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Henry VIII and Killing February 5, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

henry viii

Henry VIII (obit 1547) was one of the most talented individuals to have ever walked the earth. He could, in the modern world, have worked as a professional musician or singer, an Olympic sportsman, a politician, a writer or, for that matter, a successful academic (theology, philosophy?). Here was Castiglione’s dream, the perfect Renaissance man and yet Henry arguably would have done quite well as a serial killer too and it is this murderous part of his personality that has never been understood. The following post has no claim to answer the mysterious question of what made Henry such an SOB: drbeachcombingATyahooDOTcom. But why and how far did Henry wade in blood?

Let’s start with the basic fact that it is the business of monarchs to kill. As soon as you are on the throne of an even modest medieval European territory you will have to deal with raiders in the marches, rebellions in the heartlands and a few invidious relations. Yes, you will have to send out armies to murder and posses to arrest and, should you want to keep your head off the block, you will need to nod and sign death into the room at least once a week. Henry did all this, of course, with aplomb and, yet, he lacked any obvious enjoyment in killing swathes of his impersonal enemies. He had pretensions to being a chivalric warrior and so a certain amount of mercy was sprayed around in distant parts: one of the ironies of his reign is the one thing that Henry wanted to be, a kingly war-leader in the mould of Henry V, he never really mastered.

What makes Henry so exceptional as a murderer are two features of his killing habits. First, Henry was never squeamish about killing those he knew. Of course, relations and friends can be treacherous and sometimes monarchs must kill or, at the very least, take out of circulation people who are dear or close to them: heavy indeed the head that wears the crown. But Henry seems to have done this with, at worst, gusto or, at best, indifference. There is never a sign of regret, never a flickering of the eyelashes… True, he was depressed after the death of Catherine Howard: though that was to do with injured pride at her sleeping with someone else, not with his loss. True, too, he sometimes said he wanted Cromwell back after he had killed him: but that was just to remind his courtiers of what might happen to them.

Second, Henry very often killed people not because they were guilty but because they were inconvenient. He used, of course, legal methods, but he did so with such frequency that Tudor historians routinely refer to ‘judicial murder’ for his reign: i.e. a court sentences someone to death not because they were guilty but because the king wanted them dead. (His predecessors and successors used this strategy far more sparingly.) When you combine this with the ‘nearest and dearest’ part of his killing policy you enter a really terrifying world, where your best chance of dying depended on getting to know Henry. His court in some ways was reminiscent of Stalin’s circle in the 1930s, where no one, but no one was safe from the knock on the door in the night.

We called Henry above a potential serial killer. There have even been attempts to show that a nasty fall from a horse with consequent concussion (a favourite of serial killer spotters) led to a murderous change in Henry’s personality. But the truth is that Henry was already killing the innocent in his first year as king, long before he landed crown-first on the ground: e.g. Dudley and Empson.  And as to serial killing potential the chances are that it was an accidental combination of personality traits that led Henry into the blood lake rather than an evil streak. Here was a man whose very brilliance underlined the fact that he was king and who lacked the modesty to imagine that he could be wrong. Then, with this brilliance was a strange petulance at those who frustrated his desires. The world was his toy and woe behold anyone who got between him and the lego bricks.

If this had been all we would have had a rather unpleasant individual, but Henry rounded this off with an essential lack of empathy. This meant that when a lover or a valued courtier ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time Henry would allow himself to be convinced by fairly tenuous arguments for their treachery: not because he was stupid but because the world seemed to have been made to perfectly match the fantasy world in his head. Then, the alarm bell that would, in another monarch, have saved X or Y because they were friends of his mother etc etc just failed to trip. There are several references to individuals awaiting execution under Henry waiting for mercy. But to the best of our knowledge that mercy (for those he knew at least) never came.

The most striking examples of all are the deaths of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. Here were two women who Henry had (after his fashion) loved and whom he had been intimate with. Yet, in the case of Anne, when she annoyed him beyond distraction and failed to provide a male heir, she was accused of adultery and witchcraft: the recent argument that her miscarried male child had a possible malformation is an interesting one. Henry seems to have sincerely believed that Anne was guilty, whereas modern scholars almost universally reject all the charges. Henry was not stupid. It was just that his mind sought exits when his pleasure demanded them and the world conformed to his pleasure. There were also, of course, several others killed who had no fault but to have been connected to Anne, not least her brother.

Catherine Howard’s death is, in many ways, even more chilling. Here we have no evidence that Henry wanted out of that relationship: though a year with the silliest of his wives would have been enough for any impatient individual. It was revelations about Catherine’s possible adultery (which are credible) and revelations (which are certain) about pre-Henry sexual exploration on the part of Catherine which did for the poor little thing and then the men who had assisted her in said exploration. Henry’s vanity had been injured and when he was told of the charges against Catherine he actually stated that he wanted to kill her himself with his sword, a rare fall off in style for a man who didn’t normally sully himself with blood. Henry seems not to have attended the executions of those he knew. He was not a sadist in the normal sense. But he clearly enjoyed the knowledge that those around him were walking on egg shells that he had laid down: and that their survival and furtherment depended on his whim.

One of the most chilling scenes from his long reign is his rejoinder to his third wife, Jane Seymour who had the temerity to disagree with him about the monasteries. Henry reminded her of what had happened to his previous wife, Anne Boleyn and Jane quickly rediscovered silence. Memories of Browning’s My Last Duchess.


9 Feb 2013: JCE writes a characteristically stimulating reply: ‘interesting assessment of Heney VIII’s affinity for blood, not to be confused with affinity of blood, which was also an issue for Henry, or so he said about his initial Catherine. (Which reminds me, why is it “sanguinity” is almost a perfect antonym of “bloodthirstiness”? It would seem it should be the other way ’round.) Your comparison of Henry’s court and Stalin’s inner circle  seemed most apt. There indeed may have been something in Henry’s personality or even his peculiar chemical makeup which predisposed him to murder. But we must remember, for all the social deprivation and the severity of the academic rigor inflicted on him as a youth, here was a man told almost from birth he was chosen by God. Yes, Henry would have probably turned out a malignant narcissist even had he been a blacksmith; but when we add to his base personality the status of a demi-god, near infallibility and absolute power, then it would have been a miracle had he not become a virtual royal sociopath. Your remark about Henry’s expressed desire for hands-on blood vengeance against Catherine Howard made me wonder if he had ever scratched that itch before. I’m no student of Henry, but I do know he rode to war at least once when he invaded France early in his reign. I assume he, as other monarchs of his day, actually took the field and exposed himself to the real cut and thrust. Surely, Henry was one of those happy warriors whom Theodore Roosevelt described when he said, “All men who feel any power of joy in battle, know what it is like when the wolf rises in the heart”. Do we have any evidence that Henry actually killed by his own hand, whether in battle or in execution of his quasi-judicial offices, or, uh, otherwise? If he actually rode to war, how could he have avoided it? (Which also brings to mind the simply spectacular news about the discovery of Richard III’s remains. Just imagine: a twisted king charging into a mass of men, gambling all on the strength of his own arm in a single, personal assault on Henry VIII’s father!) Which raises another question about killing and post traumatic stress in former generations. I myself have never been in military combat, but I think an argument could be made that modern war is considerably less traumatic than Western war was, say, 200, 500 or 1,000 years ago. I may be on shaky ground here, because modern war is certainly more efficient, and this probably translates into higher lethality. But I can’t imagine “preferring” war on a French charger as it was being hauled down by the halberds of a gang of murderous English thugs who were seconds away from running their daggers into the eyeholes of my helm as I lay struggling in the swampy morass that was Agincourt; or in one of Bonaparte’s columns as it drew into canister range before a massed battery of guns; or in a miserable, drowned trench in the Ypres salient; to patrolling Kandahar province. Yes, dead is dead and killing is killing. There is certainly greater remoteness to modern killing, although this does not always insulate the killers from the killed. I guess what I’m saying is modern war seems somewhat less, well, nasty and brutish. (I may have just revealed my profound ignorance and unintentionally insulted thousands of good and honorable young men and, God forgive us, women. This is certainly not my aim.) What I’m getting at is, why do we hear so little of PTSD symptoms in warriors who fought prior to the 20th century? Was it not there? Were medieval European warriors so emotionally different from a modern man of the West? The horrors of battle were certainly no less then, and possibly greater. It seems to me war was nothing to be ashamed of in the past, and that men’s conscience’s had less to weigh on them. It makes me wonder whether our changing social mores and arguably greater emotional sensitivity have to some degree “permitted” PTSD in our veterans. I would love to hear of ancient warriors, or at least pre-late-19th and 20th-century soldiers, exhibiting signs of post traumatic stress disorder. Evil writes: Something I’ve always found fascinating here and that I’ve not seen commented upon is the way that Henry seems to have been violent to his wives in as much as there was sex tension. The two who died at his hands (or as good as) were the same that he felt the most strongly about. Katherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves were both let off essentially: and in both cases there was a marked lack of sexual interest.’ Thanks Evil and JCE!