Henry VIII: hopeless romantic or horrible tyrant?

Originally posted February 22, 2023.

At the time of his death on 28 January 1547, Henry VIII bore all the trappings of an archetypal tyrant. He was capricious, covetous, paranoid, prone to executing those around him, and had ordered the execution of two of his wives. He was also corpulent, weighing over 300lbs, and suffering from excruciating injuries sustained two decades prior.

But when Henry, just seventeen, came to the throne as a golden youth in 1509, his courtiers knew a very different man. He was described as merciful, charismatic, the ideal Renaissance prince, and best of all: physically fit.

Attributed to Meynnart Wewyck, Henry VIII, about 1509. Oil paint on wood panel, housed in its original frame. Gift of the Berger Collection Educational Trust, 2021.29.

A Venetian ambassador by the name of Pasqualigo, who visited England in 1515, gives us one of the best surviving glimpses of young Henry’s appearance. In a dispatch to Venice, Pasqualigo writes that Henry had ‘auburn hair combed straight and short, in the French fashion, and a round face so very beautiful, that it would become a pretty woman.’ His complexion was ‘very fair’ and ‘bright,’ and he described the English king as the ‘handsomest potentate I ever set eyes on.’

Pasqualigo also noted that Henry was above the average height (his armor reveals that he stood at an imposing six feet two inches tall, in an era when the average height for a man was around 5 foot 5 inches), and had an ‘extremely fine calf to his leg’ (of which Henry was inordinately proud). He also lauded Henry’s accomplishments as a Renaissance man. The King could speak ‘French, English, and Latin, and a little Italian,’ played the lute and harpsichord, could sight read music, hunted and jousted regularly. Clearly, young Harry intended to impress his Venetian guests with his talents.

After all, in his prime, Henry VIII was a far cry from the paranoid, obese, gout-addled monarch England came to know – and fear. 

1536 has been dubbed the year that changed Henry VIII. It is thought that a near-fatal jousting injury contributed not only to Henry’s morbid weight gain, but also his acute mood swings (exacerbated by a number of personal and political setbacks). This pivotal calamity was purported to have inflicted such anguish upon his wife, Anne Boleyn, that upon learning of the King’s injurie, she suffered a miscarriage, magnifying the distress of the tragedy.

Portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1537, one year after Henry’s jousting accident.

Anne had just cause to be worried: injury was no little thing in Tudor times, and Henry had endured much. He suffered a concussion and burst a varicose ulcer on his left leg. For the rest of his life, Henry would suffer from mounting levels of pain, frustration, migraines, and harrowing ulcerations. According to medical practices of the time, his wounds were deliberately left exposed and subjected to nauseating and distressingly painful treatments on a frequent basis. Toward the end of his reign, Henry’s leg wounds suppurated endlessly, and the King, by now barreling toward morbid obesity, had to be carried around his magnificent palaces in a specially-constructed chair. In conjunction with his abrupt shift towards a sedentary lifestyle, Henry’s prodigious appetite had given rise to a substantial weight gain, which further compounded his health issues.

As Henry’s physical and mental state worsened post-1536, he increasingly leaned on the expertise of his trusted physicians and inner circle. Simultaneously, his apprehension that those close to him might be conspiring against him intensified, leading him to depose and execute potential rivals to safeguard the – still quite nascent – Tudor dynasty. With only one son, the future Edward VI, in the royal cradle, Henry felt compelled to mistrust and dismantle potential threats to his reign, especially those with royal and Plantagenet blood in their veins. In the last several years of his life, England would become rather grimly accustomed to the execution of its famous figures.

Which begs the question: Was Henry genuinely a tyrant, or rather a product of the prevailing environment? Can his unrelenting and famously fatal pursuit of an ideal wife and heir be justified, or does it characterize the increasing tyranny under his rule? Could his injury in 1536 have genuinely altered his character, transforming him into the enigmatic figure of myth that he is remembered as?

We can only speculate.

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