Henry VIII – Henry the Great?

Posted By on April 21, 2010

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