I was sat watching the third episode of David Starkey’s brilliant “Henry VIII: The Mind of a Tyrant” on Monday night and it suddenly struck me – did Anne Boleyn create a monster? Was she responsible for turning him into a bloodthirsty, wrathful King who was responsible for the executions of around 72,000 during his reign. (Figure from Raphael Hollinshed, English Chronicler who died c.1580)
It seems that Henry VIII started his reign as a “golden” prince, the most handsome young king in all of Europe and a man who wanted to make a new England, by getting rid of his father’s harsh financial policies and his father’s councillors.
He was described by his contemporaries as noble and gentle, and loved nothing more than jousting, trying to prove himself by waging war, discussing theology and astronomy with his good friend Thomas More, planning and building immense royal palaces and enjoying the delights of women. Did Anne change him? Was she responsible for his “Jekyll and Hyde” personality?
I’m not sure that it was Anne herself who was responsible for his personality, even though the Imperial Ambassador, Chapuys, puts the blame firmly at her door. Some historians, like J.J. Scarisbrick, do not even believe that Henry VIII ever changed and that he was actually always like that! But, what are the other theories for why such a golden prince turned into a cruel tyrant?:-
- Henry VIII had suffered brain damage – Sir Arthur Salisbury MacNulty, MD, who studied Henry VIII’s medical history, concluded that the change in Henry’s personality and behaviour could have resulted from brain damage sustained by a head injury in 1524. He based this conclusion on the fact that Henry was suffering from worsening headaches in 1527 and commented that “From being a kindly jovial monarch…he gradually became an irritable, suspicious and selfish tyrant”.
A more recent theory publicised in the History Channel’s “Inside the Body of Henry VIII” is that Henry’s brain damage was the result of a jousting fall in 1536, a fall that left him unconscious for over 2 hours. Historian, Dr Lucy Worsley said:-
“We posit that his jousting accident of 1536 provides the explanation for his personality change from sporty, promising, generous young prince, to cruel, paranoid and vicious tyrant…From that date the turnover of the wives really speeds up, and people begin to talk about him in quite a new and negative way…After the accident he was unconscious for two hours; even five minutes of unconsciousness is considered to be a major trauma today…Damage to the frontal lobe of the brain can perfectly well result in personality change.”
- The break with Rome – Henry VIII had been given the title of “Defender of the Faith” by Pope Leo X in 1521 because he wrote a book, “The Assertio”, supporting and defending Rome against Luther and his “New Religion”; yet, only a decade later Henry was using Luther’s arguments to break with Rome and call himself Supreme Head of the Church of England. J C Flugel, a psychologist, concluded that Henry “underwent a marked transformation” after breaking with Rome.
- Old Age – Lacey Baldwin Smith, an historian, looked at Henry’s behaviour in the early 1540s and commented that studies into old age have suggested that a person “casts off a portion of the protective shield hammered out during childhood and adolescence and reveals the raw personality beneath”. So, old age revealed Henry’s true character.
- Anne Boleyn – David Starkey points out that Anne Boleyn had vowed her revenge on Cardinal Wolsey for preventing her marriage to Henry Percy, and so was quick to influence Henry into getting rid of Wolsey when he was unable to get the King a divorce. Many, including Chapuys, believe that it was her influence that made Henry commit such cruel acts as arresting Wolsey and banishing Catherine of Aragon from court and separating her from her daughter, Princess Mary.
My own theory is a bit of a mixture! I believe that Anne Boleyn was responsible for Henry VIII becoming a tyrant, but through no fault of her own. My own beliefs are that:-
- Henry VIII felt forced into breaking with Rome because of his love for Anne – Denying his true faith and feelings affected his personality and made him bitter and twisted.
- Henry’s guilt over ordering the execution of his good friend Thomas More ate him up inside – Again, this was something that he had to do because of Anne. Thomas More could not accept the Act of Supremacy and so was guilty of treason.
- Fear – Henry felt that God was punishing him. God had not given him his longed for son, an heir to the Tudor throne, and was punishing him for marrying his brother’s wife and then divorcing her and marrying his mistresses’ sister. Henry began suffering with impotence during his marriage to Anne, he took this as a sign of God’s punishment.
- Henry saw no alternative to being a tyrant – He had to protect the Tudor throne and line, he needed a male heir and if that meant executing Anne and men from his own court to marry again, then so be it. Henry had to protect the monarchy at all costs and be a strong and cruel king.
- Henry felt let down by Anne – He had pursued this woman for 7 years, written her countless love letters, given up Catherin of Aragon for her, broken with Rome for her, arrested and executed good friends and men for her, and yet she could not provide him with a male heir and was affecting his popularity with his people.
- Henry suffered a mid-life crisis – Perhaps this would explain his later marriage to young Katherine Howard, a girl around 30 years his junior, as well as his seemingly unpredictable rages.
- Pain and bad health – It is known that Henry injured his leg in a jousting accident in 1535 and that this never healed properly, becoming ulcerated and a constant open wound. Henry VIII also had many other health problems – headaches and migraines, ulcers on both legs and feet, circulation problems, sore throats, insomnia and impotence – no wonder he was like a bear with a sore head!
What do you think?
Leave comments and let me know why you think that Henry VIII was such a tyrant. I’d love to hear your views.
I’m looking forward to the next installment of “Henry VIII: The Mind of a Tyrant”, which is actually entitled “The Tyrant” and is meant to be David Starkey exploring Henry VIII’s ruthless behaviour between 1533 and 1547. The DVD “Henry VIII: THe Mind of a Tyrant” is available for pre-order through our Amazon store – click here for details.
(Source of quotes – “1536 The Year That Changed Henry VIII” by Suzannah Lipscombe, Research Curator at Hampton Court Palace)