210 Bloody Beast

HenryVIIIHolbeinmuralcopyHow Henry has been assessed by historians through the ages, and the controversies of his reign. And assessments of the man himself.

The famous Holbein mural was designed to greet courtiers at Whitehall palace, and make it quite clear that you were in the presence of power. It wasHenryVII Holbein Cartoon destroyed by fire – all that survives from Holbein is the preparation drawing, which is in the National Portrait Gallery, and well worth a visit.  But there are many copies. There he stands in all his glory; magnificently dressed in clothes that cost more than entire villages would earn in a year. A big man, Legs thrust confidently apart, small piggy eyes staring out at you balefully. The painting was made in 1537 when Henry was in his forties, and probably already getting pretty tubby and having problems with an ulcerous leg. But this is propaganda; Henry had learned well from his father, that a king must project his power and magnificence. Holbein created the picture to be seen a few inches above your head, so that the impact would be even stronger, the projection of power, confidence, authority, command. This was Henry as he wanted to be seen, and this is the picture actually that best represents how most people at the time would have seen or imagined him.


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Some views of Henry VIII

by Unknown artist, oil on panel, circa 1520
by Unknown artist, oil on panel, circa 1520

Contemporaries generally regarded him with awe and adulation. Especially when he came to the throne as a young man, this comment by a foreign ambassador to his court was typical of how bowled over everyone was.

“a most invincible King, whose acquirements and qualities are so many and excellent that I consider him to excel all who ever wore a crown”

The Earl of Surrey was not so positive. Though of course since he was about to be executed he was understandably miffed.

“I saw a royal throne whereas that Justice should have sit instead of whom I saw with fierce a cruel mood where wrong was sat, that bloody beast, that drunk the guiltless blood”

Historians of the past

Sellar and Yeatman speak with the most authority in ‘1066 and All That‘:

Henry VIII was a strong king with a very strong sense of humour and VIII wives, memorable among whom were Katherine the Arrogant, Anne of Cloves, Lady Jane Austin and Anne Hathaway. His beard was, however, red.

One of the strongest things that Henry VIII did was about the monasteries. It was pointed out to him that no one in the monasteries was married, as the monks all thought it was still the Middle Ages. So Henry, who, of course, considered marrying a Good Thing, told Cromwell to pass a very strong act saying that the Middle Ages were over and the monasteries were all to be dissolved.

The whig view, whatever the view of Henry personally, was  of a king who led his people out of medieval darkness towards their destiny as a leading nation of the world. For historians like SR Gardiner and J A Froude, he was a hero. They emphasised that Henry helped England escape the religious wars that tore parts of the continent apart; they claimed a deep connection between king and people, that has Henry VIII representing the public will.

NPG D24928; King Henry VIII by Cornelis Metsys (Massys)The view of Henry as a man was far from universally positive though, even by those who essentially celebrated his impact. R W Dixon wrote:

a man of force without grandeur: of great ability, but not of lofty intellect: punctilious yet unscrupulous: centred in himself: greedy and profuse: cunning rather than sagacious: of fearful passion and intolerable pride, but destitute of ambition in the nobler sense of the word: a character of degraded magnificence.

At the start of the 20th century, A F Pollard was Henry’s great proponent,  describing him as a man of courage whose reforms took England down a path to democracy and a greater role in the world.

G E Elton famously transformed the history of Henry’s reign in the 1950’s with his ‘Tudor Revolution in Government’, putting Henry’s ministers centre stage, especially with his thesis that it was Thomas Cromwell in particular who knowingly dragged English government from medieval to the modern times. The thesis has been a matter of fierce debate for over 50 years, though most no longer view Cromwell and quite as all seeing and knowing as Elton argued.

Since then, much of Henry’s reign, character and achievements have been transformed. The Reformation, once seen largely (though far from exclusively) as a positive part of the development of England’s national character, has become seen in an almost universally negative light. J J Scarisbrick’s Henry VIII, originally written in 1968, is often still quoted as the best biography. Scarisbrook acknowledged Henry’s confidence and talent for display; he “wore regality with a splendid conviction’ but essentially saw him as easily led, and emphasized the negative:

“rarely, if ever, has the unawareness and irresponsibility of a king proved more costly of the material benefit of his people”

John Guy concurred with that describing Henry as “a second-rate mind with what looks suspiciously like an inferiority complex”. E W Ives is similarly negative; “Henry VIII’s monumental selfishness was disguised by highly effective propaganda”. David Starkey is a bit more positive:

‘…he had many of the qualities of a born leader. He was intelligent; his memory was good and his eye for detail sharp. He was a shrewd judge of men and had a flair for self protection and propaganda. Moreover, he was both ruthless and selfish, while his staggering self-righteousness made him proof against doubts and the dark nights of the soul’

Henry VIII clearly had one indisputable talent; to fascinate and spark argument and debate across the centuries.





4 thoughts on “210 Bloody Beast

  1. I have spent the last few months catching up with your podcast. It is wonderful! I am an American living in the US. I just got back from a holiday in England. I made a special point of buying a copy of Ladybird Histories: Kings and Queens from a shop and I love it. I know it isn’t quite the same as the book you own, but it’s what I have.

    I saw you had your historiography episode of Henry VIII, and I was excited to prepare by reading the Ladybird version of his story. What would your commentary on Ladybird reveal? What would be the differences between your edition and mine?

    O tempora, o mores. I acquired Ladybird too late.

    Or did I? Perhaps I bought it just in time.

    I will email you a photo of the cover and photos of the two-page spread on Henry VIII to do with as you please.

    Thanks for such a wonderful podcast. I am delighted to be a member.

    1. Hi Bruce…and I received your scans of the new Ladybird history. It also made me feel guilty I have been such a skinflint as not to find a second hand copy of the older version – I will do do! But actually the new one seems pretty fair; maybe a bit harsh on not being sympathetic to Protestants, but certainly that’s one of the big debates. But willful, powerful man who killed those who displeased him – yup, seems fair! And thanks for being a member!

  2. David,
    Great narrative on the perceptions of Henry, traditional and revisionist etc. It made me think of the witty (but unfortunately sectarian) lines form Brendan Behan which encapsulate some of the revisionist perspective. Your podcast is rightly too classy to include smutty limericks though.

    Beware the Protestant minister:
    his false reason, false creed, and false faith;
    the foundation stones of his temple
    are the balls of Henry the Eighth.

    Brendan Behan, 1923-1964

    1. I have something of a passion for limericks, smutty or otherwise. I think Brendan’s is forgivingly smutty…interesting though. There are a few snippets about the way the English reformation is presented in Catholic circles which is interesting; someone else mentioned that they always been taught that it was all Anne Boleyn’s fault. All rather fun!

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