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Happy Birthday Henry VIII

Date: 28 June 2018

Author: Brett Dolman

On 28 June 2018, Henry VIII will celebrate his 527th birthday. From wherever he is watching. Our most famous Tudor monarch would no doubt have expected a decent seat in Heaven: most early modern rulers tended to believe they had a divinely sanctioned right to rule as they pleased, and Henry was a king who appointed himself as Supreme Head of the English Church.

Heaven or Hell?

I haven’t thought about Henry VIII for a while. As a curator for Historic Royal Palaces, we look after six royal residences, their collections and almost a thousand years of history. I've spent recent years immersed in the 17th and 18th centuries, preparing exhibitions on the later royal dynasties of Stuarts and Georgians. But now that we are approaching the 500th anniversary of one of Henry VIII's celebrated achievements – his peace summit with Francis I of France at the Field of Cloth of Gold – my attention is turning back to Henry again, and I have been excavating my thoughts and opinions from a few years ago. Back in 2009, I had this to say:

'Henry VIII was a vicious, paranoid, self-pitying, vainglorious, workshy philanderer and spendthrift. Everything he did was to further his own bank balance or self-importance, and he mostly did not care what or who stood in his way and nothing was ever his fault. He failed in the marriage bed, on the battlefield and at the negotiating table. There is almost nothing redeeming about his character or his actions, although as a consequence of his blinkered and self-serving approach to politics and marriage, some rather important changes were effected during his reign, not least the establishment of the Church of England.'

Hell then.

Image: A wooden statue of a drunken reveller at Hampton Court Palace – or how this particular curator feels when asked what he thinks about Henry VIII. © Historic Royal Palace

A wooden statue of a man wearing Tudor clothing, standing with his head pressed up against a red brick wall

Giving Henry VIII a second chance

This year, I will attempt to give Henry VIII the benefit of the doubt, challenge my previous conclusions and see if I can see a different Henry. This is what a historian should do all the time of course. As a curator at Hampton Court Palace I am also interested in providing our visitors with more than one story, opening up the narrative to throw light on the lives of those around the king – his wives and friends, his ministers and courtiers, his friends and his enemies.

Henry VIII was human….. Just

All human beings are capable of being different things to different people at different times. Henry VIII was human. Just. It is too easy to write off historical figures as good or bad, as successes or failures. For Henry, it is too easy to succumb to the obese caricature of the angry pantomime villain, chopping off people’s heads and consuming huge quantities of food, while striking that dramatic pose created for his official portraiture. These are the aspects of his identity that naturally fascinate us the most – his brutish self-confidence, his ruthless management style, and of course his six wives. But as a curator, I have a responsibility to create a more nuanced understanding of a monarch whose reign saw profoundly important changes to England’s religious, political and social landscape.

Detail of the stained-glass in the west window of the Great Hall, showing a likeness of King Henry VIII. The glass is richly coloured, featuring deep blue, red, gold and brown.

Not all bad?

Looking at this in another way, England needed a strong ruler in the early 1500s, someone who would prevent her slipping back into the endless, ruinous civil wars of the past, boldly declare her independence from the Papacy, and establish a modern and efficient nation state. Like him or loathe him, in many ways Henry created modern Britain. As well as establishing the Church of England, Henry authorised the translation and publication of the Bible in English. His dissolution of the monasteries created a land market and a source of economic prosperity for a new ‘middle class’ of lawyers and administrators. The same men (and they were always men) benefited from the Tudor revolution in government and bureaucracy – new efficient tax schemes and a more powerful parliament.

Personally, I’m not sure whether any of this makes up for Henry’s profound nastiness, particularly in his later years. Courtiers (not to mention wives) lived and died at his command, while discriminatory laws were passed against witchcraft and homosexuality. Henry VIII also left an unclear religious and political legacy, which meant that the reigns of his three children – Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I were riven by political and religious dispute and uncertainty, and the Tudor dynasty died with them.

But I will do my best to retain an open mind for now.

Image: Henry VIII in a familiar power pose. © Historic Royal Palaces

Make up your own mind

Visitors to Hampton Court Palace – and indeed the Tower of London – over the next few years will see more and more of Henry VIII’s public and private world revealed. You will be able to see the 16th century through the lives of the King, his wives, his leading courtiers, and his kitchen staff. You will be free then to make up your own mind.

Brett Dolman
Curator, Collections
Historic Royal Palaces

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