BBC History – Henry VIII Majesty with Menace

28 01 2007

Henry VIII; Majesty with Menace By Professor Ronald Hutton

“He liked to rule by fear, executed his opponents and ordered the destruction of beautiful buildings, libraries and works of art. Yet, as Ronald Hutton explains, everyone loves ‘Bluff King Hal’.”

One of the lads

To historians, Henry remains one of the most important monarchs to have ruled the English and Welsh. He lasted almost four decades, during which he presided over the foundation of the Church of England, a remodelling of the machinery of government and of taxation, a major growth in the importance of Parliament, the incorporation of Wales into the regular system of English local administration, the establishment of the Kingdom of Ireland, the arrival in England of Renaissance modes of art and literature, and a major building programme which included colleges, palaces and fortresses. In public memory, also, he is remembered as a colossal figure. He has probably been portrayed in the cinema more often than any other English king, being acted by (amongst others) Charles Laughton, Keith Michell, Robert Shaw and Sid James. The fact that a Cockney could provide a recognisable representation of him gives away part of his enduring appeal; in national memory, Henry was one of the lads, the only English king to have his achievements celebrated in a long-popular music hall song.

‘His early sense of inadequacy left him with huge ambitions and a constant desire to prove himself…’

This is just how he would have wanted things, and that yearning for renown may well be attributed to his formative experiences. He was the second son of Henry VII, and throughout his childhood was overshadowed by his older brother Arthur. He stayed with his mother, Elizabeth of York, living a sheltered existence of strong maternal love, while Arthur was paraded before the kingdom as its heir. Suddenly both Arthur and Elizabeth died in quick succession, leaving the old king half-crazed with grief and Henry deprived of affection. Father and son never got over their instinctual association of one another with trauma and disappointment. Henry’s opinion of his sire was shown clearly when he succeeded to the throne and promptly reversed most of his father’s policies and executed his most trusted servants. His early sense of inadequacy left him with huge ambitions and a constant desire to prove himself and to excel as a monarch.

Work hard, play harder

He also brought to the job an almost manic energy, fuelled by a huge appetite for food and drink. In his youth, he wore out eight horses a day while hunting, and also engaged regularly in dancing, jousting and wrestling. This lifestyle began to go badly wrong from the age of forty-four, when his horse rolled on him in a tournament, crippling one leg and leaving him a chronic invalid. The accident deprived him of his ability to take exercise, while his eating habits did not diminish, so that during his last few years he measured four and half feet round the waist. His appetite for pleasure was matched at times by his interest in business. He was the last monarch for over a century to attend the debates of the House of Lords, and in his last seven years he personally gave 108 interviews to foreign ambassadors. He wanted all state documents drawn up with large margins and spaces between lines so that he could scribble comments. Henry possessed an amazing memory, he was able to recall the names of every servant employed by the royal households and all the grants of land or money which he had ever signed. On the other hand, he did not care to attend the deliberations of his council of advisers, kept postponing major decisions of policy, and hated to read or write long documents. He was a chronic annotator, editor and commentator, loving the detail of government but disliking the main business.

‘…his favourite jokes concerned the less sociable bodily functions…’

Some claims could be made for him as a cultured monarch. He was quite a good musician, and possessed a library of almost a thousand books, which he certainly read as he scribbled all over them. He had a real understanding of fortification, ballistics and shipping, and could discuss mathematics and astronomy on equal terms with experts. His court was a model of decorum compared with most others in contemporary Europe, those who frequented it being forbidden to brawl, duel or appear in public with their mistresses. His only conventional vices were gluttony, ostentation and gambling: in two years he lost £3,250 on cards and by his death he owned a record 50 palaces. It is true, however, that he had a grosser side – his favourite jokes concerned the less sociable bodily functions – and his interest in knowledge did not make up for the fact that he could not actually think. His one book, against Martin Luther’s religious opinions, piled up quotations on the points at issue without ever answering Luther’s arguments.

Other faces

As a man, he had notable virtues. He was genuinely charming, being boisterously affectionate, having a desperate desire to please, and taking a real interest in other people. The king’s negative qualities were the other faces of his positive attributes. If he was demonstrative in his affections, so was he in his rages, abusing courtiers verbally and physically. His flamboyance could lead him into scenes which embarrassed all observers, such as the weeks of public blubbering which followed the revelation that his fifth queen, Catherine Howard, had been unfaithful to him. One has the impression that his courtiers often felt that they were dealing with a huge child; and a lethally dangerous one. His craving for admiration and success led him to throw tantrums each time his policies were checked or failed, and to turn furiously against both who had advised them and those who had resisted them. His reign probably contained more political executions than any other of comparable length in English history – 330 in the years 1532-40 alone – and the king took a personal interest in increasing the physical suffering and humiliation of some of those condemned.

‘…he was far more interested in his control of English religion than in the quality of it.’

Given Henry’s status as father of the English Reformation, it is remarkable how little personal piety is revealed by his annotations of religious books. They are concerned with the details of ceremony and with royal power; he deleted the blessing of the poor and meek from the Sermon on the Mount. His damage to traditional Christianity in England is obvious: his policies resulted in the destruction of hundreds of beautiful buildings and works of art, incalculable damage to libraries, and the execution of the Englishmen mostly widely respected in Europe for their godliness. In place of all this he instituted not a Protestant Church (that was the work of his children), but a decaying Catholic one. It is easy to make the case that he was far more interested in his control of English religion than in the quality of it.

The lion and the fox

Henry never showed any capacity as a general, and his foreign policy was a failure. He repeatedly attempted to reconquer parts of France, and ended up with Boulogne, a third-rate port that was subsequently handed back to the French after over a million pounds had been spent trying to keep it. He tried to conquer Scotland, and only forced the Scots to become allies of his enemes the French. Two real successes of his reign – the assimilation of Wales and the pacification of Ireland – were not matters in which he displayed personal interest. The splendid string of fortresses which he built to guard the English coast were a sign of panic, at having united all the strongest powers in Western Europe against himself by rejecting Catholicism. The overhaul of governmental structures and taxation undertaken by his ministers was driven by the need to raise money for his wars, where it was spent to little result.

‘…his death was marked by more obvious public grief than that of any other Tudor.’

Henry repeatedly declared both that he was determined to rule effectively and that the best way of managing people was through fear; statements which testify to his innate insecurity. As well as savagely punishing ministers for failure, he constantly encouraged them to watch each other for signs of incompetence or disloyalty and to inform the king privately of such signs. This led to an atmosphere of chronic suspicion and rivalry at court, which worsened as the king grew older. Only two of his leading advisers, Archbishop Cranmer and Edward Seymour, escaped either disgrace or execution. In two major respects, however, his mixture of caution and flamboyance paid off. He managed the nobility by honouring and flattering them and, by carefully seeking the endorsement of Parliament for all his reforms, he increased both the power of the Crown and of representative democracy. These two techniques combined to make his rule effective.

His reputation among 20th century historians has generally been low, but in his own time it stood much higher. Renaissance Europe expected its kings to be a mixture of the lion and the fox – audacious, generous, majestic, ruthless and devious – and Henry fitted the image. He was feared, and admired, and his death was marked by more obvious public grief than that of any other Tudor. That the public remembers him as Bluff King Hal rather than as a murderous cripple testifies much to his talent for self-presentation.

Find out more


Tudor England by John Guy (Oxford University Press 1988)

Henry VIII King and Court by Alison Weir (Jonathan Cape 2001)

In the Lion’s Court by Derek Wilson (Hutchinson, 2001)

The letters of Henry VIII, 1526-1529 edited by Tim Coates (HMSO, 2001)

The Life and Times of Henry VIII by Robert Lacey (Fine Communications, 1998)

Henry VIII by JJ Scarisbrick (Yale, 1997)

Henry VIII and the English Reformation by Richard Rex (Palgrave, 1993)

Places to visit

St James’s Palace []

Hampton Court Palace []

The Tower of London []

Related Links


* Reformation and Reform –
* Anne Boleyn and the Downfall of her Family –
* The Mary Rose: A Great Ship of King Henry VIII –

Multimedia Zone

* Kings and Queens Through Time –
* Tudor and Victorian Costume –
* Foul Facts Gallery: Terrible Tudors, Vile Victorians –

Historic Figures

* Henry VIII –
* Catherine of Aragon –
* Anne Boleyn –


* British Timeline –

BBC Links

* BBC Radio 4: Henry VIII, Flodden and Wolsey –

External Web Links

* Tudor History –
* The British Monarchy: The Tudors –

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