The destination for history

Do we know the real Henry VIII?


For far too long now, the full scale of Henry VIII’s misdeeds and miscalculations has been largely hidden from public view – mainly, it seems, beneath the copious skirts of his six wives, all of whom, both individually and collectively, have received far more than their fair share of literary attention.

While historians, popular and otherwise, have poured forth books about Henry the husband and his unfortunate bedmates, other far more pertinent features of his rule have gone largely unmentioned. Henry the spendthrift, would-be warrior, Henry the impulsive religious dabbler, not to mention Henry the man who single-handedly spawned the turmoil of the next two reigns, are all images of the king that are likely to remain curiously unfamiliar to many modern-day readers who might well consider themselves keen students of the reign.

When the most famous Tudor’s notorious ruthlessness is considered at all, it is still often trivialised – the regrettable by-product, as it were, of a one-dimensional pantomime villain whose more high-profile victims suffer their fate with an equally one-dimensional passivity and inevitability. In the meantime, for the more obscure – and often far more hideously abused – casualties of Henry’s manic repression, there is only oblivion. After all, most of us are aware of the fate of Thomas More, but, I suspect, far fewer know the full details of the imprisonment and slaughter of the London Carthusians who resisted the imposition of royal supremacy. During their seventeen-day confinement in a stinking dungeon at Newgate jail, Humphrey Middlemore, William Exmew and Sebastian Newdigate were chained to posts, loaded with lead, prevented from sitting and ‘never loosed for any natural necessity’ before being hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn.

Their prior, John Houghton, had suffered a similar execution earlier in the month, after which one of his arms was nailed to the door of the London Charterhouse as a gory reminder to the monks inside of what they, too, could expect.

Is all this common knowledge? And are, for that matter, the other excesses and follies of England’s most famous king generally appreciated: his hugely counter-productive escapades abroad; his needless search for a male heir and bungled divorce; his largely gratuitous break with Rome and gross financial mismanagement; his disastrously botched will and testament that blighted the reign of his ‘well-beloved’ successor so grievously? Once again, I suspect not. Perhaps, therefore, it’s time to cast new light on long-neglected dark corners and open a more than timely debate on the nature and causes of tyranny, and what, above all, made this particular tyrant tick.  

By John Matusiak

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books