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? 

School children in Mussolini’s Italy were given a cartoon history book. The page devoted to Henry VIII showed him in the Tower of London, leaning on the headsman’s axe. In front was the block and a kneeling wife holding up an infant in supplication; behind, a queue of other wives waiting their turn. Henry taking a breather: the basket beside the block is already full of heads. Italy and much of Europe had long seen Henry that way. In Donizetti’s opera Anna Bolena (1830), he is a Machiavellian who bates a trap for Anne by recalling her former suitor from abroad. He says to the Captain of his Guard,

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.

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