Saturday, 19 July 2014

Was Henry VIII A Bloodthirsty Wife Killer?

Above: Henry VIII of England.

In the public mind at least, Henry VIII is usually depicted as a bloodthirsty tyrant, suspicious and paranoid, bloodthirsty and brutal, a man who did not hesitate to chop and change his wives when he felt like it, and who on more than one occasion put to death his closest ministers and friends. The numbers and facts speak for themselves: between 57,000 and 72,000 people were put to death during Henry's 38-year reign, including two of his wives (Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard), his two closest advisers (Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell), several nobles (the Duke of Buckingham, the Marquis of Exeter, the Countess of Salisbury, and the Earl of Surrey) and several especially prominent courtiers (including George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford). It was even rumoured in the mid-1530s that Henry was considering executing his eldest daughter, Mary, because she refused to acknowledge that her parents' marriage was incestuous and unlawful, and because she refused to swear the Oath of Supremacy. Mercifully, Mary retained her life, but the same could not be said for possibly as many as 71,000 others.

Was Henry VIII what we might call 'a bloodthirsty wife killer'? I decided to write this blog post having read Suzannah Lipscomb's intriguing and engrossing book 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII (2009). As Dr Lipscomb correctly asserts, in popular culture this most famous king is frequently portrayed as a bloodthirsty and cruel king who had six, possibly eight, wives; women whose lives came to notoriously premature ends. But the reality is undoubtedly more complex. Henry was not necessarily a capricious, shallow and fickle man who willingly surrendered his consorts to the executioner when he was bored of them, or when they failed to provide him with a much-desired son. As respected historian Alison Weir recognises in her study of the queens of Henry VIII: 'Taking into account the ever-present problem of the succession, it is impossible to dismiss Henry VIII as the cruel lecher of popular legend who changed wives whenever it pleased him'. Truth is, in fact, stranger than fiction. 

Above: Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard died prematurely, but were they married to 'a wife killer'?

This article considers whether Henry VIII can credibly be termed 'a wife killer' by looking at his two most infamous marriages, to Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, both of which ended on Tower Green. Henry's involvement with Anne was spectacular, for it catalysed the English Reformation as a result of breaking with the Roman Church, and it ushered in, as Lacey Baldwin Smith posits, the advent of the nation state. Married in 1533, Anne delivered arguably England's greatest monarch, Elizabeth I, in September that year. Boleyn biographers Eric Ives and G.W. Bernard both agree that Henry and Anne's marriage was volatile, 'sunshine and storms', although as Lipscomb intriguingly points out, observers commented on the royal couple's 'merry' times together more than they did with any of Henry's other wives. Although Anne was undoubtedly successful in promoting evangelicalism and was a responsible and enigmatic queen consort, she failed in her principal duty of giving birth to a much-longed for male heir. As everyone knows, in May 1536 she was accused of treason, incest and adultery with five men, and was executed as a result. Most scholars believe she was innocent of these crimes.

But, to turn to the question in hand: did ordering Anne Boleyn's execution render her husband, Henry VIII, 'a wife killer'? Lipscomb suggests not. Historical evidence credibly suggests that Anne was in high favour until barely three weeks before her death. Diplomatic correspondence indicates that Henry VIII was forcefully pressuring the European powers to recognise his second marriage and support Anne until as late as April 1536. It is therefore necessary to dispose of the myth that Anne's miscarriages caused Henry to tire of her. It is also a myth that Henry 'murdered' his wife because he had come to loathe and despise her. What, in fact, probably happened, as Lipscomb suggests in 1536, is that Anne's courtly behaviour with male courtiers caused her husband to believe that she was guilty of extramarital fidelity. She credibly suggests that Mark Smeaton, a lowly musician executed alongside the queen, was obsessed with Anne in a disturbing way perhaps reminiscent of a modern day stalker, and by extension admitted to sleeping with the queen as part of a misguided and disturbed fantasy. The queen then engaged in an exchange with Henry Norris, her husband's groom of the privy stool and personal favourite, in which she reprimanded him for seeking 'dead men's shoes' by looking to marry her when the king died. Speaking of Henry VIII's death was treason. Norris denied it and both he and Anne recognised their folly, the queen beseeching him to swear that she was a good woman as a result. When informed of these dangerous conversations, Henry VIII, shocked and in disbelief, ordered an investigation, which led to incriminations of several more men: Anne's own brother George, Francis Weston, William Brereton, and two others, Thomas Wyatt and Richard Page, who were later freed. They were all imprisoned, including the queen. 

Henry's behaviour during Anne's imprisonment, condemnation and execution was bizarre. He experienced severe distress and pain, on the one hand, for example comforting his illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy, duke of Richmond, and telling him that only by God's favour had Fitzroy and Mary Tudor, the queen's stepdaughter, escaped Anne's poisoning. Yet he also demonstrated happiness, leading the imperial ambassador to conclude that the king was only too pleased that his queen had supposedly cuckolded him, for it left him free to marry his new love, Jane Seymour. Henry also took a morbid, even disturbing, interest in the practical details of Anne's execution, and Weir credibly conjectures that he ordered for a French swordsman to execute his wife five or six days before her trial - meaning that he always intended to have her beheaded. This might seemingly suggest Henry was a wife killer, but let us not forget that sixteenth century social and gender norms dictated Henry's responses. The queen's alleged adulteries posed a severe threat to his masculinity by suggesting he could neither rule his wife nor his household, two crucial signifiers of successful manhood. Worse still, Anne had allegedly ridiculed Henry's sexual prowess, laughing with her brother about it. Whether she had in fact done so or not, it is possible to understand Henry's severe actions. Humiliated, enraged and devastated, he acted in this manner to restore his manhood, for his wife had supposedly undermined and threatened the social order of their world. It is essential to recognise that Henry had not been nourishing hatred for Anne for most of their marriage. He publicly and earnestly supported her until three weeks before her death. He ordered an investigation, examinations, and public trials for both her and the men accused with her. Henry did not hastily put his wife and five innocent men to death in a fit of bloodthirsty revenge. Baldwin Smith's belief that Anne 'was dispatched with callous disregard' is, therefore, not necessarily correct.

Above: Suzannah Lipscomb suggests that Henry VIII ordered portraits like the one above to be painted of him, depicting him as resolute, courageous and stern and celebrating his masculine glory, so fatally undermined by two of his wives.

While it is convincing to suggest that Henry VIII cannot be termed a wife killer regarding the downfall and death of Anne Boleyn, can the same be said of Katherine Howard? The grounds for designating Henry VIII a 'wife killer' regarding Katherine are even less firm. Henry adored his fifth consort, whom he married in the summer of 1540, and lavished jewellery and expensive presents on her. However, Katherine had an unsavoury past, and in the autumn of 1541, returning from a northern progress, the king was informed by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer of his queen's misdemeanours. The only evidence for Henry being 'a wife killer' comes in his initial response to this unwelcome news. When sitting with his Council, the king began weeping in a fit of sorrow, and called for a sword to execute that 'wicked woman' himself. Does this betray a bloodthirsty longing to be rid of a tainted wife? It is not necessarily that simple. Lipscomb convincingly indicates that after 1536, the year of Anne's execution, Henry became increasingly paranoid and suspicious, and reacted more and more brutally to personal betrayal. In a sense, he emerged as a tyrant. His response to Katherine Howard's behaviour can more plausibly be viewed as evidence of his views regarding betrayal. He refused to see Katherine ever again, and ordered her execution as a savage response to her betrayal, but which was fully justified and expected by the standards of the time. It was Katherine who was condemned for her behaviour, not her husband.

Again, historical facts need to be clearly understood here in order to explain Henry's response to Katherine's alleged adulteries. He was informed in November 1541 and that same month, the queen was imprisoned at Syon Abbey, while her supposed lovers and accomplice Lady Rochford were also incarcerated. The two men were executed the following month. However, it was only three months later, in February 1542, that Katherine and Lady Rochford were executed at the Tower of London. Again, this does not suggest that Henry VIII reacted hastily and bloodthirstily to news of his queen's betrayal. Some historians have conjectured that he considered saving Katherine's life and merely annulling the marriage, rather than beheading her, because he still loved her and was devoted to her. It is true that he did not grant his fifth queen and her servant a public trial. They were sentenced by Act of Attainder and were not given the chance to speak in their own defence. A unjust and, to our eyes, tyrannical move, perhaps motivated by personal vengeance and a desire to silence the woman he had once loved without letting her defend her actions, but in actual fact Henry VIII consistently used acts of attainder against those suspected of treason, as Lipscomb suggests, denying them the chance to speak out in open court. Katherine's relatives, the Earl of Surrey and the Duke of Norfolk, would both be sentenced to death this way. 

Henry VIII loved Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard intensely, as his love letters to Anne show and his lavish gifts of jewellery and costume to Katherine also prove. His emotional responses to news of their alleged adulteries also prove how much he cared for and loved them: he wept openly, cursed his bad luck, and became increasingly paranoid and dark as a result. As Philippa Gregory, the novelist, credibly suggests, after Anne's execution in 1536, the Tudor court became a darker place ruled by a suspicious and irascible monarch fearful of being betrayed at every corner. Henry did not rush hastily to condemn or kill his wives. He allowed Anne and her supposed lovers the chance to speak out in open court at their trials, and he showed initial signs of mercy toward Katherine Howard. But, as those who crossed Henry VIII found to their peril, the Tudor king responded brutally when he was, in his eyes, deceived and betrayed. This does not make him 'a wife killer', necessarily, but a man intensely concerned with maintaining and protecting his honour and sense of manhood, as were the majority of sixteenth-century men. 


  1. 'guilty of extramarital fidelity'? Nicely put

  2. Dear Conor,
    Thankyou for your blog. It’s very interesting. I think it’s worth stating at the start that your argument revolves around “intent”. Did Henry intend to kill his wives? And at what point did he intend to do this? I don’t think it’s plausible to argue that Henry was not a wife killer. Of course, Anne and Katherine H met their death at his end. I think it might be useful to draw some wider comparisons. So, for example, if there was a husband who wanted to be with the nanny, rather than his wife and then killed the wife to be with the nanny, are they a wife killer or not? So the intent was not the death of the wife but the fact that he wanted to make it easier to be with the nanny. Surely, this argument is on the same level with some of the reasons why Henry got rid of Anne. So, if I want a male heir, it could conceivable be easier if my wife who does not look like producing one is killed to make way for another wife. In these two situations, does Henry and our hypothetical husband become any less wife killers because they did not intend to kill their wives for killing’s sake? I would argue no. Both cases see killing as a means to achieving another goal but we could say that others in similar situations would choose different routes. Just a thought.
    Also, I think in defence of your argument, it might also be useful to consider the case of Catherine Parr. If we go down the line that Henry declined after 1536 and went down the road of killing more often than he did not, the fact that Catherine survived the events of 1546 are a more positive argument that Henry did not always turn to violence against his wives as a means of resolving difficult problems.
    Hope these thoughts are helpful.
    Julian Eades

  3. Julian,
    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. You are absolutely right to point to the importance of 'intent' - I hope I show in this article, in which I agree with Suzannah Lipscomb, that Henry VIII was not the bloodthirsty monarch who was ready to sacrifice wives who displeased him at a whim. He was fully supporting his wife Anne Boleyn until less than a month before her death, which rejects the traditional interpretation of the breakdown of their marriage, enshrined in popular culture.
    Your analogy is interesting - and I would certainly not disagree with you that, by virtue of sentencing to death Anne and Katherine, Henry was a wife-killer. Rather, I would suggest that the prevailing and popular view of him as a tyrannical and suspicious man who did sentence to death wives the minute they angered him or failed to bear sons is not necessarily correct - as mentioned he was still committed to Anne weeks before her disgrace and he was fully in love with Katherine at the time of her downfall. It was other circumstances that forced his hand, namely suspicion of sexual misconduct, not necessarily their failure to provide heirs - although this did certainly contribute.
    You are right to mention Katherine Parr. Certainly she could also have ended up one of Henry's victims, but one also questions whether Henry ever seriously tacitly supported the moves against her for, as with Cranmer and Stephen Gardiner, it has been suggested that he manipulated factions within his court to cause disarray and conflict while retaining and conveying his own power.
    Still, very interesting. Katherine pleaded her ignorance and won Henry's forgiveness, but wives two and five were not granted any such mercy. Why was this? Was it because Katherine Parr got a chance to speak to the king, when the others did not? Perhaps not - Anne made the famous appeal to Henry, holding Elizabeth, outside the palace walls, while popular legend makes the (probably apocryphal) claim that Katherine Howard ran down the corridors of Hampton Court to talk to him. So maybe the likelier reason is that Katherine Parr was not accused of adultery or infidelity. Sexual misconduct may have offended the king most of all.
    Thanks for your comment.

  4. A couple of final thoughts-the idea of a tyrannical and suspicious man who on a whim got rid of his wives may be overplayed as suggested with Katherine P. However, with my argument above, it may have become a natural response for him to kill to get rid of flawed marriages. Clearly, there must have been a dialogue going on for him in his personality before he reached this conclusion but reached it he did twice. So, there seems to have been tipping points where Anne was fatally flawed despite their previous affection and so with Katherine H. And probably the link might not be sexual misconduct but the concept of honour which would then link the two queens with other Henrician deaths such as More. When Henry felt his honour had been compromised, he would then kill. The fact is that Katherine P did not reach this tipping point but perhaps came close.

  5. Given that he had two wives executed, it's a bit hard not to see him as a wife killer. cettainly not the ideal husband.

  6. I'd have to disagree with this, with Anne Boleyn, Henry was a wife killer. In 1536, he was 44 years old and still without a male heir. That was his basis for annulling his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, and thus he wasn't going to tolerate not having a son with Anne Boleyn. Evidence has shown Henry as capable of saying one thing and meaning another so this "support" he showed Anne Boleyn doesn't really say anything. At the end of the day, Anne and five other men had false charges made up against them and were sent to their deaths all at the behest of Henry VIII of England. I don't believe in the theory that this was all an attempt for Henry to regain his manhood. He wanted Anne out of the way, and he wasn't going to tolerate having another wife in the background while he entered a new marriage. And then there is his behavior with Jane Seymour at this time as well. And you know what else is telling? Henry VIII told Jane Seymour (who spoke up against his policy) during the Pilgrimage of the Grace to remember the previous queen who had died due to interfering with matters of state. Now if Henry believed Anne had actually committed adultery, why was he saying this to Jane Seymour who certainly hadn't displayed behaviors like Anne? It was a warning to Jane, that Henry didn't like women who meddled in his affairs. That is very telling and chilling. As for Katherine Howard, I believe he was genuinely upset to discover Katherine Howard's past, but he still had her executed, which makes him a wife killer. Look at what he did with Jane Rochford, who was rumored to be insane during this time. Henry had the law changed to make it legal to execute insane people. There was vengeance at play as well.