Do Genetics account for Henry’s actions or are they his own?

Henry VIII as his younger self as Duke of York and later Prince of Wales upon his brother's death in the series "Isabel", a young and impetuous man in "The Tudors", in the recent drama of "Wolf Hall" when he was still in his prime and as an aging, paranoid and highly suspicious old man in "Henry VIII and his Six Wives". While these are different actors, they all show different sides of the monarch during the four stages of his life, the change from the most virtuous prince who was praised and so welcomed by courtiers, scholars and merchants alike into the monster we know today is notable.
Henry VIII as his younger self as Duke of York and later Prince of Wales upon his brother’s death in the series “Isabel”, a young and impetuous man in “The Tudors”, in the recent drama of “Wolf Hall” when he was still in his prime and as an aging, paranoid and highly suspicious old man in “Henry VIII and his Six Wives”. While these are different actors, they all show different sides of the monarch during the four stages of his life, the change from the most virtuous prince who was praised and so welcomed by courtiers, scholars and merchants alike into the monster we know today is notable.

There seems to be a lot of mixed opinions on whether or not Henry VIII was responsible for the deaths of many, including his best friends whom he did not flinch when the death sentence was given to them, and among these are his second and fifth wife and their alleged lovers. However, I recommend everyone to read the entire book ‘Blood Will Tell’ because the author clearly points out that as much as genetics do predispose us to certain behaviors, some of our actions are still our own. Henry was an athletic and highly accomplished prince who everyone puzzled at how could this man they once praised could turn into the monster that he did.

Sir Thomas More, on his coronation, praised him and extolled his virtues:

“Now the people, freed, run before their king with bright faces.
Their joy is almost beyond their own comprehension.
They rejoice, they exult, they leap for joy and celebrate for their having such a king.
‘The King’ is al that any mouth can say.
The nobility long since the mercy of the population,
the nobility whose title has too long been without meaning,
now lifts its head, now rejoices in such a king,
and has proper reason for rejoicing.
The merchant, heretofore deterred by numerous taxes, now once again plows seas grown unfamiliar.
All are equally happy.
All weigh their earlier losses against the advantages to come.”
Of course he and his friends could not have known that Henry suffered from Blood Positive Kell Type and the outcome that such thing would bring to England. Medical knowledge was we know it today was very rudimentary in this period. (The most ‘advance’ medicine and potions they brewed during birth for example, or during other ordeals would outstand us and indeed, it shocked me when I first read about them three years ago. ‘Did they really believe in this stuff?’ But they did. It was very real for them and there was no reason for them to question it).
Furthermore Henry provided a great contrast to his father who died two months prior in April. His father had won the crown and was king ‘by right of conquest’ and later he said and the pope as well ‘by blood’ and his union with the beautiful Elizabeth of York whom he pledged to marry two years prior to his coronation, made him tremendous popular. Their union was also praised by foreigners alike and seen as the union between the two houses who had been at war with each other for almost half a century, Lancaster and York. Of course it was more complicated than that. Henry VII still had to face rebellions, plots and pretenders and he was never fully secured until he executed the last pretender to his crown, Warbeck and his wife’s cousin, Edward Plantagenet, the Earl of Warwick and son of the Duke of Clarence (Edward IV’s younger brother). Henry improved many things for Wales where he was greatly popular but after he suffered from many personal losses (his uncle, his son and a year afterwards, his wife and newborn daughter), he became increasingly suspicious and withdrew himself from the public, appearing only rarely. He demanded more revenue from his people, especially the nobility.
It is no wonder then, why his son who was his complete opposite was so well received. Henry VIII knew how to please the people. As the Roman phrase goes ‘bread and circus’, give the people what they want, food and entertainment and they will cheer you regardless of what you do. And that is what Henry did when he had his father’s notorious councilors and tax collectors, Empson and Dudley arrested and within a year of his coronation, beheaded. This earned him more popular acclaim. Out with the old, in with the new. It was a new age and the people cheered with him.This was also very noted by foreign ambassadors who like Ludovico Falieri, the Venetian Ambassador to England, who noted that in the King, the people had a ruler who was:

“Of such beauty of mind and body is combined as to surprise and astonish. Grand stature, suited to his exalted position, showing the superiority of mind and character; a face like an angel’s, so fair is it; his head bald like Caesar’s and he wears a beard which is not the English custom. He is accomplished in every manly exercise, sits his horse well, tilts with his lance, throws the quoit, shoots with his bow excellent well; he is a fine tennis player, and he practices all these gifts with the greatest industry.”
Falieri had no reason to exaggerate. He wasn’t under Tudor payroll. Everything he said about Henry was true, and Henry knew how great he was in the eyes of many and as soon as he got more extolled by his friends and rivals alike, it got to his head and he developed an extreme narcissistic personality that obviously got worse after he turned forty and was hit with McLeod Syndrome. As many authors, Kramer and Lipscomb, note, genetics and the hit to his head after he fell from that jousting match in 1536, played a great part in his character development for later years in his reign, but so did his environment and his big ego which made him believe (without a doubt!) that he was God’s mouthpiece and that everything he did was not only sanctioned by God, but defying him would be defying the Almighty Himself. And when you believe that, and suffer from all these ailments, then it should come as to no surprise to anybody, that you are capable of doing the most ruthless acts.
Sources:
  • 1536 by Suzannah Lipscomb
  • Blood Will Tell by Kyra Cornelius Kramer
  • Six Wives and the Many Mistresses of Henry VIII by Amy Licence
  • Six Wives of Henry VIII by David Starkey
  • Tudor by Leanda de Lisle
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