Henry VIII has been one of the most studied of English monarchs; a man who was indeed larger than life. In popular lore he is one of the best known of English rulers. Certainly he has been filmed multiple times. From the film The Private Life of Henry VIII, to Anne of a Thousand Days, to A Man for All Seasons and The Other Boleyn Girl there is an army of film portrayals of Henry VIII.1
In scholarship, because of the importance of the English Reformation that Henry VIII inaugurated there are plentiful studies and works. Some cover the whole period others cover in great detail aspects of the time period and personalities within it. And of course the story of Henry VIII’s six wives has captured and continues to capture both popular and scholarly attention.2
In terms of scholarship all of this material generally focuses on the idea that Henry VIII’s court was gripped by a struggle between factions and that Henry VIII’s marriages and their dissolution were aspects of the struggle of factions for influence over policy and the rewards of state power. Thus, for example, the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn is viewed as the result of factional struggles for supremacy within the court.
Interestingly Henry VIII sort of fades out in this view, becoming more or less the object and subject of factions in a merciless struggle for power. Thus Henry VIII is viewed as a powerful but manipulated monarch subject to being pulled here and there by various factions and to a large extent their plaything and toy.3
This view of Henry VIII’s court and government being a scene of the struggle of merciless factions is likely erroneous and goes back surprisingly to the propaganda of the time.
It had been traditional for centuries to blame bad policies of the state in much of Europe on the ruler’s advisers. It being considered bad form to blame the ruler directly. In the case of Henry VIII this tendency, or shall we say propaganda has become received scholarly wisdom in some circles. Thus the monarch has what is called plausible deniability and it appears that Henry VIII turned this into an art form.
Two books give an altogether different vision of Henry VIII. Instead of the plaything of factions we get the calculated tyrant, who gets what he wants and destroys people, including loyal servants for political gain and as scapegoats.4
The idea that Henry VIII was the puppet of factions helps to disguise the fact that Tudor England was a tyranny and in its old fashioned 16th century way had totalitarian features. It is remarkable how many historians just do not get it that Henry VIII’s efforts to centralize the control of religious life and put it under his personal control was and remains a quite through and direct interference in the daily life of virtually everybody in Tudor England. And by placing the Church under state direction Henry VIII massively extended the power of the state over people’s lives.
For the tendency of Totalitarian regimes is to try to absorb / co-op any sort of institution that has any sort of independence of the tentacles of the state.
Ridley in his biography argues that the evidence of factions controlling Henry VIII is in fact virtually non-existent. What Ridley sees instead is a cold blooded tyrant who systematically uses people and disposes of them in a Machiavellian manner for political expediency and to implement policy. Henry VIII comes across has a formidable man who knows his own mind and what he wants. Who manipulates people and factions and in the end gets what he wants almost all the time. He also comes across has rather cruel.
Now Ridley’s biography of Henry VIII is a popular piece of history not a work of scholarship, however Bernard’s book is a work of scholarship, Bernard’s book is about Henry VIII’s religious policy and by analyzing the development of Henry VIII’s policy in that area Bernard sees Henry VIII’s fingerprints all over it. He does not see religious policy has controlled by shifting factions manipulating the king but has controlled by the King from beginning to end. Stamped by Henry VIII’s own rather unique for the time religious vision.5 Thus Bernard supplies a great deal of scholarly support for Ridley’s vision of Henry VIII has autocratic tyrant.
Both books do not shy away from the image of Henry VIII has ruthless despot. Not for them is the Whig vision of Henry VIII working in partnership with Parliament to create and enforce the Reformation. Instead parliament is the tool and instrument of the autocrat who bends and shapes it to suit his ends. Not for them notions of Anne Boleyn being destroyed by a court faction or falling by happen chance and “accident”. Instead her destruction is cold blooded and ordered by Henry VIII personally.6
Ridley uses the vocabulary of modern terror and draws uncomfortable parallel with modern show trials. Like them Ridley sees the contrite, required “confessions” of wrong doing. The sincere, at the place of execution, admonition of devotion to the king and the wish of others to continue to obey him. The trials with the properly coerced with torture or the threat of torture evidence and their agreed on beforehand verdicts. All of which carries much more than the whiff of the Moscow show trials. The stink of judicial murder is strong and one is sometimes abashed about how much of this is still accepted as unproblematic. There can be little doubt that when Henry VIII wanted a certain type of “evidence” he got it.7
Perhaps the most telling indication of Henry VIII policy and cynicism is his use and destruction of Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell was Henry VIII chief minister from 1531 to 1540 when he was destroyed and executed. Most accounts, even now, view Cromwell has an Evangelical Protestant pursuing a settled policy of his own regarding religious “reform” and carrying the king with him until the failure of the marriage with Anne of Cleves discredited him and left him to open to destruction by a competing, more conservative court faction.8
Although quite popular this version of events basically assumes what it should prove, that the religious policy carried out in the King’s name was in fact that of other peoples, in this case namely Cromwell. There is, at least according to Bernard virtually no evidence that Cromwell was pursuing a policy independent of the king and plenty of evidence that Cromwell was carrying out Henry VIII’s wishes. Viewed coolly Cromwell was basically the king’s enforcer and not an independent force pursuing his own aims. Much of what is credited to Cromwell is in fact to be properly credited to the king.
So for example the king was working out his own policy with the marriage to Anne of Cleves, not a policy initiated and carried through by Cromwell. Further it was not the failure of the Cleves marriage that opened up Cromwell for destruction by a competing faction but the king’s decision to sacrifice Cromwell because he had served his purpose and he would now serve his king by being a most useful whipping boy.
The king had most ably used the tendency to blame “bad ministers” rather than the king for unpopular policies. Cromwell had enforced the king’s policies and had received the blame. Even foreign dignitaries and ambassadors tended to blame Cromwell and credit him with policies they did not like. This suited Henry VIII quite well. So in the same way Henry destroyed Wolsey so he destroyed Cromwell. (Wolsey very fortunately died of natural causes after his fall from power; otherwise he likely would have been executed.) A scapegoat was needed so since this particular one had served his purpose he was destroyed. But the myth that Cromwell was pursuing his own policy and getting the king to go along with it in a fight with another faction lives on to the present. The idea that Cromwell was serving anyone but the king is an assumption for which we have zero evidence. That he trusted in that cunning, changeable and duplicitous prince was to his undoing.
Henry VIII was pursuing his own idiosyncratic religious revolution / reformation it was neither Catholic nor Protestant and Cromwell was the enforcer of that change during the years 1531-1540. This religious change bears the hallmarks of Henry VIII’s attitudes and desires and was not the result of a “Protestant” policy originated and enforced by Cromwell through a manipulated king.9
Of course the contours of Henry VIII’s tyranny with their show trials, the brutal visitations, the even more brutal suppression of the monasteries. The practice of secret denunciation. And heresy trials and public executions of “traitors” all bear the marks of effective and indeed brutal coercion. The state tried to get into the spiritual everyday practices of its subjects and largely succeeded in doing so. It even got into people’s heads to some extent. Creating an atmosphere of fear and terror. Probably this fear was greatest in the men around Henry VIII all of whom lived with the knowledge they could be destroyed in a moment. Cranmer, (Archbishop of Canterbury), who became a convinced Protestant by1538, had to keep his actual opinions, along with a secret marriage, quiet least he be destroyed. Gardiner had to keep his strongly Catholic opinions under wraps least he too suffer the supreme penalty. Henry VIII made and unmade people, demoted, arrested and executed them with alacrity and cold bloodily. No one was safe.10
Henry VIII was a tyrant, pure and simple, and the notion that he was a plaything of factions pursuing their own ends little more than a modern version of the notion of the king’s “evil ministers”, which provided the king with “plausible deniability”. In fact Henry VIII’s “plausible deniability” was so successful that it still works to an extent even today c. 5 centuries later.
Of course there were factions at court but these factions were manipulated and in the end controlled by Henry VIII who in the end knew his own mind and what he wanted. He found many willing servants to carry out his wishes and to extend his power.
Thus in the end by securing control over the church Henry VIII secured far greater control over his subjects than virtually any of his predecessors; further his mass confiscation of church wealth seemed a prelude to the establishment of an unbridled royal absolutism in England along with a centralized royal controlled church. Ironically Henry VIII financial irresponsibility along with that of his Son’s Edward VI governments and that of Mary I seriously undermined that prospect. Leaving his daughter Elizabeth I to deal with the wreckage.11
In 1970 the BBC broadcast the TV series The Six Wives of Henry VIII.12 The series portrayed Henry VIII has a ruthless, spoiled, cruel despot with everyone walking on eggshells around him. He is portrayed as a man who very much knows what he wants and how to get it. His advisers are cringing terrified men. It is Henry VIII has a tyrant king or has one character says “A loathsome disease ridden bag of guts.”13 Fear is the dominant emotion in the series and Henry VIII is simply terrifying. Rather remarkably this series seems to get it more right than the common “scholarly” portrayal of Henry VIII as a manipulated puppet of faction.
In the end the reign and rule of Henry VIII feels a little too much like that of a modern day autocratic police state.
1. See The Private Life of Henry VIII, Wikipedia Here, Anne of a Thousand Days, Wikipedia Here, A Man for All Seasons, Wikipedia Here, and Here, The Other Boleyn Girl, Wikipedia Here, and Here. Of these films the most fun is The Private life of Henry VIII it is also the most absurd and is historically wrong, wrong. Anne of a Thousand Days is both well-acted and surprisingly historically accurate. Both movies of the play A Man for All Seasons are like the play historical myth. The Thomas More has portrayed in both the films and play never existed. Both The Other Boleyn Girl movies and the novel on which they are based are nearly complete fiction.
2. IBID, and such works as Weir, Alison, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Grove / Atlantic, New York, 1992, Starkey, David, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Harper Perennial, New York, 2004, Ives, Eric, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Wiley-Blackwell, London, 2005.
3. See Scarisbrick, J.J., Henry VIII, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1968.
4. Bernard, G.W., The King’s Reformation, Yale University Press, New Haven CONN, 2005, Ridley, Jasper, Henry VIII, Penguin Books, London, 1984.
5. IBID, Ridley, pp. 342-343, Bernard, pp. 475-594.
6. IBID, Bernard, pp. 219, 225, Ridley, pp. 264-276.
7. IBID, Ridley, pp. 414-416, Bernard, pp. 595-606. A recent foolish historian for example alleges that Anne Boleyn was in fact guilty of adultery. I will not dignify the book by naming it. Also problematic is the destruction of Henry VIII’s wife Katherine Howard. Since Henry VIII seems to have had no reason to destroy her it is likely that the official story of Henry VIII finding out about her adultery is in fact true. But the tendency of historians to accept all the evidence unearthed about Katherine’s alleged serial adulteries as un-problematic is rather naïve. It is all too likely that once Henry VIII decided that Katherine had to go that all sorts of extra “evidence” was additionally manufactured via threats, coercion and torture to justify Katherine’s execution. I suspect that the testimonies showing Katherine to have been a shameless nymphomaniac are exaggerated.
8. See for example Scarisbrick, pp. 368-383. See also Coby, Patrick J., Thomas Cromwell, Lexington Books, New York, 2009, pp. 179 – 191. Note this book also accepts the idea that Thomas Cromwell was the author of the “Protestant” policy pursued by Henry VIII.
9. Ridley, p.297, 325-344, Bernard, pp. 475-594.
10. IBID, Bernard, Ridley, pp. 189, 211, 217, 320.
11. See previous posting Here.
12. See The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Wikipedia Here.
13. Spoken by Thomas Cromwell to Cranmer in episode 4 Anne of Cleves.