Did Anne Boleyn Create a Monster?

Posted By on April 22, 2009

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)

Henry VIIIIt 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)

10 thoughts on “Did Anne Boleyn Create a Monster?”

  1. admin says:

    There’s a great article on Henry VIII and the accident that allegedly caused him to be a tyrant at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/the-jousting-accident-that-turned-henry-viii-into-a-tyrant-1670421.html

  2. Tudor Rose says:

    Great article! Thanks for sharing all that information. I don’t think that Anne Boleyn caused Henry VIII to change, I think he was an amitious, dominant tyrant from the beginning.

  3. Danielle Kerby says:

    Let’s not forget he cause many heads to roll way before he met Anne. He did have syphilis, which is said to cause a person to go mad. Another factor was his injured leg that constantly caused him relentless pain. He never was a “great” “kind” or “just” ruler.

  4. admin says:

    Thanks for the comments Tudor Rose and Danielle.

    Most modern historians no longer believe that Henry VIII had syphilis. There is no evidence, from Henry’s medical records, that he had the disease and he was not treated with mercury, the standard treatment in those times. Also, although Catherine Aragon and Anne Boleyn had miscarriages, they also gave birth to healthy daughters, and his other children, including Edward, were healthy and intelligent, and not retarded in any way.
    Although Henry VIII had ulcers on his legs and feet, this is more likely to be caused by diabetes (and injury) than syphilis. Syphilis usually affects mucous membranes.

    I agree Danielle, that he was definitely a tyrant before he met Anne.

  5. Daman says:

    I think he was a tyrant but he was to afraid to bring it out because of revolt. I think Anne DID show him that he was indeed in control so he took an advantage and took it to far.

    i <3 anne boleynn

  6. Bassania says:

    Anne simply put into his head to explore his strength, once he became head of the church no one could really oppose him. she let him ‘discover’ what he was capable of. he never let it show how far he went he wanted people to love him.

  7. Heidi says:

    I think perhaps Henry was shaped by his childhood as much as anything else. When you grow up in a court of such extremem suspicion and paranoia, it’s bound to have an effect on your world view. His father really had no legitimate claim to the throne, and Henry continued his father’s policy of eliminating potential rivals long before he met Anne. He was a good model of a Machiavellan prince — better to be feared than loved. The makings of Henry the tyrant were always there, but he let them run rampant during and after he met and subsequently destroyed Anne.

  8. QueenOfAThousandDays says:

    I’ve always wondered about the change in Henry, the way he always switched between tender and cruel, jovial and malicious… and then finally, the things he did in 1536. I’m sure that some disease had an influence on his brain and personality. I mean, he truly loved More, he loved and admired Anne, and yet he had them executed. he killed them. I am not saying that Anne was absolutely innocent, she definitely played a part in unleashing that tyrant Henry VIII became, eventually, because she showed “the lion his strength”. but in the end, only Henry or his treacherous body is to blame.

  9. Tidus says:

    One could always say Catherine of Aragon being
    stubborn for so long caused him to be a tyrant.

    No one but Henry is responsible. Henry being a
    spoiled brat and not getting what he wanted right now.
    People change sometimes there’s a reason or reasons
    and other times none.
    I honestly think it was always there. He was a very
    insecure little man, and he dealt with that
    insecurity by becoming a tyrant.

  10. Banditqueen says:

    He had actually only executed four notable people before he met Anne Boleyn and did not order a treason trial between 1521 and 1531. Most executions came after the religious and political changes after his break from Rome which was to marry Anne and annul his marriage to Catherine. He would have done none of that had he had sons with Catherine. Henry didn’t chop of many heads before he met Anne, he chopped off the first round of heads in large groups because of Anne Boleyn and the laws to protect her. I am not saying it was her fault, but Henry was sick of the opposition to her and his authority. She was the reason for the new laws. He chopped off the second batch, her included because of power and his accident and a number of other reasons after Anne died. I don’t know she created a monster but his relationship with her changed him and his physical problems contributed as well. A mix of all the above in the article is true.

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