Henry VIII – A Tyrant or Just Misunderstood?

Jun22,2010 #Henry VIII #tyrant
Henry VIII by Holbein

Thank you for all the wonderful responses to last week’s “Henry VIII: Renaissance Prince and King”. I think it’s so easy to forget that Henry VIII did not always look like Holbein’s iconic portrait and that he was actually a rather dashing and charismatic young man who was eager to stamp out corruption. Perhaps Jonathan Rhys Meyers has helped some people realise that there was something for those wives and mistress to be attracted to and love. The Henry VIII of “The Tudors” does turn into a monster, but there are times when I fell for him hook, line and sinker. We cannot credit Anne Boleyn with intelligence and then believe that Henry was all bad. In my opinion, they had a loving and very passionate relationship, and were similar in many ways, so Henry was not always the stereotypical monster we think of.

In his series “Henry VIII: The Mind of a Tyrant”, David Starkey said:-

“The 18 year old who was crowned here was a slim, beautiful, elegant, musical, poetical, reasonable, charming, sweet-tempered young man who’d married for love. How does he turn into the Henry who is the horror, the Henry who is the tyrant?”1

And this is the problem that we have with Henry VIII and Starkey is spot on when he says that “the man behind the myth is a psychological enigma”.

Last week I wrote about Henry VIII as a Renaissance Prince and King, giving contemporary quotations regarding his appearance, his character, his education and his virtues. There was rejoicing when Henry VIII came to the throne, and he was even likened to the Messiah, yet Holinshed’s Chronicle reports that around 72,000 people were executed during his reign – a huge number! But can we classify Henry VIII as a tyrant or is he misunderstood? Was he a tyrannical monster responsible for cruelty and brutality or was he simply a monarch doing all that he could to protect his country and his people? Hmmm…

Henry VIII: Did Henry Become a Tyrant?


As much as I love Henry VIII, and I do because he is such a compelling and fascinating character, I believe that he was a tyrant and monster. I’m still trying to understand what drove him and why he became the man that he did. I’m trying desperately to make sense of his psyche, what Eric Ives refers to as  “the ultimate unresolvable paradox of Tudor history”2, but the conclusion I have come to is that from the mid 1530s onwards Henry VIII was a monster and there’s no persuading me otherwise. He may have done many great things during his reign but that does not stop him being a man who wanted absolute power at any cost and who used brutality to get that power.

Before we can label Henry VIII a tyrant, we first need to define what a tyrant is. In “1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII”, Suzannah Lipscomb quotes an unnamed Italian who, after Henry VIII’s death in 1547, called the King “the greatest tyrant that ever was in England” and then went on to define a tyrant:-

“The principal token of a tyrant is the immoderate satisfaction of an unlawful appetite, when the person, whether by right or wrong, hath power to achieve his sensual will, and that person, also who by force draws unto him that which of right is not his, in the unlawful usurping commits express tyranny.”3

Lipscomb also gives a modern definition of “tyrant”:-

“A ruler who exercises his arbitrary power beyond the scope permitted by the laws, customs and standards of his time and society and who does so with a view to maintaining or increasing that power.”4

Whichever definition you feel best defines the word “tyrant”, I think Henry VIII fits them both.

So, why do I think he was a tyrant?

  • Thomas More – This man was once Henry’s role model and great friend, yet Henry ordered him to be executed. Suzannah Lipscomb points put that More was originally arrested and imprisoned in April 1534 for refusing to swear the Oath of Succession yet a year later he was put to death for rejecting Henry VIII’s new title, Supreme Head, after Parliament had passed the Act of Supremacy in November 1534, and for committing treason because the Treason Act of February 1535 had made his words and deeds treason. How can he be charged with something that wasn’t made a treasonable offence until after he had done it? Hmmm…
  • Anne Askew – I told the story of Anne Askew in “Anne Askew Sentenced to Death” last week. Here was a case of illegal torture and brutality, yet Henry turned a blind eye to it and may even have ordered the treatment dished out to Anne. She was linked to his wife, Catherine Parr, and his best friend’s wife, Catherine Brandon, yet Henry allowed Anne Askew to be racked “until the strings of her arms and eyes were perished” and then burned at the stake.
  • Religious divisions and confusion– Don’t you feel sorry for Henry’s subjects? One minute it was ok to be Catholic but you could be burned as a Lutheran, the next minute you could be persecuted for being a Catholic! J J Scarisbrick writes that Henry VIII’s reign “saw the nation acquire a religious discord of a kind which it had not known before and which would soon become bitter and complex, sending fissures down English society to its lowest strata and setting neighbour against neighbour, father against son in a disunity from which that society has not yet fully recovered… this disunity first took root in Henry’s reign.”5
  • Margaret Pole – In 1541, Henry VIII ordered the execution of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, for alleged treason. This frail 67 year old was executed because of her Plantagenet blood and because Henry could not get at her son, Reginald Pole, who had openly insulted the King. Historian Greg Walker writes that “the death of the septuagenarian Countess, so inform and weakened by interrogation that she had to be carried to the scaffold in a chair… marked the nadir of royal vindictiveness”6 and it is clear that the Countess was no threat at all to Henry and she was, in fact, his daughter Mary’s godmother and had been her governess.
  • His treatment of others – The way he turned against those he had once loved or shown favour to: Thomas More, Bishop Fisher, Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, to name just a few. Plus, Lipscombe points out that he had a “manipulative role” in the coups against Thomas Cranmer, Stephen Gardiner and Catherine Parr. Author Elizabeth Norton writes of the coup against Catherine Parr: “By manipulating both the conservative faction at court and Catherine herself, Henry was able to achieve his ends. He demonstrated to Wriothesley, Gardiner and other members of his court that it was his will that was supreme. He also put Catherine firmly in her place and she never attempted to assert herself politically again during Henry’s reign.”7
  • Physical violence and threats – We know from reports by ambassadors that Henry lashed out at his advisers, hitting Cromwell on the head, and when Jane Seymour begged her husband the King, on bended knee, to change his mind about the Dissolution of the Monasteries, “Henry pulled her roughly to her feet and warned her not to meddle in things which were not her concern , reminding her of the fate of her predecessor”8 Nice!
  • The rise of Acts of Attainder and Executions – However prejudiced her trial, Anne Boleyn was at least given a trial, people like Thomas Cromwell and Catherine Howard were denied a trial, and due process, and were, instead, condemned by Act of Attainder. Lipscomb writes: “The incidence and circumstance of such executions before and after 1536, and especially the increasing tendency not to pursue conviction through due process and common law trial but through parliamentary attainder and a widening definition of treason, provides compelling evidence of Henry VIII’s increasingly savage temper and misanthropic character.”9
  • His God complex – I have to agree with Martin Luther who said “Junker Heintz will be God and does whatever he lusts”10 Although there is no doubt that Henry was a highly religious man, I believe that he became corrupted by his power and rather than seeing himself as God’s appointed ruler of England he began to see himself as God of the land and became a ruthless despot.
  • The Pilgrimage of Grace – In 1536, during the Pilgrimage of Grace, a priest described Henry VIII as “a tyrant more cruel than Nero, for Nero destroyed but part of Rome, but this tyrant destroyeth this whole realm.”11 and no wonder when we consider his actions when the rebels reopened some of the suppressed monasteries – Henry ordered the Duke of Norfolk to hang some of the monks from those monasteries from the steeple of their own church. He was understandably brutal to the ringleaders of the rebellion but he also ordered executions across the North of England as an example to the rest of the country. Richard Rex writes: “We learn a great deal about Henry from the way he dealt with this broad-based challenge to his entire regime. The idea of resorting to concessions or compromise was inconceivable for him.”12
  • The Dissolution of the Monasteries – It can be argued that Henry VIII was trying to stamp out corruption in the Church by dissolving some monasteries but instead of spending the money on good causes – schools, hospitals, universities, almshouses etc., it went into the royal coffers.
  • Henry’s treatment of his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and their daughter Mary – After the Great Matter had been resolved, Catherine was stripped of her title of Queen and ended her days in relative poverty and poor Mary saw her father ill treat her mother, was stripped of her title of Princess, was forced to wait on her step-sister, Elizabeth, and was threatened into signing the oath of succession. Why could Henry not treat these women with some compassion and respect?
  • Anne Boleyn – Whatever your theory about Henry’s involvement in Anne Boleyn’s downfall, his actions are beyond understanding. How could he pretty much shack up with another woman, his wife’s maid, Jane Seymour, while his wife was in the Tower waiting to die? How could he marry Jane Seymour just 11 days after Anne Boleyn’s execution. Anne Boleyn was surely the love of his life, the woman he had waited so long for and broken with Rome for, yet he managed to cast her aside and move on incredibly easily. He may even have plotted her downfall and probably did, if you consider that nothing happened at court without the King’s “say so”.

Those are just a few of the reasons why I believe Henry VIII was a tyrant, however, some do not agree.


  • He did what was necessary – In the prologue of “1536”, Lipscombe writes that “The prevalence of religious belief meant that crime was conceived of as evidence of sin… As such, painful and spectacular punishment was thought necessary both to deter others and to cleanse society from the disorder and pollution of the criminal’s sin”13, so perhaps it can be argued that Henry VIII’s sometimes brutal actions were necessary for the good of his realm.
  • Even his people did not see him as a tyrant – Lipscombe writes that even in the late 1530s his contemporaries were describing him as “gifted, courageous, gentle, noble, brilliant and accomplished” p24. Also after his reign he was remembered fondly as “Bluff King Hal” and his daughter, Elizabeth I, queen of public relations, knew that she should draw on his memory, styling herself as “the lion’s cub”, because he had been a popular and well-loved King.
  • He had always been a tyrant – J J Scarisbrick says: “Henry was not notably more cruel afterwards [after his 1536 accident] than he had been before.”14 – The idea that his tyranny did not spring from nowhere, it had always been in his character. He did not become a tyrant.
  • The Pilgrimage of Grace – Henry’s belief that he was only accountable to God and that the rebels had no right to rebel against him15. Henry was simply squashing an illegal and ungodly rebellion.
  • Punishments and executions – Henry VIII was simply responding to threats and “he remained convinced of the lawfulness, wisdom and benevolence of his actions” and “by Henry’s own estimation, he was doing the things a good King did – it was only his rebellious subjects who were deviating from the orthodox and proper way.”16
  • Princes in the Tower
  • We cannot judge a 16th century king by our 21st century standards – He may be seen as a tyrant by today’s standards but he was simply being a successful monarch an doing what was needed to keep the peace.
  • Context – Henry was simply reacting to the context he lived in: “For the world into which Henry was born was scarred by hatred, treason and betrayal. For almost 50 years there had been two royal families in England – the House of York and the House of Lancaster – and time and again their rivalry had erupted into bloody civil war, the so-called Wars of the Roses.”17 We have to remember that the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower had happened only 8 years before Henry VIII was born. These were dark times and the Tudors were seen by some as usurpers and not the true heirs to the throne. Henry VIII had to do all he could to secure the throne and deal with any challenges.

What Happened?

What happened to turn the “chivalrous warrior prince” into the “tyrant of legend”18? How can we come to terms with a man who was great in many ways but also so cruel and tyrannical.

J J Scarisbrick has this to say of Henry VIII in his conclusion to his book “Henry VIII”:-

“Henry was a huge, consequential and majestic figure. At least for some, he was everything that a people could wish him to be – a bluff, confident patriot king who was master of his kingdom and feared no one. By the end of his long reign, despite everything, he was indisputably revered, indeed, in some strange way, loved. He had raised monarchy to near-idolatry. He had become the quintessence of Englishry and the focus of swelling national pride. Nothing would ever be quite the same after he had gone.

Yet, for all his power to dazzle, for all the charm and bonhomie, which he could undoubtedly sometimes show, and for all the affection which he could certainly give and receive, it is difficult to think of any truly generous or selfless action performed by him and difficult not to suppose that, even those who enjoyed his apparently secure esteem, like Jane Seymour or Thomas Cranmer, would not have been thrown aside if it had been expedient to do so, along with the many others who had entwined their lives around his, given him so much, and yet been cast away.”

There were definitely two sides to the man and monarch but the good does not cancel out the bad, perhaps absolute power does corrupt absolutely.

In my next article in this series, I will be examining the different theories regarding why Henry turned into a tyrant. Interesting stuff!

Notes and Sources

  1. Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant, David Starkey (DVD)
  2. Eric Ives quoted in 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII, Suzannah Lipscomb, p14
  3. 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII, Suzannah Lipscomb, p185
  4. Ibid.
  5. Henry VIII, J J Scarisbrick, p655 of my old and battered Methuen version
  6. Greg Walker quoted in 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII, Suzannah Lipscomb, p196
  7. Catherine Parr in Danger, article by Elizabeth Norton
  8. Henry VIII, Richard Rex, p95
  9. Lipscomb, p191
  10. J J Scarisbrick, p677 of my old and battered Methuen version
  11. Lipscomb, p203
  12. Rex, p95
  13. Lipscombe, p21
  14. Scarisbrick, p25
  15. Lipscomb, p159
  16. Lipscomb, p202
  17. Henry VIII, Mind of a Tyrant
  18. Ibid.
  19. Scarisbrick, p653

Related Post

62 thoughts on “Henry VIII – A Tyrant or Just Misunderstood?”
  1. Definitely a feast for thought, but I still am glad I did not live under this man’s rule. It would have been terribly confusing!

    1. After watching the Tudors and seeing the change in Henry’s Character and how active he was, it reminds me of what is now being known about the brains of football players. It’s proven that the damage from onslaughts to the brain change peoples characters greatly and always towards the violent, Henry sustained not only that well know slam in the head during jousting but he was so active I am sure he had many more injuries. I don’t think his becoming a tyrant was about personality but the change of chemicals in his brain.

      His daughter Bloody Mary had no such injuries. She was brutal and sadistic all on her own, just like the other daughter was loveable and sustained a kingdom for so many years.

      I do know that the one queen that was a charlatan was not very popular but when she said before she was executed….it’s a beautiful life. I know I would not say that if anyone was dragging ME through the streets. I would see only meanness Fear and horror. For her to say that….Made me respect her so much. Too see beauty in such horror takes the mind of a queen.

      I don’t think with what we know now of head injuries that a good man can become a monster in the time it takes to injure his head.

      1. I think Mary’s injuries are of the mind, heart and soul. As a child she was loved by her father, and then he put her away and ignored her, kept her from her mother even in sickness and death, and made her serve the new princess Elizabeth under a new religion while persecuting the practitioners of the old religion. I’m not justifying Mary’s brutality, only arguing that she was definitely dealt non-physical injuries and that I can understand how that shaped her to be who she was as a queen.

      2. I think that Henry the VIII waa nothing more than a child, in a man’s body.

        Yes he was intelligent, yes he tall and probably attractive.

        Woman seem to find power a turn on. So that really does cause me to have cynical and almost angry contempt for those (kinds) of woman.

        The man was a deranged murderous monster.

        If he couldn’t get his own way, he simply chopped your head of.

        Historians are quite baffled as to what actual age Katherine Howard really was.

        But it is clear as bloody day light that she was still in our present day and age, only a minor.

        17 in my books is a minor, I dont care if the legal age for a boy or girl in this country is 16.

        It’s ridiculous.

        I have a daughter, and when she was 16, it was so apparent and clear that she was in no way able to think for herself.

        A little girl of.17 married to man of the world, whom was what , 49? 50?

        Absolutely disgusting.

        He was a monster.

        He knew that Anne of Boleyn, had not committed all the crimes that his awful cronies, had accused her of.
        Which insistently, he also had executed. Thomas Cromwell ect.

        It was just convenient for Henry to turn a blind eye to their lies. Just so that he could crack on with getting his own way.

        None of it was also, so that the English people could be set free from the lies and superstition of the Catholic church.

        Setting up his own religion, was just a way, of him being free to take full advantage of his privileged place of power. Which he abused, time and time again.

        He murdered his friends, wives, and close companion’s.

        That right there is fully pledged monster.

        Ladies, please get out of your head’s this dramy heart throbe of a hero king that you see in the tv series the Tudors.

        Seriously??? !!!

        Absolutely ridiculous.

        King Henry the 8th was a complete and utter tyrant. That only thought about himself.

        He rinsed the North dry from its wealth, calling people heretics, and traitors for believing and staying faithful to what they had been forced into believing in from previous kings.

        It’s an absolute shocking and evil period of time.

        Henry the 8th put to death woman and children tnat had nothing to do with anything that was going.on.

        And for what???

        To make an example????

        What ????!!!!

        This is no man of God.

        Christ revolutionized the whole world by his wounds. He took our sins.

        Anyone who then went out, and I am also talking about the Catholic church as well. Went out and butchered and murdered, and raped in the name of God , king or not. Is a traitor to what the Bible and what Jesus teached us and instructed us to do.

        Wake up world. It’s nothing bit abuse of power.

        It breaks my heart.

        And truly believe that it break’s and broke the Lord’s heart.

        1. I agree with most of your points and I can understand how you feel about Kathryn Howard from the point of view of a father whose daughter was her age, but this is not the 21st century we are talking about and we cannot look at the 16th century as if it was.

          Kathryn Howard was passed the age of consent and the legal age for marriage. She was at the very least fifteen or sixteen when she came to Court, if we take the later date for her date of birth and had already had one consensual love affair. Most historians agree, however, that the evidence says she was around 17. Henry in 1540 when they married was 49 and it wasn’t out of order, although today we would probably be horrified. Kathryn wasn’t forced into marriage and she wasn’t a child. She was legally an adult once she was fourteen. I know that is insanely young but the age of consent was only raised in the 1860s and the age of adulthood in the 20th century was 14 for two decades. It was raised to 21 and then lowered to 18. Sexual consent is still unwisely 16, but that is now not 500 years ago. Kathryn is the subject of reassessment as some scholars think she was abused by her music teacher and there is some evidence to support this. However, her relationship with Francis Dereham was consensual, if controversial. She was treated fairly and well by Henry Viii and there is no evidence that she didn’t want to be Queen, but that she took full advantage of her Queenship and she was a Queen who used her intermediary role to gain mercy to some good effect. There is no direct evidence that she actually had a full sexual relationship with her co accused, Thomas Culpeper, but they did have a relationship before her marriage to Henry and they met regularly, late at night for several hours, while she was married and intended to go further if they could. This was from her own testimony. It was this which condemned them and it was certainly dangerous and foolish. It was presumed by such an admission that she intended any children to be passed off as heirs, which was treason. I agree, the execution of his young wife was terrible and many of his later actions are those of a tyrant.

          Henry was quite different for two decades, but certainly many of the things you list, which are later in his life are cruel and in many ways inexcusable. Henry didn’t turn into a tyrant over night and numerous things contributed to his character changes. It is all a matter of context.

      3. There is no evidence to support your accusations that Mary was sadistic. She was not personally cruel and her laws on heresy were typical for the period. If Mary was sadistic, then so was Elizabeth, more so as hanging, drawing and quartering hundreds of your subjects is not exactly gentle. Mary preferred to educate rather than to burn and she didn’t set out to execute 280 people for heresy. She was so sadistic that she reversed her father’s law allowing an insane person to be executed. She was so sadistic that she pardoned more rebels than her father, brother and sister put together. She pardoned 450 who were condemned in one day. She gathered her forces and won over her people with appeals when threatened by Wyatt and his mob trying to kill her. She spared several traitors who got caught up with Jane Grey and wanted to support her. Mary was also damaged by her parents divorce and serious cancer. She was also as much fun as her sister and loved to gamble, play cards and dance. The Tudors may have all been potty or all been affected by something else, but we don’t know, we don’t have evidence, only theories. Or they may simply have been reacting to the realities and dangerous situations that faced them.

        1. Yes, Mary gets a bad rap. Everyone likes to ignore what happened to the last woman who tried to rule England. Mary was an extraordinary woman who made Elizabeth’s and England’s success possible. You also have to think Mary and Elizabeth had some serious attachment disorders which are as proven to cause brain damage as contact sports. The entire system of aristocratic European (and, therefore, US American) child rearing right up to the mid-twentieth century was practically designed for attachment disorders.

  2. This is a great article on Henry, i definetly agree that Henry was confused on his religious beliefs. Great Stuff thanks.

  3. I love all of this wonderful information! Thank you so much for posting!

    If only Queen Catherine of Aragon would have produced a male heir. …then maybe we would not have all this really cool drama to read about…:)

  4. Thanks for this brilliantly written article, Claire. You have said everything I believe about Henry, but you have put it far more eloquently than I could manage.

    There is a quote by Thomas More which I also think sums up the danger of thinking of Henry as a friend and of relying on that apparent friendship:-
    ‘You often boast to me that you have the King’s ear and often have fun with him, freely and according to your whims. This is like having fun with tamed lions, often it is harmless but just as often there is fear of harm. Often he roars with rage for no known reason, and suddenly the fun becomes fatal.’

  5. A very insightful article and much food for thought. I still like the idea of him suffering brain injury in that joust and then his paranoia, etc, coming from that. But, his father was paranoid, too, so??? He is such a character that I don’t think we’ll ever understand him–yes, a different time from ours but we have people who show those signs today. That’s why he’s so fascinating–no pigeon-holing him. What other monarch, with the possible exception of his daughter, is so intriguing? THanks, Claire.

  6. Yep, a tyrant to the core. He just loved hurting people..and he loved manipulating people to hurt others.
    Thanks for the brilliant article Claire. Haven’t changed my mind though.

  7. Great information and food for thought. I certainly would not have wanted to exist within his inner circle-or outside of it for that matter. It seems in the end no one was really safe with Henry on the throne. I can’t help but see him as a tragic figure though, he must have been quite a miserable person. I have always wondered if mental illness might have played a role in his actions and decisions or at least aggravated circumstances. I agree that he became a monster but can’t help but be totally intrigued by him.

  8. Claire, I think you have said it all – Everyone who got that,man angry suffered. Wish I had time to write more to rant and rave over a person I really do despise. If he believed, in aven then after all he did I hope he is still rotting in Hell

  9. I think we think of Henry as tyrant because of how quickly he could turn on those he loved. He had a great capacity to love, but for all that he belived the worst in those he loved at the drop of a hat. It’s like he could talk himself into beliving the worst in all people, and because of that he felt he had to get rid of them almost as an example i suppose. Everyone in a postion of power throughout all ages from King Alfred the Great to Stalin, had to deal with enemies and pretenders. that was bound to have an effect on anyone. it would have been easy for Henry to assume that everyone he was close to was their for their own gain and not his the pleasure of his company. Of course it would mess with his head.

  10. Excellent piece, Claire! You summed up Henry pretty well, i think! (or at least as well as anyone can!) I think the labels of hero or villain are way too simplistic but there’s no doubt that Henrys character underwent some kind of change. Maybe it was through the disappointment of not getting a son or suffering some kind of brain injury or as been pointed out, perhaps genetics played a part as he got older – after all his father tended towards paranoia as well. But I guess that’s what makes him so enduringly fascinating! Whichever way you look at him you can’t say he wasn’t interesting!!!!!

  11. I noticed a previous comment about mental illness-it could explain a lot. I’ve recommended this site to others in posts on Showtime’s “The Tudors” message board twice now, always crediting you for your wonderful articles. I’m sorry The Tudors is over, but so glad to have this site to read more about it.

  12. Henry’s treatment of the Carthusian monks in 1535 and his refusal to commute Francis Dereham’s sentence to simple beheading was tyrannical. Neither the monks nor Dereham deserved the drawing and quartering deaths.

    I think his treatment of Bishop Fisher’s cook in the early 1530’s was beyond cruel. By boiling that man in his own pot that was horrific and bloodthirsty. Why not imprison the man and fine him or something along those lines.

    Personally, I think Henry’s cruelty can be traced back to the beginnings of his reign when he executed Empson and Dudley, his father’s tax collectors for their oppressive taxes. They were doing what his father, Henry VII wanted and required, and did not deserve death. Henry did that in order to gain “brownie points” with the people since these two men were hated and despised.

  13. Henry was a spoiled tyrant!

    He got whatever he wanted, probably his whole life, no matter what it took.
    Only a king could change wives, rules and laws so often. People probably didn’t know if they should play the role of the loyal, queen acknowledging Catholic…or the loyal, queen denying Protestant or visa versa…Only the people willing to conform seemed to live a little longer than the strong faithful ones.

  14. Although Henry was spolied by all the women around him in his youth, his father seemed to have been a distant and very authoritarian person. When Arthur was alive, Henry was not that important to HVII, only the “spare” although, to give HVII his due, all his children were highly educated. However, by the time Arthur died, there seems to have been a great rift between father and son (tpical of many royal dusnasties throughout Europe) and what ever HVII would have liked HVIII would have gone against. Yes, he did execute two os his father’s advisors from the beginning. he married Katherine of Aragon aginst his father’s wishes AND that was before Anne Boleyn came on the scene. He was not raised to make a decision of his own – was always influenced by others until someone else came along to get him out of a spot.

    Hiis dynasty was also on a dodgy wicket – HVII could only claim the throne because he had killed Richard III and consildated his claim by marrying the demale Yorkist heiress – but there wer and also in HVIII’s time contenders to the throne who possibly had more clout than the gransdon of a Welsh Horsemaster and his French/wife mistress and the possible “bastard” daughter of Edward IV if the Blaybourne story is to be believed. He must have spent a lot o f his time convincing himself he was in the right and when thing went well, all was jolly, but to question anything he did was the stairway to teh gallows or the block. Katherine of Aragon did not help to control him either which is why I think Anne Boleyn whether it was by her own doing or being set up by her family who had the nerve to say no to him, inially facsinated him. Anne’s prblem was that she could not produce (well in enough time) the needed heir to the throne to consilidate a weak Tudor dynasty.

  15. Henry survived a brain injury. His actions resemble that of frontal lobe damage. He also appears to suffer a mental illness that of Manic Depressive disorder. His tyrancy mimics that of a person suffering thoughts of Granduer. Granduer that he was entitled to by that of the throne. His behaviour was acceptable to that periiod of time. However, such cruelty toward women and behaviours relative to religion exist even today. i.e The Taliban and that of the Middle East. These may be seen as human behaviours .Henry being engulfed with disease, sepsis a brain injury and psyche illness had every excuse for tyrancy.

  16. Absolute Power corrupts Absolutely…..Henry was a narcissic,sadistic personality…He believed he was God,,,,and no one male or female could contradict him in any way shape or form….He was also so bound by his beliefs that he thought that God spoke thru him…..Therefore everything he did in his mind was logical and right….when viewed today,,,it is evil in purest form….I also think he had a problem with women in that he may have had leanings toward homosexuality….and these feeling combined with the overpowering need to produce a son drove him to the crimes he commited toward females….

    1. to sharon above ,well said what i think of him would not be allowed to print ,but suffice to say i would have him exhumed and burned there was no good in that man beast at all ,it just disgusts me what he did and how he lived.and no excuse whatsoever for his treatment of others,someone a long time ago should have locked him up (preferably in the tower} and thrown away the key

  17. great article as always! I believe that Henry was a complex sole who was both fickle and spoilt, who had he got his son through Catherine or more importantly Anne would have been a very different king, possibly not as notable as he is.I think his tyrannical nature came from one key element of his character;Passion. The great earnest love he had for Anne which fascinates us was driven by his passionate nature, which is well documented in his youth in his lust for HenryV style war and glory and his competitiveness in jousting and hunting. This passion was compromised by his failure to get his son and as quickly as he cruelly turned on and dispatched good Queen Anne was the beginning of his dissent into tyranny driven by bitterness and guilt.
    I do not know how much truth there is in an interesting book from the 1950s which I have mentioned before by W.S. Pakenham, a vicar who became fascinated by Anne’s story and began a psychic journey with several mediums who convinced him that Anne herself was contacting him and urging him to write a play about her to release her and others from their perpetual torment. In one psychic session he is introduced to Henry himself who is angry and unremorseful and who has lived in anguish and confusion since his death. Through Anne and Catherine’s help he is led to understanding of his crimes and they find peace and Anne forgives him. It may be untrue but it is a compelling read which I would recommend. The reason for my mentioning it is that it demonstrates admirably the arrogance of kingship and how far down the tyrannnical path he went. At heart I believe he was good king Hal but he was corrupted by bad advisors, a fickle nature and the unfortunateness of circumstances. Catherine East

  18. Mental illness and manic depression might explain his recluse behavior in the wake on Jane Seymour’s death, and the idea for Nonsuch Palace.

  19. Sharon,

    What you say about HVIII having homosexual leanings is a new one on me – BUT I do know a lot of gays who were brought up in a completely feminine household (I am not saying all) and whilst they can be charming to women, they can also be vicious and to their male friends as well when they don’t get their way. I have nothing against anyone’s sexual leanings (except paedophiles) as long as I am not involved in their traumas – But it could explain why, if things didn’t go his way, he viciously turned on both women and men alike.

    1. Please cite what evidence you have that Henry Viii was either gay or that gay men are particularly cruel to women?

      A person’s sexual orientation has nothing to do with how they treated people. It was normal for younger children to remain in female households. He was moved to a more male dominated world after his brother died, when he was eleven years old and pursuing the sports he did taught him how to be a man. There is no evidence for your statement.

  20. Hmm, I always thought his indulged, women-filled childhood might have made him a “mean girl” rather than it being any indication of latent homosexuality. Maybe he learned about relationships and how to use drama and manipulation to control them from his grandmother, Margaret Beaufort? She was reported to be an overbearing, drama-loving mother-in-law from hell toward Henry’s mother, Elizabeth of York. And frankly, some of Henry’s back-stabbing, whiplash-inducing (“We’re BFFs – No, I hate you!”) stunts just smack, to me, of the bratty, emotionally immature drama of a high school girl’s clique.

  21. Margaret Beaufort – a very clever and manipulative woman, knowing when to keep in the shadows and contiinually moving her life like pieces on a Chessboard. Until her grandson took power and turned the tables on her. Are there any books written about her? She must be a study in itself.

  22. Claire – it may be my computer which seems to be developing a mind of its own but I can’t find the post mentioned by Carolyn – Any suggestions?

  23. It is sometimes surprising to analyze the dichotomy inherent in greatness. High achievement seldom comes with a plain vanilla wrap. In the case of larger than life Henry VIII, all of the contradictions reinforce the necessity for boldness the monarch perceived. Without this fascinating king, driven by lust to found a denomination, England would have been merely a pawn in the push/pull Euro-centric sixteenth century.

  24. I often think Henry fits a lot of the criteria of the psychopath or narcissistic personality disorder. The entire lack of apparenrt conscience, remorse of empathy. The superficial charm belying a chilly inner life where people were all easily expendable. The entirely egocentric worldview, where everything is seen in terms of his wellbeing. The easy self-pity. Such people are motivated entirely by personal gratification, but they won’t always be cruel, because, put simply, they won’t always need to be in order to get what they want.

    Just thinking, maybe – if he was such a person – then the ‘morphing’ into a monster is more about the fact that in his earlier days he had less need to be cruel in order to get what he wanted? Maybe he was always capable of it, but in his earlier life the capability was dormant?

    1. Yes, I’m convinced that Henry VIII was characterized by Narcisstic Personality Disorder.

      All this nonsense about a bump on the head does not fit the facts. His murders of Empson and Dudley were more reprehensible by far than his murder of Moore (who at least had an opportunity to submit to Henry’s will and thus escape with his head), yet those who want to claim some dramatic change in personality later in his reign, necessarily gloss over that fact.

      Narcisstic Personality Disorder is highly explanative, and completely consistent with all the evidence. In particular it explains why he was so charming and “bluff” when he got his own way, along with the manner in which he so often turned on those he had previously held in such passionate or high regard. The co-occurence of these characteristics (great charm and astounding cruelty and disregard for others), which many see as some great contradiction, are predicted for Narcisstic Personality Disorder.

      He’s a text book case of Narcisstic Personality Disorder. No further explanation necessary.

      1. Epsom and Dudley were not murdered: they were executed. They were a pair of brutes who held the City of London to randsom over debts and were guilty of extortion and were in fact a pair of bullies. Henry did a good thing by having them executed as they were guilty of stealing and of causing people to live in fear over invented debts. These were people who terrorized ordinary business people and even invented things to use to imprison people without trial for no reason at all. The City was in terror of them. Their execution was highly popular.

  25. King Henry the 8th was definitely a tyrant even in his day. As it was pointed out, things were different back then, which I completely understand, and I even agree on some of his methods, but in retrospect he was a dormant monster. What he did to Anne Boleyn, Anne Askew, Thomas More, and Katherine Howard was just monstrous and I’m not just talking about the deeds themselves but the way he reacted to their punishments and deaths. He obviously couldn’t care less.

    However, even though he was a tyrant and a monster he did some good stuff for England and I agree that he most definitely had some mental disorders–Depression, paranoia. He might of even been bipolar or maybe even a schitzophrenic. Who knows? All I know from what I’ve gathered is that there was definitely something wrong with him and maybe all it was was his ‘mean girl’ tendencies? 😉

  26. I think there are several things that happened in Henry’s life that sewed the seeds of tyranny. First, he was pretty much raised by his mother and sisters. As the “little man” of that group, he was no doubt spoiled. Of course, the older he grew, the more spoiled he learned to become. His father, Henry VII, was quite paranoid and I think Henry picked up on his father’s fears and buried them deep in his psyche. For a while, in the blossom of youth and new kingship, he could rely on his charm to get what he wanted. Plus, he had Wolsey to do most of the boring stuff so Henry could dance and sing and have ‘pastime in good company.’ But, after he “grew up” and shook off the harness of Rome, took control of his own destiny (heady feeling!) he then started believing his own press–he was God’s annointed, the highest human in the land, right up there with God. I really believe he thought his own will was also God’s will. And that lead to cruel tyranny. Plus, I think the bump on his head while tilting didn’t help much.

  27. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that good ol’ Henry VIII suffered severe damage to his frontal lobes during a jousting accident. What does this mean you say? Well if anyone has ever heard of Phineas Gage (a miner of sorts who- during an accident- exploded a pole through his brain (left or right frontal damage i can’t remember both of which however are involved with similar processes). Anyway, Gage’s behaviour was documented and although made a full healthy recovery physically, psychologically he was ‘a different person’. Once a good businessman, wife family, realistic goals expectations- all of this was altered with severe frontal lobe damage.

    It is believed that Henry VIII suffered a similar fate during a jousting accident- i’m actually writing an essay about it as we speak. I’ll save you the boring details but basically, damage to this are of the brain is thought to impact upon the ‘self’. Patients typically lose concentration, become extremely impulsive and spontaneous and formulate unrealistic, if not ridiculous goals (which are easily abandoned).

    It’s interesting to see how some people claim what a nice guy he was and then in some illogical gap a tyrant…some people attribute it to power/ego etc. but i see no reason why a neuropsychological reason cannot be the main. Like Henry VIII, Phineas Gage went on to marry several times (illustrating lack of concentration, boredom etc). The similarities are striking, if you search the internet you will find support for this.

    What does anybody think?

  28. also about henry i think the older he got the more he couldnt accept his youth was gone and seeing a lot of “bright young things” mostly young good looking men would have made him very spiteful and bitter ,me thinks he had a lot of jealousy towards young men in particular .

  29. He was a murderous tyrant. Inbreeding and too many blows to the head didn’t help matters. Most monarchs and a current US President have that “God complex”. No different than today’s business and media elite. Too much power and too many boot-lickers.

  30. When u look at henrys life it was a rollercoaster ride !I beleive he paid the price for his cruelty .He got the son he always wanted but lost his wife.Executed poor inocent ann and those poor men ! Then fell in love with katherine howard who realy did cheat on him and broke his heart ha ha serves him right .Suffered terible pain for half his life ! Then to add insult to injury ann boylen gave him a daughter that ruled this country better than he did !What a shame he never had the pleasure to c ann boylen blood line rule england longer than any other king or queen so in some ways karma followed him through out his life He didnt have it all his own way well thats my opinion !!!!

  31. Henry V111 is known to most people for his many wives but I think he was most likely a man of his times when what the King said went and normally anyone who spoke out against his views where put to death. The Kings had great power in this country and Henry was no exception his treatment of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn was terrible I think just thrown on the scrap heap because they did not produce a male heir. And then to make his daughters Elizabeth and Mary bastards and ban them from the court. His break from Rome was not only about his wish to divorce Catherine of Aragon it was also his wish to be top dog regarding church and state and not be told what to do by the Pope in Rome. His sacking of the Abbey’s etc also had an agenda he needed more money for the royal coffers and the reformation helped him do that. His wives were just pawns in the Tudor political game a time when women had no rights anyway and had to go along with it all especially what the King commanded. Look what happened after Henry died his son Edward died young and then Mary took

  32. Over after her brother died. And not forgetting Lady Jane Grey prior to that who was put to death for treason. Mary advanced her Catholic beliefs and burnt over 300 hundred people at the stake including Archbishop Cranmer who she blamed for her mother’s death(Katherine of Aragon) Elizabeth remained true to Henry’s new religion which was started by Martin Luther in Europe.

  33. It could also be argued that if he had not desired to marry Anne Boleyn many of these things would not have happened. Had she not put into his mind that she was willing to become his Queen and then promised him a son: he would not have got fed up with waiting for the decision from Rome. Many of the laws he passed were to defend his issue with Anne as what he now saw as his only lawful Queen; and I doubt that had he remained married to Catherine that he would have divorced England from Rome. He did so in order to further his divorce and marry Anne. Had he not married Anne Boleyn the Act of Supremacy would not have existed: the Act of Succession would not have existed: The Act of Restraint Against Appeals would not have existed and the Treasons Act would not hav existed. It was Cromwell putting these through Parliament to protect Anne and Henry from anyone saying they were not legally married or taunting Anne when she was Queen or speaking anything against him or her or their union and heirs that made all sorts or stuff treason that was not so before. He became more and more paranoid and his life with Anne was hell. He was also affected by a bitter divorce, a lack of a male heir and physical problems after his fall in 1536. If Henry became a tyrant it is because his pursuit of Anne Boleyn and what followed that made him into one. The appointment of Cromwell did not help things.

  34. The ironic thing is that if the two greatest Catholic kings of that time, Charles I of Spain who was also Holy Roman Emperor as Charles V, and Francis I of France had put aside their constant feuding, their combined military might would surely have toppled this godless tyrant. If I had been Charles V, I would have given all of northern Italy to Francis I to get him to help me topple Henry. When I would have then had Henry in my power, I personally would have beheaded him, as Peter the Great did some 170 years later in Russia with some of the boyars who resisted his sensible and forward looking reforms.

    Protestants need to remember that if Henry VIII had remained in union with Rome, with either no marriage problem, or willing to accept the pope’s decision regarding his marriage, then Scotland would also have remained Catholic. This would have meant that the Continental Reformation would have been in serious jeopardy by the time Luther died in 1546. England was pivotal and crucial, and everyone knew it.

    Modern thought would have come by the 18th or 19th centuries, regardless, but it would been a considerably different western world, as we get to our own time. I say this as a history buff, not as a practicing Catholic, which though my own faith is close to Rome, is not identical thereto.

  35. He wasn’t a sadist, it is said when he had condemned some one he couldn’t bear to see them after that in case his sentimentality would get the better of him, he probably thought he was hard done by, he so desperately needed a son to secure his throne and for many years he thought he was close to that dream when he sought to marry Anne Boleyn, he had risked such a lot to make her queen yet it was all for nothing, no wonder as he grew older he became bad tempered and tyrannical, I think he is misunderstood that said, he remains our most colourful monarch of all time!

    1. I agree. Many analyses of Henry depict a pantomime figure which does not relate to a believable personality at all. The man had insecurities which he cloaked by harsh action. He had a great sense of his possible fallibility, both in terms of securing the succession and in having the respect of those around him. He must have known how his lack of initial success in courting Ann Boleyn was observed by everyone at court and how he had to take everything to the edge to make her his wife, all this under the critical eye of ambassadors, courtiers and so forth. Then when she failed to produce a son and Cromwell brought evidence of her alleged unfaithfulness and her ridicule of him, he must have lashed out and determined to show his authority to anyone who threatened him. I do believe he had the capacity to love deeply and to be kind but only within the context of being a king in a precarious position and needing to establish his authority. What he did 500 years ago under circumstances alien to us now gives us a false view of the man himself. What he did as a king and what he did as a man may be two different things,

  36. I don’t know why, but I have always loved Henry VIII.
    I began to research him and his reign and his wives and his friends and his court when a movie came out on PBS that was about him. It piqued my interest and I suddenly couldn’t get enough.
    Initially I saw him as undoubtedly most folks see him: a cruel tyrant. I saw Anne as a sweet, innocent victim. But as I studied more and more about Henry and Anne and all of Tudor England, the more I began to reverse my opinion. I don’t think Henry was a saint, but I think Henry did what he had to do. I think he did what was necessary, and he was by no means a sociopath. It was, actually, his sentimentality that set him apart from other kings and men.
    I don’t know how anyone can research Anne Boleyn, get to know her character and who she actually was, and see her as an innocent victim. Anne Boleyn knew full well what she was getting herself into. Anne Boleyn was an intelligent, kniving, manipulative woman who wanted at any cost to be Queen of England. Anne was no young innocent; Anne was a mature woman with her eyes wide open (She was estimated to be around 35 years old at her death; 32 at her wedding to Henry).
    The whole idea of Anne being an innocent lamb led to the slaughter by Henry is purely fictional: Anne herself wouldn’t want people to think that of her. Anne’s contemporaries found her to be rash, headstrong, and thoroughly, on the whole, unlikeable. I personally am not completely sure that Anne didn’t commit adultery against Henry. At the very least Henry believed she was guilty of the crime. Henry did not put Anne to death knowing she was innocent; his conscience wouldn’t have allowed it. Also remember it wasn’t just the crime of adultery, it was plotting his death. Henry was notoriously paranoid about people plotting against him, and surely he also believed Anne was capable of plotting against him. It’s not so far fetched; she, after all, plotted against Katherine of Aragon and eventually usurped her to take her place as Queen. Anne Boleyn was no saint, and we do her memory no good by ascribing traits to her that were never hers. I will never understand this Anne-Boleyn worship; The real Anne Boleyn was definitely NOT a likeable person, nor did she try to be.

    1. I always felt he was given an unfair verdict by history. He inspired a great deal of love in his day, not just respect. I read once that he loved music, children and flowers. He disliked ill manners and dirty jokes. His good manners were always commented upon. He was educated, gracious, generous and articulate, There was sensitivity, insecurity and sentimentality in his character but also a great sense of his position as king and the loneliness that followed from that. I believe his disillusionment in Ann Boleyn was not unreasonable. When the veil lifted from his eyes and he saw her as a self seeking individual who had manipulated him and taken advantage of his affection, he turned in resentment and fury. His actions as a king may sometimes have been monstrous to 21st century eyes but as a man he wasn’t’ all bad. Like many modern Middle Eastern rulers, his power had to be absolute and unarguable or chaos would follow.

  37. Jiminy Cricket ayy Henry was a bad man, probably because his mom Elizabeth I mistreated him.

    And then of course there was the English civil war, in which he played a direct part

  38. Hello,

    I have just watched the Tudors again…I did not see it in the same light as the first time. I only watched the “Anne Boleyn period” again. I think she is very well portrayed in the series. She was definitely not a saint and innocent creature but she did not deserve this unfair treatment.
    It appears to me that Henry VIII is depicted as a weak character. Weak people generally make perfect despots and tyrants if they are in a position of power. A strong person would never react and act that way. I thought his character in the series is weak and pathetic. He also seems to suffer from a form of mental illness. I will investigate the “real” Henry VIII more studiously! As vile and low as he was, he is a fascinating figure in history. And the monarchy and religion appear so pointless and absurd. It is crazy we accepted these as “powers” to define our human society. Scary. Question: do things have really changed that much?

  39. It is idiotic to suggest that Anne Boleyn’s ‘last words’, exonerating her husband from her murder, were anything other than an attempt to save her family from the tyrant.
    Henry 8th, however much historians may try to finesse or whitewash his reputation, was inherently evil – a political criminal who cause lasting damage to the welfare and state institutions of the people of the British Isles for many generations. The nation as a whole did not recover its amour propre until at least the end of the 17th century.

  40. Henry Viii didn’t start his reign as a tyrant and he didn’t turn into one over night. Henry was indeed charming and handsome and easy to live with when he was first on the throne, for a long time actually. However, that all changed when he began his search for an annulment from his wife Katherine, whom he actually loved and for a son with his future wife, Anne Boleyn. Although I also believe his possible brain injury in 1536 contributed to his decline into tyrannical behaviour, it wasn’t the only factor. The power gained by his break from Rome, the Supremacy, his marriage to Anne Boleyn and the opposition he faced because of these choices and enforcement of them, a long and bitter marriage break up and new opposition in 1536 and 1537, with the Pilgrimage of Grace and other Northern Rebellions which were dangerous threats. Henry suffered a painful decline in health, all of which from the mid 1530s contributed to him evolving from a true Renaissance Prince into a Tyrant, although his people would not have thought of him in those terms and he was still a great King.

  41. I agree that he killed seemingly without remorse, and even if it was a “judicial” killing, Henry used kangaroo courts with trumped up evidence to get what he wanted, which is getting people out of his way for whatever selfish reason he had. One example is Thomas More, a close friend and advisor who Henry held in high esteem, and whom he executed because More would not agree to Henry taking over leadership of Church of England. More was a man of principle, and Henry, comparing himself to this wise man with morals and ethics, probably saw how much he opposite he was- and that was probably a factor in More’s death. More was not exactly mounting a rebellion, and Henry could have let him continue quietly in anonymous retirement. Henry wasn’t very concerned about More’s family, either, after the years of service More gave him.

    Henry had Anne Boleyn executed because he wanted to marry a more submissive, less opinionated woman who would give him a male heir, which it looked like Anne wasn’t going to accomplish quickly, enough, if at all. So he found another woman, and his problem now was getting rid of Anne-permanently. It’s kind of like someone turning in their old car to get the latest model- with that much emotion. This was seen by his almost immediate marriage to Jane Seymour, and warning Jane later to keep her mouth shut about the slaughtering of Catholic rebels and the destruction of monasteries, or she’d end up like Anne.

    Henry seemed pretty paranoid, believing rumors and gossip, and murdering people who were possible dissenters or even rivals for the throne-such as Edward Stafford the Duke of Buckingham, and members of Cardinal Pole’s family, including his elderly mother. There was no evidence that Margaret Pole was involved in any conspiracy against him. His paranoia led to the killings of Thomas Cromwell and Cardinal Wolsey (who would have been murdered if he hadn’t died on the way to the Tower).

    Henry’s last wife, Catherine Parr, was probably in fear for her life the whole time she was married to him, and was probably relieved that he finally died, because at that point, he was paranoid, in chronic pain, smelly, obese, could barely walk, and had a hair-trigger temper. I don’t believe she would have married him if she didn’t think her life was in jeopardy if she refused him. She may not have survived if he’d lived any longer, because she was an Protestant, and her fellow Protestant Anne Askew was tortured and burned at the stake. Henry was still a Catholic, only he wanted absolute control over England, including its church.

    Similarly, imagine the fear Anne of Cleves felt when Henry said he wanted his marriage annulled. He appeared angry, especially at the matchmaker Cromwell, because she probably rejected him when he met her incognito, before their formal meeting, not knowing who he was, and she wasn’t a striking beauty (but neither was Henry at that point). This bruised his huge ego. Fortunately he did not kill her, because he could annul the marriage, so didn’t have to resort to plan B. He also probably did not want to anger potential Protestant allies while all of the Catholic countries were angry with him.

    That is why I believe this self indulgent, unscrupulous monarch, whom the world still seems fascinated with mainly due to his notoriety, was like the Stalin of the Renaissance world.

  42. I recently heard about something called a ‘psychotic break’, after which the person’s whole character and personality change. Does anyone know more about this, and could it perhaps have applied to Henry VIII?

  43. I have a problem with the idea that Henry truly loved Ann. Narcissists don’t love, they possess. Possessions, including people, are for the use of the narcissist and are expendable. You can argue he loved her according to his way, but I think that excuses behavior that was abusive even by the standards of the 16th century (people may only have recognized it if it was convenient to them, but the idea was still present and expressed, many people didn’t disapprove, enough did).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *