252 Henry VIII – Judgement Day and results

Posted on 5th August:

Results now in! It was very close as the table below shows. But int he end, the History of England listeners declared that while Henry VIII may be a less than likable character to modern eyes, he and his reign delivered notable achievements.

Poll prizedraw winners were

  • somebody whose email suggests an interest in Pinot Noir
  • Somone who’s email suggests they might be called Paul Baker

and Quiz prize draw winners are:

  • D. Coster and
  • Hugh Brodie


HVIII Poll Result


Alternative views of the Big Man presented  in this mega-sode.

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Poll Prize CoinsExplanation of the poll and prizes

Members remember you have a Henry VIII Quiz and second prize draw as well. Gosh, the privileges of membership, if you don’t want to miss out Become a Member.

Four famous historians and experts on Henry VIII give their views on Henry VIII. Your task is to choose one of these in the poll at the bottom. Although the prizedraw is over you can still vote

Which historian's assessment of Henry VIII comes closest to your view?

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Barely a month ago we laid Henry VIII in his grave, after more than a year in his company. I was exhausted, I have to tell you, which is probably only the half of what you poor people are. Since then we’ve had a bit of breathing space which is always good, a chance to reflect, to consider, to create some distance. And now, as promised, I think it’s time for us to put Henry behind us. But to really do this, I think we need to take a step back, and reflect together on his reign and his legacy. And also, carefully and honestly agree what we all think of the Big Man.

As I went about this, a rather remarkable thing struck me – it’s probably struck you ages ago but it just struck me now when I went through the process of constructing a list of quotes about Henry over the ages – which you can find on the website by the way. Now the world is festooned with books about Henry VIII. This isn’t the big reveal, by the way, I’m just building up to it, you may need to be patient ‘til I get to the point. The world is festooned with books, articles, telly programmes, podcasts, websites – all about Henry VIII. New ones are coming out all the time, and when the do, the message, 9 times out of 10, I swear on the grave of the Leicester Tigers, the message is ‘hey look, here’s this new book/programme whatever, and bravely, controversially, it’s going to change our perceptions of Henry the great magnificent king, it’s going to set the record straight and show him as the weasel he really is, horrid bloke, puppy strangler and worse’. Quite apart from the question of whether there could be anything worse than a puppy strangler, this is very odd – because as far as I can see a reasonable proportion of historians since time immemorial have been telling us Henry was a worm. Even the wildly positive ones like A F Pollard admit that on a personal level he was more than a little flawed. Plus the rest of us appear to absolutely hate him even worse than the historians, there are derogatory comments about him throughout the Inter Tubes. I notice that in a poll of historical writers Henry VIII was voted the worst king of all time. Good golly miss Molly. As far as I can see there are few kings in English history more reviled – so I am not sure we need any more books rubbishing his reputation, if anything we need some to introduce a bit of balance.

After over a year reading up about the chap, it’s almost comical – everyone want to give as little credit to the guy as possible. The definitive Naval historian Rogers refuses Henry any foresight for the English navy. There are streams, figuratively streams of Catholic historians condemning the English Reformation as a disgraceful top down affair visited on a horrified populace for nothing but Henry’s greed and desperate desire for a bit of nookey on the sofa on a Friday night.  Folks howl with contemptuous laughter at Henry’s pathetic showing on the military and diplomatic battlefield.

Now if you can remember back to the first episode on Henry, number 210 on 2nd April 2017, you might remember that I started in that place actually – sick of the bloke, why does everyone think he’s so great, so on and so forth. And do you know that the storm of abuse thrown at the big man’s head has hit a small stubborn spot in me. It’s not an impressive sight, this little spot, it looks thin, pale and a little rubbery, stubborn is not my middle name, but none the less, there’s a bit of under dogging going on in my heart. In a good way, obviously.

So I thought what would be good would be to have a go at getting a bit of balance going here, and I know just the people to do it – the history of England listeners. Here’s how you and I are going to do it. In this episode I am going, as passionately as I can, present first the anti Henry case, and then the pro Henry cases in a polemical kind of way. The case for the prosecution, and the case for the defence sort of thing.

After you have listened carefully and taken notes, then I think we should have a vote and maybe just maybe a full and frank exchange of views, and I hope you will decide to take part in that full and frank exchange of views. The vote will be on the history of England website, and you will be asked to chose one of a series of quotes from historians past and present, the quote which best represents your view. You will not enjoy this, because you will want nuance, you will want to mew and puke and have a slightly different quote or a combination, but you can’t have nuance you will have to make the best of a bad job. I am sorry, it is a hard world.

If you are kind enough to make the best of a bad job and take part there will be a prize draw. Yay! All participants in the vote will be entered into a draw for two prizes – firstly a Henry VIII halfpenny, and second prize an Edward III halfpenny. Meanwhile, I will start a Facebook post where we can all have a chat, if you are facebookers, or you can comment on the website post of course. I will present the prizes after I have carefully fixed the vote by adding the required number of pregnant chads at the start of my episode on 29th July.

While I am on it there will be extras for Members. I realise this is divisive and elitist and I apologise for that, but the thing is that one good turn deserves another as my grandmother might have said. So, Members, there will be a bumper Henry VIII quiz, and everyone who takes part in that, no matter how paltry their score, will be entered for a further prize. The prizes are also Henry VIII and Edward Halfpennies, which is a bit weird, but don’t get confused they are different ones.

All of these coins have been donated absolutely free by Simon Hal of Halls Hammered coins. This is very kind, and I am very grateful, plus Simon gave me some extras just for fun which is even nicer. I even managed to correctly identify one of them. Go me. Anyway, I have again put a link to Simon’s website, do go and have a look at some fantastic coins.

Ok, onward, here then are the quotes. They will be on the website, since you will want to carefully think them through. The first is from J J Scarisbrick, still Henry’s definitive biographer originally writing in 1968 and updated in 2011. Scarisbrick was not positive about Henry, but unlike many, he managed to be balanced and find the good and the bad. His final judgement actually allowed Henry some context of what kings are generally like in the 16th century, but for the purposes of this quiz I have used the most negative part of the quote:

Rarely has the unawareness and irresponsibility of a king proved more costly of the material benefit of his people

The second is from another great historian, G R Elton. It is almost entirely negative about Henry, but alludes to successes in his reign, but gives credit for those elsewhere – Elton was a bit Cromwell fan of course:

[an] “ego-centric monstrosity” whose reign “owed its successes and virtues to better and greater men about him; most of its horrors and failures sprang more directly from [the king]

The historian David Loades, who provides our third quote, is more positive. OK, he takes the common approach of accepting that Henry’s personal characteristics left a bit to be desired, but he gives Henry considerable credit not just he legacy was significant, and in some ways positive, but that henry had a hand in it, it was not just the men around him.

We are, in fact, perfectly entitled to regard Henry as one of the political architects who transformed medieval England into …a modern nation state. Whatever judgement we may pass on his faith or his morals, his achievements justify his historical stature”.

For the last quote I go to A F Pollard, and have combined two of Pollard’s quotes to make the most positive possible judgement, describing Henry as a Statesman, giving him credit and blame for all that happened in his reign, and emphasising the most positive outcomes. You might want to ignore whether you happen to view Empire as a positive or negative thing, simply taking the point to be that England would become part of the world’s most powerful nation for a while, namely Great Britain.  Here’s the composite quote:

“the king and statesman who…led England down the road to parliamentary democracy and empire”

I appreciate that these 4 statements are not entirely mutually exclusive. That’s just tough I am afraid, you have to chose the least imperfect one.



Let me start off, then, with the case for the prosecution, which of course is a reasonably straightforward job, just a restatement as clearly and succinctly as possible of what is so self evident as to have become the orthodoxy, not the controversial. Just to stress that point again – it’s become  orthodoxy now to regard Henry as a destructive, willful, self centred king who dragged his realm to directions they never wanted to go –   a blood soaked tyrant, England’s Nero.

There is a problem, though in that Henry’s tyrannies and multiple failures always been masked by the talents he did possess. Physically there’s no doubt that Henry was impressive, in different ways in his young years to his old, but a big powerful man; as a young man there’s no doubt he was welcomed as the new renaissance prince, and lived up to the image in many ways; and he maintained a glittering and fascinating court and was a master of propaganda, dazzling his contemporaries and us too, to a degree. But this is a feature of the tyrant is it not, this focus on selling an image, and that will be the focus around which I hang this view of Henry – that he was or at very least become a bloodthirsty tyrant, whose own will and desires were the only guide for him, rather than what was good for his people. A tyrant who certainly changed England for ever, but not as a matter of policy but from the unforeseen consequences of his blundering and uncontrolled passions.

The thing that is almost never disputed, or very rarely indeed, is that Henry was a man with a deeply unattractive character. I will let a contemporary of Henry’s speak for me, one John Elyot writing in the 1540s

“he was a man of quick and subtle wit but therewith he was wonderful sensual unstable and wandering in sundry affections. Delighting sometimes in voluptuous pleasures, and other times in gathering of great treasure and riches, often resolved into a beastly rage and vengeful cruelty. About the public health of his country always remiss, in his own desires studious and diligent”

The dazzling things about Henry are all a bit trivial – he had a great energy as a younger man, he was personally charismatic, good at sport, all that. When it comes to the qualities of a good leader, such as a clear vision and a strategy to carry it out, we come up with a blank. In fact, for much of his reign Henry simply delegated many of his responsibilities; for the better part of 20 years, Wolsey had to trick him to gain his attention by taking him baubles to look at while he put papers in front of him.  As Elton’s quote points out, it is Cromwell that achieves many of the most significant developments of the reign. Only after Henry had judicially murdered his most faithful servant in 1540 did Henry clearly take a direct role, and this is a period marked by confusion and vicious political in-fighting.

What everyone also agrees on is that Henry had the most extraordinarily flexible conscience; he was able to convince himself, for example, that Anne Boleyn was indeed guilty of crimes of which she was clearly not guilty; or convince himself that he had been living in sin with Catherine of Aragon when it became expedient to think so. And even that judgement is giving him enormous credit – we’ve no real evidence that he didn’t simply act in cold blood, that he simply pretended to be convinced of these things. The main talent he had that a leader needs was ruthlessness, and he was rather over endowed with that. Scarisbrick put this rather well when he wrote

“it is difficult to think of any truly generous or selfless action performed by him”

And Walter Raleigh made the same point – Henry’s capacity for destroying those around him who he seemed to have loved or had served him well with dizzying speed was quite remarkable. Wolsey, Cromwell, Catherine of Aragon, Thomas More to name but a few. With some of these people there’s a revolting element of deception too; think of Anne Boleyn at the May tournament, completely unaware of the train about to roll over her. Think of Robert Aske, who loyally stayed the hand of the rebels of the Pilgrimage of Grace, who came to Westminster to be granted the full charm and assurances of his king, only to be brutally executed a few weeks later. Henry’s behaviour with his wives was viewed with incredulity and mockery in the courts of Europe. Henry was a man without honour, whose promises were completely unreliable. This instability of character fed a culture of faction at his court which would have astonished his father and grandmother, who never allowed such a situation to occur. Henry was a weak man who could be manipulated – and his weakness generated politics of unimaginable poison.

Let us then focus on a few specific areas of his actions. One of the things most people know about Henry was his obsession with a male heir, and the various consequences that flowed from that. Often, it is passed over just how unnecessary this was, it is excused as just one of those features of the time, when in fact there were alternative approaches available. One would be to have accepted that there would be a female heir and prepare England and the world for that. Afterall, this had happened before – Henry I had not thrust aside his wife when his only son died in the White Ship. Another approach would have been to focus on the potential male heirs and groom them for succession. Henry had a choice, his mania over a male succession even in the context of the age was excessive and obsessive. His handling of the divorce proceedings were incompetent; in his arrogant high opinion of his theological skills, Henry chose a particularly purist approach to gaining an annulment, whereas Wolsey advised going under the radar and using a technicality. And of course Henry’s approach spectacularly backfired. Henry’s treatment of his daughter Mary is utterly brutal, requiring her complete submission before she would be readmitted to court.

While we are on the consequences of Henry’s obsession, we come to Henry’s reformation. Whatever you think of the rights and wrongs of the religions at stake, which is not for here, Henry’s motivation at least initially was fuelled by 3 main considerations, none of them laudable. One was his obsession with a male heir, which as I have said was unnecessary. A second was his desire to marry Anne Boleyn – Reginald Pole at the time roundly accused Henry of destroying the unity of the church simply for the, quote, ‘lust for a girl’ and he had a point. And thirdly, Henry was eager to get his grubby hands on the riches of the church. He doesn’t take the trouble to hide this – he wrote to James V of Scotland specifically telling him what a great idea it was and his letters talk of how he could use the church’s wealth to increase his royal power. And so the English Reformation had the indignity to be tainted with Henry’s lust and greed.

In the course of that reformation, Henry tore up a 1000 year tradition and relationship with the Pope, and we are left with Eamon Duffy’s lament that we no longer have a spiritual head independent of the state, and a painful break was made with the universal church, creating borders where none had existed before, cutting the English off from their past. The Royal Supremacy was based on a made-up claim of imperium, no one believed it, the break was clearly illegal. The break with Rome was also unnecessary. The French, for example, would later achieve a national church without needing to tear up a relationship with the Pope, and so would Spain – it transpired that the Pope was perfectly capable of recognising the needs of these nation states. Recent scholarship has shown that the vast majority of Henry’s subjects were not clamouring for the removal of the medieval church, that it was in many ways vibrant and successful, and the result therefore was a level of religious discord England had never, and which sent lasting division and disunity deep into English society. None of this was helped by Henry’s bungled theology, which moved towards the evangelicals and then back again to the conservatives in a way that increased the uncertainty and confusion of his subjects. At times in the late 1530s and 40’s it was very difficult to know what a loyal subject was supposed to believe and taken together with the executions and burnings for political and religious reasons, England was gripped by an atmosphere of suspicion fear and dread.

And finally on Henry’s reformation, Henry swept away a thousand year tradition of monasticism, and stole the wealth of the church, buying the favours of his political classes by selling it off to them all cheaply. In the process he was responsible not just for removing the support and tradition on which his subjects had relied, but also for more destruction of beautiful buildings and other works of art than the Puritans. But the worst of this was that the money he raised used no great purpose, but squandered away in pointless, unsuccessful wars and royal palaces, to the despair of conservative and evangelical alike – and that despite the grandiose plans made in the preambles to the parliamentary acts.  All the grandiose plans announced in the acts of dissolution to endow religion and education ended up coming down to just the creation of 6 new dioceses.

It’s well known that when Henry first came to the throne England breathed a sigh of relief to be saved from the increasing paranoia and miserliness of Henry VII. There is continuing confusion about how we went from the handsome dashing relaxed renaissance prince to the cruel, bloated, bloodthirsty tyrant of the 1540’s. Some have turned to physical explanations, the jousting accident after which Henry was unconscious for a few hours, or the jousting accident that caused an injury to his leg, leading to constant pain from a leg ulcer. I suspect that these physical issues must have accentuated Henry’s descent into tyranny, but equally I don’t think it is necessary to explain it; the evidence was there from the beginning. Empson and Dudley might well have been unpopular, but they had only been following Henry VII’s orders, and the callous ease with which his son Henry VIII ordered their executions in 1510 was a pointer for the future. All that cruelty was there from the very start.

Before we go too much further down the tyranny route, it’s probably worth having a definition of what we are talking about, so I had a rootle, a most satisfactory activity on a Sunday morning I have to tell you. I had a rootle around the Ancients. The word tyrant comes from an Ancient Greek word, turannos, and it meant “absolute ruler.” Initially the term described the rule of a single individual, whether by force or with the tacit or formal consent of the people. But by the fifth century BC, tyranny had acquired its more familiar association of unjust, illegitimate, and lawless rule. Plato and Aristotle no less described tyranny as a corrupt form of monarchy, in which the society serves the tyrant’s ambition and egotism. That again – where society serves the tyrant, not the other way round as it should be. Those original connotations still survive, but by Henry’s time the word tyranny also charged a ruler with either obtaining power unconstitutionally or with ruling in defiance of laws and customs over citizens who are thereby metaphorically enslaved by his behaviour. The 17th century Philosopher John Locke defined tyranny as the ruler’s irresponsible substitution of private for public ends. He saw Tyranny as an abuse of the power by which citizens have consented to be governed, tyranny involves violation of the law:

“Where-ever Law ends, Tyranny begins, if the Law be transgressed to another’s harm”

In addition, the OED gives one of it’s meaning as ‘A king or ruler who exercises his power in an oppressive, unjust, or cruel manner’

So in summary, rule in defiance of law, a ruler that makes the right of the state inferior to their own, and who rules cruelly and oppressively. Henry VII can be charged with all of those.

As far as law is concerned, let us take the perversion of justice first. Thomas More was the greatest jurist of his day, and in his silence he knew that he had the defence of the law – and yet he was convicted. Anne Boleyn was served with a series of transparently trumped up charges. Quite what the Duke of Norfolk was guilty of was far from clear even to the man himself, and you might wonder how it is that a man of such signal loyalty was ever convicted of treason as he was in 1547. The answer of course is that he wasn’t – he was attainted in parliament, so that no one had to go through the bother of a trial with all that requirement to produce evidence and pay off a jury, oops, I mean convince a jury. After 1536, the use of attainder was an increasingly used device by Henry to avoid all that fuss and bother.

This warping of the judicial system was accompanied also by perversion of the law itself. Henry introduced a group of laws so draconian that they were repealed almost as soon as he was dead. One demanded the penalty of being boiled to death for poisoning; another was the new law of Treason itself. Even at the time the act produced outrage – for the first time, mere words could send you to the gallows for treason. An even more pernicious act was the 1539 Act of Proclamations, which allowed the king to issue decrees, bypassing parliament altogether. The fact that laws like these were repealed so swiftly once Henry was gone reflects the fact that during his reign, Henry might well have used parliament – but only because he never for a moment imagined that it would dare to deny him anything.

Just to complete the picture, if there’s one classic example of refusing to accept the rule of law it must lie in retrospective legislation – everyone would agree, would they not, that passing a law so that you can try and execute someone for an action which was not illegal at the time they did it, must be tyrannical? Well this happens as least in the case of Catherine Howard, where the Royal Assent by Commission Act was quickly passed to make it treason for a queen consort to fail to disclose her sexual history to the king. Just to make sure Catherine couldn’t escape the gallows.

As far as the second element is concerned, subjugating the rights of the state to the right of the individual, the king, there is general agreement that Henry’s was the most monstrous ego, and that his wishes were all that mattered to him. Charles de Marillac the French Ambassador understood the extent of Henry’s self interest in 1540 when he wrote

Henry is so greedy that all the riches in the world would not satisfy him… to make himself rich he has impoverished his people

Henry’s entire reign was a dedication to his ego and personal needs, before which all must bow. The Pope must be cast off so that he could marry; the monasteries must be dissolved so that he could use the money to go to war.

Maybe worst of all three is Henry’s cruelty and brutality, another trademark of the tyrant. The list of executions and burnings in the name of the law is unprecedented in English history, or at least since we have records. To take one example, take the 18 Carthusian monks who refused to abjure their religious views. One group of them were hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, as were the second group a month later. The third group were hanged in chains over the walls at York until they starved to death, and the fourth starved to death chained back-to-back in Newgate prison. These were just part of a series of heresy burnings on a scale unheard of in England – 81 in Henry’s reign by one estimate compared to 24 in Henry VII’s reign. The pilgrimage of Grace saw something like 200 men, women and children join them. The list of political victims runs like a list of the great and the good – Empson, Dudley, Buckingham, More, the Boleyns, Cromwell, Surrey.  But possibly worse than any of them was the death of the aged and innocent Margaret Pole, surely no threat to anyone, executed simply because Henry couldn’t get at his arch critic Reginald Pole.

I have two more points to make. One is about economics, rarely a subject that gets people excited, unfairly in my view, but I will keep it brief. Henry’s reign saw the most extraordinary windfall any English monarch had ever been lucky enough to find behind the sofa of state. We’ve discussed already that Henry used all of this money on the more trivial of destinations – war, palaces and the odd fancy codpiece. Though I have to say I find it hard to begrudge the man a nice codpiece but did he really need all 55 royal palaces? 55! Anyway, the point is that by the time Henry came to his final foray in the 1540’s, he’d spent it all, and his efforts to raise sufficient money led him back to desperate measures – the return of forced loans and benevolences, taxation of the church and people. But worst of all it led him to a devaluation – 16% of gold coin and 64% of Silver. Just as an aside, eventually the layer of silver on his coinage became so thin that it would wear off revealing the copper below. This happened particularly on Henry VIII’s nose on his image on the coin, giving him the nickname “Old Coppernose. Huh, there’s a thing.  But this is no time for fun, look, England and indeed Europe was already suffering from inflation, a phenomenon they simply didn’t understand or know how to deal with; in the 1540’s Henry’s devaluation greatly accelerated inflation and irresponsibly multiplied the pain.  The result of all of this was enormous misery – creating a flood of itinerant poor with which society was simply unable to cope. Some of the blame of this at least must be laid at Henry’s door. Whereas Henry had inherited sound finances and bit of a nest egg from his father, his own legacy was an empty bank and a substantial debt. The number of people who died as a result of Henry’s rule has gone as high as 72,000, and historian Jasper Ridley’s estimate of 60,000 executed for crimes of all sorts.

Just one more point, which is Henry and his foreign adventures, coming on the back of Zack’s episode last week. To use the phrase foreign policy is to flatter the incoherent set of reactions it represents.  Henry’s desire was to emulate the glories of his great predecessor Henry V; the comparison can only accentuate the later Henry’s failure. During his early years, Ferdinand of Aragon ran diplomatic rings round the young man, and the result of 3 forays into France were a mass of expenditure which resulted in one victorious skirmish, and the very temporary capture of a couple of towns. Probably worse was Henry’s meddling in Scottish affairs where he may have missed an opportunity to bring about the marriage of Edward and Mary, and ended up embroiling England in another expensive and irrelevant war. In military terms, England was, and remained, a pygmy in comparison to the Empire and to France. Even in the development of the Navy, Professor Rogers who wrote the definitive Naval history of Britain, is firm that there is no sign in Henry of a strategic vision. Absolutely finally, Henry’s incompetent foreign policy and the reformation combined to put England in a dangerously isolated position on Henry’s death.

When I say finally, what I mean is absolutely penultimately. It is argued for Henry that his reign sees the transformation of English administration, from medieval government into modern. Of course, this is Cromwell’s work first of all, very little of the credit can go to Henry. It is also enormously overstated. Actually, Cromwell is an example of a superbly efficient and effective minister who drives the business of government through his own talent. Yes financial administration is definitively removed from the household, but it ends up in the Jewel house for crying aloud – it is not in Henry’s reign that the potential Exchequer to coordinate financial management is recognised. As far as the regions of his kingdom are concerned, any argument that includes Ireland need to look at how that all turned out in Elizabeth’s reign, and in the north of England the borders were left dangerously weakened.

All of this is not to say that Henry’s reign was without achievement, and of course I have gone for all the negatives, because that is my job, Henry was a great builder, though relatively little remains today, because actually a lot of it was built shoddily and in a hurry. It’s generally agreed that the vast majority of Henry’s own subjects, at the time did not feel this but instead mourned the passing of a man they considered every inch and king, to the point of reverence. But maybe a bit of distance has made us realise the terrible price Henry made his subjects pay for his limited achievements.



Okally dokally, how was that for you all? Was that nasty enough? Actually, it was quite interesting that as I flew around the web in the writing of this piece it never fails to amaze me just how angry people can still get about the religious side of this, how much division there still is, over something that surely should be ancient history now; there are articles that could have been written 300 years ago. Anyway, I think I have done my best to bring Henry down, so let’s see what I can do to build him up.

To do so, I am going to broadly follow the same structure as my predecessor so that you can match the arguments up, but first of all let me establish a couple of rules. Firstly, whatever actions are initiated by government in Henry’s reign, Henry gets credit or the blame. I have two reasons for this. One, I think that Professor G W Bernard established pretty clearly in his book the ‘King’s Reformation’ that Henry took a personal and close interest in all aspects of the reformation. There is plenty of evidence also that Henry was perfectly capable of taking a close interest, in detail, of government policy of all kind. Yes, there are the stories of Wolsey having to make a young king pay attention, and in the early years Henry devolved much to Wolsey. But he did not, as we know, devolve the things that mattered to him such as the divorce. Nor did he fail to step in when required, as we saw with the Amicable grant. But as both Cromwell and Cranmer discovered, after Wolsey he never again allowed himself to step even as far away as that. It is inconceivable that Cromwell introduced any government policies through parliament that Henry had not agreed to – the Poor Laws for example.  Cromwell and Cranmer were also to discover that Henry was intellectually perfectly capable of forensically unpicking an argument. Even where Henry didn’t exercise direct control, it is Henry that directs strategy, and in all cases he was perfectly capable of demanding policies be stopped or reversed – no one argues that Henry had anything other than a powerful and forceful will. And anyway, every head of state or CEO is responsible for picking the officials that carry out policy – that is part of their responsibility, and they are responsible for what they do. So that’s rule one – Henry gets credit or blame for everything.

The second point is that Henry should be judged by the standards of the day. Now I am not going to be arguing that Henry is an angel, far from it, but I will be arguing that a fair proportion of the criticism Henry attracts derives by either attaching today’s values to yesterday’s world, or failing to acknowledge the context of the day. The idea, for example, that Henry VIII was unusually vicious in his executions is a massive exaggeration, and if you compare him to activities of his peers on the continent, well, he is a pussy cat.

To start with Henry’s character, then, I don’t propose to try to change anything that has a been said – except to argue about their significance. The previous speaker has rather nastily belittled the importance of the skills and talents Henry famously had, the attributes of the renaissance prince; I’m not going to get upset and do any brown paper bag tearing about that, but I would note that there is a context point here – these attributes were considered much more important back then than they might be now, they materially affected the way his great men interacted with him, they were critical to his authority. Henry father taught him a very important lesson – that to be a king you must look and act like a king, and Henry did this is spades. We underestimate the importance of this at our peril. The prestige of the monarchy had rarely stood higher than it did on Henry’s death, and Henry’s ability to glorify the monarchy to embue it with the magnificence and lustre paid coin every day of Henry’s life in political value. Henry’s ability to communicate has thereby been downplayed, as somehow of little significance, as though it was simply unworthy cheating to, for example, sell the message of the royal supremacy. We might not like it – but it was absolutely critical to create unity ion his realm, to bring his people to stand behind his policy. And he was outstandingly successful. The English would stick to the break with Rome as an article of faith for centuries. So my point is that Henry’s talents his ability to project and communicate are not in some way unimportant or secondary – they were the essence of kingship and made both his rule and foreign diplomacy more effective.

I am not going to deny that Henry was an egoist, had a very flexible conscience, and a thoroughly handy ability to transfer blame from his own shoulders to those of his minsters – and on occasion to then separate the relevant head from said shoulders as it happens, which is unfortunate. He was a man who expected the world to dance to his tune, and was volatile and dangerous when the world did not oblige. OK fair enough. But look – what did we expect? How many good medieval and modern kings do we know who were gentle souls much given to self-deprecation and humbly asking for forgiveness? Write me a list, it probably has Edward II and Henry VI on it, both thoroughly lovely people no doubt and thoroughly rotten kings to boot. Henry was king in a time when that meant that he stood next to God in the great chain of being. When his name was spoken, anywhere, his subjects doffed their caps. It is unsurprising that Henry was a little arrogant. Henry was required to be self-confident, resilient and determined to be effective, and he was. I might say that at least he felt it necessary to have a conscience which needed to be flexible – if we are really talking about a tyrant here, you know a proper tyrant, I don’t think we’d be worrying about how flexible their conscience was, we’d be remarking on its absence. And if that meant Henry visited his displeasure with ruthlessness, there was nobody around him at court that did not know the potential price and the danger of being there. Remember the advice that John Blount gave to his son, Henry’s Companion in Studies Lord Mountjoy:

“live right wisely and never to take the state of baron upon them if they may leave it from them, nor to desire to be great about princes for it is dangerous”

This was fully understood and accepted throughout the early modern world. While we are on what would we expect from a king, there’s another piece of context worth bearing in mind – understanding the strength of his personal presence. Kingship was still personal in the 16th century – and even across the centuries, Henry exerts a fascination – we can’t take our eyes away from him and the world he created. How much more fascinating he must have been in his presence. By all accounts he exerted charm, bonhomie and personal magnetism, manipulative sure, but a great communicator.

There are also a few personal qualities Henry possessed on the other hand that get surprisingly little mention, and for which he gets insufficient credit. Here’s a quote from a 20th century historian called Stanley Bindof:

“…qualities, good and evil alike, added up to extreme effectiveness…not the least of his master craftsman secrets was an eye for a tool”

Henry had no fear of competition, of being made to look small; and so he surrounded himself with the most talented people. As Bindof suggests, he had a genius for appointing talented public servants. True enough some of them paid a pretty hefty price in the end, though they also had a gilded existence before the axe fell. But surely one of the critical talents of a leader is the ability to pick the best people, and allow them to get on with the job. That Henry did. He also did it by flying in defiance of conventional social rules – all around him the privileged nobility shuddered with horror as he appointed public servants on the basis of talent rather than birth. The chinless were accorded their traditional roles in Council, military and as the king’s companions, but if a job needed doing Henry went for skill. Nor are we just talking about Wolsey and Cromwell here, though they are the most obvious; Henry employed such men in his chamber and on the Council too. Henry held another leadership skill that is often ignored – he was open at all times to debate and to challenge on his policy from his council, he did not demand or get yes men. These men of talent were not ciphers blindly carrying out their masters bidding, Henry’s views were constantly challenged by his councillors; think of Cranmer’s firm put down of his Supreme Head’s comments on the Bishop’s Book. There were no dire consequences to this. Norfolk pleaded with him to change his aggressive policy at the start   of the pilgrimage of Grace – Henry saw reason and did so. This is a point that it’s very easy to forget, because I think it’s easy to assume that Henry’s execution of his minsters is connected with fear a tyrannical lack of debate – it was not. All Henry’s councillors and companions had agency as far as they wanted it.

While we are on defiance of convention, it leads me to other characteristics; determination, resilience, persistence. Now, Henry is usually and quite rightly presented as a man of conventional values and ambitions, and that is to a large extent true; he expected to be surrounded also by his nobility, they were his companions rather than bureaucrats, he yearned to emulate his medieval heroes of the past, men like Henry V as we keep saying. But he was also surprisingly unconventional, surprisingly capable of challenging accepted norms. His reign was one of constant change, of a much deeper, more fundamental kind that the preceding century, despite the chaos of the Wars of the Roses, which basically impacted only the top layers of society. So, I know that we tend to focus with chin wobbling outrage on the fact that Henry flew in the face of 1,000 years of tradition by separating us from the Pope, and we’ll come to the rights and wrongs of that – but seriously don’t you think Henry deserves some respect for that as well as a chorus of outrage? Whether you consider it a good thing, a bad thing or just a thing, I for one admire the courage, determination and sheer force of nature, that whatever the obstacles, whatever the tradition Henry would not be denied. He would not be denied. He took on the biggest, richest, oldest most arrogant organisation in the western world at the time, and to the astonishment of all his peers across Christendom he would not back down. I feel a Tom Petty song coming on, even a banner and march or two.

As far as Henry’s male heir obsession is concerned, it’s a little difficult to argue that he was anything other than, well, obsessed by it, and the result was that two women at least suffered for it. I am not going to offer any justification of his treatment of Anne Boleyn, but I might point out that in his treatment of his daughter he was entirely conventional and traditional. That doesn’t make it any easier for Mary, but while it’ll make me unpopular, Mary’s mother also put her own feelings before those of her daughter – which she was entitled to do of course. But the point is that however it might offend modern sensibilities, this was a patriarchal society, Henry was at the head of the family and children were required to submit – there was no iffing and butting and slamming of doors allowed. Henry would have her submission as any other Tudor father would, and once she did so submit, Mary spent a perfectly happy few years at her father’s court.

Let me also point out that I often hear the comment that Henry might have trusted better to his daughters, given the outcome of the two perfectly competent queens that followed him. But this is 20/20 hindsight. The previous bloke was daft enough to refer to Henry I…Oh dear, a schoolboy error surely given that Henry I’s attempt to place Empress Matilda on the throne lead to the anarchy when it was said that Christ and his saints slept; and that would have been the only example from English history Henry had before him, except possibly Seaxburgha, hardly a household name. And remember also the chaos of the Wars of the Rose, only a generation away – Henry’s father was obsessed about establishing secure foundations for his dynasty, it is not surprising that his son inherited the same mania.


As far as the separation of the English church from Pope is concerned, let me just say that the lament that it was a bad thing that England lost a spiritual head in the Pope independent of the English church and state is entirely a matter of opinion. It is notable that in Mary’s reign just a few years later the fiercest resistance to the re-imposition of traditional religion was to the idea of the return to Papal allegiance. By Elizabeth’s time, the title of Supreme Head was reduced to Governor and spiritual leadership would come from the ABC in practice. Now, I am inclined to accept the viewpoint of the reformers that there were many advantages to the new arrangements and see no reason to lament, there were pretty clear benefits that flowed.  England was traditionally far from being at the centre of Papal concerns, physically far away and politically marginal – now the church was focussed solely on the needs of the community it served, and could be responsive to that community, and more directly influenced by it – as indeed the events of the following reigns would demonstrate, when Elizabeth built a broad church that accommodated the vast majority of her subjects. In the 17th century, there were never more than 60,000 of English that would abjure the English church due to adherence to the rites of Rome – which is about 1% of the population. In the context of the growth, throughout Europe, of the nation state, the days of an international Christendom were effectively gone forever with the European Reformation, whatever Henry might have done. One of the quotes from AF Pollard makes the point that England stood on the edge of a period of transformation, from a bit-part player to one of the world’s most powerful nations. The Church of England was a powerful part of that equation.  The Church of England was Henry’s creation – when he died it was far from finished, but it would not have existed without him.

Three more points on the Reformation. The most persistent complaint is that the English Reformation was simply a land grab, not a bottom up process driven by faith as it was in Germany, and this in some way is supposed to undermine its value. The English Reformation as it played was indeed largely top down, given the timing of Henry’s need for a divorce, so that the break with Rome was relatively early. But that is not to say that it would not have become bottom up. The study of wills shows that reformist influence was already being felt in parts of the country. In Scotland, John Knox and the dynamism of Calvinism would show just how possible it was from reformation to occur even when it was resisted by the monarch, as when Scotland accepted the Reformed Church. My point is that while Henry’s demand for a divorce led to a top down process, there is no doubt that demand for reform was already in his kingdom, and would without doubt have grown.

And it is also not true to say that Henry merely produced Catholicism without the Pope, and that his interest was therefore purely practical and material, nothing to do with belief or theology. In Henry’s reign, the concept of purgatory, veneration of relics and pilgrimage for example were immediately rejected. I do not say whether that is a good or bad thing – all I am saying is that England began the work of making the reformation in her own image straightaway. It takes a while, to later in Elizabeth’s reign, but it starts not just with Henry, but with reformers like Cranmer, Latimer and others.  It is without doubt that Henry gave his subjects a hard time in developing doctrine around his reformation – Henry consistently failed to recognise that some of the disagreements and debate he disliked so much were a result of his own changing position. But look – this is fiercely complicated stuff. It is very typical of the English that the new religion evolves and emerges over a long time, and makes compromises along the way to try to accommodate the views of as many as possible.  My point is that for both Henry and many of his kingdom, the reformation was indeed a cleansing and a deep change to the way religion was conducted, not simply a land grab. Henry took a leading role in that process of reform.

Third point, if you have been counting, we come to the accusation that Henry stole the wealth of the church, an argument that is often produced like some sort of trump card. By Henry’s reign, the church held about 25% of England’s wealth. So in summary, the wealth of the church was wildly, ridiculously excessive. It is generally agreed that Monasticism, while far from dead, had lost its vigour, had largely lost its intellectual and educational role, and much of its cultural relevance – and yet there were 900 of them. It was accepted that at very least, monasticism was in desperate need of reform.

There was a long tradition of thought, certainly from Wycliffe onwards, that looked to the prince to reform the church. What Henry did was not theft. It was without doubt hideously disruptive, but it was well within his rights, and surely the church had been given long enough to put its own house in order. It was a perfectly reasonable argument that the wealth of the church was excessive, and could be better distributed, and that monasteries were no longer needed; and with the new theology, had lost their role.

And what were the consequences? I am much less inclined to defend Henry against the charge that he could have done a lot more than he did with the wealth of the church – not enough was done. However, as previously noted in these pages much of what the reformers would like to have achieved did come about – by the end of the 16th century it is estimated 400 further schools had been added to England’s stock, much of it through local pride and initiative. It was argued in the 19th century by Cobbett that the rich had removed a vital crutch for the poor. We now know that to be a massive exaggeration – barely £9,000 of the Monastery’s wealth went to the poor. And uniquely, England developed a solution, Henry supported Cromwell’s move to make the state responsible for the support of the poor, through local parishes. The poor laws have a bad reputation bow – but at the time this is revolutionary, and demonstrates a sense of social responsibility. It is another example of Henry’s ability to support and implement change and innovation; yes, it was Cromwell’s initiative, but acting as Henry’s minister and with his approval.

In distributing the wealth of the church to secular hands, England nurtured a rich, powerful, independent yeomanry, gentry, and merchant class in a process that created a counterpoise to the power of the king and state.  In a 100 year’s time we will not be talking about the triumph of royal absolutism in England, we will be talking about its failure, and as Pollard says, the growth of parliamentary democracy. Much of that is due to the strength of the secular society enriched by the dissolution. Not for a moment would I argue that Henry consciously set out to achieve this; but he without doubt took a tactical decision that lead to the outcome.

Of the destruction of priceless works of art – well I confess I would have been horrified and would be horrified now if all our beautiful churches were destroyed. But I might reflect that it is beyond our competence to judge the relative importance of these works of art compared to a deeply felt conviction that the practice inherent in them was offensive to religion. I cannot judge such as thing, but I can accept that spiritual health of every individual’s soul might be considered a far more important priority than physical objects, and if the religious leaders view was than the worship of icons was wrong well so be it, who are we to argue?

Fourth and final point on the reformation for the moment. The Bible in English. It was Henry who ensured that the English could at last read the word of God in their own language, at last worship and study could be understood by a much wider community of readers. And thereby, learning to read was also encouraged. Bible reading may not be the most popular passtime now, but it most assuredly was in the 16th century.

Let’s turn to tyranny. Just to restate the measures, we are defining tyranny as rule in defiance of law, a ruler that makes the right of the state inferior to their own, and who rules cruelly and oppressively.

I suspect that I am going to concede that by the end of this reign Henry had slipped his toe over the lines into tyranny. The very end of his big toe just maybe perhaps. But it’s a pretty poor sort of tyranny if so, and on a list of tyrants our Henry’s going to be down at the very end of the line.

As far as law is concerned, I accept the point about two of the laws that are rescinded – but surely they don’t count as tyranny? These were laws passed in parliament through due process. The outrage about the treason law of 1534 law, in the words of Bill and Ted, is utterly bogus – people had been executed before 1534 for speaking treason. It’s clear that the Stature of Proclamations was only ever used for administrative expediency when speed was required. Where Henry does come unstuck is in panicking over the retrospective law in respect of Catherine Howard. But it’s one slip for a specific circumstance. in fact, Henry does nothing to pervert the independence of the legal profession in general; he doesn’t go about replacing judges that displease him or seek to pervert the process of the judiciary in general, despite the high profile cases we’ll talk about in a moment. As far as parliament is concerned it is true that Henry would have been most put out if they had turned him down flat on anything, but the impression that parliament is completely compliant is wrong, as many lengthy debates on key issues demonstrate; the six articles for examples results in long and open argument, often in defiance of the king, and resignations when the vote goes the king’s way. Henry is largely innocent of any structured attempt to subvert the judicial process or constitutional process – only in a tiny number of high profile cases does he cross a line.

But it is not just that we should clear Henry of most of the negative – there is a positive story of Henry’s reign that far outweighs all else. upshot is that the entire reformation is debated and endorsed in parliament. Parliament emerges from Henry’s reign with a range of competence wildly enhanced, with a breadth of competence unimaginable to previous kings. Up to and during Henry VII’s reign, parliament is hardly part of England’s constitution, it maybe called by the monarch as and when the prince requires and not before, and many years might pass without it being called. That will never be the case again after the Reformation parliament – it is now an immoveable and fundamental part of the English government and constitution.

Now all of this is open to the point that there is no evidence that Henry consciously set out to create a new constitution and a more powerful parliament. But the evidence is there that Henry never sought to assume the powers of parliament for himself – indeed he famously declared that his estate was never more powerful than as the king in parliament, he was a firm believer in the importance of parliament. Henry was no absolutist, and therefore no tyrant – he ruled in accordance with the rules and customs of the realm. Although the decision he makes in using parliament are probably tactical rather than strategic – none the less the choice he made was the biggest step on the path to parliamentary democracy since Simon de Montfort.

Which brings us to the executions, to the terror. The story goes that England is swept with arbitrary prosecutions, a reign of terror, which has terrified subjects creeping through the darkened rain swept streets that run with the blood of innocents. Of all the representations of Henry’s England it seems to me that this is where we apply modern values tmost liberally and unfairly, and fail to apply any sort of context. Let us unpick it a bit.

Firstly, we are horrified by the severity of the penalties – there’s always a description of the terrible pain inflicted on people that are simply trying to exercise what we now see as a perfectly reasonable right. But that was not the way it was seen then. In Henry’s Europe uniformity was a requirement, not an option. All over Christendom heretics were burned in the name of conformity. Plus, while we recoil at the horror of the seemingly casual and needless pain inflicted – again in this England and Henry are entirely unexceptional within Christendom. St Augustine of Hippo himself had argued that to treat heretics more leniently than forgery, which was the death sentence, would be ludicrous. The historian Lacey Baldwin Smith makes the point:

only in this framework of universal suffering does the stark horror of Tudor punishment and the king’s vengeance become intelligible…the 16th century traitor and heretic not only deserved to die in pain but their lingering pain…[was necessary] for the example and terror of others but as reward for the virtuous”

The use of reams of horrific examples of torture and execution in an attempt to denounce Henry as an exception tyrant, without wanting to get over heated about it, I think are the most dishonest of the articles that litter the web and history books. This is not a stain on England’s history – this is early modern Europe for you, these are the realities of life in European society in the 16th century.

Then there are the numbers. I should just mention two numbers that will appear in articles from time to time. One derives from a contemporary Anglican cleric called William Harrison repeated in Holinshed who said that Henry VIII executed 72,000 “great thieves, petty thieves and rogues”. It is completely unprovable figured, based on no evidence, an absurdly high number and any article that uses it should be banned. Only slightly more credible is Jasper Ridley’s estimate of 60,000 executed for crimes of all sorts which seems equally incredible – and extrapolation of assumption based on assumption on a grand scale. Plus, of course there’s no reason to suppose that whatever the number was would have been any different on the reigns before or after it. Both figures were openly executions of anybody for any crime – these were local decisions locally made on the basis of existing law. So, just to warn you – these figures constitute fake news.

What we can hang our collective hat on is that Henry VII ordered the burning of ten heretics in twenty four years, Henry VIII eighty one in thirty eight years, Elizabeth I five in forty four years, Mary two hundred and eighty people in five years. Let’s change Elizabeth’s number to about 300 in 44 years to be totally fair, though that includes treason. We’ll have some numbers in Europe later, but let me tell you that on these numbers in England alone, Henry is a pussy cat. A soft hearted, sentimental old booby. And this is at a time of unprecedented change and upheaval, religious, social, political.

Ah, I hear you say, but what about all the executions for treason, the horrors of the Pilgrimage of Grace? Well, 883 people come under the treason laws of 1534 in the final 13 years of Henry’s reign. Of these less than 1/3rd are convicted, and look, close to 200 of those are killed for bearing arms against the king in the Pilgrimage of Grace, and no Tudor subject would have for a moment questioned the king’s right to do that, and indeed they’d have nodded approvingly at his good sense. In Wyatt’s much smaller rebellion, Mary would execute 90, Elizabeth would execute 900 rebels.

Now this doesn’t make us like Henry any on a personal level. He displays a vicious determination to see the pilgrims executed in the most horrible ways. But again, welcome to early modern Europe, it’s not a place for the faint hearted. The story here is not about a reign of terror and tyranny – it is the story of how firm and determined government and leadership, to be sure ruthless and at times unattractively vindictive, how Henry’s leadership saved us from a level of violence that could and should have been far worse.

Ah you may say, but it was Henry himself who caused all this change, it was Henry who introduced the reformation. If he’d made like Spain, Portugal, Italy and simply repressed it then not even this paltry level of violence would have gone on. Well, quite apart from whether or not the reformation delivered benefits, what is overwhelmingly likely is that England would not have avoided the turbulence of the Reformation. Here is Scarisbrick again:

Of course, this would have happened in some form or another anyway. Nothing could have insulated England permanently against continental Protestantism.

In Southern Europe, where the church, Emperor and monarchs stepped heavily on heresy, disruption is still massive. There’s a lot of rubbish quoted about the Inquisition, but the very lowest estimate has it in Spain alone that 1% of the 125,000 people tried by Spanish church tribunals were actually executed – which is 1,250. This is over the life of the inquisition, 1542 to the last execution in 1826. Others have it as 150,000 prosecuted over three centuries by the Spanish Inquisition, and between 3,000 and 5,000 executed. This is ignoring Portuguese and Roman Inquisitions of course. In Austria, 100,000 protestants would be forced from their homes, in the Spanish Netherlands in the 17th century 150,000 were forced to leave, I could go on. I repeat – the story here is how Henry’s leadership and grim determination saved England from far worse chaos.

Aha, but the saintly Thomas, the brave Anne Boleyn, the loyal Cromwell, what of them? Here surely is tyranny? Without doubt in cases like these Henry expected a conviction whatever the truth, and justice was not done, however much the process of the law was followed – though I might point out that Thomas More was only trying to get off on a technicality, but I concede the point. But we must see all of these in context again, and in proportion. Once again, all of these people knew the rules of the game. They played for high stakes and they knew the potential penalties; even poor Catherine Howard. We cannot praise and celebrate Anne Boleyn for her skill as a court politician without then accepting that she knew and must accept the consequences. Margaret Pole is a hideously unfair piece of brutality it must be said. However, while it doesn’t make us like or admire Henry at all, all of these high profile deaths are morally complicit. All of them manoeuvred and schemed to have each other destroyed and executed – all of them were every bit as ruthless as the man they were trying to manipulate. They lived by the sword and could hardly complain if they died by it after they’d tried to cause their opponents death.

Two more points before I wrap up, firstly on Henry and the machinery of war. I bow to Professor Rogers’ judgement that Henry had no long term strategy to develop sea power in line with a strategy to extend the power of the English nation, based on a seaborne empire – although as rogers himself concedes, that is his assessment, rather than approvable fact. But even despite that, Henry fully earned the right to be called father of the English and British navy. It is he that invests in the Navy, and transforms the Navy from a handful of ships to a permanent fleet of 23 ships. It is he that creates for the first time a permanent institution to manage the navy, unique in Europe outside Venice, and this institution will become the Navy board. In this institution, real experts and professionals come together to discuss the needs of a navy, real experts. Yes they cheat and bits of kit accidentally on purpose fall off the back of the cart and end up spookily in their private warehouses, but the navy will prosper, and England will prosper on the back of it.

Henry does the same in other branches of warfare – in the professionalism of the armoury at the tower for example, and this would be true but it would also be true to say that in terms of military success, England always lags behind its neighbours. We are into the ‘Name me one great British general that isn’t called Marlborough, Cromwell or Wellington’ conversation. And don’t try Redvers Buller on me. As far as Henry’s foreign adventures generally are concerned, guilty as charged really; Henry plays out his ambitions in an unstructured and entirely unstrategic way, and spends far too much money on the way, especially in the 1540’s when his disastrous overspending does indeed make inflation much worse. Nul point. But again a bit of context. Hapsburg and Valois spent 4 wars messing about in northern Italy in a war that impoverishes Italy and p[lays its part along with the church of relegating it from the cultural and political leadership of Europe to a backwater. In so doing they not only spend a fortune that makes Henry’s expenditure look like a quiet Sunday visit to the bun shop, they play dangerously with the strategic priorities that should have been obsessing them – the existential threat from the Ottoman Empire and, as far as Charles V is concerned, the spread of Protestantism. Francis I achieves precisely nothing despite all his expenditure of treasure, except the loss of French influence in Italy. Bravo. So…no cigar for Henry, but, again, he is acting entirely in character and in the spirit of the time.

And let us look at the positives again. England was a small damp island off the coast of the place where everything important happens. And yet Henry plays the game as a core part of European diplomacy for over 30 years. He invades France 3 times without response and conclusively defeats the one invasion attempt from France. I mean I accept that to the modern mind it’s all pointless messing about, and I won’t pretend there’s a clear policy and strategy other than ‘I want to be Henry V’, but he plays a poor hand with reasonable skill, certainly when it comes to diplomacy where, by the end, he is a hardened professional at the cut and thrust. And I should point out that he had none of the advantages his hero Henry V had, i.e. a divided France, a super strong ally in Burgundy, and the most deadly military tool in Europe.

The second point is Elton’s argument that during Henry’s reign, England’s government is substantially and qualitatively transformed, and becomes part of the modern rather than medieval world. There is truth int he point that Cromwell is another in a long line of effective medieval style principal ministers, and that Elton’s argument has been over stated. But there are clear steps forward. This is partly in the organs of government – a structured settled Privy Council a secretariat, growth of central financial administration under the Court of Augmentations.

But it’s not just that. Henry and Cromwell remove a bunch of medieval franchises in the north of England and the marches to create a more coherent, unified English state. They bring Wales and Northern England definitively within the state. They create a direct relationship between Gentry and Crown that will be the model for English governance into the future. And with surrender and regrant Henry and Cromwell come up with the only policy in Ireland that has any chance of working, and did have a real chance of working. It is not Henry that plants the seeds, it is the policy’s failure under Elizabeth will create 300 years of pain for both Ireland and England.

Finally before you say this is Cromwell’s work a) Henry gets the credit and blame for everything as I said and b) its Henry that creates the Privy Council secretariat not Crommers, it is Henry that creates the first permanent Naval board; and c) it is Henry that creates the pressure for reform, by relentlessly demanding that his bureaucracy serves him well.

Let me summarise. I do not like or admire Henry the man. I would not choose him as a moral example to follow. But he deserves to be judged by the standards of his time – by its moral priorities, and by the expectations of his role – not by whether we like him or not.

Henry was no tyrant; he ruled according to the laws and customs of his country, the record of his royal justice and the executions carried out in his name compares favourably with most countries in Europe, despite a few high profile cases.

Along side the qualities we dislike about him – vindictiveness, egoism, deceit, moral flexibility – Henry had many qualities that made him an effective king; courage, determination, resilience, and ruthlessness, and the ability to back talent wherever he found it. Henry often thought and acted tactically, and for that reason he will never compare with an Alfred the Great, or a William Pitt, or a Gladstone. And sometimes his tactical decisions were poor – his endless expenditure on war and the economic chaos it brought. But usually his tactical decisions worked out, lead to impressive long-term consequences. His belief in parliament, and his use of it to rubber stamp his reforms encouraged parliamentary democracy. His redistribution of the excessive wealth of the church built a stronger, more broadly based society. His ruthless enforcement of conformity with his mild and judicious reformation saved England from the chaos, death and repression of the European religious wars. The Wars of Religion in France, for example from 1562, may have cost millions of lives; his contemporary Francis I acted with far greater savagery in an attempt to repress Protestantism, and yet failed in the attempt. Henry’s firmness and theological moderation played a big part in preventing that chaos in England. And incidentally 100 years of conflict in Europe would lead to a principle that entirely justified his reformation, and indeed justified the original imposition of Christianity in England the 78th century – Cuis religo, eius regio – the prince determines the religion. Henry just got there 100 years earlier than everyone else. Henry’s investment in the Navy, and his setting up of permanent institutions to support it, built a tool that would create England the world power.

In short, the bad, vicious king is a construct of modern values, not those of his time. He was far from a Great king, but he was every bit a king, and an effective one, and one who created a new, divided but ultimately stronger, England.


49 thoughts on “252 Henry VIII – Judgement Day and results

  1. I was torn between between Loades and Elton but I picked Elton but I ultimately picked Elton because I just really dislike Henry VIII. I recognize his historical importance but it’s hard to get past the way he treated the people closest to him.

    1. ah yes! I think that’s the thing. There’s no getting round it – he’s just not very nice! Especially when viewed from our time. But I think the argument is important that he was a king at a time when kings and princes were set apart, Henry had been set apart all his life. I suppose though that at very least he failed to rise above his upbringing…

  2. I agree that it is important to view both the man and his actions with the kens of his time. Far too often we judge historical actions based upon our present day views of what is right and wrong. I chose Loades even though I personally find many of Henry’s actions abhorrent.

    1. I found it difficult to separate the undeniably unlikeable personal characteristics with the context and actions, which I think is what Loades tries to do.

  3. I voted Loades. I think people judge Henry to our present times! I don’t hate him, I realize other people don’t feel that way, but i do. My passion for Henry comes from the view that i believe other circumstances played a role in his behavior especially in his older years. I love the fact of his courage! I’m sorry folks but i love Henry!

    1. Yes, i also cannot help think there’s more than a bit of judging yesterday by the standards of today too!

  4. The definition of a ‘tyrant’ and your description of Henry’s tyrannical characteristics sounded a lot like the behaviours of the current American president which certainly influenced my vote. It may be judging the past by today’s standards, but objectivity be damned, there’s a lot of material pointing towards Henry as a 16th Century version of Trump.

    1. I had the same issue, Stephen, especially in the first section of the podcast.

      I’m still pondering my vote, but I’m not sure that the fact that Henry permitted the good works of those around him to happen is enough to absolve him in my eyes. Perhaps he was just too preoccupied with whatever woman he was after at that time to really care what his ministers were doing (ok, slightly tongue in cheek)!

    2. I thought the same thing. In five hundred years, will people give Trump credit for things that by luck or other people’s efforts didn’t collapse?

    3. I take exception to this. Henry was smart enough to bring in the best and brightest to work with him. Trump does exactly the opposite—unqualified lackeys get positions of power just for licking his boots. They may be similar in having zero idea how to have a coherent foreign policy plan…but that’s about it.

      1. But I think that’s the point of Marc’s question: from our vantage point, Trump looks like an egomaniacal monster who chooses boot-licking incompetents as executors of his policies. But Henry also may have looked that way to his contemporaries. Some post-moderns admire Cromwell for some of the Henrician achievements; depending on what happens, future generations might think similarly about some of Trump’s minions (though, to be honest, I have a tough time identifying which one could be seen that way).

  5. Elton….

    I know it’s unfair to judge the long-dead by modern standards, but even by the standards of his day, Henry VIII was at best amoral. His own whims and fancies were not only more important to him than the health, happiness and the lives of the entirety of his subjects, the health, happiness and the lives of the entirety of his subjects never crossed his mind.

    1. He would have been horrified at the suggestion; Henry would have considered himself the well head of his subjects good fortune, his successes and well being their well being, he was at the head of the chain of being after all. But I think that’s what Scarisbrick’s getting at; what revolts us about Henry is that while he might casually think that, he lacked any genuine concern or empathy.

  6. I’m quite torn as I feel the case was made fairly well that much of what we today find repugnant about the man and king were very much in line with and a product of the times. However, it seems to me that he largely failed to capitalize on his successes and leave England in a significantly better position than when he took the throne. I feel that this should be the true measure of a leader. The amount of wealth squandered alone is just unforgivably vast. The first three options all note on his assumed moral failings for which I have apparently forgiven him. It’s a head-scratcher.

  7. I keep coming up against the fact that yes he was not a nice guy and I definitely would not have wanted to be a young woman around him that he was not as bad as most and that even though it was rigged (validation of beheadings etc) his going to parliament to validate did set up precedent for a continuation of a democratic England. I also think that his obsession with a male heir and gold, did give a result for Protestantism that would not have happened otherwise. The long term effect of this I selfishly thank since it means the colonies are not created Catholic and result in what at least starts out as a freedom from religion, one might argue this has not aged well here in the states but that is another discussion.

  8. I don’t care for statements that are absolute to either end of the spectrum. It’s too easy to generalize and make people as one dimensional as a Hollywood character. The best person has flaws. The worst person probably has some redeeming value. At least their dog probably thinks so.
    The same can be said for Henry. David I love how you caution people to consider everything in the context of the time in which he lived. There is no hiding Henry’s failings as a person. Yet despite it all there were good things that came out of his reign.
    That said I voted for Loades statement.

  9. There are so many versions of the story of Henry VIII. In some he’s the hero and others he’s the villain and occasionally he’s both. It is a bit like Robin Hood: there are so many versions its hard to know which to believe. Fortunately there are more verifiable facts about Henry VIII but there are so many things we don’t know. Thanks for giving it your best shot, from several different angles.

    1. You are right – and it’s not just the facts, it’s the interpretation. So many people interpret the same story in so many different ways!

  10. David, I am still pondering my vote on this, but let me just say how excellent your Judgment Day podcast on Henry VIII was. Really first-rate. Sophisticated, knowledgeable, and deftly written. Bravo.

    1. Thank you Allan, that is very nice of you! It was very interesting to write, and even quite Cathartic!

  11. I suspect that there is a recency effect in that the most popular statement was the one implied by the last half of the podcast so that it was the position that was heard last. Even so, the middle two statements account for over 80% of the choices. “Moderation in everything” rings out once more. The reasoned response after listening to a yearlong discussion is that there was good and bad in the king. Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt because he does have a foul odor even beyond his rotting leg.

    1. Yes, the Hinge and Bracket approach to life – everything in moderation. The thing is I cannot help feeling that we judge Henry VIII using a modern eye to evaluate his personality, and thus judge him more harshly that we should. On the other hand, it is now awfully difficult to view (as he once was, mind) as a great paragon. Which then tends to the middle in my mind, anyway.

  12. I just go back to my thoughts over the years about Henry and Catherine of Aragon. Where would England and Europe be today if they had a “happy” marriage and stayed together for 40yrs or so?. The reason they didnt is entirely the fault of Henry. Thats is his biggest failure in my view.

  13. No idea who that second bloke was in the debate – but he actually changed my mind. Very persuasive fellow and rather easily demolished your anti-Henry arguments, I’m afraid. He should get a podcast! 😉

  14. I voted Loades. It’s plain truth, I think, that rotten persons can still do useful and good things. Plus, you made an excellent point about taking him in the context of his times.

  15. I came into this podcast entirely sure that Henry VIII was a monster. David’s cogent and fascinating summaries might change my mind. However, one particular argument (no idea which scholar was being presented) raised my eyebrows: the supposition that Catherine Howard knew the game she was playing and should have been prepared for the consequences. Boleyn, perhaps to a degree, but Howard? What evidence malice or murderous ambition Is attached to her?

    1. I think the only way I may have presented this is int he context of Catherine’s affairs, rather than anything political, if you are referring to something I have said? On the former, there can be no doubt, surely, that in meeting with Culpepper, Catherine was well aware she was taking a dreadful risk and would have been aware that the consequences of discovery would be disastrous. I’ve never read, nor do I think, that Catherine ever had any ‘murderous ambition’, I would certainly agree with you.

      1. Pretty sure you were quoting. It was a general statement on persons around Henry who should have been aware of consequences. She was lumped together with the likes of experienced courtiers and Anne b. It just struck me that she was a different case. I see your point though, that she should have known better….a question just occurred to me. How old would have Howard been at the time of Boleyn’s death? I wonder how “real” that lesson was for her.

        1. No it was me; I had a look back at the script and here is what I said:

          “Aha, but the saintly Thomas, the brave Anne Boleyn, the loyal Cromwell, what of them? Here surely is tyranny? Without doubt in cases like these Henry expected a conviction whatever the truth, and justice was not done, however much the process of the law was followed – though I might point out that Thomas More was only trying to get off on a technicality, but I concede the point. But we must see all of these in context again, and in proportion. Once again, all of these people knew the rules of the game. They played for high stakes and they knew the potential penalties; even poor Catherine Howard. We cannot praise and celebrate Anne Boleyn for her skill as a court politician without then accepting that she knew and must accept the consequences. Margaret Pole is a hideously unfair piece of brutality it must be said. However, while it doesn’t make us like or admire Henry at all, all of these high profile deaths are morally complicit. All of them manoeuvred and schemed to have each other destroyed and executed – all of them were every bit as ruthless as the man they were trying to manipulate. They lived by the sword and could hardly complain if they died by it after they’d tried to cause their opponents death.”

          I must admit that the statement could be read as be accusing Catherine Howard of playing the political game – in which case I apologise to her shade. I meant in the first part of the statement that she would have been aware of the consequences of her playing with fire with Culpepper, and then carelessly did not exclude her from the second part – because you are quite right, Catherine was not guilty of playing factional politics in any way like the Anne or the Thomases. Hopefully I made that clear enough when I focused on Catherine in episodes 243 and 244.

  16. I feel that Henry got rather too caught up in trying for a male heir. Who can blame him after the chaos when Matilda was named as heir to the throne (sorry but can’t remember who she was supposed to succeed!). In other ways he was no worse than most of his contemporaries. His notoriety mainly comes from his treatment, and number, of his wives; not from his treatment of his enemies, trainers, rebels etc.. Love the podcast!

  17. I went for Elton. I wanted to be convinced, but the second half, to my mind, spent time stating that what happened in Henry’s reign was his responsibility even when it wasn’t directly his decision (even if he was an interested party). Clearly this is also true in the first part, although not so clearly stated there. I know that I don’t have the same reading that you do, David, but Henry, I’m afraid, comes across as the traditional spoiled child – give me what I want or I’ll have a tantrum/chop your head off. He stayed within the rules (Catherine of Aragon) except when, in extremis, he simply decided to break them, no matter the consequences. Yes, the reformation may well have happened regardless, and Henry’s approach may well have protected England from the worst excesses of Europe, but that wasn’t his intent; merely a happy accident. The same is arguably true of the navy – who wouldn’t build up a decent navy when there was the real possibility of being invaded by sea? To not do so wouldn’t just be incompetent, it would be suicidal. However, I do not believe, had the threat not been there, that what became the naval board would ever have existed. And I’d argue that the effective bureaucracy of things like the navy board in the latter part of his reign was learned from those people whom, in the earlier part of his reign, he’d had brutally killed for their service. He learned the value, but I don’t think he ever learned the lesson.

    In the end, Henry was, at best, reactive. No Anne Boleyn, no reformation; no Catherine Howard, no retrospective edicts; no French invasion, no navy; no need for money, no dissolution. Yes, that’s simplistic, but arguably, that’s how it reads because that’s how it is. His capacity for self-deception and the retroactive rewriting of history is unrivalled in kings who are listed under the ‘sane’ category. His ministers were more than competent and far more than he deserved and he terrified everyone. Yes, they all played the game of thrones, but he not only wrote the rules, but he changed them all the time as well. And yet he still repeatedly lost.

    I’m not going to argue that good things didn’t come out of his reign, but I would absolutely argue that it was despite, and not because, of the ruler. Imagine what Elizabeth I would have done with the starting point that Henry had.

    (That was much longer than I expected. Please understand the strength of my feeling when I say that I’ve typed the whole thing one-handed as I’m holding a sleeping child in the other! Thanks for the episode and, indeed, all of the Henry story, as well as the discussion.)

    Best wishes,


    1. Imagine what you’d have thought of Henry if said 5 year old had woken up! Thanks for the comment – very interesting and of course impeccably argued.

  18. I voted Elton. Henry VIII comes across as a narcissist, definitely more self absorbed than self aware. While some may argue that he should only be viewed by the lens of his times, there is a danger that in doing so would be rationalizing his motives. How would have Anne Askew answered the quiz?

    1. Quite possibly, Anne would have argued that while she could not but believe what she did, as the annointed king Henry had the right to have her executed – I’m busking, but it is far from impossible – and Anne was tortured not by Henry of course, and not at his orders, and not with his knowledge. I take your point though, and agree Henry was very much the narcissist – but he was a king, in a time that meant his will was supreme., It’d be difficult not to have your head turned. Surely we must rationalise his motives – otherwise characters in history are reduced to puppets, with no will of their own in our view. And what may happen to us in the future? That’s my view anyway – sometimes its difficult, but we must judge by the standards of the day. or so I think anyway!

  19. I voted for Loades, but it was a tough choice. All of the quotes seemed to me somewhat un-nuanced. I think the Loades quote at least gets at the point that even “bad” people may do things that have “good” results. If this was the reason you chose them, bravo!

    I want to address one thing that you said during the podcast, though: that we must judge Henry by the standards of his time. I don’t entirely disagree, but I think it’s worth stating that there should be some standards that we hold that ought to be applied even to the pre-modern era. For example, judicial murder is wrong and the person who connives at it is tainted by that connivance. I grant you that Anne B. played the game of thrones (pretty adroitly) and can’t be judged as an innocent, but in my opinion Henry caused her to be judicially murdered when, for whatever reasons, he decided to be rid of her. Even if every monarch of the era did exactly the same thing — and, of course, they didn’t, which is one of the things that fascinate us about Henry — it would still show him to be monstrous. We need to hold some basic moral principles and be prepared to apply them to the past as well as the present, otherwise we lose the ability to judge anything or anyone.

    I agree with the consensus that the wrap-up show, as well as the series on Henry generally, was excellent. Very cogently and fairly argued. Well done, sir!

    1. Thanks Lisa. I have to say that I think we should always judge people by the standards of their time. We might then make a judgement that we reject those standards for our time, and use past examples as to why we want to order our society differently. However, I think this allows your requirement that judicial murder is wrong. Anne Boleyn’s death was in all probability a put up job, with falsified evidence. By the standards of 16th century England, this was wrong, and Henry is rightly condemned for it. All I am saying is that many of those judicially murdered were complicit in this perversion of the standards, guilty themselves of trying to have their political enemies removed by the same means.

  20. I note that many of the best things you had to say about H8 were the unintended consequences of his decisions. To me, this is not a reason to praise him. I agree, completely, that he was not nearly as amoral (or immoral) as we may view him from the early 21st century; and family relations were as much political as familial for him and his class than they are today. So, long and the short of it, he probably should be praised for laying the groundwork for a true navy, but condemned for most everything else – failed at any meaningful foreign policy (though he did not have too much opportunity), furthered religious chaos through indecision, perpetuated an environment of “to the death” power struggles within his advisors (although he picked good ones), and squandered his father’s endowment. Rubbish.

  21. Elton! Of course, H8 may (or not) have been a rubbish person as judged by his contemporary standards. But as a king, he pursued personal goals without regard to public good (tyrant). He came to the throne with a surplus, realized the immense revenue from the dissolution of the monasteries, and left an indebted realm with little gain to justify the expense.

    Just because some cherry-picked accomplishments may have worked out for the better (parliamentary democracy, naval board, etc) does not excuse the overall quality of his reign.

    1. Interesting – and I share your view a little I think;l what had you expected – more on the Scarisbrick, or more on Pollard’s quote?

  22. I reluctantly voted Loades. I think Henry was horrible, and I think anything positive that came out of his reign was stumbled into, and definitely not by design, but there was some positive stuff, and I don’t think it was all due to others, so that pretty much ruled out the first 2 quotes.
    And I’m incredibly bummed that I just missed the deadline for the drawing (I was a bit behind and only listened to the episode this morning). Hoping you haven’t actually done it yet and might find it in your heart to squeeze my name in there with the others…

    1. I am sooo sorry. I literally just did the random number generator thing, and I don’t think I should break the rules. Thanks for voting anyway – I’m going to leave it up. I think Henry was pretty horrible too. But I suspect some at least of the things I dislike derive from the fact that he was a king in a time when that meant he was at the head of the great chain of being; that would probably have turned my head too. Personally I would have gone for C.

  23. I find it fascinating that 94% of the vote is on the two quotes that essentially say ‘some good turned out, but not for great reasons’. The only real distinction between Elton and Loades is that the latter ascribes to Henry the successes and the former states ‘despite’. Whichever way, he ends up as neither astounding success nor desperate failure, but somewhere in between, where the shadows lie because we cannot truly, from this distance (or arguably any distance) accurately interpret and assign intent. Which is probably why he is, and will probably always remain, so utterly fascinating. I think the reason that there are so few on the Scarisbrook and Pollard is that they are fairly absolutist views, and the reason the discussion is so interesting is that it’s nigh-on impossible to be absolutist about Henry.

    (Incidentally, and I know it’s due to rounding, but it amuses me hugely that, at the time of writing this, 101% of people have voted – 48%, 46%, 5% and 2%. Well done, you extra percentage of the population!)

    Best wishes,


    1. I guess when you boil it down that’s true; though I felt that the nuance of Elton was more negative. His is description of Henry (‘ego monstrosity’) would get you into trouble down the pub on a Saturday night (try it maybe?!), and Loades is quite specific about the dramatic impact Henry had. I quite agree,m at this distance it is difficult to assign intent; though G W Bernard seems to have proved that the Reformation was driven by the king.

      You delivered the highjest score on the quiz by the way. Whoop! And yes,m it;’s nice isn’t it – the History of England listeners gave it 101%…

  24. I found the voting,quiz and comments rather interesting. Another reason why your podcasts are so delightful.

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