The name Henry VIII evokes an image of a cruel, ruthless and unrelenting tyrant, who arbitrarily imprisoned or beheaded anyone who opposed his most trivial whim. In fact, he has numerous ghosts owing to his reputation, like Catherine Howard, Anne Boelyn, and Jane Seymour, each having been one of Henry’s wives, through marriages in rapid succession.
The truth is, Henry was a complex person. There was a duplicity about him that was a holdover from and typical of the kings of the Medieval period that preceded Henry’s reign.
Have you every wondered how the rulers of that era managed to justify some of the horrific genocides and massacres they generated in their efforts to either retain power, gain new power or curry favor with the Church? The Medieval “mindset” thought there were two “worlds”–one of the spirit or God, and one of the world or material things.
What one did in the world of material things, if done as an effort to gain entrance into the world of God, or to defend the world of God as defined by the Catholic Church, was justifiable, no matter how cruel or unjust.
This dichotomy could be used as a philosophic tool by which you could justify almost any action and still gain access to Heaven. Provided, of course, you paid adequately for your Absolution!
This was how abominations like the Children’s Crusade or burning all the local Jews to death in the town square for a Sunday afternoon’s entertainment could be condoned by priests, popes, knights and kings alike.
One also has to remember that at this time as well, religion, politics, and finance were hopelessly intertwined, held together in an odious mishmash of greed and an insatiable appetite for power. (Some things never change!)
I doubt very much that a man like Henry the VIII ever looked upon his actions as being either cruel or corrupt. The actions they took were taken because that was how things got done back in those days. They were merely doing what needed to be done to defend their countries and their faith. Henry was possibly, despite his extensive humanistic education, the last in long line of Medievalists.
I am quite sure that Henry, at least up until the latter part of his life where he was plagued by poor health, probably slept like a baby, his conscience completely untroubled.
Without going into too much detail, Henry’s reign can be divided into two halves. The first, when in his youth, he sought to create alliances that made sense and that created better conditions for England and its people. He was a well-known as a patron of the arts and as a forward-thinking intellectual who presided over and engineered a period of England’s history known for its stability and calm.
The second half comes after Henry suffered a serious injury while jousting that apparently never healed properly and left him in almost continuous pain. His break with the Catholic Church, the establishment of the Church of England, his doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings, and various other reforms he pushed through created more than a few enemies who hatched numerous intrigues against him.
As he became increasingly paranoid due to a combination of physical pain and some very real threats against his person, he slowly descended into becoming the arbitrary, ruthless tyrant that history’s broad brush has painted him to be.
This is the more or less accepted theory among historians: That the above is what transformed Henry the VIII from a “good” well-intended king (keeping in mind that we are talking more about the results of his actions than the actions themselves–he was after all, a man of his times) into a “bad” king (one whose actions were only intended to benefit himself and gave bad results rather than good).
The ghosts created a result of it all can be seen roaming the halls and creeping in the dungeons of several of Henry’s old haunts.
I’ve recently written about Henry’s daughter, which you can read in this post: The Truth about Bloody Mary.