“The Worst Monarch in History”? – Contextualizing Henry VIII

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“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.”

William Thomas, a Welshman living in Italy, upon hearing the news of Henry VIII’s death in 1547

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:

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“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.

1530: Shaping the Year at the Court of Henry VIII through Primary Sources

January 1530 Privy Purse Expenses

Greenwich and York Place.

To Lovell, the gardener at Richmond, for bringing sweet water and fruit, 10s.

Reward to the duke of Suffolk’s minstrels, 50s.

To John Parker, yeoman of the King’s Robes, in reward, for a clock he gave the King, 3l.

To poor folks, whom the King healed, 15s.

Month’s wages of Shere, keeper of the beagles, 5s.

To the duke of Suffolk, for money borrowed by the King to play, 100l. in angels = 112l. 10s.

To the King, the day before he removed from Greenwich to York Place, 100l.

To 4 poor people whom the King healed of their diseases at York Place, 30s.

To Nedeham, for finishing the bridge at York Place, 13l. 6s. 8d.

To Mr. Fitzwilliam, treasurer of the household, won of the King at bowls, 4l. 10s.

Healing the King’s horses, 8l. 15s.

February 1530 Privy Purse Expenses

The King at Greenwich, York Place, and 21st at Hampton Court.

To the watermen, for waiting 2 days at the King’s coming from Greenwich, and going from York Place to Hampton Court, 21s. 4d.

To Westby, clerk of the closet, for 6 mass books and velvet to cover them, 3l. 11s.

Rewards to the gardener, keepers of the park, and ferryman at Hampton Court, 30s

To the keeper of the clock at Hampton Court, 40s.

“Bull, notifying that on the appeal of queen Katharine from the judgment of the Legates, who had declared her contumacious for refusing their jurisdiction as being not impartial, the Pope had committed the cause, at her request, to Master Paul Capisucio, the Pope’s chaplain, and auditor of the Apostolic palace, with power to cite the King and others; that the said Auditor, ascertaining that access was not safe, caused the said citation, with an inhibition under censures, and a penalty of 10,000 ducats, to be posted on the doors of the churches in Rome, at Bruges, Tournay, and Dunkirk, and the towns of the diocese of Terouenne (Morinensis). The Queen, however, having complained that the King had boasted, notwithstanding the inhibition and mandate against him, that he would proceed to a second marriage, the Pope issues this inhibition, to be fixed on the doors of the churches as before, under the penalty of the greater excommunication, and interdict to be laid upon the kingdom. Bologna, 7 March 1530, 7 Clement VII.”

“I have this day waited on the King, who arrived late last evening accompanied by the Lady…

To his inquiries about the state of affairs in [Germany] I replied that advices from Envers (Antwerp) stated that everything was improving, and all hoped that Your Majesty would soon make a complete and permanent reform. On this the King observed that there was a report in circulation that the cardinal of Mayence (Maintz) had taken a wife to himself, which was a very scandalous proceeding, and a bad beginning of reform.”

Signed: “Eustace Chapuys.”

Addressed: “To the Emperor.”

May 10, 1530

Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 4 Part 1, Henry VIII, 1529-1530

“Indeed, unless there be a chance of the divorce suit being soon decided, it would be well if Your Majesty would get the Pope to insist on this separation, for the Queen says that if the Lady (demoiselle) could only be kept for one month away from Court, she is quite sure that the King could be brought back into the right path.”

Privy Purse Expenses

Privy Purse Expenses– a closer look:

September 10th, 1530:

To the keepers of the three parks at Hounsdon, 20s. 

Context:

On 1 February 1514 Hunsdon was granted to Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey and Treasurer of England, on his creation as Duke of Norfolk. (fn. 70) The duke died in 1524. His son and heir Thomas Duke of Norfolk conveyed the manor in 1526 to Sir Henry Wyatt and others (fn. 71) evidently in trust for the king, who in 1529 granted it to Henry Norris, reserving the house and parks.”

September 12th, 1530:

To Robert Acton’s servant, for bringing 2 skins to the King at Waltham, 5s.

Context:

Acton became a Groom of the Chamber in 1518, a page in 1526, and a Gentleman Usher in 1528.

“[Waltham Abbey] was a popular place for kings to stay during hunting trips in nearby Waltham Forest. Henry VIII was a regular visitor and on several occasions was accompanied by Anne Boleyn.”

“It is recorded that Henry left Greenwich for Waltham Abbey with Queen Catherine and Anne Boleyn in 1528, that he took Anne Boleyn on progress in July 1529, during which he visited the Abbey, and that he and Anne Boleyn stayed at Waltham Abbey for five days during the summer progress of 1532.”

A View of Epping Forest, by Nicholas Hagger

” Since the fall (deboutemant) of the Cardinal, the French have carried on all their intrigues through the Lady and through her father and uncle, whom, as they wish to keep on friendly terms with this king, they would not dare to affront. Besides, they well know that the love of the King for the Lady is so great that he would not give her up for the eldest daughter of France, or anyone else in the world. “

Eustace Chapuys to the Emperor. – September 20, 1530

Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 4 Part 1, Henry VIII, 1529-1530.

” What the King ought to have done was to cast away from him, and from the service of his Queen, the lady who is the cause of all this evil. She might have been disposed of in marriage, or shut up in a convent, or sent to Madame [Margaret] with a post of honour in her household. This being done, and the King fasting for several days upon bread and water, with severe penance besides for the scandal given, he should then have commended himself to God and placed the affair in the hands of His Holiness, the only authority in such matters. I would consent to lose my head on the block, if after a month of such a life the King did not become a better husband than ever he was before, and retrieve his soul, ensure his estate, and restore the Queen in all her rights so unjustly taken away from her. Should he do that he would no longer suffer from scruples, and everyone would consider him a good Christian.”

” He is sure a prince of a royal courage, and hath a princely heart; and rather than he will either miss or want any part of his will or appetite, he will put the loss of one half of his realm in danger. For I assure you I have often kneeled before him in his privy chamber on my knees, the space of an hour or two, to persuade him from his will and appetite : but I could never bring to pass to dissuade him therefrom. Therefore, Master Kingston, if it chance hereafter you to be one of his privy counsel, as for your wisdom and other qualities ye are meet to be, I warn you to be well advised and assured what matter ye put in his head, for ye shall never put it out again. “

Cardinal Wolsey’s last words (November 1530)