Nicola here. Today is the 510th anniversary of the coronation of Henry VIII. Despite my very mixed feelings about Henry and his Dad, it feels like the sort of occasion I can’t ignore, particularly as my next timeslip is set in the Tudor period, albeit later in the reign of Henry’s younger daughter, Elizabeth. A decade ago, when it was the quincentenary of Henry's coronation, there were a number of celebrations to mark the occasion. But is Henry someone who we want to celebrate?
Henry VIII bestrides English history like a colossus both in terms of physical size and reputation. Not many kings or queens can compete with his fame. Was this solely down to the fact that he had six wives and beheaded two of them? A number of other British monarchs have had more than one spouse but none of them make the headlines (sorry, bad pun) like Henry still does. As someone who enjoys exploring the myths and legends about historical characters as much as I enjoy the “real” history, I thought I’d take a look at “Why is Henry VIII still so big” (in the sense of popular culture.) I call it “the afterlife” of Henry VIII.
Henry was born on 28 June 1491, the second son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. His elder brother Arthur had died in 1502. Henry was the “spare” and was not expected to be king. Arthur had been given the name of a legendary British leader as a deliberate piece of propaganda for the new Tudor dynasty but in the event it was Henry who succeeded his father when he was eighteen years old. As a young man he was described in glowing terms: “After dinner, we were taken to the King [Henry VIII] …conversed for a very long while very familiarly, on various subjects, in good Latin and in French, which he speaks very well indeed… His Majesty is the handsomest potentate I ever set eyes on; above the usual height, with an extremely fine calf to his leg, his complexion very fair and bright, with auburn hair combed straight and short, in the French fashion, his throat being rather long and thick… He speaks French, English, and Latin, and a little Italian, plays well on the lute and harpsichord, sings from book at sight, draws the bow with greater strength than any man in England, and jousts marvellously. Believe me, he is in every respect a most accomplished Prince.”
However, over the years of his reign, many things changed. His temper became more mercurial. He grew increasingly corpulent to the point that he had a 52 inch waist and weighed about 28 stone. He had married six times and was said to be contemplating a seventh marriage when he died. It is those things he is widely remembered for. Amongst other things though, he had also separated England from papal authority and dissolved the monasteries (that is the ruins of Rievaulx abbey in the photograph) he oversaw the official unification of England and Wales and mounted a number of military campaigns. Plus he built orenhanced a number of very beautiful palaces.
Perhaps it is simply that the soap opera of his personal life eclipses everything else in popular memory. Over the years he has featured heavily (no pun intended) in films and TV programmes and most of them focus on his relationships. From the 1911 silent film Henry VIII, to The Private Life of Henry VIII, which was made in 1933 with Charles Laughton as Henry, to Carry on Henry in 1971 with Sid James playing him as a loveable rogue, all Henry’s are different. Audiences over the years want different things: Each age looks at historical figures in their own way. The TV show The Tudors divided opinion by the way in which is sacrificed historical fact for entertainment, but it was very popular. These days there is so much more emphasis on women’s history so many of the stories are told from the perspective of the wives. The musical Six mixes up this Tudor blend and describes it as a remix of “500 years of historical heartbreak into a 75 minute celebration of 21st century girl power.” Somehow I don’t see Henry coming out of that too well!
Of course, this is nothing new really. One of the first historical novels I read was Brief Gaudy Hour, by Margaret Campbell Barnes, about Anne Boleyn, and as a teen I gobbled up stories about Henry’s wives. They really were amongst my first historical loves, especially Anne Boleyn! The wives' stories always seemed more compelling than the king's for some reason.
Henry has had his admirers down the years but also those who have named him as an out and out villain. Charles Dickens summed up this view: "He was a most intolerable ruffian, a disgrace to human nature, and a blot of blood and grease upon the History of England."
Finally it may be a time when there is a lot of focus on women in history but it’s also a time when book titles sometimes define women in relation to men as daughters or wives. In that situation it’s also a rather nice reversal to think that Henry is to a large extent defined by his wives and of course by his daughter, that great English monarch Queen Elizabeth I!
Are you a fan of Henry VIII? Do you have a favourite film or TV depiction of him and his reign, or a favourite book set in the Tudor era?