With the great historical discoveries we’ve had over recent years, there has been some major re-thinking on the history and reputation of one of England’s most hated and maligned kings – and rightly so.
While his mortal remains are now at rest this king’s legacy of evil and wickedness is still debated by eye-rolling, loony historians, fan-girls and sane history buffs on every Facebook page you come across (yes, I’ve checked, he even gets into groups dedicated to historical women *groan*).
He has, throughout, history, been demonised and vilified by historians and non-historians alike. Words such as “tyrant”, “monster” and “murderer” have been slung at this king for more years than I’d like to count.
The main beef for many is the propaganda levelled against this king by subsequent dynasties; the misrepresentation of his actions and the accusations of murder which just refuse to go away.
And mud sticks.
So it’s about time he was given the rights that all Englishmen have – the right to the “assumption of innocence until proven guilty”.
I’m referring to that great man of the Renaissance, the Hercules of England, Europe’s very own Alexander; Henry VIII, of course.
With this in mind I thought I would take a new look at the main accusations, strip away the propaganda and look at the deaths involved in their proper light; one at a time, rather than as one great killing spree.
Does responsibility lay at the king’s door?
Were the deaths justified for the good of the realm? Should I leave Cairo and move to more bridal climes? (Oops, sorry, that last was a personal question, not relevant – much – to this essay.)
The first person I looked into was Catherine of Aragon. Of course, Henry is not accused of killing her; but he is accused of treating her shamefully. Catherine married Henry having sworn that she’d never slept with her first husband Prince Arthur, Henry’s older brother. Catherine made this declaration only after Arthur was safely dead – and therefore could not dispute it.
What was her motivation?
Well, Henry was a young, handsome – ok, gorgeous – 18-year-old Adonis who also happened to be king of one of the most powerful kingdoms of Europe, whereas she was a penniless Spanish princess who had been more-or-less abandoned by her own family. So, of course, she only said this out of her love for Henry, rather than any selfish reasons.
There was one problem with Catherine’s declaration; Prince Arthur had once sworn otherwise, declaring one morning, after leaving Catherine’s chamber, that he had “spent the night in Spain” (something no one bothered to tell Henry until many years later). Quite an unequivocal statement from a Prince who had no ulterior motive.
Poor Henry was a devout Catholic and knew that marrying his brother’s wife was a mortal sin and when he finally discovered the truth, what choice did he have but to divorce? And why would he do it with such vehemence and hatred? Surely it’s hard to be kind to someone who has endangered your immortal soul by making you commit such a heinous sin? Henry would have had to be a saint to be able to forgive. And it’s certainly not his fault that Catherine of Aragon stuck to this fib – through thick and thin – but neither is it Henry’s fault that he stuck to his own guns and fought to the very end to obtain a divorce.
So, now, we come to Henry’s “victims”.
If Anne Boleyn was innocent of the crimes she was accused of – of sleeping with other men, including her brother and of planning the king’s death – then she is a true martyr and Henry is a monster worse than Darth Vader. However, thanks to the Daily Mail, we now know beyond any doubt that Anne did have an affair with her brother, George Boleyn. A French poem, written a few days after Anne’s execution by a Frenchman living in England, proves unequivocally that Anne slept with her brother.
And if one of the charges is true, then surely they all are?
And if Anne was sleeping around, what else could he do but execute her? Imprison her? Maybe, but an example from French history suggests the dangers in doing that. In 1314 the wives of France’s 3 princes were accused of adultery and imprisoned. However, the princes found obtaining divorces difficult (to cut a long story short) and all 3 ruled successively as kings of France, but were unable to produce the much-desired legitimate male heir and the Capetian line died out.
With such an example from just a couple of hundred years ago, can Henry really be blamed for wanting a swift conclusion to his marriage?
And, to be honest, this same argument stands for Henry’s execution of Catherine Howard the poor chap is proof of the adage that lightning CAN strike twice in the same place).
One of the most heinous crimes that Henry is accused of is, of course, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury. And well, to be honest, I’ll give his accusers that one. Poor Margaret. But, then, every king is allowed one over-reaction; Richard III has Lord Hastings, Henry gets Margaret Pole.
Well, I have a theory…..
Sir Thomas More was Henry’s friend. What if he committed an unforgivable betrayal. I’m not referring to his refusal to swear allegiance to the Act of Succession, rather I’m referring to his abominable, slanderous book about Richard III.
We all know Henry loved his mother dearly, and spent most of his childhood sat on her lap, listening to her stories about her childhood, her father and her wonderful uncle, Richard. We always think of the Tudors hating Richard III, but in Henry’s time the slanderous, legend blackening work of Shakespeare is still decades in the future. What if Henry knew of the gentler side of Uncle Dickon? What if he saw him as the loving uncle of a fatherless teenage girl, who gave her gifts and danced with her at Christmas.
This is the intimate picture of Richard III that Henry grew up with, knowing him and loving him as a favourite great-uncle. And then his friend presents him with a manuscript saying “I’ve put together some ideas, have a look at it, just let me know what you think.”
Of course, Henry reads it and goes ballistic. How dare More write such hateful things about this great king, this hero, this Son of York, this man who saved the kingdom from the disasters that would, almost-definitely, have befallen the land had a child-king been allowed to live …. er, I mean, to reign?
Henry had no choice, More brought it on himself. Henry had to have him executed in order to prevent More’s slanderous work from reaching a wider audience. It was the only way to prevent publication.
It’s not Henry’s fault the “facts” still got out…
By Jeff R Sun
Jeff R Sun has been supporting the Richards for years – I’m thinking of changing my allegiance to the Henrys. All advice appreciated.
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Sources: Measly Middle Ages; Terrible Tudors; Slimy Stuarts; Wiki; Daily Mail.