Was Henry VIII a Blood-soaked, Genocidal Tyrant or a Brilliant Renaissance Prince?

History Hit Podcast with Jessie Childs

3 mins

01 Oct 2018

Image credit: Hans Holbein the Younger / Commons.

This article is an edited transcript of The Tudor Series Part One with Jessie Childs on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 28 January 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

Henry VIII started off as a young, strapping, highly promising young man. He was good-looking and seemingly very chivalric, but always warlike and ruthless.

But then, of course, he grew older and he grew fatter and, by the end of his reign he became incredibly capricious. He became the archetypal tyrant and a highly unpredictable man. People didn’t know where they stood with him.

At the end of his reign he became the popular image of Henry VIII we all know.

I write in my book that Henry VIII was like a medlar fruit, in that he ripened with his own corruption. There is a sense that Henry became himself when he was at his most corrupt, and that we love him like that.

A young-looking Henry VIII, painted by Joos van Cleve in around 1535. Credit: Joos van Cleve / Commons.

Why did Henry VII become more capricious and tyrannical?

I don’t buy the theory that Henry’s head injury caused a change in his character, that something happened in his brain that changed him.

1536, the year of his injury, was a bad year in other ways, not least the fact that his illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, died that year.

It’s easy to forget about Henry Fitzroy, and he has become a bit of a forgotten figure, but he represented proof of Henry’s virility. We think of Henry VIII as a manly man, but actually he had fears about impotence that made him very anxious.

He was also a man who married for love, in a way that very few people did. He was hurt, especially by Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, and that’s why he became so vengeful.

Henry VIII died in 1547, but his legacy as a tyrannical and ruthless monarch lived on. Dr David Starkey presents the most detailed analysis to date of the life of this infamous British monarch in Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant on HistoryHit.TV.Watch Now

Henry VIII’s physical burden

It’s also valid to consider the physical pain he had to live with. Everyone knows that if you’ve got the flu, you feel rough and you can become slightly depressed and potentially become cross and snappy from lack of sleep. Henry VIII was in a lot of pain.

His leg ulcer suppurated horribly and when it burst he was forced to limp around. By the end of his reign, he was carried around in something akin to a stair lift.

Hans Holbein’s circa 1537 portrait of Henry VIII. Credit: Hans Holbein / Commons.

Physical decline might explain a lot of the snap decisions monarchs like Henry VIII made, as well as their tendency to change their mind so readily.

He was also extremely reliant on his physicians and his inner circle, and when they let him down, he was often unfair in his readiness to blame them.

There’s a strong sense with all the Tudor monarchs of the heavy burden they carried. They were the divine-right monarchs and they very much felt that they had a divine contract with God.

They believed that they were on this earth to rule for God and that, therefore, everything they did was not only being scrutinised by their subjects but, far more importantly, by God.