By courtesy of Holbein the bloated Henry VIII of middle age is familiar to us all, tight-mouthed and pig-eyed, so obese that it needed machinery to haul him upstairs. In A Man for All Seasons Robert Shaw gave us the young Henry VIII, a booming, back-slapping locker-room bore, and a bad man to cross.
The film version has solid support in fact. Henry was “noisy, unbuttoned, prodigal,” “a formidable, captivating man who wore regality with splendid conviction”—and a cold, vicious man, whose reign opened with the cynical sacrifice of Empson and Dudley, his father’s most valued servants, and ended with the execution of the Earl of Surrey. The saints, Fisher and More, and the delinquent wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, feature in every martyrology of Henry’s reign, but as Professor Elton has pointed out, the fact that these others “were unattractive, and did not fall for religion’s sake, has obscured the fact that they were unusually innocent of the charges preferred.” Even more revolting was his steady annihilation of the Plantagenet line: Henry Pole, Henry Courteney, and Edward Neville in 1538, Lady Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, in 1541, while hired assassins roamed the Continent in the wake of Cardinal Reginald Pole. To many of his subjects he was “a tyrant more cruel than Nero.” “a beast and worse than a beast.”
His willfulness was legendary. His decision to divorce Catherine of Aragon, which brought on the English Reformation, was inspired by dynastic motives of some importance, but most contemporaries simply attributed it to an irresponsible sexual itch—“Junker Heintz will be God, and does whatever he lusts,” was Luther’s comment. But even his most experienced councilors were staggered when a year later he wanted to divorce his new queen, Anne Boleyn. It was typical of him that he celebrated the news of Catherine of Aragon’s death in 1536 by a high mass, followed by a court ball at which he appeared dressed in yellow.
Naturally he has been a cruel embarrassment to all Anglican leaders, from Cranmer to Newman, but to A. F. Pollard, who wrote the last useful biography in 1902, he was a great national leader, “the most remarkable man who ever sat on the English throne.” However, in the clear light of reason his achievement was so stupendous, his character so petty, that his responsibility for that achievement must be called in question. Was it really this lecherous and bedizened Falstaff who “Ruined the great work of Time,/And cast the Kingdom old/Into another mould”? The greatest of modern Tudor historians, Geoffrey Elton, returns a flat and emphatic negative—“He was no statesman, and inasmuch as qualities of statesmanship can be discerned in his reign they must be looked for elsewhere.” In Wolsey, that is or Thomas Cromwell.
TO SCARISBRICK the issue is more complex. He clears the ground by pointing out something which is scarcely disputable but often ignored, that Henry was “the true source of the …