Was Henry VIII a Good or Bad King?

He certainly stamped his personality upon the nation, but how should we remember the Tudor titan?

Henry VIII


Think "Henry VIII" and a swollen, cantankerous tyrant comes to mind. This is the cartoon Henry of legend, a Henry who doesn't do the real king justice. He was, in fact, one of the most cultured and sophisticated monarchs ever to sit on the throne. His enthusiastic patronage of the arts in England, and serious passion for music, painting and poetry, helped drag our country into a new age of creativity.

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A true Renaissance man, Henry was described by one contemporary, Lord Mountjoy, in the most glowing terms. "What a lover he is of justice and goodness, what affection he bears to the learned," Mountjoy wrote, while chronicler Edward Hall praised "his amiable visage" and "princely countenance".

David Starkey, author of Henry: Virtuous Prince, puts things in equally strong terms. "This is the king who reinvented England, presided over the remaking of English as a language and literature... he carried the powers of the English monarchy to their peak."

Alison Weir, author of Henry VIII: The King and His Court, makes it even clearer how Henry was "an intellectual who read St Thomas Aquinas for pleasure, an expert linguist, a humanist, an astronomer, a world-class sportsman, a competent musician and composer, an accomplished horseman, and a knowledgeable theologian."

This is the king who reinvented England, presided over the remaking of English as a language and literature.

As a statesman, Henry tamed a nation that had only relatively recently been plunged into strife. After all, his father - Henry VII - had actually won the crown in battle, the last British monarch ever to do so. This was a country that needed strength and unashamed leadership, and Henry VIII provided exactly that. Today we may have the luxury of pointing out his flaws - his megalomania, his paranoia, his ruthlessness - but a weaker leader may well have spelled doom for the England of Henry's day.

On top of that, he forged an entirely new sense of national identity by triggering the Reformation and breaking away from the grip of Rome and Catholicism. Let's also salute the impact he had on our armed forces. Henry VIII was the father of the Royal Navy, giving us a fleet of innovative warships which would pave the way for British victories to come - without Henry foresight, could Elizabeth I have triumphed against the Spanish Armada?

Alison Weir sums up the greatness of Henry very well: "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."


Who was Henry? Nothing more or less than a medieval dictator, a kind of English Stalin, every bit as paranoid, erratic and bloodthirsty as the notorious leaders of living memory. He fostered an atmosphere of fear and suspicion, and people were right to be scared, given how many executions took place under his reign.

His near-sadistic treatment of his wives is a matter of record, but even if we look at him purely as a monarch and statesman, Henry must surely strike any right-thinking person as a manic despot, complete with militant minions like the ruthless Thomas Cromwell.

Henry never showed any capacity as a general, and his foreign policy was a failure.

A warmonger who was constantly at odds with neighbouring nations, Henry laid waste to his vast inheritance thanks to numerous foreign misadventures. As Professor Ronald Hutton, author of A Brief History of Britain 1485-1660 tells us, "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."

As for the Reformation, well... any strengthening of the independent English spirit was just a by-product of Henry's own personal reasons for splitting from the Catholic Church. Remember, it was all bound up with the soap opera of his marital breakdown, and desire to tie the knot with Anne Boleyn. Another by-product was the nationwide rampage we know as the Dissolution of the Monasteries, a monumental land-grab, with Henry forcibly closing countless Catholic strongholds. Quite the way to re-fill the coffers he had emptied thanks to his foreign wars and spoilt, luxurious lifestyle.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries was more than about pillaging his own country. It was a murderous show of force, with hundreds of rebels killed. One abbot was dragged through the streets by a horse, before having his head cut off and impaled on the abbey gates.

This was Henry through and through: a man of unlimited excesses, unstoppable greed and a sociopathic lack of pity, who made his country a place of fear. As author Robert Wilton puts it, he was "wilfully and capriciously dangerous to everything around him including the country... and ruled with little more policy than petulant self-gratification".