Henry VIII: Mighty Monarch Or Misogynistic Monster?

The towering Tudor still provokes fierce debate today. Can his reputation ever be truly resolved?

Henry VIII

HENRY VIII: MIGHTY MONARCH

When pondering the problem of Henry, we've got to bear in mind just how brutal and uncertain Henry's era actually was. His father, Henry VII, had seized the throne in battle, and memories of a divided and bloodied nation were still relatively fresh.

Against this dark backdrop, it's a bit of a miracle that Henry actually began as an enlightened, forward-thinking young man. In fact, he might have remained that way, were it not for a terrible jousting accident. Historian Lucy Worsley has suggested that it was the painful after-effect of the jousting injury that actually led Henry to becoming cruel and paranoid in his later years.

Castles: Britain's Fortified History

But even if you don't want to take that as an "excuse" for Henry's alleged tyranny, let's go back to the main point: his England was an arena of competing allegiances and bitter power struggles. Henry HAD to be tough, even if that meant ordering executions of many subjects during his reign, and keeping an iron grip on potential enemies. He also HAD to put the issue of his dynasty before everything else, even if that meant dropping his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, for failing to provide him with a living male heir.

It's totally understandable that he was obsessed with having a son. This wasn't "sexist thinking" on his part. The fact was, no queen had ever ruled on her own, and Henry was concerned that without a male heir there would be a battle over the throne after his death. His actions towards Catherine were callous and pragmatic, but not purposefully malicious. While it did certainly put his first daughter Mary in a difficult position, he would later be reconciled with her, and awarded her a wealthy, privileged existence befitting a princess.

As for Anne Boleyn - well, arguments will always rage about the dubious criminal charges which led to her execution. But the fact is that Henry was genuinely disturbed by the miscarriages she had suffered, and seemed to believe the marriage was cursed. Remember, he had once been deeply in love with her, and wouldn't have simply wanted her dead out of some petty misogynistic impulse.

What about his treatment of his fifth wife Catherine Howard, who was also executed? Again, this wasn't down to wanton cruelty. He actually idealised the young and reckless woman as a "rose without thorns", and her death was due to rumours of sexual dalliances and treasonous behaviour - not a murderous whim of the king.

Henry VIII was hard, unforgiving and sometimes merciless, but he had to be. His times demanded it. To reinterpret his actions through our more liberal 21st Century lens is unfair to a monarch who set the nation on course to greatness.

Presented by Diarmaid MacCulloch, Henry VIII's Enforcer charts the rise and fall of the infamous Thomas Cromwell.

Presented by Diarmaid MacCulloch, Henry VIII's Enforcer charts the rise and fall of the infamous Thomas Cromwell.

HENRY VIII: MISOGYNISTIC MONSTER

The counter-argument is that Henry did actually act in an unnecessarily merciless and violent manner. The way he created such an atmosphere of tension and paranoia in his court, and the way he would coldly execute close friends like Thomas Cromwell, have led some historians to think of him as a kind of 16th Century Stalin. Holding your nation together is one thing, but Henry crossed the line from firm leader to megalomaniac despot time and time again.

Then there's the unavoidable issue of how he treated the women in his life. While some will argue that we cannot hold historic figures to our own standards, it's surely undeniable that Henry treated females with contempt and hostility.

Take Catherine of Aragon. She was a beloved queen, adored by the people, and had such strength of character that she refused to be bullied by Henry into giving up everything she held dear. For this, she suffered the indignity of having her marriage declared illegal and being stripped of her title. She was even forbidden from seeing her own daughter Mary.

Speaking of Mary: imagine being suddenly told you're illegitimate by your own father. That's what Henry did to her, simply because it suited his political purposes. He humiliated mother and daughter, and Mary was ravaged by illness due to the treatment she received. Another spirited woman, Anne Boleyn, also fell victim to Henry's casual contempt.

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It's easy to forget that Anne was known for her intelligence and charisma, with Thomas Cromwell saying that, "if not for her sex, she could have defied all the heroes of history". But her sex was indeed her downfall. Trumped up, misogynistic charges relating to her alleged sex life (even including incest and witchcraft) led to her cruel execution.

Just one day after the violent death of Anne Boleyn, Henry got engaged to Jane Seymour. In fact, he had courted Jane openly, humiliating Anne. It's no wonder that historical novelist Robert Wilton has described Henry as a "gross man-child, wilfully and capriciously dangerous to everything around him".

And then there was the diabolical treatment of Margaret Pole, a frail noblewoman in her mid-60s who faced Henry's displeasure simply because her son had spoken out against the king. Henry had her imprisoned for years, and then subjected to a gruesome execution - by some accounts it took several hacks of the axe to kill the poor woman, who had been no threat to Henry whatsoever. Historian Greg Walker has described this as a prime example of Henry's "royal vindictiveness".

And there are far too many other examples for us to excuse Henry as simply a "man of his time". He was worse than that. He was a tyrant.

How do you think Henry should be regarded today? Give us your thoughts below...