The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.2002  Wednesday, 15 October 2003

From:           Richard Burt <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Sunday, 12 Oct 2003 09:42:18 -0400
Subject:        Henry VIII on TV (in UK's ITV) Henry VIII: Henry the horrible

England's cruellest king is back on TV, depicted as a gangster, more
East End than Hampton Court. But despite our image of him as a vicious
monster, he still has a paradoxical appeal. And, oh yes, he was the
country's first Eurosceptic...

By Marcus Tanner
12 October 2003

The wrangling for Henry VIII's reputation began in his own lifetime.
"Thy butcheries and horrible executions have made England the
slaughterhouse of innocence," Reginald Pole, the future (and last)
Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to him. For, to Pole, Henry was
nothing less than a monster. He was the sponsor of the bastard new
religion known as Anglicanism. And he had crowned his infamy by taking a
slut, Anne Boleyn, as queen in place of the rightful Queen Catherine of
Aragon. "Lucifer alone," the Archbishop concluded, "may fitly be
compared to thee."

Pole was not alone. In the Catholic north of the country, they cursed as
a devil the man who the Venetian ambassador once declared had "the face
of an angel". Henry became known as the man who pulled down the
monasteries - which fed and educated the people - and plundered the
shrines. This man with an angel's face was, well, a monster.

When Henry heard of Pole's critical words, his response was spiteful.
Unable to touch Pole abroad, he had his 80-year-old mother dragged to
London and executed instead. His handling of the opponents of his
religious changes revealed the man's inner cruelty. In 1536 the northern
Catholics rose on behalf of their monks and shrines in a public outburst
known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. Henry received their leaders kindly.
Typically, once they had dispersed and no longer posed a threat, he had
them strung up in their thousands.

If the Counter-Reformation of his elder daughter, Mary, had succeeded,
Henry might today be no more than a footnote, a king responsible for an
odd, not-quite-Protestant, interlude in a long Catholic history. If
remembered at all, it might be for possessing such a grossly inflated
ego that he believed he could be both King and Pope at once.

But it was Mary who became the curious interlude, consigned to history
as "Bloody Mary" for her brief, inefficient purges. Power and the
rewriting of history passed to her half-sister, Elizabeth, child of the
usurper Anne Boleyn. And Elizabeth, unlike Mary, had not been disgusted
by Henry's declaration that he was head of the church. As a child, she
admired her colossal father. Once she was Queen, his reputation changed.
In the new, expansionist Protestant England that Elizabeth I nursed, her
father Henry became the first Eurosceptic. It was Henry who had
apparently forged a new idea of England, no longer a small Catholic
island kingdom dodging between the might of Spain and France, but
destined for a more splendid and isolated role as a land apart and the
centre of an empire.

By the time of Elizabeth's death this vision of England was in place.
Sturdy Protestant colonies were growing fast in America. The new
Protestant version of English history required a patriarchal figure:
Henry. He became the architect of modern England - Protestant, imperial,
idiosyncratic, distant from Europe, and defiantly alone. It was a
strange epitaph for the man whose reign began, on a very different note,
at the age of 18 in 1509.  Our image of Henry tilts towards his last,
crowded years of the divorce from Catherine, the Reformation and the
succession of new wives. This is the king who has given so much copy to
writers of operas, novels, tragic historical romances, films and
television dramas. He is Charles Laughton, Sid James, Richard Burton,
Keith Michell, and now tonight in ITV's new drama, he is portrayed by
Ray Winstone as a rough-and-tumble gangster, more East End than Hampton

We watch the life of Henry as if we were at a pantomime divided into
six, juicy, bite-sized acts. First comes fat, pious Catherine of Aragon,
the classic older wife displaced by the scheming office secretary, Anne
Boleyn (Booh!). But she gets her comeuppance and is executed (Hooray!),
leaving a gap for goody-two-shoes Jane Seymour. She produces the
longed-for male heir (Hooray!), but dies tragically (Aah!). Then comes
another set. There is comic relief in the form of the frumpy Anne of
Cleves, a lesson in the dangers of promiscuous teenagers with Catherine
Howard, and we end, sort of happily, with safety incarnate in
school-marmish Catherine Parr, who survives by outliving him (Phew!).

Love, power and death. They make for an irresistible combination. Even
at the time, Europe was agog, giggling but also appalled by the English
bluebeard. Imagine the Charles and Di saga, not once but several times,
with executions on top. The obsession is not modern, even if it has been
reinforced by the way the modern heritage industry stamps Henry and his
women on everything from playing cards to bars of chocolate.

In reality, the cavalcade of queens and religious changes for which we
now remember Henry belonged to the last few years. The bloody 15-year
twilight of his life has been stretched to cover the whole. We forget
that Henry was married to one queen and a famously devout Catholic for a
quarter of a century before any of this. The England of most of Henry's
reign was part of the jigsaw of Catholic Europe. Its court was well
known for the welcome it paid to Renaissance intellectuals, writers and
artists. Erasmus, the intellectual superstar of the day, was an admiring
visitor. So were a host of other Continental Catholic men of ideas. An
Englishman or woman of the 1520s would have regarded the idea that the
king might become an emblem of insular nationalism as madness. England's
Queen was Spanish; its court was a centre of European thought, and Henry
seemed far more devoted than most of his royal contemporaries to the
living symbol of European Christian unity, the Pope. As the historian J
J Scarisbrick noted, it was ironic that long after the titles "King of
Ireland" and "Emperor of India" fell into the dust, British monarchs
retained the title "Fides Defensor" (Defender of the Faith), which a
grateful Pope awarded Henry for his furious written assault on Martin

Long after he turned on the Pope in 1533, Henry loathed Protestants. The
man now remembered as the godfather of the Anglican church continued
burning "heretics" to the end. England breathed a collective sigh of
relief when this terrible bully breathed his last in Richmond Palace in
1547.  Never again was England so near to being a state gripped by fear,
a police state almost, as when Thomas Cromwell's spies were ferreting
out "Papists" and "heretics", and hustling both to the stake. Never
again was life at court quite so dangerous as it was under "bluff king
Hal", when queens, bishops and statesmen as prominent as Sir Thomas More
moved in single file up the royal hill of favour, and then down the
other side to the block.  Henry's England had in common with Stalin's
Russia the fact that when your career went wrong, it could end in only
one way.

But alongside the danger came the thrill. This is why the memory of his
reign is still alive. It is extraordinary how many of those he destroyed
praised him in their dying moments. "Mine eyes desire you above all
things," the savagely mistreated and abandoned Catherine of Aragon wrote
on her deathbed, in the malodorous ruin of a place where her husband had
her confined. "I pray God to save the king," said Anne Boleyn on the
scaffold, adding bizarrely: "For a gentler and more merciful prince was
there never." There was an awesome magnetism to the monster called Henry
Tudor. Those who felt it seem not to have regretted the experience, even
when it ended in their death. We, too, feel just the pull that they

S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
The S H A K S P E R Web Site <http://www.shaksper.net>

DISCLAIMER: Although SHAKSPER is a moderated discussion list, the
opinions expressed on it are the sole property of the poster, and the
editor assumes no responsibility for them.

Subscribe to Our Feeds


Make a Gift to SHAKSPER

Consider making a gift to support SHAKSPER.