Henry VIII by Hans Holbein

Workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger - Portrait of Henry VIII - Google Art Project" by Workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger 1497/8 Licensed under Public Domain

Henry VIII – tyrant or hero?

Posted on: 02/02/2016 with tags: alison weir, henry viii, Tudor

It’s easy to get the wrong idea about Henry VIII. Some see him as a Charles Laughton caricature, throwing chicken bones over his shoulder, changing wives and chopping off heads at a whim – or as a dangerously suggestible ‘great puppet’. The multiplicity of propagandist images of the mature King, which derive from Holbein’s ‘annihilating’ portrait, have overlaid all other perceptions the of younger, less embittered and tyrannical monarch.

Henry was complex – you can’t just label him a monster, although ‘supreme egotist’ would describe him well. His fascination for us lies in his dramatic life, his six marriages, his near-absolute power and those talents that made him an all-round Renaissance man: versatility, a sharp and inquisitive intellect, idealism, courtliness and courage. In youth, he had the world at his feet and the qualities to make a triumph of his reign. Yet it all went sour. Henry was as much a victim of circumstance as his unhappy wives. Fate dealt him several unkind hands, not the least of which was Katherine of Aragon’s failure to bear him a male heir. It is tempting to wonder how different his reign would have been if she had done so. Anne Boleyn would have played a far more obscure part in English history, and there would have been no cataclysmic break with Rome – and, in the longer term, no Queen Elizabeth, no Armada and no Gunpowder Plot. Henry and Katherine’s descendants might still rule England today, instead of the heirs of his sister Margaret, and the established Church might still be Catholic.

It has been claimed that Henry suddenly changed character, for the worse, in 1536, after a blow to the head for which there is no good evidence. But we can see him changing into his latter self over many years before then. It was frustration, not being knocked out, that made Henry the so-called monster he later became: frustration at the loss of his sons; the Pope’s politically motivated, deliberately drawn-out avoidance of annulling his marriage to Katherine; and at having to delay for seven years the consummation of his passion for Anne Boleyn. Soon afterwards came the loss of more sons, Anne’s perceived betrayal and Jane Seymour’s death in childbirth, followed by a decade of worsening ill-health and increasing pain. It is possible to feel sorry for Henry in his several predicaments. Had Providence been kinder to him, his finer qualities might well have survived into later life.

Nevertheless, it’s been said that Henry VIII changed the heart, mind and face of Britain more than anything between the Norman Conquest and the Industrial Revolution. Writing in the year of the King’s death, a contemporary called him ‘undoubtedly the rarest man that lived in his time’ and stated there was no king equal to him. Today, historians recognise that Henry’s reign contributed an extraordinary legacy – modern Britain. But that’s another post entirely!


© Miklos Csepely Knorr

Author: Alison Weir

Alison Weir lives and works in Surrey. Her books include Britain's Royal Families, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Children of England, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry VIII: King and Court, Mary, Queen of Scots and Isabella: She-Wolf of France.

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