“I will confess he did many things as the publican sinner, but not as a cruel tyrant, or a pharisaical hypocrite; for all his doings were open to the whole world, wherein he governed himself with so much reason, prudence, courage, and circumspection, that I wot not where—in all the histories I have read, to find one private king equal to him.”
The Historical Writers’ Association, a few years ago, voted Henry VIII as “the worst monarch in history.” Indeed, this seems to be the prevailing opinion on the subject in online discussions. Many authors, and even quite a few historians, reflect this view in their writing as well.
I often find it hard to get through nonfiction works that reflect this because, in my view, it diminishes the author’s credibility. If your thesis, or even your asides, are that Henry VIII was the worst, or one of the worst, monarchs, it leads me to believe your scope is not that wide. Even when we are talking ‘worst’ as in ‘most morally reprehensible’, and not ‘worst’ as in ‘worst leadership skills’; when we compare Henry VIII to his contemporaries, he doesn’t really appear to be the worst among them.
Or, if he does, it is by a very small margin.
Which isn’t to say that he didn’t commit some absolutely unconscionable and completely abhorrent acts, some which were totally unprecedented, because he absolutely did– it’s just to say that the bar for monarchs in the 15th and 16th centuries was pretty low.
Of course, Henry decontextualized from the other monarchs of the same time frame is a monstrous anomaly. When we put him into context, however…not so much.
Let’s consider Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard as members of the royal family. I would, because Anne was the mother of the King’s child, and both were stepmothers of the King’s children. There was no precedent, of course, for the executions of Queen Consorts. There was, however, precedent for the execution of members of the royal family, even in England– Edward IV had his own brother executed. If we’re extending that to in-law relatives, Richard III had Anthony Woodville, the Queen dowager’s brother, executed; as well as her son, who was also the half-brother of the king and queen’s royal children. Widening the scope even further, Suleiman I had his own son executed. Ivan IV struck his own son with his sceptre, which proved fatal.
Let us also put the events of the executions of Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard into context based on the reaction of one of Henry’s contemporaries, François I. Right after the execution of the former, François offered his “daughter Madeleine’s [hand in marriage], and almost before the words were out of his mouth Henry refused [him], saying that at sixteen [years old] she was too young for him.” After François heard of Howard’s alleged adultery, he sent Henry a letter of condolences. Taking the accusations at face value, he sanctimoniously criticized her “lewd and naughty behavior” and assured Henry that “the lightness of women could not bend the honor of men.”
Henry was, among his contemporaries, certainly one of the worst husbands—Ivan IV might technically given him a run for his money; as he had a similar amount of marriages. Could the argument be made that he was the worst father among them?
Again, the bar is very low. I would say Henry VIII was actually a fairly good father to both Henry Fitzroy and Edward VI. It is hard to judge whether he was a worse one to Mary or Elizabeth—he signed off on the execution of Elizabeth’s mother, which he never did with Mary’s, but he also sent councilors to Mary to bully her into signing the Supremacy Act and another document that declared her parents’ marriage invalid, and herself a bastard. One of these councilors threatened violence when she refused. That was never something he never did to Elizabeth, and he bastardized both of them, although he eventually allowed both back into the Succession despite this.
And yet, many royal fathers of the time did absolutely horrific things to their children. I’ve already discussed that Sultan Suleiman had his own son executed. Ivan IV killed his own son; although this would likely be legally termed manslaughter today. Ferdinand of Aragon imprisoned his daughter, Juana of Castile, in Tordesillas, “confining [her in the] Royal Palace in February 1509 after having dismissed all of her faithful servants and having appointed a small retinue accountable to him alone” (Juana “the Mad’s” Signature: The Problem of Invoking Royal Authority, 1505- 1507).
One of the authors on the panel said Henry VIII was “a gross man-child, wilfully and capriciously dangerous to everything around him including the country… [he] barely made it out of infancy, let alone adolescence, and ruled with little more policy than petulant self-gratification”. Other respondents said he was “obsessive”, “syphilitic” (which has been disproved) and a “self-indulgent wife murderer and tyrant”.
Putting aside that it’s very unlikely that a man fluent in many languages ‘barely made it out infancy, let alone adolescence’ (perhaps they are referring to emotional intelligence); we would be hard-pressed to find a monarch of the time that wasn’t, at the very least, ‘self-indulgent’ to some extent. It also ignores many of the ambassadors that admired Henry, and the admiration and near-deification he earned by the English people soon after his death, nor does it take into account the impression he left on England:
“Early in James I’s reign, the theatrical company ‘Prince Henry’s Men’ had a huge success at the Fortune Theatre with a play with the significant title When you see me you know me. Indeed, so successful were they that His Majesty’s Players, their rivals at the Globe, had to get Shakespeare and John Fletcher to write Henry VIII. Each play assumes that Henry’s personal foibles and mannerisms would be immediately recognized by a London audience despite the years since the King’s death. Henry was remembered as a proper king.
There is a chasm between the ways historians see Henry VIII and the way his subjects saw him. But it would be wrong to reject the latter because today we are so much better informed. Both characterizations have to be held in tension. Fallible though Henry was, modern criticism cannot destroy the reality that to his people he was a great king. A ballad written soon after his death summed him up in these words.
‘ For if wisdom or manhood by any means could
Have saved a man’s life to ensure for ever,
The King Henry the 8th so noble and so bold
Out of this wide world he would have passed never.'” (Will the Real Henry VIII Please Stand Up?, by historian Eric Ives”)
Henry VIII was not the best husband and father by 21st century standards, and he was not the best husband and father by 16th century standards, either. It would be wrong to call him a “family man”; because he was a monarch and a politician first. But he was not the only monarch that put their kingship above the well-being, or indeed, even the lives, of the members of their family— Ferdinand’s imprisonment of his daughter demonstrates this especially aptly, as do the other examples I provided. Were he the leader of a democratic republic today, his governance would certainly constitute tyranny—but we could say that for any 16th century monarch. Tyranny is defined as a “cruel, unreasonable, or arbitrary use of power or control”, and while Henry was guilty of that usage, so were many of his contemporaries. Despite this, he was not regarded as a tyrant by the majority of his subjects, as monarchy was all they had ever known, as it was “the prevalent form of government in Europe“. Thus, to claim Henry VIII was the “worst monarch in history” is a greatly myopic assessment of both the 16th century, and of history itself.