Henry the Great or Henry the Tyrant? You Decide

Posted By on April 28, 2009

I’ve been having a bit of a discussion about Henry VIII’s personality with Andrew over at “Tudor Stuff”, arguing over whether Henry was great or a tyrant. Andy posted an article by Jill Hamilton about the fact that some historians want to bestow the title “Henry the Great” on this Tudor monarch.

Of course, I’m a biased Anne Boleyn fan and the video below pretty much sums up how I think of Henry, but Jill’s article is well thought out and she and Andy (in his comment back to me on the blog) do make some good points.

Here are some of the reasons why Jill and Andy think that Henry may be deserving of the title “Henry the Great”:-

  • Henry was chivalrous – He wanted to be a new King Arthur and we know he loved the chivalry of jousting.
  • He married for love – Henry married Anne Boleyn for love, whereas all other English monarchs have married for political and diplomatic reasons.
  • His second daughter, Elizabeth I, was one of the greatest monarchs the world has seen and heralded in a Golden Age.
  • Henry VIII changed laws and broke with Rome in order to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn – He risked his reputation, the threat of war, the wrath of the Pope and the risk of purgatory to get his own way.
  • Henry VIII was a patron of the Arts.
  • He was the first monarch to authorise an English Bible.
  • He had a major impact on history and is still instantly recognised today from his portraits – Would people know what Henry V looked like?
  • He defended the monarchy and kept his throne.

Other reasons why Henry VIII could be seen as great include:-

  • The fact that he and Catherine of Aragon were successful in defending England from the Scots and driving off the French in the Battle of Spurs.
  • He protected England from invasion from France and Emperor Charles V’s troops.
  • He squashed uprisings such as the Pilgrimage of Grace.
  • He “united” England, Wales and Ireland.
  • He created a navy which Elizabeth I was able to use to defeat the Spanish Armada.
  • He devised a parliamentary system.
  • He built the most beautiful palaces and buildings –  Including Hampton Court Palace, Whitehall, Nonsuch and Beaulieu.

OK, so looking at all those reasons, I must admit that Henry VIII had a pretty successful reign, but does that means he was “great”. No, I don’t believe so.

Here are some of my reason for not bestowing such a title on Henry VIII:-

  • He was corrupt – He went from being a virtuous prince who wanted to end the financial corruption of his father’s reign to actually being just as corrupt himself and stealing from monasteries!
  • Henry VIII was responsible for the Dissolution of the Monasteries – The melting down and burning of religious sculptures, icons and works of art and the destruction of many old and beautiful buildings, all in the name of religion, yet he didn’t seem sure whether he was catholic or protestant.
  • Henry VIII was a killer – As I said in a previous blog, “Did Anne Boleyn Create a Monster?”, one chronicler puts the number of executions during Henry VIII’s reign at around 72,000, far more than many historians believe were killed in the 350 years of the Spanish Inquisition! Henry also executed two of his wives, his great friend Thomas More, his chief adviser Thomas Cromwell, and framed Anne Boleyn and men from his court for crimes that they did not commit.
  • Henry VIII was cruel – For example, he duped Robert Aske (Pilgrimage of Grace) into going to London and then arrested him and killed him slowly by hanging him with chains, a death that is said to take a slow 5-6 days. He tortured a confession out of Mark Smeaton by racking him and tying an ever tightening rope around his head and one eye. When Jane Seymour begged him to stop his destruction of the monasteries, he reminded her of what had happened to Anne Boleyn. He banished Catherine of Aragon from court and then separated her from her daughter, Mary. These are just a few of his cruel acts!
  • He turned on people when things didn’t go his way – Just look at Wolsey, More and Cromwell.
  • He tried to create some kind of middle ground between the Catholic faith and Luther’s New Religion, but ended up executing many protestants and catholics and creating religious instability and conflict.
  • He needlessly executed Anne Boleyn – The marriage had been made invalid and annulled so why the need to execute her for treason and adultery?
  • Henry VIII was weak – He let people influence him (like Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell) and then blamed them for the results of his actions.

Those are some of the reasons why I believe that Henry VIII was more “Henry the Tyrant”, rather than “Henry the Great”, but please let me know what you think by leaving your comment below. You can also join my discussion on this at the AnneBoleynFiles wiki site – click here.

15 thoughts on “Henry the Great or Henry the Tyrant? You Decide”

  1. That is quite the video…I certainly portrays a certain side of Henry VIII.

    I think that it is easier for many who don’t have all the facts to see him as Henry the Murderer; it’s true of course, but he was much more then that. Can you or anyone else imagine what kind of pressures he was under every moment of every day; people always asking for favours and gifts, families scheming, trying to find ways of making themselves rise to greatness along side King Henry VIII and all the while, knowing that their rise means certain death to those who were previously in the Kings favour; for how better to get rid themselves of bitter rivals, for that attention and greatness (riches, land, status, homes, etc.) flowing from such a wealthy King and Kingdom.

    I think that Henry grew up in a household where he could have anything his heart desired. When he married Katherine of Aragon, she became a mother figure and was very conservative and a calming influence – in essence, she kept Henry in line and helped moderate his moods and his rages. When Anne Boleyn (being forced into this roll by her own family) was paraded before King Henry VIII, she was everything that Queen Katherine of Aragon was not; young, beautiful, sensual, audacious, seductive, fertile and most of all – unattainable. Anne was the forbidden fruit and Henry was happily married to his much-loved Queen Katherine. What man, even in current times, could not be nearly driven mad by the incessant taunting and teasing that Henry endured for years? Anne’s family wanted to rise in glory and greatness and used Anne as the bait; she was as much a pawn as Henry in a game of deceit and treachery, constantly swirling around his court.

    The biggest turning point that I can pinpoint was when Henry finally rid himself of Queen Katherine, at Anne’s relentless urging/demands and Anne’s persistence to be treated as a Queen – better yet, to be Queen and replace Katherine of Aragon on the throne. I think that King Henry became a god in his own mind; no longer fettered by Rome or Queen Katherine’s stoic temperament/mothering influence; he was out of control and not one could stop it or him. To get his way (an heir to the throne, have any female he wanted, etc.) Henry could do whatever and kill whoever stood in his way. His pursuit of Anne and indeed Anne herself, had taught him that he was all powerful and god help anyone who got in his way.
    Pandora’s Box was opened and it wouldn’t be closed until the time of King Henry VIII’s death.

    This is my opinion of course, but it makes perfect sense to me. He was just a man after all…not a god.


  2. Roe says:

    I believe that Henry was a tyrant. It’s very easy to call someone great because they started out with the best of intentions, but I believe a person must be judged on the actions which they choose to take. I also believe that after his death, people nostalgically endowed him with better traits than he actually had in life. It’s enough to know that Henry VIII used people for his own benefit, and then murdered them without too much remorse. The cruelty he imposed on his first and second wife, and his children with them is clear. I believe that Henry VIII traumatized his daughters, and thus set the tone for their future. Also people keep forgetting that Anne Boleyn did not go looking for Henry. Henry sabotaged her prospects for marriage, and instead of choosing to become his mistress and be ruined – like her sister, she chose to demand that he marry her.

    Too many people blame those dark times on Anne. I find that both Katharine of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn are worthy of admiration. These were two brave women, with education under their belts, and real opinions. And Henry discarded them both, and ruined them for his own interests.

    In my opinion, a man like this can never be called great. He has gone down in history for his cruelty, not his great acts.

  3. admin says:

    Hi Bobbie,

    What a great comment! I totally agree with you about Henry opening “Pandora’s Box”. I think once he was Supreme Head of the Church of England he really did see himself as God’s representative on Earth, on a par with God, and that this did go to his head. You’re right, he’d lost that calming influence and no-one dared to stand up to him (well, he killed people like More who did stand up for their beliefs). Your opinion makes perfect sense and thanks for taking the time to write it down so clearly.

    Do you think that he blamed Anne for having to kill his old friend Thomas More?

    Thanks, Bobbie.


  4. admin says:

    Hi Roe,

    Thanks for your comment. Yes, I think that people have been misled by the portraits of him looking so majestic and the fact that his reign was successful in that he protected England from invasion and squashed uprisings. I don’t think that his successes outweigh his tyranny and downright cruelty. You’re right, he chose Anne, not the other way round, and what woman can escape when a king has her in his sights?!
    I also admire Catherine of Aragon. Like Anne, she was educated and feisty. She stood up to Henry over the annulment and never stopped saying and believing that she was still queen. She also was in charge of protecting England against the Scots, while Henry was in France sorting out the French – a great woman. She and Anne Boleyn are definitely worthy of our admiration.

    Thanks, Roe.


  5. Hi Claire,

    I’m glad you enjoyed my comment and could appreciate my opinion. 🙂 Thank you for the reply.

    Yes, I think King Henry VIII blamed Anne for many things, not the least of which was having to kill Thomas More.

    Henry was King, he shouldn’t have had to wait for anything (in his opinion) and Anne’s demand that he marry her before he was able to bed her, created a novel situation for the man who could have anything; probably one of the best diversions he had ever experienced at court and perhaps in his lifetime! But I think that as time went on, he resented how much Anne had him ‘dancing to her tune’ and Henry did not really want to get rid of Katherine of Aragon. In a way he wanted to rid himself of his aging Queen and have fresh young flesh and Anne’s beauty under his command; it was a potent aphrodisiac, but he did love his Queen from Spain. When King Henry was forced to kill/disown people he loved and cared for (in his own way), it’s as if the rose coloured glasses began to fade…he was able to see just a little more clearly and it made him angrier at Anne because of it. It was his uncontrollable desire that got him into this trouble in the first place, but it was a very different time then what we live in now. Men ruled the world and women were used as battering chips, in a game where females had no control or influence over the rules or the outcome.

    Henry VIII must have regretted a lot of things in his life, however fleeting the feelings of remorse may have been. Surely the loss of this long time friend and other loved ones would have been at the top of his list or regrets.

    Perhaps his marriage to two more Katherine’s in the later part of his life was an attempt to regain what he had with Queen Katherine of Aragon…who can say? I don’t think that it was possible to replace such a great women, but perhaps Henry VIII tried to redeem himself in some small way.


  6. admin says:

    Hi again Bobbie,

    Yes, I think that Henry wanted to “have his cake and eat it” – keep Catherine, who he respected and seemed to love, and have a pretty young thing who could provide him with a son. I wonder if he did regret his actions towards Catherine, it certainly seems that her death was the undoing of Anne.

    I think you’re right. Henry must have had many regrets. I wonder how he slept at night. I know people say that we shouldn’t judge him by today’s standards and I know he lived 500 years ago, but his actions were still cruel and perverse. I don’t think I could have given Anne’s execution speech. She acted with so much dignity and only spoke good of Henry. Perhaps she did so to protect Princess Elizabeth – I would have been kicking and screaming and calling him all the names under the sun!

    Great comment, Bobbie!


  7. Vanessa says:

    I think that because Henry was at first not supposed to be on the throne, when it came to him he embraced it with a positive mind. He was of course young and full of love and life, and the full extent of his duties and the expectations placed on him didn’t quite reveal themselves yet.
    With years passing, he started getting a glimpse of what it was all about: the constant giving, the lies, the betrayals. Not to excuse him and his actions completely, but I think that he was infused with so many opposing ideas and demands from so many perspectives that he truly found himself unable to trust anybody anymore. With the paranoia set in (and much exacerbated after his wound) it was whoever was a more convincing friend any given day that won. He was lead to believe that there were no boundaries to what he could do, and once he realized he could even rid himself of inconvenient people by having them executed, that was it. I think he may have regretted some of his actions, especially the early ones, i.e. Anne’s execution, but there was no turning back from the path he had been put in. There was no way he would have admitted to doubt and regret, for fear of casting himself in a weak light.
    So in summary, I’ll go with Henry having great potential, some of which was realized; however, I’d call him a tyrant, although I’d mostly shift the blame for it from him to the times and mentality he was living in and the people he was influenced by. =o)


  8. admin says:

    Hi Vanessa,

    Great comment and thanks for taking the time to share your point of view! Yes, I think you’re right that Henry had great potential. It seems that he did want to make a new and better England but that he got “tarnished” along the way. It must be very easy as a monarch to let power go to your head, particularly when you can just get rid of those who challenge you! I also agree that Henry would not have been able to show regret for his actions for fear of showing weakness and therefore putting his throne at risk. Perhaps this is why he never pardoned Anne, after all, he could have pardoned her because the marriage had been annulled any way. Perhaps Anne was too much of a threat though.

    I agree with you to about Henry being a product of his times and those around him. He certainly did not become a tyrant all by himself.

    Thanks again for your comment.


  9. Bassania says:

    Henry had a split personality, on the one hand he could be very generous, yet he could switch in an instant, causing people to cower.
    He probably wasn’t so bad to start off with, but Anne changed him, for better or worse, she treated him differently to how most did. she was fiesty, and like Henry, wanted things to go her way. He was used to the forgiving nature of Catherine; he wasn’t really prepared to deal with Anne’s temerity.
    He may have began his reign, determined to do his best, but his intentions faded away after his escapade with Anne, he lost all his good intentions, he wasn’t as quick to let his attentions known (Well maybe he was. Just not as urgent.) If you look at his wives after Anne it is quite clear that he tried to avoid wives of the same nature: Jane was quiet, ruled by her family; Anne of Cleves was well couldn’t speak english, so what she thought didn’t matter as no one could understand it; Catherine Howard was a silly naive little girl; and Katharine Parr was mainly a nurse to him as he got old.
    Anne was driven, determined. nothing like any of his other wives. Henry was deeply affected by Anne’s ‘betrayal’ and the fact that she couldn’t produce a son, so it is understandable that he would have taken it badly. He just let that consume him, drive to tyrancy, he probably thought he was doing what was best for his country. He became suspicious that people were conspiring against him, so in order to protect, himself and his throne he just got rid of his opponents. Which in the eyes of historians classifies him as a tyrant. As he got older and his health got the better of him, he began to feel helpless, he was probably tired of being in constant pain, and took his frustration out on his subjects.
    When he began his reign, he led England through many victories, this gives cause to belive that he was indeed a great ruler, he was a capable person, he just let the power go to his head.

  10. admin says:

    Hi Bassania,

    Great comment! I agree with you that Henry did seem to have a split personality and there are many different opinions on this – some think that he had syphilis, but there is no evidence of this, some think that his jousting accident which knocked him out for 2 hours led to some type of brain damage and other think that his tyranny was as a result of his “insecurity” over the throne and his efforts to keep in control and to make sure that the Tudor line was safe.

    By “betrayal” do you mean adultery or do you just mean that Henry felt let down because Anne had not provided him with a son? The allegations against Anne were false and I’m sure even Henry in his paranoia could not have believed them seeing as he was with Anne on many of the occasions when she was meant to have committed adultery.

    Yes, Anne was not a typical queen. She had not been bred to be a qeeen and to look the other way while her husband had his flirtations and affairs, but then she knew that her position lay in keeping Henry’s love. Henry had married her not for diplomatic reasons but for love and she knew that it was possible for her to be replaced and I’m sure that’s why she didn’t just accept Henry flirting with Jane. I love the way that David Starkey talks about how Henry was attracted to the way Anne could say “no” to him but that it is also this that caused him to tire of her.

    I’m not sure that we can blame Anne for Henry’s change in personality or him losing his good intentions, I think it was plain fear and greed, and I do think that his accident may have something to do with it too. Just my opinion!

    Claire x

  11. Bassania says:

    I think you might be a little biased, and i think you may be looking at evidence that is biased towards anne. Hving myself done a lot of research myself i have come to the conclusion that Anne did change Henry and though she may not have been completely resposible, she was part of it. Henry truly loved Anne, and i think she tampered with his ability to love, to give himself entirely over to another person.

  12. admin says:

    Hi again Bassania,

    In what way would you say that Anne tampered with his ability to love? As I say in this blog post, I am expressing my opinion. If Anne really was responsible for making Henry change in that way, why did he continue in this way when she was gone? It seems to me that his rages and tyrannical behaviour got worse and worse over time.


  13. Bassania says:

    He got worse over time because Anne planted a seed of doubt into his mind. Anne was the one taught him to be suspicious. He trusted Anne, therefore when he felt that she had become disloyal to him, he thought that that was the end of it. I think that Anne was the only one he truly loved, he would have been hurt at the thought that she would betray him in any way, from her ability of lack thereof to give him the son he so desperately desired, or if he did believe the adultery charges, that had to alter him in some way. Afterwards he rarely mentioned her, he felt her disloyalty hard, he had trusted her, she had been his confidant yet he had felt the need to order her execution. He can’t have been so quick to love or trust after that.
    Henry was great man, he was very capable with love in his youth, he was a hopeless romantic till he died, but I don’t belive that ever fully gave himself to a woman after Anne, he couldn,t handke that emotional rollercoaster again.

  14. Maureen says:

    I cannot call H8 great. When he was younger he was indeed good looking. Maybe he wrote poetry and music — but when I read Alison Weir’s comments on H8 I had to answer back!

    The first and foremost for me was the fact that he dishonored women; all women — he treated the ones he married like toys to be discarded when he was weary of them or got all he could out of them. His behavior to his daughters was even worse.

    He compromised England’s courts — the nation’s justice system — for example the “trial” of Anne Boleyn — a mockery of justice! A disgrace! He also used the courts to assassinate those he had no further use for such as Cromwell, Moore, Margaret Pole.

    He was not chivalrous — he delighted in stomping on people when they were down — such as Anne — the one he loved — he had her sign a statement that her marriage was null — when he was going to have her murdered in a few days — just so she would die knowing her daughter was not only going to be branded by having a mother convicted of treason but a bastard was well. While we are on this, I read in the letters and papers that he had Cromwell require Mary to return the small gold cross her mother left to her! A real knight in shining armor here.

    He debased the coinage — which rasied prices for all.

    He squandered the fortune his father left him and the fortunes that came his way by dissolving the monasteries.

    Elizabeth came to the throne and was a successful monarch in spite of Henry not because of him. He had her declared illiegitimate by statute. She was almost cut out of the succession by her own brother!

    He had no sense of personal honor. His word was NOT good. He could not be trusted. He was a king and he behaved like a crook!

    I do not believe he truly founded the Church of England. Under H8 is was too confused. Elizabeth provided both stability and direction. She appointed competent leadership and trusted them to do the job.

  15. Ann Russell says:

    I do not believe that Henry was great. He tore things down. Elizabeth built them back up. I think I wrote a paper to this effect when I was an undergraduate.

    I have not seen anyone comment on the change in Henry after he got rid of Cardinal Wolsey, who had actually conducted most of the business of state while Henry ran around playing King; going to the Field of the Cloth of Gold, jousting, writing music. I also believe that he really wanted to be a Catholic and retain the theology and ceremonies, but he wanted to control the appointment of bishops, who sit in the House of Lords, as well as get the wealth of the church for himself. The shrine of Becket was incredibly wealthy and he needed the money.

    There are a lot of errors in the reasons that Henry was great, as listed above. One is that he was the only English monarch to marry for love. Edward IV married Elizabeth Woodville, and I believe that Richard III and Anne Neville was a love match as well. George IV may very well have been married to Maria Fitzherbert and his marriage to Caroline of Brunswick was bigamous. Finally, we have Victoria and Albert, George VI and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and the present Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.

    Henry VII did not develop a parliamentary system; Edward I would be very surprised to hear this. The Tudors made a lot of use of Parliament to rubber stamp their actions, thus giving legitimacy to Parliament being consulted, all to the great dismay of the Stuarts.

    PS I know what Henry V looks like.

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