On this day in history, on the 21st April 1509, Henry VII died and his son Henry VIII came to the throne. Henry VIII was not born to be king, in that he was the second son, but one could argue that he was definitely born to be king when you consider his character!

Henry VIII is an icon, no doubt about it. 501 years after his succession to the throne of England, you can show a copy of the famous Holbein portrait to a person on the street and they will most probably recognise him, yet they may not recognise a photo of one of the present day royals or a politician. However, he is remembered as this huge, larger than life, hulk of a man who had six wives and who executed two of them.

Popular fiction and “The Tudors” show have coloured our views of this Tudor king – we think of him as:-

  • A man with an insatiable appetite, for women and for food.
  • A man who was fickle – A “love them and leave them” attitude towards women (and also friends and advisers), or perhaps “love them then cut off their heads”!
  • A king obsessed with having a son, no matter what the cost.
  • A monster – Mood swings, double crossing, massacres, executions, torture…Is there anything that he was not capable of?
  • A man with a bad leg.
  • A man who could turn his back on his wife and daughter.
  • A king who bent the word of God when he needed to and who saw himself as England’s God.
  • A man who was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to get what he wanted.
  • A king who loved the good life.

But in seeing him as either Holbein’s Henry with the rather large codpiece or as played by sexy Jonathan Rhys Meyers Henry, are we missing the true Henry? Henry may well have been all of the above but that was not all he was. Henry VIII was also a Renaissance Prince, a patron of the Arts and someone who transformed England and started the work that has made English the major power and player that it is today. As David Starkey points out, “there are two Henry’s”, meaning young and old – the “Virtuous Prince” and the “Tyrant”.  Here is a wonderful passage from David Starkey’s Henry: Virtuous Prince:-

“Holbein’s Henry is the king of his last dozen or so years, when he was – in Charles Dickens’s glorious phrase – a spot of blood and grease on the history of England. This is the hulking tyrant with a face like Humpty Dumpty of nightmare, who broke with Rome and made himself supreme head of the church; who married six wives, of whom he divorced two and divorced and executed two others; who dissolved six hundred monasteries; demolished most of them and shattered the religious pieties and practices of a thousand years; who beheaded nobles and ministers, including those who had been his closest friends, castrated, disembowelled and quartered rebels and traitors, boiled poisoners and burned heretics”


“This is also the king who reinvented England; presided over the remaking of English as a language and literature and began to turn the English Channel into the widest strip of water in the world. He carried the powers of the English monarchy to their peak.”

Henry seems to be a true paradox: Henry the Great and Henry the Monster. He was passionate when he was doing good and just as passionate when he was committing atrocious acts of cruelty. Driven and passionate are definitely words we can use to describe Henry VIII.

Henry the Great

Whatever we think of Henry VIII, let us today, on the anniversary of his accession to the throne, think of his good deeds. At a debate at the 2007 Festival of History at Kelmarsh Hall, Alison Weir argued that Henry VIII should be named England’s greatest monarch, over Queen Victoria and Elizabeth I. She described Henry as:-

“A true child of the Renaissance – a gentleman in the knightly, chivalric sense, an intellectual who read St Thomas Aquinas for pleasure, an expert linguist, a humanist, an astronomer, a world-class sportsman, a competent musician and composer, an accomplished horseman, and a knowledgeable theologian. He could turn his hand to anything from designing weapons to mathematics or technology, from making up medicines to drawing maps or brick-making. But Henry’s true greatness lay in his practical aptitude, his acute political perception, and in the self-restraint that enabled him to confine – within limits acceptable to his people – an insatiable appetite for power.”

and listed his key achievements as:-

  • Being responsible for the Reformation in England
  • Founding the Church of England
  • Enhancing the standing of the monarchy and giving England a new sense of national identity
  • Being the first English king to authorise an English translation of the Bible
  • Overhauling “the machinery of state” and introducing new and improved taxation schemes
  • Building or renovating 70 palaces and erecting fortresses along England’s southern coast
  • Being a patron of the Arts and popularising portraiture
  • Creating English history’s most magnificent court
  • Founding the English Navy
  • Elevating the status of England within Europe
  • Maintaining a balance of power between France and the Holy Roman Empire

In summing up Henry VIII’s legacy, Alison Weir said:-

“He changed the heart, mind and face of Britain more than anything between the coming of the Normans and the factory age. In the reigns of his children, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, his legend became embedded in the national consciousness, and “Great Harry” was especially lauded for having rescued the English Church from the tyranny of Rome. Today, historians recognise that his reign contributed an extraordinary legacy – modern Britain. Henry began his reign in a medieval kingdom; he ended it in what was effectively a modern state. We are still living in the England of Henry VIII.”

So, as much as I struggle with calling Henry VIII “great”, you can’t help but admire him for his achievements. It’s like when Ollivander tells Harry Potter (I’m so sorry to bring Harry Potter into a discussion on Henry VIII!) that Voldemort did “great things” with his wand, “terrible, yes, but great”.


  • England’s Greatest Monarch Is… – An article by the BBC on a debate that took place in 2007 at the Festival of History
  • Henry: Virtuous Prince – by David Starkey, quote taken from page 3
  • The Tudors – A series produced by Showtime
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J K Rowling

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30 thoughts on “Henry VIII – Henry the Great?”
  1. Yes Henry was responsible for the Reformation, for creating the Church of England and for the translation of the Bible into English which was the natural progression following the break with Rome. But he did all of this for purely selfish reasons when the Pope refused him a divorce.
    Yes he built and renovated a number of Palaces and created history’s most magnificent court, but he did so purely out of egotism.
    Yes he elevated the standing of England in Europe and gave England a new sense of national identity, but not before he brought us to war with France and almost brought us to war with Spain, hence his need to expand the Royal Navy.
    Yes he was a patron of the arts; after all, his court was filled with highly talented men, a number of whom he later sentenced to death on false charges of treason.
    To my mind his key achievements came about due to nothing more than selfish egotism. The end result may have improved England in the long term, but the motivation behind his achievements was deeply flawed.

  2. I can’t get past the ego, the cruelty, the wickedness and the chopping about of religion which was always the sort which Henry needed either personally or politically. I’d rather talk Harry Potter, really, Claire!

  3. I completely agree with all of you and Claire! You summed it up perfectly. Henry was “great,” but not exactly in the positive sense of the word. And great Harry Potter reference! It ties in perfectly!

  4. Didn’t Anne praised him at the end .Or was that due to her fear chaos may rein in England after death? 🙂

  5. Was henry slim and fit at the time he married Anne? And did his adiction to food begin after her death? Also I heard Henry lay awake at times hearing Anne call his name in old French.Is that true? 🙂

  6. Xena, I believe she did praise Henry at the end of her execution speech, but you have to remember she was leaving her baby daughter’s future in that man’s hands…

  7. King Henry was horrible, he killed all of his wifes except for Cathernine of Arogone but the protestant church did come to pass cuz of him!

    1. Hi Pink. I know this is a belated response, but Henry ordered the execution of two wives, Anne Boleyn and Kathryn Howard. Catherine of Aragon died after her divorce and banishment, probably from cancer aged 50. Jane Seymour died two weeks after giving birth to Edward from childbirth fever and the Queen for just six months, Anne of Cleves died ten years after Henry and Queen Mary gave her a grand funeral in Westminster Abbey and his widow, Katherine Parr died eighteen months after Henry from complicated childbirth.

      No, Henry didn’t start the Protestant faith. He allowed some reforms and broke from Rome but he remained a Catholic. There were some people who followed many varieties of the reformed teachings from abroad but Protestant Church didn’t exist until well into the reign of Elizabeth I.

  8. Maureen says:

    You could say H8 was great — greatly lacking in any of the characteristics of greatness. He had absolutely no class, no nobility, no honesty! no integrity!

    The English language was going just fine before he came along and continued developing after he left the scene. There was not much language use during his reign because of the treason laws.

    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!

    H8 created a schism, not a religion. The foundations of the Church of England were built by Elizabeth who provided both stability and direction. She appointed competent leadership and trusted them to do the job.

    His court was not “English history’s most magnificent” — most European scholars avoided it because they did not want to loose their heads!

  9. Couldn’t agree more Louise!

    It seems Henry’s ego contributed to his downfall as well as those he had executed. The injuries he recieved sporting events which probably never healed correctly. He seemed to have a need to prove his manhood and athletic ability. I belive he had a head injury from a horse that had fallen on him and of course, we all are aware of his bad knee that never healed and smelled terrible. Also, I had heard that his legs were bad because the circulation was cut off from wearing tight clothing because he wanted to show off his muscular calves. (as seen in the famous picture of him).

  10. I think that Henry VIII was one of the greatest people in history period, though NOT always in a positive way. I think that people are too quick to judge him as either wonderful or horrible; in reality, he was just a human in a superhuman position, if you will.

  11. Pink, Henry ‘only’ executed 2 of his 6 wives. Jane Seymour died from complications after childbirth, and Anne of Cleves (whom he divorced) and Katherine Parr both outlived him. I’m not saying he wasn’t a bloody tyrant, though…

  12. Maureen that was a very good post. I for one if I lived then and Henry VIII even looked my way I would go screaming in the opposite direction.I don’t know how any woman at the time could even be in the same room as him.
    Henry with his ulcerated leg the pain must of drove him mad. He likely didn’t sleep at nights.Food would comforted temporally taking his mind off his leg and off of the affairs of state. Which Likely weighed heavy on him Foreign ambassorter asking for pay back of loans. Requests for assistance in battles.
    And the joust was the national sport back then, and he was a keen player. He became trapped both in his girth and his injuries. I feel as any man denied the right to participate in his choice of sport. Would with all means go trumpeting through the castle like a great mad bull elephant.With a sliver in his foot .As any man today deprived of playing his sport say, Hockey.
    The depression would be overwhelming,with no means to vent his anger and why me attitude.Because Men in that day would clam up about thier feelings even worst the men today.Men the day thought it was the woman’s decision to have boy or girls. He didn’t know his little girl thingies were better swimmers the his little boy thingies had no Idea how nature worked. They would also think that in some way the woman sined .As a result God was punishing them.
    So Henry was a victim of his up bring ,culture,body pain and illness, and beliefs. And poor women were his kicking can .
    Anne without any real rights as a woman.used the only power she had beauty, mystery and wit to stay alive in a man’s world at the time. But in the end she was no match to the power of fate. 🙂

  13. I think Henry was a real bastard. I don’t know if it’s true or not but it seems to me that Anne of Cleeves was not that impressed with him either. She wasn’t bothered that he coouldn’t consummate the marriage

  14. I can’t understand Jane Symour being willing to marry the tyrant who had just had his second wife executed on false charges. Everyone at court must have known the allegations of adultery were false. Also I don’t think Anne of Cleves liked him that much. My intuition tells me that she may have been humiliated at the failure to consummate the marriage, but that she might have been relieved also.

  15. What woman would want to smell that rotten leg of his.I think the women were forced by the ambition of the men in thier family. Just as Anne,and her sister Mary before that. Bessie Bount. I think was the only woman really willing to be with Henry.He was young and in the prime of life. And all the ugliness to follow had not occured yet. But Henry’s first wife I think was deeply in love him. And was a saintly and good wife to him. 🙂

  16. Something else I can’t understand about King Henry and the other men of the court. Their inability to tell if a woman was a virgin or not. Henry’s angry outburst at Anne Boleyn – “You were not a virgin when I married you!” and his asking Charles Brandon if he had experienced women lying about their virginity. Apparently Jane Seymour, who Henry believed was so pure, was not a virgin either having married henry when she was in her mid 30’s. Chapuys apparently said she had a reputation at court where she had been around a lot longer than depicted in The Tudors. None of Henry’s women were virgins when he met them except for Catherine of Aragon . How could he not know this?

  17. I was womderimg who the woman is in Anne Boleyn’s dream, or nightmare. The woman has long grey hair and is wearing what looks like sackcloth and with a latge cross around her neck. She look st Anne then turns away. This occurs before Anne is put into that dreadful looking iron contraption to be burnt.

  18. Juanita,
    The woman in the dream isn’t credited, not even something as generic as ‘crone’. I’m not sure the dream was supposed to make sense. You have the old lady with a cross, but you also have what looks like a Druid priest and the Green Man enacting human sacrifice (Anne) in a Burning Man ritual. But you also have a staunchly traditional Mary lighting the flame, when she would never participate in a pagan ritual, even to get rid of her enemy. The dream was just meant to show Anne’s fear of enemies at every turn, of every religious persuasion. She felt in danger, but wasn’t certain where it would come from. That’s my two cents, anyway. 🙂

  19. I am sorry my posting was so long! However I am glad some people agreed. The one thing I can’t stand is that historians such as Wier and Starkey influence our CHILDREN. I would like to see a more accurate, and naunced view of H8 — not the one presented by Wier and Starkey.

  20. Yes Carolyn, thanks for that. It does seem to be about Anne Boleyns fears. The piece also had the poet, Thomas Wyatt, once Anne’s lover, offering her an apple. Apples were what she craved during her first pregnancy, but this time she waved it away, knowing, or fearing perhaps, that she wasn’t pregnant at the tome, and might never be in the future, and may never produce the required son and heir. Also she must have feared that the full truth of her affair with Wyatt might come out, and that any one of her enemies could use it against her.

  21. I heard in a special about Henry that he suffered that great blow to his head and that was what changed his personality. He also had a number of diseases which could have contributed to a lack of seratonan in his brain. I had a friend who was in a car accide3nt whose personality changed afterwards. Perhaps we are judging Henry too harshly. Maybe he didn’t have a choice.

  22. Juanita,

    I think it was very well known that Anne of Cleves was most definitely a virgin when she married Henry. She had an extremely strict upbringing and her knowledge of all things worldly was so limited that it shocked many of the English nobles. Katherine of Aragon almost definitely was (Arthur having probably been too weak to consummate their marriage) a virgin, despite what Henry may have you believe.
    Anne and Jane are debatable. To be honest, before she caught Henry’s attention there was so little about Jane’s personal relationships recorded that it would be impossible to establish the truth one way or another. Anne is equally as debatable because there just simply isn’t enough evidence to tell if she was or not.
    As for Catherine Parr and Katherine Howard, they were probably the only two you could say without a shadow of a doubt that they were not virgins. Catherine having been married twice before and Katherine’s previous precontract and admitted bedding of Dereham being considered.

  23. Henry Viii deserves to be called Great as much as any other King or Queen who used the title. Let’s face it Peter the Great was pretty brutal, torturing his own son to death practically, eliminating the Stelsky practically single handed, forcing his wife into a remote monastery to replace her with a foreigner and how many died to build his cities? However, like Henry Viii he dragged his country kicking and screaming into the modern age. Henry left a legacy and he left us plenty to debate about. His personal life was a disaster but his public one made him revered. He founded many important institutions, like the naval colleges, the physicians and he did reform government. He took England forward on an independent path and he saw the laws he introduced, yes, as harsh, but also as necessary. He was magnificent in his appearance and dress and his Court was full of talent and he became involved in the formation of true local and state government of the country at all levels. He protected English goods and he banned French wine. We grew our own and now also obtained hops for beer as well as ale. He had a bronze canon industry and a full weapons programme that kept numerous people in employment. He both patronized and destroyed building, with the destruction of the monasteries and his building of many palaces and of his collection and ordering of works of art. He founded and then refounded the vast majority of grammar schools, most of which provided free education and he took an active interest in theology and medicine.

    On the darker side, a large number of people were executed in his reign just as they would be in later reigns and because a vast number of offences carried the death penalty right up to the end of the nineteenth century. It is more accurate to say a certain number of people died because of his laws not that Henry killed them. 70,000 is not a contemporary figure but from 100 plus years later and is most probably an exaggeration. Yes, the orders dealing with the rebels in 1536/7 were very harsh, but they were not out of the ordinary. His father saw 186 Cornishmen executed and the total number executed was small considering over 50,000 people were involved. 156 people were executed in Yorkshire and 127 in Lincolnshire. This is smaller than the 700 executed on Elizabeth I orders after the Northern Rebellion in 1570/1. The Western and Prayer Book rebellions from East Anglia under Northumberland et al on behalf of Edward vi saw thousands killed. I am not saying the executions are not brutal, of course they were, terrifying, but it is fair to see that other monarchs behaved in a similar fashion and they are not called Tyrants.

    Henry is a man whose life and reign can almost be split in to two parts. Very few political executions can be shown in his first two decades and it is his later which appears to belong to a different person. There is much debate as to how or why he changed so dramatically and there is nothing to point to him not changing, every description of him shows a very different King in his last ten years that his first twenty eight on the throne.

    Mental illness is a possibility, although most standard disorders don’t fit him as neatly as you may suppose. Rare blood disorders have also been suggested. The favourite and most obvious event is the very real possibility of a brain injury in 1536. More recently lead poisoning has become a clear theory which should be given more consideration. Every time Henry had a problem with his leg, something which began in 1527, then badly in 1536, the plaster applied had lead in. Imagine this getting into his wounds and his bloodstream and over the years moving to his brain. Any one of these things or a combination, plus years of a bitter and contracted divorce could have contributed to his foul temper and irrational decisions and his complex and power gained from the Supremacy to make him more tyrannical. However, everything Henry did was backed by Parliament and the law, new laws yes, especially made to increase his power, but a legal process, nonetheless. A Tyrant would not bother with the law. Henry also spent so much money that he had to debase the currency to cope with an expanding economy. He could still be called Great though because he achieved far more than any other Monarch and was probably a genius.

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