Do I Think Henry VIII Deserves his Reputation as a Tyrant?


Henry VIII by Hans Holbein 1540
Henry VIII by Hans Holbein 1540

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]

Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait
Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait

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.

Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein 1539
Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein 1539

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.

Mary I 1544 by Master John.
Mary I 1544 by Master John.

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)

Advertisements

27 thoughts on “Do I Think Henry VIII Deserves his Reputation as a Tyrant?

  1. Greetings from Colorado! I’m bored at work so I decided to browse your site on my
    iphone during lunch break. I love the information you provide here and can’t
    wait to take a look when I get home. I’m amazed at
    how fast your blog loaded on my phone .. I’m not even using WIFI, just 3G ..

    Anyhow, good site!

    Like

  2. Incidentally, rehashing tired myths and cliches is not “pursuit of truth” is it? Try studying primary sources and looking at things completely afresh if you want “the truth”, and drop the 21st century visor. It’s really not going to help you.

    Like

  3. Eric Ives knew a lot about Anne Boleyn, but was no expert on Cromwell, and he’s not the final word. Study of Primary Source evidence bears out my own, Schofield’s and Elton’s assertions about Cromwell being nothing more than a scapegoat for Anne’s downfall.

    Cromwell was involved, but so were a lot of people around at that time. He did his job, according to the wishes of his King.

    Like

  4. Also, Anne Boleyn may have been the catalyst for the split with Rome (the Schism), but the Reformation is another matter altogether. The Dissolution of the Monasteries occurred later, mostly happening after her execution. The Schism and the Dissolution may be linked, but they are still two separate events and the terms shouldn’t be used inter-changeably.

    Like

  5. I would agree that Henry VIII doesn’t deserve the reputation as a tyrant. But it is not quite true that he never made his own decisions. He relied heavily on his ministers to do the actual work, as any President would do today. There is an instance where he put his foot down and made an appointment without his Council’s approval immediately after coming to the throne. The Duke of Norfolk has also commented that once the King has made up his mind, there is no use for any of them to say anything. That doesn’t point to an indecisive man.

    Regarding the Great Matter, while Henry already explored the possibility of divorce from Catherine since 1524, he had not exactly found out anything about the invalidity of his marriage. I doubt he would have let it rest if he believed in it since 1524. It was only when he actively sought for a divorce that he started reading up canon law and came to the conclusion that his first marriage was invalid. I discussed it here in my blog: http://bluffkinghal.wordpress.com/2012/07/28/the-royal-seven-year-itch/

    Like

    1. Henry himself wanted an alliance with the Schmalkaldic League, Cromwell was his advisor, not his keeper. It did not happen because Henry refused to comply with all their conditions for entry into the League. It is commonly assumed that Henry wanted a Catholic Church with himself as head. I disagree. Having opened the Pandora’s box, he himself had to deal with all the questions that arose regarding religion. Being deeply interested in theology, he certainly indulged in a lot of reforms. GW Bernard makes a good case for Henry wanting to adopt the middle way with regards to religion in his latter years.

      The Flanders Mare story is a myth. Henry never called her that. Cromwell being executed for arranging the match with Anne of Cleves is also a myth. This is an article that discusses this question splendidly. http://masterthomascromwell.wordpress.com/2012/05/27/i-like-him-not-the-downfall-of-thomas-cromwell/

      Like

    2. I just followed your blog – looking good!

      There is plenty of evidence that Wolsey manipulated Henry – he would give Henry things to look at and distract him before asking for what he really wanted (Source: David Starkey, ‘The Reign of Henry VIII’).

      Anne Boleyn was the catalyst of the English Reformation – it seems that Henry was very much a Catholic at heart, as evidenced by his return to Catholic principles, and Katherine Parr’s very close shave when she was nearly arrested. Henry was Catholic, but wanted no one set above him.

      Like

      1. Starkey takes the stance that Wolsey gave Henry what HENRY wanted. Free time to enjoy and took the burden on his shoulders. In return Henry gave him a free rein on most matters. Hardly manipulation. Henry decided where Wolsey got off. Starkey talks more about it in Young Henry where Henry often puts his foot down against everyone’s wishes. I doubt any of them made the mistake of thinking they could manipulate Henry.

        Like

  6. Although I do agree that Henry VIII does not deserve his reputation – I totally disagree with your reasoning. Henry was one of our strongest Monarchs – very much his own man who made his own decisions. What I think you neglect (and many others) are the times he lived in. He was a product of the dynastic feuding that pre-dated his reign. The blood Henry shed in the short term prevented much more bloodshed further down the line. His reign did not occur in a vacuum – and he was very much affected by what preceded him.

    Saying he did bad things simply because he was being “manipulated” is a bit of a cop-out. He was an absolute Monarch, and the buck stopped with him alone. Both Cromwell and Wolsey were exceptionally able men who worked their backs into the ground for the benefit of Henry, and for the benefit of the nation as a whole. But that doesn’t mean Henry was being manipulated by them. They all just worked for a common goal.

    Henry was fiercely intelligent – more than you give him credit for.

    Like

    1. I know Henry was an incredibly intelligent man, but I think he was so focused on what had gone before – the Wars of the Roses and his father’s fears of not having an heir to follow him – that it made him easily manipulated, because his fears took hold and his councillors played on them. Anne Boleyn played on his fears of not having a male heir to get him to marry her. Cromwell played on these fears to get Henry to ok a conspiracy to overthrow Anne.

      Like

      1. Now here’s another mythical cliché you’re peddling. This whole idea that it was Thomas Cromwell who brought down Anne Boleyn is so wildly exaggerated by Hist Fic and Pop Historians. The reality (and by reality I mean primary sources), Henry asked Cromwell to investigate rumours about Anne that had been circulating for years on end. Cromwell did not invent them, he did not force people to report on Anne to him, and he did not fabricate the circumstances of her fall. He also worked on the annulment of the marriage – and did not appear to be organising any kind of an execution. Before dragging Cromwell’s name through the mud I strongly suggest you do some reading on the man. If you’re a History student at degree level (as you claim to be), I’m sure you’ll be familiar with the works of GR Elton – a staple for any student of the Tudor era. Also, there is Schofield’s revolutionary biography of Thomas Cromwell which totally over-hauls the demonisation he has been subjected to.

        Like

      2. Anne Boleyn and Henry were in love in the beginning. You just have to see the letters they exchanged to realize that. It was far, far more than just courtly love. I don’t think she specifically manipulated him, any more than wives did in those days.

        Like

      3. Eric Ives prescribed to the idea that Cromwell conspired to bring Anne down. His arguments are very persuasive and his evidence is supportive of that argument. My dissertation supervisor accepts my arguments. I don’t think that history is really about dragging people’s names through the mud or defending them; it’s about the pursuit of the truth and the analysis of the evidence.

        Like

  7. I would agree that Henry VIII doesn’t deserve the reputation as a tyrant. But it is not quite true that he never made his own decisions. He relied heavily on his ministers to do the actual work, as any President would do today. There is an instance where he put his foot down and made an appointment without his Council’s approval immediately after coming to the throne. The Duke of Norfolk has also commented that once the King has made up his mind, there is no use for any of them to say anything. That doesn’t point to an indecisive man.

    Regarding the Great Matter, while Henry already explored the possibility of divorce from Catherine since 1524, he had not exactly found out anything about the invalidity of his marriage. I doubt he would have let it rest if he believed in it since 1524. It was only when he actively sought for a divorce that he started reading up canon law and came to the conclusion that his first marriage was invalid. I discussed it here in my blog: http://bluffkinghal.wordpress.com/2012/07/28/the-royal-seven-year-itch/

    Henry himself wanted an alliance with the Schmalkaldic League, Cromwell was his advisor, not his keeper. It did not happen because Henry refused to comply with all their conditions for entry into the League. It is commonly assumed that Henry wanted a Catholic Church with himself as head. I disagree. Having opened the Pandora’s box, he himself had to deal with all the questions that arose regarding religion. Being deeply interested in theology, he certainly indulged in a lot of reforms. GW Bernard makes a good case for Henry wanting to adopt the middle way with regards to religion in his latter years.

    The Flanders Mare story is a myth. Henry never called her that. Cromwell being executed for arranging the match with Anne of Cleves is also a myth. This is an article that discusses this question splendidly. http://masterthomascromwell.wordpress.com/2012/05/27/i-like-him-not-the-downfall-of-thomas-cromwell/

    Like

  8. I would agree that Henry VIII doesn’t deserve the reputation as a tyrant. But it is not quite true that he never made his own decisions. He relied heavily on his ministers to do the actual work, as any President would do today. There is an instance where he put his foot down and made an appointment without his Council’s approval immediately after coming to the throne. The Duke of Norfolk has also commented that once the King has made up his mind, there is no use for any of them to say anything. That doesn’t point to an indecisive man.

    Regarding the Great Matter, while Henry already explored the possibility of divorce from Catherine since 1524, he had not exactly found out anything about the invalidity of his marriage. I doubt he would have let it rest if he believed in it since 1524. It was only when he actively sought for a divorce that he started reading up canon law and came to the conclusion that his first marriage was invalid. I discussed it here in my blog: http://bluffkinghal.wordpress.com/2012/07/28/the-royal-seven-year-itch/

    Henry himself wanted an alliance with the Schmalkaldic League, Cromwell was his advisor, not his keeper. It did not happen because Henry refused to comply with all their conditions for entry into the League. It is commonly assumed that Henry wanted a Catholic Church with himself as head. I disagree. Having opened the Pandora’s box, he himself had to deal with all the questions that arose regarding religion. Being deeply interested in theology, he certainly indulged in a lot of reforms. GW Bernard makes a good case for Henry wanting to adopt the middle way with regards to religion in his latter years.

    The Flanders Mare story is a myth. Henry never called her that. Cromwell being executed for arranging the match with Anne of Cleves is also a myth. This is an article that discusses this question splendidly. http://masterthomascromwell.wordpress.com/2012/05/27/i-like-him-not-the-downfall-of-thomas-cromwell/

    Like

  9. True, but I still don’t think Henry deserves his reputation as a tyrant, because he was constantly being manipulated by someone. But I do agree with you that all were victims in a way, because everyone was being manipulated by someone else. However, with respect to the Great Matter, I think that Henry wasn’t really serious about a divorce until he met Anne, and realised that he could replace Katherine with her. I don’t think he wanted to divorce Katherine until he had a replacement lined up.

    Like

      1. Henry VIII was manipulated – by Wolsey, Anne, Cromwell, Hertford, Wriothesley. It was constant, and he wasn’t really a very strong monarch, only when he really wanted something, like to divorce Katherine and marry Anne, or divorce Anne of Cleves. The main times when Henry actually grew a backbone was in connection to his marriages and his wives and children.

        Like

  10. Your right he was always a catholic but he didn’t want the pope to above him. Though i must say that when he knew for sure that Catherine couldn’t give him the son he wanted he started to look for any way to get out of this marriage. Not only him but everybody was a victim in a way. Like Anne, what would her father do if she said no to seducing Henry, he most likely would disinherit her.

    Like

      1. I don’t believe it was her father’s fault. I think he wanted her to take that step, but it was fundamentally her own choice. I don’t think he would have disinherited Anne, because she was too valuable in the marriage market. He needed to improve his family’s standing with her marriage.

        Like

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s