Books interview with John Guy: “Henry VIII had a mindset that you might associate with Stalin or Mao”

John Guy talks to Matt Elton about his new biography of the Tudor king, from the childhood experiences that shaped him to his relationships with Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell

A portrait of Henry VIII

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

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In context

One of Europe’s most well-known monarchs – famous for his six wives – Henry VIII held the English throne from 1509. His efforts to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn led to the Church of England breaking away from the authority of the pope and the Catholic church in Rome, although debate continues about his motivations. Other key figures include Thomas Wolsey, a cardinal and eventually lord chancellor, and lawyer Thomas Cromwell.

Henry lived extravagantly and suffered from increasing obesity and ill health, contributing to his death in 1547. His later reign is often characterised as being egotistical, paranoid and insecure.


What was Henry VIII’s childhood like?

The big influences were clearly his mother and father. After the death of Henry VIII’s brother Arthur, Henry VII very much took the young prince under his wing and effectively made him his apprentice. By the time he was 15 he was pretty much shadowing his father in everything he did.

Philip the Handsome, archduke of the Netherlands, was also very important. He visited Henry VII’s court in 1506, and he and the young prince hit it off on a personal basis. He was a fine sportsman, good with the girls – everything a prince should be. When I was writing this book I stumbled upon a reference from 20 years later in which Henry is still talking about Philip. This idea of the charismatic, athletic, gambling prince, who liked art and music, clearly made a mark.

There are specific incidents that had an impact, too. The later years of Henry VII’s reign were really quite dark, with a lot of uncertainty and worries about security, and clearly this fed into Henry’s later character. There was much talk about the succession and lots of bargaining, but Henry was the one person who wasn’t mentioned. So he was alerted to dynastic conspiracy in a big way.

That’s the great mystery of Henry: why did a ruler who was actually so secure so often feel psychologically insecure? The answer, I think, goes back to this period.

What lessons did Henry learn from his father, either directly or indirectly?

Firstly, that dynastic security meant having a male heir. Henry had barely become king when he married Catherine of Aragon. He was driven by this need for progeny and security. And, secondly, to be suspicious: I think the suspicions Henry had about people in court, that particularly manifest themselves later in his reign, were always there.

On the subject of his wives, which had the biggest impact on Henry?

It was undoubtedly Anne Boleyn. She was the love of his life, and he would have done anything for her in the early years of their relationship. And she, of course, played her cards very well too.

A question that’s always asked is whether there would have been a break with Rome without Anne. I would always have said no, because Henry’s doctrine was very conservatively Catholic at that point. But there are moments that suggest otherwise. In 1511, when Pope Julius II wanted Henry to join the Holy League, he offered him the title of Most Christian King – then held by the king of France. Henry thought this was wonderful, and this is evidence of his lust for fame appearing as early as 1511.

I think that this quest for fame underpins the whole of Henry’s approach in dealing with Rome, and has been completely overlooked. By 1525, there was no doubt that Henry was not the pope’s loyal son: he was making his own decisions without reference to Rome. But even before then, while Henry may have postured that he was the pope’s good son, there’s also evidence of him saying he could get the pope to do anything he wanted. So even before Anne Boleyn, he’d decided that he was going to go his own way, and he already had delusions of grandeur.

When Wolsey couldn’t get Henry the divorce from Catherine of Aragon, he had to go. Henry looked for new advisers and these essentially came from the Boleyn stable. Two of these advisers came up with a dossier to show Henry, which essentially said that he should restore the proper regality of the kings of England from the bogus claims of popes, to run both church and state. But the dossier also included an extra element: that Henry could define the doctrine and beliefs of his church of England.

Henry swallowed all of this hook, line and sinker. The advisers produced documentation – presented in a very slanted way – that there was a historical precedent for all of this, for the position of vicarius dei, or God’s vicar on earth. So Henry came to believe that he had to recover the regality that was his due, and restore things to how they ‘ought’ to be. It fitted perfectly with his psychology because it reignited his quest for fame.

Henry really thought that he was Christ’s deputy on earth, and that was the danger: you’re looking at the mindset that you might associate with Stalin or Mao, and the image-making and propaganda that goes with that.

Having gone to all the trouble to marry Anne, what were the factors behind his sudden change of heart?

Well, first of all, Anne had not delivered the son that she had actually promised to be able to produce. Henry believed in providence, that God spoke through events, and the fact that she’d had a daughter followed by a couple of miscarriages was not a good sign.

Anne was also a modern woman: she really didn’t belong in the 16th century. She had a tongue and she used it, and could be pretty abrasive. There’s no doubt, either, that there was a lot of flirting on her side of the household and that some of it got a bit out of hand. The Chinese whispers at the court of Henry VIII were absolutely extraordinary.

So there was a moment when the cards were stacking up against Anne, and then she’s overheard shooting her mouth off to Henry Norris, a courtier. Word of some of the other things that she’d said around court hadn’t gone down too well with Thomas Cromwell, and this seems to be a moment that he could get rid of her. I don’t agree that Anne had to go simply because Cromwell wanted rid of her. It didn’t work like that: Henry had to decide. Suzannah Lipscomb rightly says that one of Henry’s difficulties was that the flirting and gossip was getting so out of hand that it looked as if he couldn’t keep order in his own household. He had to act to show who was boss, and once Cromwell got his chance he produced this ‘evidence’ that Anne had slept with her brother.

Clearly, she hadn’t. Anne knew exactly who she was and how to stay there. Yes, she shot her mouth off too often, but you did not commit adultery at the court of Henry VIII without everyone knowing about it. I think it must have been Cromwell who decided to not only go for an accusation of adultery but also of incest, because Henry was known to find that particularly repugnant.

What did you make of Cromwell?

Cromwell was there to do his job, but he was also driven by religion: a man with a mission. He was not, in my view, the secular-minded, progressive figure of reform and renewal that we see in the writing of my old teacher GR Elton or the novels of Hilary Mantel.

Cromwell, along with Wolsey, was the most capable person that Henry had, although he didn’t realise it until after his death. Their relationships were different, though: Wolsey could just walk in to see Henry, but Cromwell had to essentially make appointments.

Cromwell was basically just a useful man of business who helped to steer bills through parliament and did paperwork. He was more than a bookkeeper, but the ideas came from Edward Foxe and Thomas Cranmer.

Cromwell was not second minister in full until after the fall of Anne Boleyn; in many ways, she held that role. But once she was dead, Henry gave Cromwell much more power and he could really start to do things. He met opposition, but look at what he achieved: putting the Bible in the hands of the people, and major steps in defining the doctrine of a more reformed English church.

What were Henry’s strengths?

He was a big man in every sense: he bestrode the realm like a colossus. He was charismatic, and a great orator. He promoted men of low birth, such as Cromwell and Wolsey. He could be loving to wives and children, but they had to obey him. He was a patron of the arts, but used art as a political weapon rather than being a genuine connoisseur.

He also had terrible weaknesses. He had a ferocious desire for revenge, and vindictively pursued people whom he decided had betrayed him – most notably loyal servants and relatives. He was utterly egocentric, and eventually verged on megalomania.

He really did believe that he was a ruler with the status of an Old Testament patriarch.

Importantly, Henry also punished crimes of the mind. He wanted to look inside your head. he didn’t just want outward conformity, certainly from key people. That’s the big difference between him and Elizabeth I: she didn’t want to know what people were thinking; she thought it was dangerous and caused too much trouble. Henry did believe that he was a man of conscience, but this ‘conscience’ of his was infinitely elastic and self-serving. Whatever was expedient, he automatically considered to be just.

Is it fair to say that Henry was a man of pragmatism rather than strong belief?

He did have quite deeply held beliefs, and a genuine desire to change Christendom for the better. But you couldn’t cross him. For Henry, there was his way, and the wrong way. It’s similar to what people have told me about large private-sector organisations run by tyrannical chief executives: he didn’t have to tell you what you should be doing, you knew – or at least thought you knew – what he wanted, and did it before he even asked. That encapsulates the claustrophobia of Henry’s court. He could be a nasty piece of work.

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Henry VIII: The Quest for Fame by John Guy (Penguin, 160 pages, £10.99).