The Tudor Society

Henry VIII: a tyrant? Live chat transcript

Thank you to all those who came to the informal live chat on Henry VIII the Tyrant. We all had a wonderful time and this was an incredibly lively chat.

For those members who missed the chat, here is the transcript of our discussion:
Henry VIII Live Chat Transcript

Claire did a series of "Claire Chats" videos on Henry VIII and you can view them at these links:

There are 9 comments Go To Comment

  1. R

    I missed this but would just like to post anyway. I have very mixed feelings able calling Henry Viii a tyrant and believed our ideas on this are coloured by his last years and the popular myth of the very large, over bearing, wife killing King of legend.

    Henry for 28 years or more was nothing like the man of myth, although some may argue he showed early signs when he executed two tax collectors, Epsom and Dudley for doing his father’s dirty work in 1510. Their execution was extremely popular, self centred and they were accused of treason, but extortion in some cases could bring the death penalty. They were also a right pair of scum bags and had sent innocent people to prison for refusing to do business with them. In one case, highlighted by Penn in the Winter King, a candlemaker to whom they owed money themselves as a local business tried to get them to settle his bill. They refused and instead had him done for some made up crime and arrested and imprisoned his family. His wife died in jail as she couldn’t pay the bond they forced on them to get out. There are numerous complaints about the extortionate payments demanded and of fraud. London city merchants hated them and Henry probably did everyone a favour getting rid of them. However, why not try them for their actual crimes, rather than treason and who really was to blame, them for getting out of hand or King Henry Vii for putting such characters in charge in the first place?

    It has also been pointed out that he got rid of two rivals, the long term heir to the crown, Edmund de la Pole and Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. The former he had executed as a precaution in 1513_when he went to war in France and the latter after a trial, which was probably rigged, based on evidence which was suspect as it was down to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey that the accusations were brought in the first place. This may not be tyranny as he used the law carefully in each case, but it shows an early sense of paranoia. The Tudor Dynasty was young and Henry felt insecure as no son was forthcoming.

    I would have to say, however, that Henry saw a necessity in these executions and they are the only state executions in his first 22 years on the throne. A tyrant would be killing anyone who disagreed with him and many people, but this is not the case during these years. Henry is described as charming, friendly, approachable, mild and generous. He was charismatic and nothing but good reports are heard about him. He could still take advice and show compassion. However, he was starting to change and to find that he could grow more powerful.

    From 1529 the first signs of change begin to creep in as it is clear his annulment is not going to be granted any time soon. We see the dismissal of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey who has been the lynch pin of the Tudor administration since Henry came to the throne. Wolsey had served Henry well but failed to get him the end of his marriage to Katherine and now faced fraud charges. However, a tyrant would not have dismissed Wolsey with a large pension and a pardon, he would have executed him on the spot, without any legal process or trial. There was a full investigation into Wolsey and evidence was presented which at least looked good on paper. Later, Henry was persuaded to arrest and try Wolsey for treason, but he died on the way to London. We don’t know if Henry would have executed him or pardoned him, but he did express regret at his death. To me, this is not evidence of tyranny, but insecurity, of a man too easily led by others, a weak man.

    From 1531 Henry gained new powers and here there may be the seeds of his later tyrannical behaviour. He took over total power of the clergy and they submitted to his will when he hinted they were as bad as Wolsey for holding onto money belonging to the crown. He had been given books and documents to show that King’s only answer to God and are above all men. Thomas Cromwell and, some believe, Anne Boleyn had a hand in forming these ideas in the King’s mind. Next Henry demanded that Convocation acknowledged him as Head of the Church. He was granted this title with limitations, but his actions in Parliament forced the clergy into granting the title altogether. Henry had begun his break from Rome and was creating his own annulment from Katherine. He also separated from Katherine and promoted Anne Boleyn. Within a year she would be acknowledged by King Francis as Henry’s consort to be. Henry saw his political muscles getting results and liked his new powers.

    Henry was still ruling with Parliament and with every legal process available to him. However, he began a process which allows legislation to be rushed through Parliament which we still call the Henry Viii rules. Parliament could be easily persuaded to make his marriage lawful, his daughters illegitimate, himself Head of the Church and pass a Treasons Act which we can see as the origins of tyranny. During 1534 to 1540 Henry saw friends and loyal servants, men who had served him well and faithfully turn against him and pay with their lives, because his new legislation was against their conscience. The law made it death to refuse to sign these acts or speak against his new marriage and his children by Anne Boleyn. It is this period which is the transition into tyranny, if not the first years of that tyranny and historians have a difficult time reasoning Henry and his mindset during this period. There is a legitimate argument that it was Cromwell who was the true architect of everything but at the end of the day, Henry was in charge and if his faithful henchman went too far then Henry should have kept a tighter lease on him.

    These years saw Henry transform into a man who took advice and was patient to a man who was easy to anger, who put aside a loyal wife, but still failed to get a son, who slowly became paranoid, who took over the wealth from the Catholic Church, while remaining essentially Catholic, saw the execution of several monks and abbots, some of whom were active members of his Privy Council, saw him take personal control of many areas of policy, saw the biggest land grab in history, saw the ending of over 1000 years of religious life, the death of two statesmen on the block, Sir Thomas More and John Fisher and three weddings. Into this mix would also come the shocking trial and beheading of an English Queen. It could be argued that this last event has coloured our view of Henry because of sympathy for the lady, Queen Anne Boleyn. All of these actions shocked and bewildered everyone in Europe. To Henry they were unfortunate and necessary steps to secure his crown and to
    silence resistance. Henry was desperate for a son and people were vocal in their opposition to his marriage with Anne Boleyn and the legislation was passed in order to stop this. Most people probably did sign and consent as people want a quiet life and to live, but the truly learned stood their ground and made a choice to be faithful to the Pope and it could be argued that they made their own fate. Because Henry used the law, used Parliament to consent to these laws, strictly he does not fall into the definition of a tyrant, but his legislation by its very nature could be argued as tyrannical as it carried the death penalty and left people with little choice.

    The years after 1540 are considered to be those which best show Henry Viii at his most paranoid, tyrannical and his most vulnerable. Henry would execute more of his friends and members of the old Houses and another wife and he seemed to become more volatile. It is difficult to establish the number of ordinary people who suffered at this time, but several thousand have been suggested. It was a nightmare at his court but there are still times when he seems alone and vulnerable. Was Henry now merely a tyrant or was he ill? Several reasons have been given for his character changes and deterioration. His riding accidents are cited as leaving him with brain damage, his migraines driving him mad with pain, his legs being bad, his constant pain and weight gain, a rare blood disorder and psychological problems. The truth is we really don’t know, but any one of these things, plus years of a bitter divorce, disappointing relationships, the lack of sons and a personality which was susceptible to manipulation by overtly powerful ministers, allowing himself to be persuaded by others of the guilt of courtiers he had believed loyal, could help explain how a good king turned into a tyrant.

    1. J

      EXCELLENT and fair article!

  2. C

    I’d just like to suggest that it isn’t known with certainty if Katherine Howard married Henry VIII for “money”. Henry was certainly passionately in love with her, all contemporary observers were agreed on that. It is so often assumed, in our twenty-first century Western context, that a teenage girl could not have been in love with an ageing, obese and irritable forty-nine year old man, and that she married him purely for status. According to this interpretation, she was his trophy wife, his Playboy bunny. Hmm, well in the sixteenth-century it was not rare for noble marriages to have a discrepancy in age. Katherine Willoughby, for example, was fourteen when she married Charles Brandon in 1533, who was forty-nine. Mary Tudor, younger sister of Henry VIII, was eighteen when she married Louis XII of France in 1514, who was fifty-two.

    I do not personally believe that Katherine was in love with Henry VIII, but I do think that the evidence suggests that she respected him and was fond of him; after all, he showered her with gifts, he made sure that she was respected and treated graciously at court, and he enabled her to live a life of luxury. The interpretation of Katherine Howard as greedy and motivated purely by financial gain is not supported by the historical sources, it is a Philippa Gregory invention and is based on twenty-first century readings of Tudor marriages. If we are to accuse Katherine of being greedy and marrying for status, then why not accuse Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour or Katherine Parr? They were all English noblewomen at court, none of them were foreign princesses.

    1. C

      I don’t think Catherine married Henry VIII for any reason other than he wanted to marry her and she had little choice in the matter. Just my opinion though. You should come along to these chats, Conor, they’re good fun. We all share our views and debate.

      1. C

        I agree Claire, definitely, but I don’t think we can say that Katherine was motivated by money, her background wasn’t exactly impoverished. Status, definitely. We can probably say the same for Henry’s other English wives.

        1. C

          I just don’t want people being put off commenting at these live chats by criticism afterwards. These informal live chats are simply Tudor Society members sharing views, asking questions etc. and some of them are very new to Tudor history. These chats are very different to our expert chats.
          I don’t think we were saying that anyway, that certainly wasn’t the consensus.

    2. R

      Hello Colin, I don’t believe Katherine Howard was a mere trophy wife, for Henry courted her in only the way Henry could, like a love sick puppy. He obviously fancied her, well she was believed to be very pretty so that is no surprise, but he also courted her, calling on her at her home, won her over, was apparently head over heals, (is this sounding familiar) was in love in a romantic way and there must have been something about him she found agreeable. However, her marriage to Henry brought her wealth and status and her family had a hand in encouraging the affair. She was in the right place at the right time, a Catholic wife to revive Catholic fortunes and the Howards one of the most ambitious families of their time. We don’t, unfortunately know how Katherine felt, but she certainly respected Henry, she expressed awe for him and the evidence points to him treating her very well. He went over the top with gifts and she received the full due as Queen in lands and respect. Even if she didn’t have a lot of choice, she took the marriage well, but when Henry was depressed and left her alone she was very upset. I do feel she was lonely at times, although she soon found companionship (I am not suggesting adultery) but she also fulfilled her expected role as Queen. Yes, the idea that she married him for money belongs in fiction, so does the idea of an empty headed bimbo, because the real Katherine Howard was as lively and complex as everyone else. Her marriage brought her status as it did the other English ladies of the court, but we don’t know how she felt. Henry certainly loved Katherine and he was full of praise for her, he must have been devastated about her alleged past and alleged love affair. His anger and shock were as boundless as any passion he had felt. I am certain she found something to love in him as her husband, but doubt that she loved him. Maybe she felt she could care for him but never got the chance as he hid his pain from her. She probably was fond of him, she may even have found an attraction in his personality, if not his body. It was her duty to marry and Henry was the best match she could make. I believe she enjoyed being Queen and Henry enjoyed spoiling her, although he hoped she could give him a son or two. After his disappointment with Anne of Cleves, the young, lovely, dancing Katherine must have been a breath of fresh air. One other thing we do know, Katherine was good for Henry. She gave him a fresh outlook, a new lease of life, he showed acts of generosity and compassion while married to Katherine Howard, at least for a time.

      I don’t see any of Henry’s Queens as decoration or as merely baby machines. They all contributed to history and they all brought unique gifts to their role through their personality, ambition, devotion, faith, strength or other personal input to their marriage and Queenship. Jane Seymour, for example was not a mere doormat, but at least attempted to reconcile Mary with the King, even if it was not a success and of course, was fortunate to have a son. Katherine Parr was not a mere nurse, although she did nurse him at times, but was a companion and she served as Regent. (O.K she also drove him mad with her preaching and almost got herself arrested for heresy). Anne Boleyn was Henry’s equal in most things, but she couldn’t conform to his idea of a wife and while they were merry together, they had some ding dongs too. Henry turned against her, his passion cooled and for reasons that still baffle historians, accepted that the woman he had torn the world upside down for was having regular sex with at least five other men, including her own brother. Henry was a dread lord indeed, the only King in English history to kill two women he was passionate about. Katherine of Aragon was his first and enduring love and his long-term marriage partner and gave him wealth and status. She was a match for Henry and, despite his ill treatment of her in later years, Henry had been devoted to her and relied on her judgement. Anne of Cleves may not have been Queen for long, but she brought common sense, good humour, friendship and a good alliance. She remained close to the King, even after he humiliated the poor woman, which shows a gracious nature and was the centre of court life, even when he married Katherine. Katherine Howard was raised to expect a good match and to do her duty, even if she may have had other hopes and she knew how to run her household. Dancing and fancy clothing was part of the job, but Henry went further, giving her gifts all the time, maybe making up for being away from her. The marriage may have had some problems, but until the big reveal, it certainly looked as if Henry had settled down.

  3. J

    The queens biggest failures were not providing Henry with a son. Except for Jane Seymour. As time goes by fast, suddenly you are older,
    Henry became more and more desperate for that “all important “ male heir. How ironic that England’s greatest ruler would be Elizabeth I 😊

    1. R

      That was the crux of the matter, yes, Henry was desperate for a son and as time went on he had less chance of getting one. Women were not considered good as rulers but yes, agree, the girls did a good job.

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Henry VIII: a tyrant? Live chat transcript