Some opinions about Henry VIII

Just a few quotes I have picked up over the last year about Henry VIII. Don’t forget the Henry VIII Poll after the podcast on 15th July.

The official oracles of the History of England Podcast

Ladybird H8No English king has been more praised and more hated than Henry VIII. Some historians regard him as a good king, ready to help the poor and be friendly with men of all kinds. Other historians see Henry as a brutal man, unfit to mix with decent people, who should have been shut up as mad…long before he died” (Ladybird History of the kings and Queens of England)

“Henry VIII was the right kind of king needed by England at the beginning of the XVIth century. He was strong and ruthless, but he was also clever and determined that England should be powerful and prosperous.” (Ladybird History of the kings and Queens of England (1968 edition))

“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.” (Sellar and Yeatman, 1066 and all that)

The views of some contemporaries

“I believe he (Henry VIII) favours me more than any other subject in England… However… I have no cause to be proud, for if my head could win him a castle in France it should not fail to go.” (Thomas More, 1525)

“Since the realm of England was first a realm was there never in it so great a robber and pillager of the Commonwealth read of nor heard of as is our king” (Thomas Hale, Priest executed in the reign of Henry VIII)

“Master Cromwell you are entered into the service of a most noble, wise and liberal prince. If you will follow my poor advice you shall, in your counsel giving unto your grace, ever tell him what he ought to do, but never what he is able to do…for if a lion knew his own strength, hard were it for any man to rule him” (Thomas More)

“most cruel and abominable tyrant” (Pope Paul III, 1538)

“Junker Heintz will be God and does whatever he lusts” (Martin Luther)

“Let us cease to sing the praises of the English Nero” (Philipp Melanchthon, 1540)

“Henry is so greedy that all the riches in the world would not satisfy him… to make himself rich he has impoverished his people. This King…. does not trust a single man… and will not cease to dip his hand in blood as long as he doubts the people.” (Charles de Marillac, French Ambassador, 1540)

“the greatest tyrant that ever was in England” (Contemporary Italian)

“At your age in life and with all your experience of the world you were enslaved by your passion for a girl.” (Reginald Pole)

“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” (John Elyot, 1540s)

“[Once an idea is in his head, no man] shall ever pull it out again…and rather he shall miss any part of his will or appetite, he will put the loss of one half of his realm at danger” (Cavendish, c.1558)

Before the 20th Century

“A noble prince, right fortunate in all his doings…of such majestie tempered with humanity, as best become so high and noble an estate” (Holinshed, 1577)Henry VIII after Holbein

“For how many servants did he advance in haste…and with the change of his fancy ruined again; no man knowing for what offence! To how many others of more desert gave he abundant flowers from whence to gather honey, and in the end of harvest burnt them in the hive! How many wives did he cut off and cast off, as his fancy and affection changed! How many princes of the blood (whereof some of them for age could hardly crawl towards the block) …did he execute!” (Walter Raleigh, 1603-1616)

“The plain truth is, that he was a most intolerable ruffian, a disgrace to human nature, and a blot of blood and grease upon the History of England”. (Charles Dickens)

“I do not think so badly as the received views of either his advocates or enemies would suggest…the most unhappy history of his wives has brought on him a level of moral hatred that is excessive…I do not believe he was abnormally profligate…but he was cruelly, royally vindictive. There was in him an ever increasing ever encroaching royal will…I do not believe him to have been a monster of lust and blood as so many of the Roman Catholic writers regard him” (William Stubbs, 1886)

20th century

“The most remarkable man that ever sat on the English throne” (A F Pollard, 1902)

“[A man who] arrived at his principles by a process of deduction from his own particular case…expediency and not justice and morality were the supreme tests of public acts” (A F Pollard, 1902)

“the king and statesman who, whatever his personal failings, led England down the road to parliamentary democracy and empire” (A F Pollard, 1902)

“…strengthening a popular monarchy while France and Germany were racked with internal strife.” (Winston Churchill)

 circa 1520
circa 1520

“…qualities, good and evil alike, added up to extreme effectiveness…not the least of his master craftsman secrets was an eye for a tool” (S T Bindoff, English historian, 1950)

“The respect, nay even the popularity, which he had from his people was not unmerited….He kept the development of England in line with some of the most vigorous, though not the noblest forces of the day. His high courage – highest when things went ill – his commanding intellect, his appreciation of fact, and his instinct for rule carried his country through a perilous time of change, and his very arrogance saved his people from the wars which afflicted other lands. Dimly remembering the wars of the Roses, vaguely informed as to the slaughters and sufferings in Europe, the people of England knew that in Henry they had a great king” (J.D. Mackie, 1952, Scottish historian)

“Aggressive, bitter, revengeful, bloodthirsty…obstinate, violent, and at the end, thoroughly bad” (Philip Hughes, 1950, Catholic priest and historian)

“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] (G R Elton, 1953)

“His rule was humane, his executions sporadic… he never killed anyone with his own hand… The number of victims… was not large.” (John Edward Bowle, English historian, 1964)

“Maybe Henry was no more unaware and irresponsible than many kings have been; but rarely, if ever, has the unawareness and irresponsibility of a king proved more costly of the material benefit of his people” (J J Scarisbrick, 1968)

“His absolute conviction that events are determined by a bargain constructed between God and man…the man of conscience…can be far more ruthless than the lover blinded by passion or the statesman absolved of his crimes by state necessity” (Lacy Baldwin Smith, 1982)

“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” (Lacy Baldwin Smith, 1982)

“Henry may have been narrow minded and self-absorbed, but he was every inch a king, and, given the limitations of his nation and his age, a successful one at that” (David Head, 1997)

“The disagreements over Henry’s achievements have been coloured to a considerable extent by partisanship and by the contemporary politics of the writers; axes are still being ground over the meaning of the English Reformation and the Tudor revolution in government” (David Head, 1997)


“Henry was not the archetypal strong king. He was not weak either but he was manipulable – and through his strongest defences, his suspiciousness and refusal ever to give his confidence completely” (David Starkey, 2002)

“Henry’s actions brought no spiritual benefits to the country; they were driven by lust and greed” and “Henry VIII’s monumental selfishness was disguised by highly NPG D24928; King Henry VIII by Cornelis Metsys (Massys)effective propaganda” (E W Ives, 2009)

“We are, in fact, perfectly entitled to regard Henry as one of the major political architects who transformed medieval England into the dominant partner of a modern nation state. Whatever judgement we may pass on his faith or his morals, his political achievements justify his historical stature”. (David Loades, 2010)

“throughout the centuries, Henry has been praised and reviled, but he has never been ignored” (Thomas Betteridge and Thomas Freeman, 2012)

“a second-rate mind with what looks suspiciously like an inferiority complex” (John Guy)

“Today, historians recognise that his reign contributed an extraordinary legacy – modern Britain. Henry began his reign in a mediaeval kingdom, he ended it in what was effectively a modern state. We are still living in the England of Henry VIII” (Alison Weir)

“Henry never showed any capacity as a general, and his foreign policy was a failure. He repeatedly attempted to reconquer parts of France, and ended up with Boulogne, a third-rate port that was subsequently handed back to the French after over a million pounds had been spent trying to keep it.” (Ronald Hutton)

Some sources for quotes, outside of the original book:

The Diary of Samuel Pepys website:

Spartacus Educational Website:

“If a Lion Knew His Own Strength”: The Image of Henry VIII and His Historians David M. Head, International Social Science Review, Vol. 72, No. 3/4 (1997), pp. 94-109

15 thoughts on “Some opinions about Henry VIII

  1. Where on the Tyrant spectrum does Henry VIII belong surely not up there with the 20thCentury ones of Hitler Stalin Mao so my vote is C with I suspect you David certainly a political architect of the future Great Britain & a strong King but if judged by modern standards yes a tyrant

  2. Just wanted to say that I’ve recently started listening to this podcast and must praise the quality as well as the excellent humour. Keep up the excellent work!

  3. having an English Public school education of English history since 1066, and viewing the Showtime TV series – The Tudors (which illustrates some of the historical events during Henry VIII’s reign) I have a fuller understanding of the causes and origin of the Church of England. It was created as a result of:
    – the King’s desire (through lust and love) and his determination to marry Anne Boleyn. He would not tolerate a distant authority (the Pope in Rome) preventing him from marrying someone he hoped would give him a son who would preserve his lineage and the future stability and independence of the realm from outside powers.
    – the Roman Church and Pope were seen as ‘corrupt’ in material ways (politics, power, influence, wealth), not always benefiting the faithful, and who dictated the daily lives and thought of all.
    – The King’s thinking that the faithful should have a covenant with and direct access to God through prayers in their own language (English), not in Latin, and a covenant with and allegiance to the King, head of the English Church, and to no other.

    The Takeaway:
    It appears that the English Church that was created provided for freedom to think on spiritual matters, direct access to and covenant with God in our daily lives through prayer, individual responsibility for our acts while following God’s Commandments and the teachings of
    Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

    Roy Bromfield
    (- any comments or am I all wet on this)

    1. I must admit that i don’t think the Tudors is a good description of history…it’s fiction. That is me being a lemon sucker, sorry!

      Um, the i think the modern opinion is very negative about Henry’s motivations – focussing partly on personal desire for Anne, but also stressing his desperation for a male heir. But the view that his was in it for purely secular reasons like the money of the monasteries, Anne and the male heir kind of dcominates debate – Henry is described often as Catholic without the Pope.

      I think that underplays the influence of reformers such as Boleyn, Cranmer and Cromwell; and it underplays the keen interest of Henry in theology. Certainly MacCulloch believes Henry made major theological shifts away from Catholicism. For reformers, yes. the church was seen as a fundamental betrayal of the church of the early christians to which they wished to return, they stressed the primnacy of scripture and a direction relationship with God with purely guidance from ministers

  4. People don’t realize that the monastic system provided most of the social services of England. He seized the revenue of that system, piddled it away, and left the depleted English clergy without the means of providing those services. When the poor drifted into London, the Tudors responded with punitive poor laws. As for the sick and the uneducated, they were on their own, unless they came from money.

    1. The truth is the monasteries really didn’t provide all the social services by the time of the dissolution, it’s a myth. They did provide some – estimates of between £6k and £15 a year. Regionally probably important – but with 900 monastic houses (some of them tiny and defunct) and 9,000 parishes, nowhere near a coherent national system. Education from monasteries was a tiny part of the mix. Most poor relief was provided by local charitable donations and foundations. Describing the Poor Laws as punitive is a complete misreading, if I may be so bold. Laws about Vagabondage (whipping, returning to parishes) started in the 15th century pre Tudors, and were common throughout Europe. What Cromwell started in 1536 was the first national poor relief system. It is true there was much disruption to poor relief, and the new approach took time – but by 1597 the system was unique in Europe, the first country to accept national, state responsibility for poor relief, delivered through a coherent network to 9,000 parishes, responsive to different and individual needs. True enough, Henry VIII piddled away monastic revenue from a crown point of view; which was a good thing. The property ended in the hands of husbandmen, yeomen, Gentry and nobility. The wealth of the church, with 25% of the land was an obscenity – the transfer of that land to private hands helped transform the English economy. Or that’s my view! The dissolution of the monasteries was a thoroughly sensible move!

      1. The dissolution CANNOT be deemed “a thoroughly sensible move” because of the WAY IT WAS DONE!! Monks, nuns, orphans, hospital patients, impoverished, sick and dying people were thrown away to die in a ditch and had NO way of redress. Many previous religious foundations were purchased by rapacious business people, wealthy gentry e.g. Woburn Abbey – no more free hospitalization, food, shelter or education for the poor and hungry for some time!! However, the Tudors made a lot of money out of this. The last Tudor mercenary monarch, Elisabeth (d.1603) was STILL doing well! Look at those stunning paintings of her wearing gem encrusted gowns with MANY HUNDREDS of pearls and precious stones!!

        1. Thank you it is lovely to get feedback. I confess to being slightly provocative, obviously the pain and disruption was seismic for people of the tie. A bit of perspective is needed I think in this age of outrage. This was not an age of redress anywhere – in the world, particularly Europe, Lord’s owned their realms, their will was law, albeit with constraints. England’s monarchs were not particularly rich – certainly by Valois and Hapsburg standards. The vast majority of monks etc were indeed given pensions. A new system of poor law arose to replace the hit and miss approach to monastic support, the Elizabeth Poor Law, which was the first National, and most generous system of poor relief in Europe – and I’m sorry all those things continued to exist – free hospitalisation, food, shelter, education – still existed (monasticism provided negligible education for the poor, incidentally). I stick to my guns!

  5. I think, and I’m sure most people can agree with me, that he may have been a tyrannical and egotistical king during the last years of his life, but he did change English history forever, by rejecting the Pope and Catholiscm (mainly because of Anne Boleyn), and by increasing the Royal Navy by 3x from what his father had left him. One of his goals was to go down in history, and he succeeded at that.

Leave a Reply