The short answer is no, I do not think Henry VIII deserves his reputation as a tyrant, at least not fully. Henry VIII was a victim of the court in which he lived. He was constantly manipulated; by his wives, particularly Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, his ministers like Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell, and even the clergy like Stephen Gardiner and Thomas Cranmer. Rarely any of the decisions he made were actually his own.[i] Although Henry VIII was in part manipulated, at least in his early years, he did gain some measure of control over the affairs of his country and himself later on in his life. This began with the issue of his lack of a male heir and divorce from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. It was enhanced by his changing religious beliefs to enable him to get a divorce, and it was certainly developed in his quest to choose his own wife and to marry for love. Only two of his wives came from diplomatic pressure, his first and fourth (Anne of Cleves). The other five were born and bred in England, and whom he married for personal choice rather than diplomatic pressure.[ii]
For example, the Great Matter of his divorce from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. Yes, Henry had thought that his marriage was invalid, but he was not willing to do anything about it until pushed to do so by Anne Boleyn, who acted as the catalyst, not only for the divorce, but also for the beginning of the English Reformation. Even then, Henry was only willing to go through the Pope for the divorce, until reformers like Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer, pushed him to go further. This may be bias but it does have a ring of truth to it.[iii] Henry was so desperate to marry Anne that he went along with it, and after Anne’s death tried to undo all the reformist measures, except the supremacy. He did not want anyone above him, but he also wanted a Catholic Church of England. He followed his own beliefs but wanted to be entirely in control. When Anne became a liability, (i.e. she had failed to produce a son and Henry had become disillusioned with her) he had her executed. He had been influenced by the machinations of Thomas Cromwell, and his own love for one of Anne’s ladies, Jane Seymour, and his desperate need for a male heir to secure the Tudor dynasty and stop another Wars of the Roses from happening, and undo all of his father’s work.
A clear case of manipulation was in the case of Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves. Cromwell was afraid that Henry VIII was going to undo the reformist measures that had been put in place during the reign of Anne Boleyn and had begun to be undone during the reign of Jane Seymour. Hence why Cromwell wanted an alliance with Cleves and the Protestant League. However, Henry did show some of his own feelings when he said he did not like her, hence the ‘Flander’s Mare’ came into being.[iv] Henry then had Cromwell executed because he had manipulated Henry into the alliance, and then could not find a way out of the marriage. However, Henry had allegedly fallen in love with Anne of Cleves because of the portrait painted by Holbein but in reality she did not live up to his fantasies and the marriage was not consummated.
Henry VIII’s relationships with his children are another example of how maybe he did not deserve his reputation as a tyrant. Although he was not overly close to any of them (this being the normal way of things within the royal family), he made sure that his son in particular was brought up to be ready to take over the reins of government, and that the best regency council he could muster was ready when he knew he was dying. His relationship with his eldest daughter, Mary, is probably the most controversial, and the one that most paints him as a tyrant. Mary was declared illegitimate when Henry married Anne Boleyn and had a daughter, Elizabeth, to replace her. She was pushed from the succession and was not restored until under Henry’s sixth and final wife, Katherine Parr, when Henry knew he would not have any more children. Mary had not been allowed to see her mother for the last four years of the latter’s life, as Henry was worried that they would plot together to put Mary on the throne in place of her father, and orchestrate an Imperial invasion. Mary was instead made to wait on her half-sister, Elizabeth, at Hatfield, until she too was made illegitimate on her mother’s execution. The two sisters were relatively close during the remainder of their father’s reign. It was only during Mary’s own reign that she realised the threat that Elizabeth posed. Henry drove his children apart because of his Reformation – Elizabeth on one side and Mary on the other.[v] This was possibly the cruellest thing of all.
[i] David Starkey, The Reign of Henry VIII: Personalities and Politics (London: Vintage, 2002)
[ii] Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (London: Phoenix Press, 2002)
[iii] Eustace Chapuys, Letters and Papers Foreign and Domestic of the Reign of Henry VIII [http://www.british-history.ac.uk/catalogue.aspx?gid=126]
[iv] David Starkey, Six Wives: the Queens of Henry VIII (London: Vintage, 2004)
[v] Alison Weir, Children of England: the Heirs of King Henry VIII (London: Pimlico, 1997)