Was Henry VIII a tyrant?

Jackson van Uden

Henry VIII was the second Tudor King of England

Henry VIII was the second Tudor King of England, and he ruled for nearly 38 years, and is probably more famed for his 6 wives than many of his actions whilst in power. Henry’s reputation as a tyrant originates from his reputation as a King who loved to have people executed, having had two of his wives executed; Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, having two of his lead advisors, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell executed and many other, so called dissidents. The Oxford Dictionary defines a tyrant as a cruel, and oppressive ruler, who exercises their power in a cruel, unreasonable, way above the rule of law. We can see that Henry acted a tyrant, and it was very clear through his action, that whilst he was a renaissance prince, he did act in an arbitrary way and was indeed a tyrant. Henry VIII acted as a tyrant for the majority of his reign. Whilst there are claims that Henry’s personality changed considerably after the events of 1536, this is only a theory due to a spike in irrational actions from 1536. Lipscomb reputes this theory claiming that there was evidence of tyranny in the 1830s, and it increased in pace up to 1536, and maintained its pace afterwards. Examples of this tyranny can be seen in the 1531 Beggars Act, that humiliated Beggars, having them striped, paraded and then placed in the stocks for 3 days; this piece of legislation was tyrannical as it victimised some of the most vulnerable people in society in a cruel and unreasonable way, especially in a time when living on the streets condemned people to a poor, dangerous life. Henry also introduced The Buggery Act of 1533 with the resulting punishment being death by hanging, Henry later used the Act to persecute Monks, and Priests in order to loosen the grip on society that the Church held, by exposing its public face as morally corrupt. Furthermore, this was one of the few offences Henry was able to execute members of the clergy for, as he was unable to execute them for murder, having to instead refer them to Church courts instead. Even after 1536 Henry and his government was still passing legislation that oppressed and inflicting cruel punishments upon his subjects for small offences; the Witchcraft Law of 1542, made it illegal to practice magic supports this. The act declared that “It shall be Felony to practice or cause to be practiced Conjuration, Enchantment, Witchcraft or Sorcery, to get money or to consume any person in his body, members or goods, or to provoke any person to unlawful love…” only if the accused was able to quote scripture then they would be free from the punishment of death. This piece of legislation is particularly tyrannical as it condemned a generation of older single women to death and led to the emergence of witchhunts in the Stuart era.
Was Henry VIII a tyrant?
King Henry VIII

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Was Henry VIII a tyrant?
Henry VIII

Henry’s treatment of his wives shows his tyrannical nature

Henry’s treatment of his wives, Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Catherine Howard in particular shows his tyrannical nature. Whilst Henry left Katherine of Aragon her possessions, a reasonable income after their divorce, and a comfortable level of living at Kimbolton Castle, that is where his pleasant treatment of Katherine ends. Henry’s treatment towards Katherine became tyrannical, and overbearing when Katherine refused to acknowledge that Anne was the true Queen, and refused to stop using the title of Queen. Henry refused to let Katherine and their daughter, Mary, meet until both of them acknowledged Anne as the true Queen, and due to both of their refusal to do so, they never saw each other again after Katherine and Henry’s separation, as Katherine died in 1536. The cruel nature of a tyrant can also be seen after Katherine’s death, as both Henry and Anne Boleyn both wore Yellow during the period of mourning; Anne Boleyn’s decision to wear yellow is now thought to be a calculated insult to Katherine, however, the reason for why Henry wore yellow is still unknown. Whilst Henry might have been deeply in love with Anne Boleyn and orchestrated the break from Rome so that he may be free to marry her, it still did not stop him from executing her for high treason. Anne Boleyn, was executed alongside Lord Rochford, and Henry Norris for high treason. They were accused of attempting to procure the death of the King, Rochford and Norris were also charged with the crime of having treasonably violated the Queen, and they were all found guilty in a show trial, which Henry also used to end his marriage to Anne. Thomas and Cromwell and the Earl of Norfolk used their list of informants to compile a list of charges so that the execution of Anne could be justified. Furthermore, the execution of Anne Boleyn, Rochford and Norris is also incredibly cruel, and an example of Henry exercising his power in a cruel and unreasonable way. Firstly, the charges levied against Rochford and Norris of ‘treasonably violating’ the Queen was not illegal, or treason. This shows Henry to be acting above the law, and using his power in an unreasonable to remove opposition; and secondly, Anne Boleyn was pregnant at the time of her execution. Henry didn’t want to risk Anne’s child not being his, it was still unprecedented that Henry had executed a pregnant woman, especially a pregnant woman who could have been carrying his heir. However, it can be argued that Cromwell, instead of Henry, plotted Anne’s downfall as her family were growing too powerful at court, and he drew up the list of charges against Anne to justify the decision to Henry. Whilst Anne Boleyn, Rochford, and Norris might have been executed after a trial, regardless of the fact that it was a show trail, 68 people during Henry’s reign were condemned without a trail, and 34 of them were executed, this only supports the theory that Henry was tyrannical, and acted above the law.
Ancestry UK

When it came to matters of religion we can see a tyrannical Henry

When it came to matters of religion, we can see a tyrannical Henry rearing his head again. As previously mentioned, Henry orchestrated the break from Rome in order to marry Anne Boleyn, this was a very selfish move, and it plunged religious life within England into turmoil, as there was no definitive answer to what the right way was to worship as life revolved around the church. In the prelude to the break from Rome Henry issued a praemunire, which prohibited the assertion of papal power at the expense of the Monarch’s power. Upon the issuing of this praemunire Henry exercised complete control over the whole of the English church, took the title of Supreme Head of the English Church and fined the church £100,000. The Dissolution of the Monasteries from 1536 to 1541 was cruel and tyrannical, and changed the lives of over 10,000 Monks and Nuns. The Dissolution of the Monasteries fundamentally changed the landscape of the nation, as religious buildings were sold off to raise finances, and religious orders were broken up in order to destroy one of the last bastions of Catholic resistance in England, those who resisted were executed, whilst others were paid off. Furthermore, in response to the break from Rome, there was the Pilgrimage of Grace rebellion, which protested against the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the move away from Roman Catholicism, and the actions of Thomas Cromwell. Henry was seen to have responded to this crisis in a cruel manor, and an excessively forceful way; 200 Rebels were executed for dissent, whilst Norfolk and Suffolk were sent to ruthlessly crush the revolt in the North. However, punishments were done to the letter of the law, and Henry did not act ultra vires in anyway. Henry’s treatment of the Pole family, after the actions of Cardinal Reginald Pole demonstrates Henry’s tyrannical nature. Cardinal Pole was the Papal legate in England and left England in 1536 after refusing to accept Henry’s right to divorce Katherine of Aragon. Henry saw this as treason, and in 1538, in response to this Henry and Cromwell imprisoned the entire Pole family. In order to further punish Cardinal Pole Henry had Exeter, Montagu, and Sir Edward Neville executed, whilst the rest of the family were attainted, removing their power to respond, and possibly rebel against Henry. Furthermore, in 1541 Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury was executed, this prevented a figurehead for a Plantagenet revival. The Tudor family were still seen as usurpers in certain quarters of the aristocracy, and whilst Henry’s actions can be explained as dynastic protection, Margaret Pole had given Henry no reason to not trust her. Margaret had been Mary’s governess, and had been appointed to this position by Henry, and to execute an elderly woman is a tyrannical move, especially when there was a precedent established by Henry VII to keep dynastic opponents such as Edward, Earl of Warwick in the Tower until they committed treason. To conclude, Henry VIII was a tyrant, and he consistently acted ultra vires, and in an arbitrary way. He was cruel to many people, including his wives. His treatment towards Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Catherine Howard in particular really highlight this tyrannical nature of his. If one is able to have their wife executed, or to essentially imprison them for refusing to bend to one’s will, or doing as they are told, one would have to be slightly unhinged, or even tyrannical. Furthermore, Henry executed two of his closest advisors for not bending to his will. Thomas More was executed for not accepting the validity of Henry’s second marriage, and for accepting Catholicism and the Pope. Thomas Cromwell was executed for essentially becoming too powerful, and for arranging Henry’s failed marriage to Anne of Cleves. These executions show Henry to be excessively tyrannical, and angry at anyone putting up strong opposition, or demonstrating independent thought. The punishments Henry levied against them were cruel, and unreasonable. Lipscomb supports this, claiming that whilst many contemporaries were very complimentary about Henry. However, towards the end of his reign Henry was being called a tyrant due to many of his actions, and if even contemporaries were calling him a tyrant, one can conclude that Henry was indeed a tyrant.
Was Henry VIII a tyrant?
Cardinal Reginald Pole
Was Henry VIII a tyrant?

Jackson van Uden

Jackson is the founder of History with Jackson and in early 2022 joined The Historians Magazine team. Jackson has recently qualified as a History Teacher and is currently studying for an MA in Politics, from the University of Birmingham. In his spare time you can find Jackson writing, playing rugby and watching and/or coaching sports.
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