My history hero: Henry VIII (1491-1547)

Actor Nathaniel Parker explains why he admires the famous Tudor king

Portrait of King Henry VIII

This article was first published in the October 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Henry VIII, who reigned from 1509 until his death, is one of the best-known kings in English history. The larger than life Tudor monarch is famous for having six wives (two of whom he had executed) and for his pivotal role in the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic church.

When did you first hear about Henry VIII?

At school. I loved the romance of history – and seeing pictures of him in his battle armour, and then learning of his six wives, made him an irresistibly attractive figure to my young self. I studied the Tudors at school. I always loved the family trees of England’s kings and queens, and Henry’s was so unusual: three Tudors reigned after him, and yet his dynasty only lasted one generation.

What kind of person was he?

Passionate. There is a wonderful line in Wolf Hall [the Hilary Mantel novel about Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell] when Cardinal Wolsey declares of Henry: “He believes everything he says, at the time he’s saying it.” That fits the impressionable, gifted and vulnerable man that I have come to understand [from playing him]. In his youth he was a great sportsman, and excelled at jousting, tennis and sword fighting.

Henry was also passionate in his first love for his brother’s widow, Catherine, fell massively in lust for Anne Boleyn (and just as heavily out too), before properly falling in love with Jane Seymour. When she died, his love of life was badly tainted, and his wild mood swings made him dangerous in his unpredictability. He’s often been cast as a tyrant for his behaviour, but his aim and focus as king was to maintain peace. He feared that without a son the country would return to civil war.

What made Henry VIII a hero?

This is the most contentious question. Many consider him a tyrant, so what justification is there in making him my hero? Firstly, he did have a son [Edward VI] in the end, so that ensured a certain amount of stability. He wasn’t to know that the boy was a brat and that he would die early leaving his equally bloodthirsty half-sister, Mary, to reign. But, that in turn led to the marvellous other daughter, Elizabeth, so the dynasty equalled out in the end.

Secondly, when he split from Rome and helped give birth to the Church of England, he laid the foundations for what we in the west refer to as democracy. To put an English Bible in every church and allow people their own interpretations of what had, until then, only been the domain of scholars, led to offshoots of Protestantism sprouting across the realm. This let people vote their own prelates into power. From this sprang representation.

What was Henry’s finest hour?

As king, the creation of the Church of England – but as a man, marrying Jane Seymour. The formation of the church with him at the head may have been the by-product of his desire for Anne, but the legacy was immense. The sign of a great leader is never just his autocracy but his ability to successfully delegate – in Henry’s case, to people like Wolsey and Cromwell, who helped define his reign.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

Well, he did execute two of his wives… But having had the chance to play Hilary Mantel’s Henry, I have enormous sympathy for him – although his descent into madness made him very dangerous. Signing death warrants for some of his closest friends certainly does not mark him out as a saint. In modern-speak, one could say he was enabled, entitled and encouraged, which would possibly ease some of the blame.

If you could meet Henry, what would you ask him?

What do you regret most? Henry made huge decisions that have shaped the world. Leaving Rome. Beheading Anne. Beheading Cromwell. Which one cost him the most? And, as we share a love of sport, if he’d like a game of tennis!

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Nathaniel Parker was talking to York Membery. Nathaniel Parker played the title role in the TV drama, The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, and Henry VIII in the West End adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall. He stars in The Outcast, out now on DVD