“Henry VIII is actually one of my heroes”

Henry VIII paper

I overheard these words from a senior gentleman. Now, this topic is a very controversial one as the ‘Henry’ and ‘hero’ haven’t exactly met eye-to-eye in Tudor historiography. This Tudor has traditionally been remembered for being the perpetrator of an obstructive reign. But I like to view things from a more revisionist standpoint.

The characteristics of a hero: they are typically male and admired for their courage, outstanding achievements or noble qualities. First glances show Henry’s possession of the first two; evident in his notorious 1529 break from Rome. The latter is less true due to his unsympathetic behaviour to the commoners, particularly in the Dissolution of the Monasteries starting in 1536, with the taking away of Church lands commonly used for charitable use for this social group. So, Henry can only be seen partly as a hero. Though when we observe Henry’s personality and the factors that affected it, a different perspective appears which explains his lack of morality and “goodness” that a hero would possess.

I will be using two factors to measure Henry’s lion-heartedness; his personality and actions. In his prime, Henry enjoyed playing numerous sports including jousting, tennis and archery. It was 24th January 1536 that this transformed, marking a watershed in his physical and psychological wellbeing. Henry suffered a severe jousting accident at Greenwich Palace. Michael McCarthy states that Henry was thrown from his armoured horse which then fell on top of him and that he was unconscious for two hours; being thought at first to be fatally injured. His recovery made clear that his jousting career was over as he obtained serious leg problems which he suffered for the rest of his life, gradually worsening with age. The extreme conversion in his personality was most likely caused by this accident, a probable undetected brain injury being the reason for this.

Henry’s legs became ulcerated and he became more and more obese, both of these growing worse in his later years. Measurements taken from his armour show between his 20s and 50s the 6 foot 1-inch monarch’s waist grew from 32 inches to 52; his chest expanding from 39 inches to 53. More shockingly, by the time of his death in 1547 at the age of 56, he is likely to have weighed a staggering 28 stone. His mental state doesn’t hold much up to the positives either, being known to have become cruel, vicious and paranoid, and losing his subjects’ belief in him. We also see the growing speed of the turnover of his wives which shows his intolerance and impatience of them. Furthermore, Tracy Borman questions whether Henry was in fact a hypochondriac, suggesting the high severity of his injuries.

The King’s head injuries have been deeply investigated by a team of US researchers led by Dr Arash Salardini, who state that it is known that Henry experienced at least three major head injuries during his life. Looking at an event that took place two years before Greenwich; in March 1524, they state that he was unseated after a jousting lance entered his open visor. They claim that he may have had headaches and subtler changes to his personality after this first injury. However, they also infer that there is a noticeable step-by-step change in him after 1536, and that it is entirely conceivable, though perhaps not verifiable, that repeated traumatic brain injuries led to changes in his personality. From this, we can see that Henry’s personality change made complete sense due to not only having one but several head injuries down to his love for jousting. Emma Mason puts forward an interesting testimonial, claiming that Henry’ brain damage offers the strongest explanation of his erratic behaviour. This neglects any chance of him being considered as moral and good. From this, we are torn from justifying Henry’s behaviour as his personality was due to accidents and seeing him as a mad villain who still committed appalling actions whether it was really him or not. In either case though, surely he cannot be seen as a hero in this element of heroism?

Henry’s actions are complex and contrasting in terms of heroism. He is infamous for his ‘Great Matter’, smartly veiling his desire for Anne with an ancient document. Henry used a text to argue that marrying a brother’s widow who had consummated that marriage is incestuous and that God would curse the marriage with no heir. This clearly wasn’t the case as Henry and Catherine produced an offspring, but Henry used his ‘true male heir’ card to say that they didn’t bare a ‘valid’ healthy child, let alone children. It can be questioned then if this political move to ditch the Pope and become master of his own country was heroic. It certainly presented benefits for the nobility with lands and a rise in new power, and in some ways equality for the population as the common people were able to understand their religion, destroying social hierarchy in a religious vernacular sense. Using an ancient source to attempt to divorce Catherine (which didn’t work with the Pope), Henry was providing a legitimate way out. However, the Pope wouldn’t have been able to accept this divorce no matter as he would be denying and rejecting the previous Popes’ beliefs.

I don’t buy Henry’s view of his marriage being cursed. Henry was King. He had the right to stay married to Catherine in spite of the source because he had the power to, and the power of the Pope. Furthermore, he strived to find any source that would fulfil this role, showing that he really was conceited, only his intentions being important. Some other positive outcomes this break caused was that in some cases, it gave the common people the relief of destroying what they saw as a corrupt Church. Protests against the Church were occurring for at least 300 years before this break. It also gave England its first ever own identity, language and culture, much of which we still possess today. But it caused numerous wars including the famous 1588 Spanish Armada and many rebellions such as the 1536 Pilgrimage of Grace and the 1549 Prayer Book Rebellion; both of which presented a serious threat to the crown. So was it a heroically based move? It is clear that Henry did it for his own personal gain and to get out of something, and this personal gain is a factor that drove many other actions throughout his reign. But even if this is the case, though the negative outcomes speak for themselves, and they are the result of his decisions and actions, the positive outcomes do too.

These positive outcomes cannot be overlooked. Whether he did personally or not, it was under Henry’s rule that the council introduced to England New Learning and humanist thinking. With this came a new and more highly developed fascination and appreciation of classical historical works and their relevance to present day society. These ideas are still valued today and are the same ideas that helped spur on and even ignite, the English or literary Renaissance. Some historians would downplay Henry’s role in this arrival and spread of ideas, but I would disagree with them. Henry’s power as an English monarch, especially after the break with Rome, (which made him one of the richest and most powerful men in the world), more powerful than that of the Pope, was limitless. He had the first and last word of everything and if he didn’t want humanism to empower and rationalise the minds of the English population, he wouldn’t have allowed it to. Therefore, when we talk about the English Renaissance movement and the rationalisation of England, Henry can be fully credited for this. So, he is a hero in these regards as he allowed England to develop into a socially developed kingdom of its own, much of what we can thank him for today.

Like I said in the introduction, Henry can only be seen as partly a hero, but he can essentially be seen as having some moral personality traits shown by his actions. Lipscomb suggests that his sometimes brutal actions were necessary for the good of his realm, stating that “…crime was conceived of as evidence of sin” and that “painful and spectacular punishment was thought necessary both to deter others and to cleanse society from the disorder and pollution of the criminal’s sin”. With this, it can be said that Henry saw treason as a sin from being a crime. However, he was predominantly a strict Catholic his whole life and so this cannot be applied to the heresy of Catholics against Protestants because he wouldn’t have seen it as a crime and therefore a sin. Henry is also known to have been respectful to his wives. For example, he would have mistresses alongside Catherine of Aragon but never treated her any less and respected her as his wife. I wouldn’t imagine that he would have made sure that he was caught with his mistresses. Catherine did know about them, but he was respectful to keep them separate from her.

In conclusion, Henry can be seen as a hero to an extent. His brain injuries make this difficult as they may have played massive, little or no impact at all on his decisions and actions. This means that we cannot know whether to give him give him full, little or no credit or responsibility at all for the good and bad things he performed. What we can say is that he had an idea of what he was doing so we can give him a little credit and responsibility. This can be exemplified by his life-long devotion to Catholicism and his piece of religious legislation in 1539, The Act of the Six Articles, which mirrors his Catholicity and therefore shows that he was at least partly sane and knew what he was doing. The evidence provided show he was more of a hero than a villain, doing partly what he wanted for himself but a slight amount of selflessness can be seen by carrying out some things for his country. His undoubtedly biggest aim was to provide a male heir for his country, and he strove however he could to make this happen. He was a man who knew the consequences of his decisions but I believe he made them for reasons that are not negative ones. He was trying to prove himself as an amazing Renaissance Prince and the true King of England after his father usurped the throne, it is just that his way of doing this was aggression and brutality, of which the English population actually respected him for. Henry wasn’t justified in doing anything he did, but this doesn’t make him any less of a hero. His bold actions, though they aren’t in the definition of a hero, actually make him more of a hero in my eyes because it shows courage and drive. Even if he isn’t regarded as a hero for his noble qualities, he is still a hero for the first two. Henry VIII was simply too full on and excessively unclear of a monarch to be seen as a hero, a perspective that continues on today.


3 thoughts on ““Henry VIII is actually one of my heroes”

  1. Do you feel that Henry’s decisions to fight wars with both Scotland and France helped or hindered his reputation as a hero?

    1. It did a bit of both. One the one hand it demonstrated his lack of sensibility in terms of royal expenditure but in other ways it showed him trying to prove his legitimacy as a ruler to compensate for the new dynasty his father started. Part of this included proving his strength and bravery which could be shown through war.

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