Henry VIII by Cornelis MatsysHenry VIII may have been a great English monarch in many ways but there’s just no getting over the fact, in my opinion, that he was a tyrant.

But how and why did this promising, virtuous, Renaissance Prince turn into a monster and tyrannical king?

Was there a turning point?

Is there a reason?

Let’s look at some of the theories put forward by historians, authors and psychologists:-

Psychological Reasons

  • Pscho-sexual theory – Psychologist J. C. Flügel believed that Henry VIII had an Oedipus complex in that he wanted to get rid of his father and “succeed to his father’s place of authority” and possess his mother, and that this affected his marriages and the way that he treated women. He had conflicting tendencies: 1) He desired, but also hated, a sexual rival; 2) He was attracted to the idea of an incestuous relationship but horrified at the same time and 3) He also insisted on chastity in a wife. It seems that he was torn between a “wh*re in the bedroom” and an angelic, pure wife who reminded him of his mother, and, as Flügel says, “that which Henry was impelled to do by the operation of his unconscious desires he was equally impelled to oppose, by the operation of (an often equally unconscious) resistance to these desires.”1

  • God complex – As a result of the break with Rome, Henry made himself head of the church in England and may well have begun to identify himself with God. According to J C Flügel, his God complex found expression in the “breaking up of the monasteries, his prohibitions against the worship of saints and images, the consistent exclusion of clerics from the higher posts of state which they had hitherto occupied, and the endeavors to define the orthodox faith and produce – by force if necessary – a general uniformity of religious belief within his dominions; all measures tending to prevent the possibility of opposition or rivalry to his quasi-omnipotent power in the religious sphere.”2
  • A mid-life crisis – In “1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII”, Suzannah Lipscombe quotes a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Miles F Shore, as saying that “Henry VIII’s childhood separations from his parents, and alternating adulation and brutality, contributed to a midlife “crisis of generativity”, extreme narcissism, grandiose fantasies, and transience in relationships.”3 In the mid 1530s, when his behaviour started to change, Henry was in his mid 40s and we all know men who have had a midlife crisis, left their wife and children and done rather stupid things. Well, Henry was not only in his mid 40s but he had also had a brush with death (a serious jousting accident in 1536) and so had suddenly been faced with his own mortality. He may have been king and second only to God (or so he thought) but he was mortal. Shore also says that “the reality of middle age failed to live up to his fantasies”4 and I think that causes many a midlife crisis!
    Sir Arthur Salisbury MacNulty MD, a medical expert5 who examined Henry VIII’s medical history, points out that 1536 marked the approach of Henry’s old age as it was the year he turned 45, an age considered to be the start of old age in Tudor times. Perhaps Henry suddenly reviewed his life and panicked about being mortal.
  • Second son syndrome – Peter Morgan, scriptwriter of the ITV series “Henry VIII” (2003) described Henry as a “neglected second son… there’s a vulnerability to him…a wounded character”6. Did he feel the need to make up for being the second son, the “spare”?
  • He lost his soul – Ray Winstone, the actor who played Henry in “Henry VIII” said “Once [Henry] got rid of his first wife, who was his brother’s widow, he lost a bit of his soul. Once you do that, you can’t get it back. And each [wife] became easier to get rid of.”7 Did Henry spiral out of control?
  • The need to surpass his father’s achievements – Perhaps Henry was determined to prove himself no matter what.
  • Fame – David Starkey, in “Henry Virtuous Prince”, quotes from Lord Mountjoy’s letter to Erasmus in 1509: “Our king does not desire gold or gems or precious metals, but virtue, glory and immortality” and makes the point that Mountjoy was spot on, Henry wanted “to be famous, to make a mark on the world – in a word, to be great.”8 Well, he is famous but is it for the right things?!
  • Frustration at the end of his sporting life – Henry was a sportsman, he loved to joust, play tennis and hunt, but his jousting accident of 1536 ended his sporting career and also took away his one opportunity to show his courage and masculinity, through jousting. Henry must have felt so angry and frustrated to have the things he loved taken away from him and must have grieved for his old life, but he also must have felt the need to show his courage, masculinity and dominance in other ways.
  • The corruption of power – They say that absolute power corrupts absolutely so perhaps this happened with Henry VIII.
Perkin Warbeck, the Pretender


  • Threats – J. C. Flügel makes the point that “we cannot but suppose that the difficulties and dangers which surrounded his father’s throne must have exercised a powerful influence over the younger Henry’s mind.”9 The Tudor line was newly established and Henry’s father, Henry VII, had to deal with many threats to his throne, including the pretenders Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnel. Henry VIII knew that the Tudors were still viewed by usurpers by some and so had to be strong and proactive and squash threats before they got underway.
  • The Break with Rome – J. C. Flügel says: “From the time of his split with Rome, Henry’s character underwent a marked transformation. He became vastly more despotic, determined to rule as well as to reign; more intolerant of any kind of limitation of his power, and dependent on his own decisions in all matters, great and small, instead of submitting to the advice of councilors, as he had hitherto so largely done.”10 His triumph over the Pope, “in the face of severe obstacles”, and the Royal Supremacy may have gone to Henry’s head.
  • His father’s legacy and the need to have a son – Ray Winstone said that he also felt that Henry had been left a legacy by his father, the instruction to “have a son”11, the need to carry on the Tudor line, and that this consumed him. We can see this desire and almost paranoia in his abandonment of Catherine of Aragon, who had become barren, and Anne Boleyn, who miscarried a son.
  • Responsibility to God – As I said in my previous post, monarchs were believed to have been appointed by God and, as such, were answerable to him and responsible for order in their realm. In a time when crime was seen as evidence of sin “painful and spectacular punishment was thought necessary both to defer others and to cleanse society from the disorder and pollution of the criminal’s sin.”12 Perhaps this is why Henry felt the need to execute people who did not obey him and the laws of the land.
  • The Tudor belief in the weakness of women – In Tudor times, women were seen as the weaker sex and more prone to sin. It was believed that they were “the source and cause of sexual sin”13 so that may explain (partially) why Henry was so brutal in his treatment of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.
  • The events of 1536 – 1536 was the year of Henry’s serious jousting accident, the death of Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn’s miscarriage, Reginald Pole’s book attacking the King, the fall of Anne Boleyn, the death of his illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, and the Pilgrimage of Grace rebellion. Suzannal Lipscombe says of 1536: “The damage that this year made to Henry’s physical, and less tangibly, his psychological health, appears to have started a chain reaction, tapping into his propensity for high self regard and exaggerating it into a brutal, egotistical obduracy that had terrible consequences.”14 and that it was the “year of threats… of things going wrong, of betrayal, rebellion, grief, age and ill health.”15 Is it any wonder that Henry changed after such an awful year, particularly if he believed in Anne Boleyn’s treachery? Lipscomb goes on to say that “The impact of the year can be seen immediately in the course of 1537 when Henry cracked down on those who had rebelled against him, oversaw further dissolution of the monasteries and commissioned from Holbein the Whitehall mural, an important projection of his masculinity and power. This was truly a year that defined, changed and created the character we think of as Henry VIII.”16
  • The Fall of Anne Boleyn – Lipscombe points out that Anne’s betrayal, combined with the rebellion of the Pilgrimage of Grace, “cut right to the core of how Henry VIII saw himself as a man”17. It all depends on what you believe regarding Anne’s fall, but if Henry really did believe that he had been betrayed and cuckolded then he would have seen it as a challenge to his honour and his masculinity.


  • 1524 Head Injury – In 1524, at a joust, Henry VIII forgot to put his visor down and he was struck above the eye. Sir Arthur MacNulty MD18 believed that this injury resulted in headaches which worsened around the year 1527 and led to behaviour and character changes. Living with constant headaches is bound to make you moody, impatient, intolerant and quick-tempered
  • Leg Ulcer – Henry VIII had a serious jousting accident on the 24th January 1536 which opened up a previously healed leg ulcer. This leg ulcer was to plague Henry for the rest of his life, both physically and mentally. It meant that he was no longer able to prove his masculinity and courage in the tiltyard, and it caused him to become obese. Eventually, his obesity and leg injury led to him having to be carried around on a special chair – how humiliating for a once active man! Not only that, his leg ulcer also gave off an awful smell, a real embarrassment. Suzannah Lipscombe says that “the combination of this recurrent and excruciating pain, together with the unprepossessing nature of his running sore, seems to have gradually manifested itself in the personality of the king and Henry became increasingly anxious and irascible, easily irritated and prone to rage.”19 Poor man, he was in pain, he was losing his youth and good looks and he smelled to high heaven!
  • Osteomyelitis, to do with the leg ulcer – Sir Arthur Salisbury MacNulty is of the opinion that Henry was suffering from osteomyelitis, a chronic infection of the bone or bone marrow. In 1541, the French ambassador, Charles de Marillac, wrote of a complication to do with Henry’s leg ulcer and a previous complication in around 1536 which was very serious, and Lipscombe writes that MacNulty wondered if this was “a thrombosis vein with detachment of the clot causing pulmonary embolism, with intermittent fevers thereafter as a result of septic absorption from the wound, as for example, in 1544.”20 You’ve got to feel sorry for the man when the treatment in those days was to keep the wound open and he suffered in such a way. I defy anyone to be sweetness and light all of the time with this kind of condition.
  • Brain damage – After the jousting accident of January 1536, Henry was unconscious for around two hours. Biographer Robert Hutchinson, historian Dr Lucy Worsley and medical doctor Catherine Hood, made a documentary entitled “Inside the Body of Henry VIII” and spoke of the repercussions of this accident. Dr Worsley said: “We posit that his jousting accident of 1536 provides the explanation for his personality change from sporty, promising, generous young prince, to cruel, paranoid and vicious tyrant. From that date the turnover of the wives really speeds up, and people begin to talk about him in quite a new and negative way… After the accident he was unconscious for two hours; even five minutes of unconsciousness is considered to be a major trauma today… Damage to the frontal lobe of the brain can perfectly well result in personality change.”21
  • Combination of health problems – Hutchinson, Hood and Worsley stated how Henry VIII’s doctors had recorded that he was suffering from leg ulcers, fading eye sight, an inability to walk and that he was plagued by melancholy and paranoia. It is also thought that he contracted malaria at around the age of 30 and that he suffered recurrences of that disease.22 Not only did these health problems affect the King mentally, they must also have brought home to him just how mortal he was.
  • Old age – Historian Lacey Baldwin Smith23, looking at Henry’s behaviour in the early 1540s with reference to Catherine Howard, commented that studies into old age have suggested that a person “casts off a portion of the protective shield hammered out during childhood and adolescence and reveals the raw personality beneath.” So, perhaps Henry was simply showing his true colours.
  • Syphilis – Although some historians in the past have pondered whether Henry VIII suffered from syphilis and whether this caused his behavioural changes, there is just no evidence to back up this theory. In Henry VIII’s extensive medical records and expenses there is no record of him being treated with mercury, the standard Tudor treatment for syphilis, or suffering with the illness. Also Henry did have three perfectly healthy legitimate children, as well as at least one healthy illegitimate child.

Anne Boleyn

  • Henry the cuckold – Whatever the truth of Anne Boleyn’s fall in 1536, to the public it looked like the King had been cuckolded. Suzannah Lipscombe24 points out that Anne’s adultery, her sexual immorality, could be seen as evidence of Henry’s inability as a man and monarch, his lack of honour. In Tudor times, it was believed that there was a link between a wife’s infidelity and the husband’s sexual prowess and potency. Henry needed to show the world that he was powerful and virile and Lipscombe believes that this could explain Henry spending time with ladies, while Anne was in the Tower, and also marrying Jane Seymour so quickly. It may also explain some of his tyrannical behaviour – he needed to prove that he was powerful.
  • Frankenstein’s Monster – Was Anne Boleyn like Victor Frankenstein? Did she create a monster that she then lost control of? Anne introduced Henry to William Tyndale’s “The Obedience of a Christian Man” which gave Henry the idea of royal supremacy, a conviction which he then used to justify his later behaviour, after all, he was only answerable to God.
  • Betrayal and disillusionment – If Henry really did believe that Anne committed adultery and incest then he would have surely felt grief and disillusionment. Such a betrayal, and the fact that she was alleged to have slept with his friends and her brother, would have broken his heart and wounded his pride, if he thought it was true. Love turns to hate doesn’t it and once somebody has hurt you like that you can become mistrustful and paranoid. Did Anne’s fall make Henry lose his ability to love?

As you can see, there are plenty of reasons for Henry VIII’s tyranny but I don’t feel that any of them, except brain damage, can be used as an excuse for his cruelty. We all know people affected by severe health problems or people who have been betrayed and treated badly, but it is possible to rise above all this, to still be a good and loving person. We all have choices don’t we?

To those who argue that Henry VIII was not a tyrant, I use Plato and Aristotle’s definition of a tyrant: “one who rules without law, looks to his own advantage rather than that of his subjects, and uses extreme and cruel tactics – against his own people as well as others”25. Henry may well have ruled with “law” but he made it up as he went along to suit him. He used the law for his own purposes and he was extreme and cruel.

Notes and Sources

  1. Article “On the Character and Married Life of Henry VIII” by J C Flügel
  2. Ibid.
  3. Miles F Shore, quoted in 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII, Suzannah Lipscomb, p14
  4. Ibid., p24
  5. Sir Arthur Salisbury MacNulty, in Lipscombe, p43
  6. Peter Morgan, in Lipscombe, p14
  7. Ray Winstone, in Lispcombe, p14
  8. Henry: Virtuous Prince, David Starkey, p284
  9. J C Flügel
  10. J C Flügel
  11. Ray Winstone, in Lispcombe, p14
  12. Lipscombe, p21
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., p26
  15. Ibid., p46
  16. Ibid., p46
  17. Ibid., p49
  18. Ibid., p24
  19. Ibid., p60-61
  20. Ibid., p60
  21. The Jousting Accident that Turned Henry VIII into a Tyrant, article in The Independent, 18 April 2009
  22. Ibid.
  23. “Catherine Howard” by Lacey Baldwin Smith
  24. Lipscombe, p88-89
  25. Article: “Why Tyrants Go Too Far: Malignant Narcissism and Absolute Power”, Glad, B. (2002, March).

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