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Henry VIII

King John I may forever be known as a Bad King following that seminal history textbook 1066 and All That, but Henry VIII could bear the title of the worst monarch in history. More than 60 writers were surveyed by the Historical Writers Association (HWA) in 2015, with Henry VIII taking 20% of the vote to find the worst monarch and criticised for a wide range of crimes: he was “obsessive”, “syphilitic” and a “self-indulgent wife murderer and tyrant”, according to respondents. Robert Wilton, the author of The Spider of Sarajevo, called the Tudor king “a gross man-child, wilfully and capriciously dangerous to everything around him including the country”, adding that psychologically, Henry “barely made it out of infancy, let alone adolescence, and ruled with little more policy than petulant self-gratification”.

It is variously estimated that anywhere from 57,000 to 72,000 people were executed during Henry's 37 years' reign. Popular impressions on the character of the reign of Henry VIII have prevented inquiry into any statement which reflects discredit upon this; the enormity of an accusation has passed for an evidence of its truth. Notwithstanding that until the few last years of the king's life no felon who ould read was within the grasp of the law, notwithstanding that sanctuaries ceased finally to protect murderers six years only before his death. Historians who are accustomed to examine their materials critically, have usually learnt that no statements must be received with so much caution as those which relate to numbers.

The state endeavoured to maintain its authority against the immunities of the Church by increasing the harshness of the code. So long as these immunities subsisted, it had no other resource ; but judges and magistrates shrank from inflicting penalties so enormously disproportioned to the offence. They could not easily send a poacher or a vagrant to the gallows while a notorious murderer was lounging in comfort in a neighbouring sanctuary, or having just read a sentence from a book at the bar in judgment had been handed over to an apparitor of the nearest archdeacon's court, and been set at liberty for a few shillings.

In 1500 the population of England was about 3 million. The population of Germany [including occupied territories] in 1939 was 86,700,000, nearly thirty times that of England in 1500. On 26 January 1934 Joseph Stalin reported to the 17th Congress of the All-Union Communist Party (b) as one of the main achievements "Growth of population from 160.5 millions in the end of 1930 to the 168 millions in the end of 1933". So the population of Russia was over fifty times that of England in 1500.

If the dubious reports of executions under Henry VIII are to be believed, they would amount to 30 x 70,000 = 2,100,000 for Germany, and 50 x 70,000 = 3,500,000. These are not quite the ghastly numbers of industrial killing in the 20th century, but are nonetheless quite respectable, if true.

Born 28 June 1491, he was the second son and third child of his father, Henry VII. His elder brother Arthur died in April, 1502. After Arthur's death a project was at once formed of marrying him to his brother's widow, Catherine of Aragon, who, being born in December, 1485, was more than five years his senior. When his father died in 1509, Henry carried out the marriage nine weeks after his accession.

Great popularity was won for the new reign by the attainder and execution of Empson and Dudley, the instruments of the late king's extortion. Besides this, it is unanimously attested by contemporaries that the young sovereign possessed every gift of mind and person which could arouse the enthusiasm of his people. His skill in manly sports was almost equalled by his intelligence and his devotion to letters.

No monarch ever succeeded to the throne of England with brighter prospects than Henry VIII. Uniting in his person the claims of the two houses of York and Lancaster, his title was undisputed : the treasury was well stored, the nation at peace, and the state of the country prosperous. He was 18 years of age, of beautiful person, accomplished manners, frank and open in his disposition, possessed of considerable learning, and fine talents ; and was regarded by the people with affection and high expectations.

But these fond expectations were wofully disappointed. As the character of the king developed itself, he was found to be destitute both of wisdom and virtue, and proved him self an unprincipled and cruel tyrant, rapacious and prodigal, obstinate and capricious, fickle in his friendships, and merciless in his resentments, and capable of sending a minister or a wife to the scaffold with as little feeling or compunction, as he would have shown in ordering a dog to be drowned "If all the pictures and patterns of a merciless prince," says Sir Walter Raleigh, "were lost in the world, they might all again be painted to the life out of the story of this king."

His government was but little short of a despotism ; and one of the greatest wonders respecting it, is the degrading servility of the people and parliament, in tamely submitting to his tyranny, or becoming the passive instruments of its exercise. He chose for his ministers men of eminent talents ; but he made them feel the effects of his caprice and cruelty. Archbishop Cranmer was almost the only one of great distinction among them, who had the good fortune to retain, to the last, his confidence and regard.

The old nobility, partly as a result of the Wars of the Roses, and partly owing to the repressive policy dictated by the dynastic fears of Henry VII, had been reduced to impotence. In 1521 the most prominent noble in England, the Duke of Buckingham, was condemned to death for high treason by a subservient House of Peers, simply because the king suspected him of aiming at the succession and had determined that he must die.

By his profusion and expensive pleasures, he soon exhausted the treasures which he inherited from his father. Though his military operations were not numerous, yet, in the early part of his reign, he made war against Louis XII. of France, invaded the country, and, at Guinrgast, gained the battle of the Spurs, (so named from the rapid flight of the French ;) and his general, the Earl of Surrey, gained a bloody victory over the Scots, at Flodden, where James IV., and a great part of his nobility, were slain. Henry was also, in some degree, involved in the wars of the two great rivals of the age, Charles V. of Germany, and Francis I. of France.

But the most memorable transactions of Henry's reign were his matrimonial alliances, and the consequences which flowed from them. His first wife was Catharine of Arragon, widow of his elder brother Arthur, daughter of Ferdinand of Spain, and aunt of Charles V. He had been contracted to her at a very early age, by the influence of his father ; and after having lived with her about 18 years, he professed to feel conscientious scruples respecting the lawfulness of the marriage, on account of her having been the wife of his brother; and conceiving a passion for the beautiful and accomplished Anne Boleyn, he applied to the pope for a divorce. Having experienced various delays, and imagining that his favorite minister, the celebrated Cardinal Wolsey, was the chief obstacle in the way of effecting his object, the king resolved on his ruin, and ordered him to be arrested for high treason. But the haughty cardinal soon after fell sick and died, having exclaimed in the pangs of remorse; "Had I but served God as diligently as I have served the king, he would not have given me over in my gray hairs."

Thomas Cromwell seems to have suggested to Henry as a deliberate policy that he should abolish the imperium in imperio, throw off the papal supremacy, and make himself the supreme head of his own religion. This was in fact the course which from the latter part of 1529 Henry undeviatingly followed, though he did not at first go to lengths from which there was no retreat. At the beginning of 1531 the Convocation of Canterbury were bidden to recognize the king as "Protector and Supreme Head of the Church of England." In May 1532 further pressure was brought to bear upon Convocation, and resulted in the so-called "Submission of the Clergy", by which they practically renounced all right of legislation except in dependence upon the king. Pope Clement VII, who had previously sent to Henry more than one monition upon his desertion of Catherine, issued a Bull of excommunication on 11 July 1533, declaring, also, his divorce and remarriage null. The papal jurisdiction in England was abolished ; the monasteries suppressed ; some alterations made in the doctrines and forms of religion ; and the king was declared the Supreme Head of the English Church. The separation of England from the Church of Rome. was thus begun by the passions of a prince, who meant nothing in the world less than the Reformation of religion, which was the consequence of it; and who was a most unworthy instrument of a most important event. Though Henry ceased to be a Roman Catholic, he was far from being a Protestant. He arrogated infallibility to himself.

In less than three years after his new marriage, he caused Anne Boleyn to be condemned and beheaded, in order to gratify a new passion for Jane Seymour, whom he married the day after the execution ; and who died soon after giving birth to Prince Edward. He next married Anne of Chves, but soon discarded her, because he did not find her so handsome as she had been represented ; and Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, his prime minister, having been instrumental in bringing about this joyless marriage, lost the favor of his sovereign, and suffered death on the scaffold. Catharine Hoirard, whom he next married, was condemned and executed for adultery. But Catharine Parr, his 6th wife, had the good fortune to survive him.

Page last modified: 30-06-2021 12:04:47 Zulu