Henry VIII: Nice guy or psychopath?

I watched a PBS showing of Henry VIII on Monday night. This one to be exact. It was very interesting. Apparently, Henry VIII was this very nice but lonely guy who, through no fault of his own, occasionally had to have his wife’s head cut off. Well, it happened a lot, actually, and he had a lot of other people’s heads cut off as well as killed in other nasty ways. But he absolutely HATED to do it, each and every time, and ESPECIALLY if it was a wife or a close friend and advisor. He’d bellow with rage when he found out what they’d done, then blubber like a baby when they were killed. It was just heart-rending.

Here’s the thing though. I kind of figured a guy like Henry VIII who went around having his wives killed was a psychopath. (Not to mention having all those other guys killed. OK, a certain amount of having guys killed was probably part of kingship in those days, but probably not as much as Henry did, and having wives beheaded … over the line.)

In fact, I didn’t buy a single bit of the movie for that very reason. It smelled like a huge whitewash, or somebody’s personal obsession. Like the playwright in “The Goodbye Girl” who casts Richard Dreyfuss as Richard III, then makes him play Richard as a simpering, flaming homosexual.

I have problems with Henry VIII as portrayed on Showtimes’ The Tudors for the same reason, though not to the same extent. I know it’s more dramatic to have Henry wince and look pained when he hears the headsman’s axe fall, or hears of it, but I just don’t buy it, not for a minute.

But I’m not a history buff, just a guy who thinks people who serially kill their wives are probably psychopaths of some sort. Am I wrong or right about Henry? And even if I am wrong, doesn’t it make dramatic sense to address this issue for the sake of modern audiences?

Why can’t he bo both, like the late Earn Warren?

I don’t think he was either a particularly nice guy or a pyschopath. I think he was a Rennaisance European king of strong and intolerant convictions, who was desperately in need of a male heir to guarantee the continuation of his family line and prevent civil unrest at his death (and he only executed two wives, btw, and both of them got trials first).

Hmmm…I thought the angry and bellowing monologues from The Tudors were just a dramatic license to show his inner turmoil (or a chance for Mr. Rhys-Meyers to chew the scenery).

By the way, I haven’t seen the finale yet…don’t anyone tell me if he and Anne Boleyn reconcile! :wink:

The outcomes of the trials were pretty much predetermined, since Henry wanted to be rid of both Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard.

A nice guy? Obviously not.

But an utter sadistic psychopath? No, not that either.

He was a monarch in an era when “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” was an understatement. The Tudor hold on the throne seemed weak to him- after all, the Tudors managed to take power only because the Houses of York and Lancaster had exhausted each other. He saw threats to his power everywhere, and quite correctly.

His desperate desire for a son looks unreasonable, even crazy today (now we know about the chromosomes that make babies male or female, and we know that neither Catherine of Aragon nor Anne Boleyn was responsible). But if he had no son, there would be no Tudor dynasty, and another set of wars for control of England was entirely possible. He wasn’t crazy to want a son, and if that meant jettisoning one wife after another to get one, that was fine by him.

Beyond that, he was frequently cruel, but usually rational. Like any monarch in his position, he wanted to increase and cement his own power. If the Church or the aristocracy stood in his way, he tried to crush them.

Not a good man, just a man playing the power game as best he could. Nice guys don’t tend to last long in that game.

Yes, but in the case of Boleyn, they had Smeaton’s confession (which was obtained unter torture and factually incorrect, but good enough to stand up in court) and guilty plea, and in the case of Howard, she was almost certainly having an affair with Culpepper. And Howard could have saved herself if she had admitted to the precontract with Dereham.

I’m not so sure his conduct, even by the standards of the day, was “rational” at all. He seems to be to be the kind of man who can’t accept any loss and continues to double down, because he just can’t lose! And of course winds up losing more because of it. And it was simply that he was King that let him get away with it. Perhaps a super-control freak, everything must be his way or no way at all.

But he had a 25% approval rating.


Which of his actions, particularly, do you consider to be irrational?

First off, getting rid of his first wife was Not A Good Plan. This pissed off her relatives (the French monarchy). Had he been thinking, he might have tried a quiet affair with a pretty serving girl and announed later that his wife had suddenly given birth. Or just adopted a young nephew, or something. He, of course, decided it was all his wife’s fault* and publicly put her aside after declaring himself lord and master of his own religion. Which wound up being a mass murderfest and general botched-up mess in succeeding monarchs and generations.

It’s not like it wasn’t done by nobles frequently.

*This also implies to me that somewhere around Wife Number Four he should have figured this was not going to work. Sterility was a problem throughout human history, and even with the best medical care today it happens. However, he seems to have been incapable of admitting this, or doing something sensible about it. He wanted to blame his wives.

“What I say is, kings is kings, and you got to make allowances. Take them all around, they’re a pretty ornery lot. It’s the way they’re raised.”

– Huckleberry Finn

Spanish monarchy.

But he wasn’t sterile, he had three children: Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward.

That might sound reasonable, but remember that the Nineteen years of anarchy in England’s history was still a vivid memory at the time. England was plunged into nineteen terrible years of civil war, precisely because there was no solid, legal male heir to the last king. The contenders to the throne were Maud, a daughter, and Stephen, an adopted nephew. Henry knew that if the succession was in doubt, nothing less then a male heir would do. (of course he turned out to be incorrect, when his daughter Elisabeth succeeded him, but who could have guessed that at Henry’s time?)

Two daughters and a sickly son who didn’t live past age sixteen. From Wiki:

Making Edward King just shows you how desperate Henry was for an heir.

True enough, but clearly the problem wasn’t sterility on Henry’s part.

He also had a bastard son, Henry FitzRoy.

Well, most men did blame their wives back then. Henry had plenty of affairs and produced a son by Anne Boleyn’s sister, so he had (by 16th-century standards) good reason to blame them. (Katherine of Aragon gave birth to sons, they just died.) He couldn’t have just faked a royal birth–queens gave birth in front of an audience of noblemen precisely in order to make that impossible. Adopting a nephew or cousin was fraught with danger–it invited intrigue by other factions. Henry was in a real bind.

That’s not to say that he was a lovely, sensitive guy. Henry was one of the premier kings of his day in his youth, and he was used to having nearly unlimited power over almost everyone around him. He believed–quite normally for a king of his day–that God had put him on the throne and that he had a divine right to whatever he wanted. That sort of life would corrupt anyone, I think. He was a megalomaniac IMO, because he was so spoiled and corrupted, but he wasn’t a psychopath.

:slight_smile: bandit: I agree with your first paragraph; I had never considered that scenario, and it seems to me to be best of his options. A “rational” (or good) monarch or leader would consider the consequences of his actions, especially with regards to his country, and its allies, enemies, and potential enemies.

As for your footnote, when it came to sex and bearing children, it was always the woman’s problem – even up till the mid- 20th century and later. Throughout most of our history, men have been in charge; men owned women throughout most of the 19th century; women were for cooking, cleaning, sex, and childbearing; if the childbearing didn’t meet with the man’s approval, it was her fault. After all, a manly man couldn’t possibly be to blame. (Actually, one might even understand why men believed that – after all, the child came out of the woman; ergo, she must have been the problem.)

He probably had more than one illegitimate child. And Katherine of Aragon conceived several times: besides Mary, they had a little boy who lived for about a month. If that baby had lived, the world would be different.

Henry was capable of kindness to people who didn’t cross him. Anne of Cleves cooperated with her divorce and Henry was generous to her.

Well, he wasn’t completely sterile,he just had bad luck when it came to healthy sons…he had at least 3 kids out of wedlock while he was married to his first wife…one with Elizabeth Blount…and 2 with Mary Bolelyn, Anne’s younger sister. And he did have a daughter with Catherine of Aragon ( wife 1). He knocked up Anne B twice but she had a daughter the first time and deformed stillborn son the second time.

He got his son with wife 3 but he was sickly and died young, as did his son with Elizabeth Blount. I think Mary B’s son didn’t count because she was married to another man at the time.

Except for his daughter by this first wife, it is possible that none of his in-wedlock kiddies were really his. There was great pressure on these girls to get pregnant and Henry was grossly obese and in poor healthy during his last 3 or 4 marriages.

All of this is from memory, fee free to correct.

I don’t think he was really a psychopath but he wielded a type of unquestioned absolute power that doesn’t exist in this day and age. And the courts and court politics were cutthroat and high stakes. Life was just not as valuable back then…I find the amazing part of the story was the way parents kept throwing their teen-aged daughters (both executed queens were very young when they married the king) at the king despite the risks.