Dead Men tell no Tales: The black legend of Henry VIII

It is easy to see why people have a hard time differentiating from the jolly old monarch, bluff king Hal/good king Hall, or the murderous, lecherous psychopath that came centuries later, to the real Henry VIII, who was as complex as everyone else during this era.
I have been guilty of viewing him through a twenty first century lens.
This is not going to be some excuse-making post about him, Henry VIII did a lot of things that were atrocious but when you want to have a serious discussion about him, you have to look at his reign in the proper context and the proper context is looking at it from a 16th century standpoint.
Henry VIII was no saint but neither was he a mustache-twirling villain, what he was, was a Humanist Prince whom everyone started to adore, ignoring the people he executed because they happened to be people they hated (Empson and Dudley) until one day he overstepped his boundaries, broke away from the church, threatened the livelihood of farmers and traders who relied on the monastic system that people went ‘okay this is going too far.’ The fat that he also wanted to annul his marriage to his wife of many years who was beloved by the English people, also played a part in people rising up against him. But even as they rebelled, they always made sure to point out that it wasn’t against him directly but their ministers.

The Forgotten Monarch:

Henry VIII young and old
Henry VIII as a young man (left) and later in his reign (right).

It is easy to see why Henry VIII is seen as a villain. From a twenty-first century standpoint he does seem amoral, but we forget that the past is a different country and the Tudor era can’t easily be divided into good and evil. History is not a morality tale and if we want to have a serious discussion about the infamous monarch, we have to get to the heart of the story and see how the black legend of lecherous, murdering bluff king hall came to be.

 In the following paragraph from The Wives of Henry VIII, Antonia Fraser says the following about Henry regarding the judicial arrest and later murder of Anne Boleyn:

“It is true that the workings of the King’s conscience followed the dictates of his heart amazingly conveniently. But this did not mean that he did not have a conscience. On the contrary, it was a likely and important part of his nature. The coincidence between passion and conscience was more apparent to outsiders than it was to him, a useful capacity for her self deception being another of his attributes … This is not to absolve Henry VIII of guilt concerning his second wife’s destruction, let alone the deaths of the innocent courtiers, some of them his close friends. On a rational level, the sovereign who agreed on 24 April to sign the commission of investigation into unknown treasonable conspiracies must have had a fair idea of what was going on. And even if that signing could be regarded as a purely routine administrative matter, the King went on a few days later to sign the documents necessary for summoning parliament … It is merely to observe that Henry VIII found it easy enough to absolve himself.”

Fraser and several other historians have pointed out, Henry wasn’t a dastardly being.

Deep down, to quote historian Robert Hutchinson, “he believed that what he wanted was what God wanted.” And it will be easy to point out his hypocrisy, but before doing that, his religiosity must be addressed.

“Most people have seen the famous painting of the bloated, middle-aged King, standing with his fists anchored pugnaciously to his hips, wearing sumptuous cloths covered in embroidery and jewels. The force of his personality can still be felt, even more a two-dimensional depiction in oil … His appearance thoroughly matches his reputation as a brutal thug who murdered women when he tired of them … Henry is popularly remembered as a fat, covetous, and womanizing lout, but this image is less than half the story.  The aged King, with his cruel disdain for others and his harsh authoritarianism, is very different from his younger self.  When Henry ascended to the throne, he strove to bring harmony and chivalry to his court; he was not to contentious and brutal man he was to become …  As a young man, Henry was a handsome, genial, and a rational ruler. The youthful King was described, in the private letters of more than one foreign ambassador or other court contemporary, as having incredible physical beauty. His hair was red, he had very fair skin, and his face was as lovely as that of “a pretty woman” (Scarisbrick, 1970:13) … In addition to his physical accomplishments, the King had a brilliant mind. Henry’s intellect impressed many of the most famous thinkers of his day.”

In her book, Blood Will Tell, medical historian Kyra Cornelius Kramer illustrates Henry’s youth and background before she talks about the possible illnesses that affected him.
She also spends a good deal dispelling myths surrounding Henry, starting with the notion that he was a lecher whose mood changes were the result of venereal diseases from countless sex partners.

“Had it been suspected that Henry had syphilis, word of his condition would doubtlessly have circulated in European courts. The fact that he was the English monarch would not have stopped the doctors from reporting his disease, any more than it stopped royal physicians from making the King of France’s condition common knowledge.”

In her book, Six Wives and the Many Mistresses of Henry VIII, women’s historian Amy Licence, contests this notion, saying that there might be a bit of truth in legends, although she also maintains that in comparison to other kings, Henry was far more discreet and a prude.

Young Henry: The Man that Time Forgot

Henry VIII young
Henry VIII by the Venetian Ambassador who was impressed with the young King’s physique and pursuit of knowledge: “The handsomest potentate Ii ever set eyes on; above the usual height, with n extremely fine call to his leg, his complexion very fair and bright, with auburn hair combed straight and short, in the French fashion, and a round face so very beautiful, that it would become a pretty woman.”

Henry VIII grew up in a strict environment. It was all fun and games until his brother died and his father, worrying about his last remaining male heir, was forced to do some adjustments to his schooling and outdoor activities. Basically, he wasn’t allowed to go out much. His father enjoyed playing cards, joking with friends when he was abroad and watching jousting tournaments. Naturally, his son wanted to do all that and more but his father didn’t let him. Henry was allowed to have friends but he wasn’t allowed to engage in any sort of sports that might hurt him.
In the twelfth century, Louis VI of the Capetian Dynasty, aka Louis “the Fat”, of France lost his eldest son due to horse riding. And jousting was far more dangerous, especially for a young boy, so that was out of the question.

Courtiers thought that Henry would grow up to be someone they could easily control but he surprised them when he told them he’d choose his bride, concocting a sentimental lie how it was what his father asked of him before he died. Rescuing Katharine of Aragon from near penury, Henry VIII saw himself as Sir Lancelot to her Guinevere. At times the two engaged in elaborate masques where they would each play different roles, with Katharine as the damsel in distress and Henry as her knight in shining armor. In her documentary series, the Secrets of the Six Wives (Six Wives in the UK), Lucy Worsley spent the first half hour of the first episode showing how deeply in love Henry and Katharine were and that they were equal in looks, stubbornness, and their educational backgrounds.

I am not going to spend to be discussing Katharine’s background, I have done that already in other posts which I’ve linked down below. I will say that when it comes to Henry, his background is often ignored to the point that all people can think of -when they think of Henry- is this disgusting gluttonous lecherous idiot. That was not always the case and this perception is a perfect example of how the shifting religious landscape affected people’s views on a man who was once hailed by the Venetian ambassador as the true embodiment of Humanist principle.

The origins of the Black Legend & the truth about his childhood

In his biography on Henry VIII, the late David Loades had this to say on the Good King Hal:

Pro … defensione was the first round in the creation of that ‘black legend’ of Henry VIII which thereafter dominated all those records of English events which emanated either from Catholic Europe or from the English Catholic community. One of the most vitriolic was Nicholas Sander’s De origine ac progressu schismaticis Anglicani published at Cologne in 1585, which attributed Henry’s actions in the 1530s entirely to unbridled lust, both for Anne Boleyn and also for the wealth of the Church. This was a line also taken by Robert Parsons in his treatise of three conversions … which was issued at St Omer in 1603. Modern historians in the Catholic tradition have been far more judicious, not only because polemic no longer serves a useful purpose, but because the debate has broadened to embrace the King’s whole style of government. Cardinal Gasquet in 1888, while not abandoning the lust and greed interpretation, was more concerned to set the events in context and to admit that there might have been some justification for the King’s extreme reactions. In the twentieth century Philip Hughes, while pointing out that Henry had a tendency to alter the law to suit his own convenience, also proposed that there was much amiss with the late medieval Church, and particularly the monasteries, which invited the King’s intervention. This concession has been repudiated by more recent scholars, notably Jack Scarisbrick and Eamon Duffy, who have argued that the Church was in rude health and that Henry’s success was primarily the result of his exercise of crude force. It was by executing dissenters on both sides of the confessional divide that the King enforced his will, using fear and intimidation as his principal weapons. Meanwhile, for historians of a Protestant persuasion the reformation was a change waiting to happen. Without denying the importance of the King’s actions, they proposed a model of a Church corrupted from within by superstition and idolatry, a tottering edifice awaiting a decisive push. Unfortunately Henry’s push had been anything but decisive, as they admitted.
John Foxe, standing at the head of his tradition, was frankly puzzled by Henry, who seemed to blow both hot and cold on the reformers -often at the same time.”

David Loades’ assessment on the second Tudor monarch, is probably the fairest.

EOY and Henry VIII signatures
“Henry’s handwriting has always been a bit of a mystery. The ‘Y’s with that little back loop. The ‘R’s look much like ‘z’ in modern handwriting and the ‘H’s are quite unlike the handwriting of Henry’s known teachers. On the other hand, it is rather like this.’ David Starkey motions to show a book listing other primary sources that contains a letter written by none other than Henry’s mother, Elizabeth of York. ‘And this is one of the very few surviving specimens of the handwriting of Henry’s mother. ‘This book is mine. Elizabeth, the King’s daughter.’ It says. It is only eight words and thirty-nine letters. And yet it is characteristic enough in weight, rhythm and letter forms to prove conclusive (I think) that Elizabeth herself was the first teacher of her daughters and her second son, Henry. It’s a charming picture, Henry the little prince and a loving family.” He described this as unusual “for sixteenth century monarchs.” And it certainly is but I think that has to do with the simple fact that he was the second son, the “spare”. Given that Arthur was destined to be King and going to receive a top-notch education, Elizabeth of York probably felt her other children, including Henry, could be more carefree. It must have felt terrible for the young boy when he lost his mother and his father (with good reason) became paranoid. Henry VII felt he had to protect him at all cost and until his father died, there was little indication of what Henry wanted. What Henry VII said, his son did. When he became King, he realized the enormous power that he had and how quickly he could win the people over by showing them that he was the opposite of his father. Like his mother, he was amicable, surrounding himself with people of low and high stature. And like his maternal grandfather, he was eager to be loved.

In his documentary on Henry VIII, as well as in his biography on him, David Starkey stated that Henry had a deep connection with his mother. To prove his point, he showed viewers to copies, one of his mother and the other of Henry. The handwriting is similar and given that he was the spare, it makes sense why he and Elizabeth became close. Further proof of this lies in Henry’s words. He said to one of his colleagues that his mother’s death was one of the hardest moments of his life, and something he had never gotten over with.

But Henry’s idyllic childhood didn’t last. As previously stated, it ended when his brother died and his father became overprotective of him. In her recent biography on the Tudors, The Private Lives of the Tudors, Tracy Borman says that Henry VIII’s descent into madness can be traced back to his childhood. By the time he became King, he had grown into a “highly strung, impulsive and vain young man with a terrifying and unpredictable temper. Those who served him would soon learn how swiftly his favour could be lost.” She is referring to Empson and Dudley, his father’s dreaded tax-collectors whom he put in prison as soon as he came to the throne and less than a year later, had them executed. Some historians take this as proof that Henry was bloodthirsty from the beginning and people only turned against him when he attacked their privilege and their beloved church.

Henry VIII: The Politician & Trying to Solve the Puzzle

Henry VIII full body red and grey classic portrait
An older Henry VIII at the end of his reign. By this time, he had become obese, the ulcer in his leg had worsened and it is possible he was suffering from other illnesses. His over-eating and desire for glory, as well as his position as head of his church, wishing to secure his legacy, didn’t help. Yet, aware of the power of words and images, he made sure that he’d become immortal through them, especially with the latter. His pose is perfect and can be seen in other paintings where his expansive clothes help cover up his weight and give the impression that he is all-powerful. Portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Certainly, Henry VIII was a good masker, but what monarch wasn’t a good liar. In his infamous book, The Prince, Machiavelli posed the question if it is better for a prince to be loved or feared. Machiavelli, like Henry VIII, gets taken out of context. He didn’t favor the monarchy and his other text on a Republican government better illustrates where he stood politically. Nevertheless, eager to win back the favor his masters, The Prince was a step-by-step manual on how to be an effective ruler. Machiavelli held that it was better for a monarch to be feared -since a good ruler had to be aware that he could never please everyone. But relying on fear alone, just as on love, didn’t work because eventually the people would rise up in anger and everything the ruler built -whether good or bad- could go down the drain. Therefore, he added another element to the equation: respect. Winning the people over was a good technique and for that a ruler had to be affable and seen as just -even when he wasn’t.
Henry was good at this.  And not just because he was an evil mastermind who relished in people’s suffering but because he truly believed that what he was doing, was in everyone’s best interest.

Call it delusion, or self-con, but that is how Henry’s mind worked -and how most monarchs’ minds worked, especially the ones the ones that are widely revered.

Of course, as Henry VIII’s behavior became erratic as he got older. If Kyra’s theory that he suffered from Kell Blood Positive syndrome, as well as Suzannah Lipscomb in her book, 1536, where she said that the fall from his joust in that year caused him head trauma that altered his personality, are true then this along with his leg ulcer, and his urgency to father another male heir to secure the Tudor Dynasty, can explain this.

Even though victors get to rewrite history -and Henry did rewrite many things about his reign- sometimes writers decide that the truth is not interesting enough and they spice things up. This is what has happened to Henry. Amidst the myths and legends, the real one gets pushed into the background in favor of a caricature.
It is true, dead men tell no tales, but facts do and even when firsthand accounts are bias, they paint a clearer picture of who this man was and what fueled his actions. While the puzzle will never be solve, the deeper we dig, the closer we come to discovering who the real Henry VIII was.

Sources:

  • Borman, Tracy. The Private Lives of the Tudors: Uncovering the Secrets of England’s Greatest Dynasty. Hodder & Stoughton. 2016.
  • Kramer, Kyra Cornelius. Blood Will Tell: A Medical Explanation of the Tyranny of Henry VIII. Ash Wood Press. 2012.
  • Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant presented by David Starkey, directed by David Sington, BBC, 2009.
  • Loades, David. Henry VIII. 2011.
  • “Divorced.” Six Wives with Lucy Worsley, written by Chloe Moss, directed by Russell England, BBC, 2016.
  • Katharine of Aragon’s education
  • Katherine and Henry VIII’s marriage & their joint coronation

 

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