executive, moved simply in accordance with his pleasure.
But dominant need not mean domineering. In any power structure where gaining and keeping the confidence of the head person is crucial to success, individuals are found in ‘sets’ and ‘subsets’ acting for mutual support and advantage. They are often described as ‘factions’ but the political dimension of that term can mislead. ‘Sets’ are organic, formed through natural ties of family, friendship, locality, taste, common concern, ambition and self interest. They vary in how tight or loose they are and they can overlap. Such patterns of relationship are observable in the courts of Byzantium, or around Hitler and Stalin or, for that matter around the Vice-Chancellor of a modern university. Henry VIII’s court was just like that.
The second certainty is that Henry the man and Henry the king cannot be separated. Henry was as convinced as Louis XIV that
‘l’état c’est moi’. True he did say, when about to marry Anne of Cleves: ‘If it were not to satisfy the world and my realm, I would not do that I must this day for none earthly thing’, but ‘satisfy’ meant no more than ‘do what is expected’. He was not marrying for the sake of the realm but because he couldn’t, with honour, get out of it. Henry’s private character and private life and his public persona and political life interpenetrated. Pollard’s generation and its successors covered many pages with evaluations of Henry’s supposed foreign policy. Egoism, however, provides the simple explanation. Henry’s constant objective was to be recognized as a monarch of European standing. An exception to this is the 1530s but then only because the object was to resolve his personal matrimonial problems and then to defend the outcome. Egoism is equally obvious in domestic matters. Henry responded to the Lincolnshire protesters in the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 with abuse:
How presumptuous then are ye, the rude commons of one shire, and that one of the most brute and beastly of the whole realm, and of least experience, to find fault with your prince... whom ye are bound by all laws to obey and serve, with both your lives, lands and goods, and for no worldly cause to withstand.
His conviction that he possessed superior wisdom and absolute authority was total. It was unforgivable presumption to challenge him, an impertinence towards the Lord’s anointed which was conclusive evidence of ‘a cankered heart’.
Egoism was compounded by falsity and deceit. Henry was very much the faux bonhomme; after Thomas More had been seen walking with the royal arm round his shoulders, he warned that the King would behead him without a qualm if it ‘could win him a castle in France’. Indeed Edmund de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, was beheaded in 1513 precisely to free Henry to invade France. The Earl had been extradited on promise that his life would be spared, but since that guarantee had been given by his father, Henry himself felt absolved. He was nothing if not legalistic, provided it suited him
Linked to this was an ability to deny reality, an obstinate conviction that facts were as he wanted to them to be. At the height of the Pilgrimage of Grace he wrote to the embattled Duke of Norfolk: ‘it is much to our marvel to receive so many desperate letters from you’. If things were as bad as the Duke said, he was obviously falling down on the job, unless, that is, he was so concerned about problems that he was overlooking the good news which must be there. Henry was the world’s best armchair strategist.
Opinionated self-righteousness made Henry both the most forgiving and the most unforgiving of men. An alleged offender who could reach the King, abjectly confess himself guilty of whatever Henry suspected, true or not, and throw himself on royal mercy, could expect to be pardoned. In so doing he had confirmed Henry’s perspicacity. On the other hand, if the King suspected ‘dissembling’, ‘stiffness’ or ingratitude he would be harsh in the extreme. Pole again:
he has robbed every kind of man, made sport of the nobility, never loved the people, troubled the clergy, and torn like a wild beast the men who were the greatest honour to his kingdom.
Between 1509 and 1547, more English notables were executed than under any other monarch before or since.
All these traits fed a failing which the French ambassador Marillac identified in 1540: ‘distrust and fear’. Henry was insecure. This is where the sets and subsets mattered. If the person at the top is open to influence they can exert pressure, and Henry was at times very susceptible. Wolsey fell, not because the King planned his downfall but because Henry was pressured. After the fall of his second great minister, Thomas Cromwell, Henry grumbled that his counsellors ‘upon light pretexts, by false accusations, had made him put to death the most faithful servant he ever had’. Herbert of Cherbury concluded that: ‘Impressions privately given to the king by any court-whisperer were hardly or never to be effaced’. On the other hand, the qualification ‘susceptible at times’is important. Henry was not a puppet. His vulnerability does not contradict the proposition that he was truly dominant. His word was law and he was capable of initiative and decision. The point is that his innate suspiciousness meant that he could on occasion be persuaded. As the dying Wolsey famously said to Sir William Kingston, constable of the Tower, ‘Be well advised and assured what matter ye put in [the King’s] head, for ye shall never pull it out again’. Thomas More, too, said much the same.
In the search for the real Henry the hardest question is to explain why was he as he was. The evidence is almost all second-hand; Henry left no diary and only a handful of his more than a thousand letters are at all personal. Take upbringing. Modern psychology leaves no doubt about the formative influence of childhood, but there is little evidence for Henry the child and the adolescent. Was he repressed, as some ambassadors say? How was he affected by the early death of his elder brother? Was he influenced by his formidable grandmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort? In the Royal Collection is a terracotta bust believed to be of the young Henry. What is the relationship between that laughing happy child and the man he became? What did he really feel about marrying his sister-in-law Katherine and what weight should we place on the admission in a youthful letter to Erasmus that the news of her brother’s death had re-opened the wound ‘of the death of his dearest mother’ ‘which time had brought to insensibility’?
Marillac, who fastened on Henry’s obsessive suspiciousness, also reported that he was ‘so covetous that all the riches in the world would not satisfy him’. Henry was avarice personified. This trait is evident in page after page of his inventories. That a king should regard a full treasury as desirable is understandable, but Henry was obsessed with ownership. When he died he had thousands of yards of cloth of gold in store, far more than could ever be needed. Why over a hundred pairs of embroidered sleeves? Why in the cash-strapped 1540s did his agents conspire to keep him from hearing about jewels on the market? And why, having inherited thirteen houses did he acquire and retain thirty or so more, many of which he never visited?
Henry would, no doubt, be gratified that his inner psychology is hard to understand: ‘if my cap knew what I was thinking, I would burn it’. The only truly private letters which survive are those to Anne Boleyn. They reveal genuine passion and a true psychological dependency on her, something borne out by contemporary comments. But they cover only two years in a ten year relationship. As for its collapse, even if we assume that by 1536 Henry’s feelings for Anne were dead and that she was an obstacle to his desires, what do we make of a man who as an act of grace summons the executioner from Calais to behead her in the French manner?
The difficulty in reaching the inner Henry explains the speculation and psycho history which appears all too often. However there are clues. One thing which obsessed him was status. This is not surprising; the whole of his upbringing and environment was designed to emphasise regal distance. Hence the egoism. He alone mattered. Henry, of course, did not see egoism as a fault but as a response to God. He was God’s anointed in reality, not merely in coronation theory, and it would be a sin to tolerate any slur on that high calling. This conviction freed him to destroy anyone, however intimate. Status is the ultimate explanation of the break with Rome. Matrimonial difficulty opened Henry’s eyes to the fact that human authority was frustrating what God had decreed. As the years passed, his version of Christianity became increasingly idiosyncratic but the changes he forced on the English Church are explicable only as an attempt to obey God. As the Whitehall inscription announced ‘religion has been restored, and with him on the throne the truths of God have begun to be held in due reverence’.
Yet if possessing a God-given status, why the insecurity? One factor undoubtedly was having no male heir until he had reached middle age, and the birth of Edward only meant that the focus of anxiety shifted. But circumstances alone cannot account for the depth of Henry’s vulnerability. Despite his bluff extrovert performance, he had a deep need to rely on other people. Given ideas, he could pursue them – the work he put in on the divorce shows that – but he rarely initiated. The radical solution to his matrimonial dilemma was sold to him in the teeth of traditionalists who advised otherwise. Moderate religious reform progressed in the 1530s because Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell had command of the King’s ear. He was at his least secure when his deepest convictions were engaged. The succession problem which followed the death of Edward VI and rumbled on for the rest of the century was because Henry was determined that the crown should go to his daughters Mary and Elizabeth, but equally determined to maintain that both were illegitimate.
Insecurity is probably the key factor in understanding Henry and sex. Once again historians differ. Did he, as one of his subjects claimed, ‘want only an apple and a fair wench to dally with’? Was the assertion that he had never spared a man in his anger or a woman in his lust genuine or locker room bragging? The latter seems probable for Henry’s extra-marital activity is markedly restrained, in contrast to, say, Charles V, Francis I or more than one pope. Couple the good evidence that in the 1530s Henry suffered episodes of impotence with remarks he made which show that he identified virility with producing children, especially a son, and the obvious conclusion is that the sexual disfunction of his mature years was caused by anxiety. When this began it is hard to say. Katherine of Aragon’s record of six conceptions in fifteen years is not good and all but one of them ended in miscarriage or neo-natal death. It would have been only human to wonder what was wrong. In the 1520s Henry rationalized it as a consequence of his unwitting disobedience to God in marrying his brother’s widow and a similar anxiety surfaced in the last months of his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Viagra, of course, had not been invented.
Asking the real Henry to stand up reveals to twenty-first-century eyes a figure both monstrous and inadequate, but the perspective and values of Henry’s contemporaries were markedly different. What first impressed them was his magnificence, the essential virtue expected of a king. They would have found nothing to query in a superfluity of embroidered sleeves. At the sight of Henry in full Garter robes, the Venetian diplomat, Pasquaglio, declared: ‘he is handsomest potentate I ever set eyes on’. Henry was a big man with big ideas. His summit meeting with Francis I at the Field of Cloth of Gold was one of the marvels of Europe. It was regal glory in action. Henry was the greatest builder of all the English kings. Hampton Court alone was enlarged three times; Whitehall was essentially his creation, so was St James. With only limited modifications, his palaces lasted English monarchs for two hundred years. Their walls were bright with over three hundred tapestries. The gold, silver gilt and silver plate was prodigious; he possessed over a hundred ornate salts, while his gold and silver candlesticks alone together weighed a quarter of a ton. To the sixteenth-century mind, magnificence was, not egregious waste: it was of the essence of monarchy.
A similar contrast applies to Henry’s foreign policy. We may dismiss it as egoistical posing, and his military successes as trivial and bought at wholly unreasonable expense. Some of his subjects felt the same, but by no means all. Henry VIII was the first king for more than a century to conquer territory in France. In the last four years of his reign the English laity contributed £750,000 towards war with no hint of rebellion. When Parliament voted the taxes for 1545 it declared that:
We the people of this his realm have for the most part of us so lived under his Majesty’s sure protection and do yet so live out of all fear and danger as if there were no war at all, even as the small fishes of the sea, in most stormy and tempestuous weather, do lie quietly under the rock or bank side, and are not moved with the surges of the water, nor stirred out of their quiet place, howsoever the wind bloweth.
The early Elizabethan Ballad of Flodden Field, begins its peroration with the lines:
Through the might that Christ Jesus did him send
lists the towns he conquered, and ends with the brag that he ‘kept to Calais, ‘plenished with Englishmen until the death that he did die’. For the bulk of the nation ‘Henry had to do what a king had to do’.
It may, of course, seem that this was not true for Henry VIII’s religious policies. Current revisionist historians have gone to great lengths to show that the traditional Church was deeply rooted in English society and that change was not wanted. But Henry met active opposition only in the North in 1536. and nobles who were deeply traditional in religion, were active in suppressing it. As for the more populous parts, they would threaten revolt over taxes but not over Henry’s religious spoliation. Spectators might be shocked at the martyrdom of priests but not sufficiently moved to try to save the martyrs. When six years after Henry’s death the country had the opportunity to reverse the ruin of the Church, it did not put its hands in its pocket. The late medieval Church was more vigorous than was once thought, but support for it was clearly too superficial to cause Henry concern.
The third quality that dazzled contemporaries was personality. In the desperate crisis of the summer of 1549, Henry’s erstwhile secretary implored Protector Somerset to act on behalf of the young King Edward:
Sir, for a king, do like a king. Go no further than to him who died last of noble memory, Henry VIII. Kept he not his subjects from highest to lowest in due obedience? And how? By the only maintenance of justice in due course.
Mary I faced with male counsellors ready to treat her orders as an invitation to debate, burst out on one occasion that ‘she only wished her father might come to life for a month’. Early in James I’s reign, the theatrical company ‘Prince Henry’s Men’ had a huge success at the Fortune Theatre with a play with the significant title When you see me you know me. Indeed, so successful were they that His Majesty’s Players, their rivals at the Globe, had to get Shakespeare and John Fletcher to write Henry VIII. Each play assumes that Henry’s personal foibles and mannerisms would be immediately recognized by a London audience despite the years since the King’s death. Henry was remembered as a proper king.
There is a chasm between the ways historians see Henry VIII and the way his subjects saw him. But it would be wrong to reject the latter because today we are so much better informed. Both characterizations have to be held in tension. Fallible though Henry was, modem criticism cannot destroy the reality that to his people he was a great king. A ballad written soon after his death summed him up in these words.
For if wisdom or manhood by any means could
Have saved a man’s life to ensure for ever,
The King Henry the 8th so noble and so bold
Out of this wide world he would have passed never.
Not even Henry could manage that, but it is no little achievement that 450 years after his death it remains true that ‘When you see me, you know me’.
For Further reading
Henry VIII in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (OUP, 2004 and on line); Robert Hutchinson, The Last Days of Henry VIII (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2005); Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (Blackwell, 2004); David Starkey, Six Wives: the Queens of Henry VIII (Chatto & Windus, 2003); Alison Weir, Henry VIII, King and Court (Jonathan Cape, 2001).
- Eric Ives is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Birmingham.
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology