Posterity has not thought highly of him.
Swiss historian Jacob Burkhardt called him a "clown and
devil alike". Charles Dickens found him an unbearably bloodthirsty and
swaggering bully, a fat, ruthless blot on the map of British history. King
Henry VIII of England still epitomizes cruelty, gluttony and lust. During
the thirty-seven years of his reign, some 70,000 people were sentenced to
death and executed. Even his most distinguished English contemporary, the
great Humanist and writer Sir Thomas More, who was his Lord Chancellor,
was charged with high treason, dying a martyr under the executioner's axe.
The king's great girth is often attested to by
historians. As a young man, Henry was good-looking and athletically built,
to a Venetian observer "... the handsomest potentate I ever set eyes on.
He is much handsomer than any sovereign in Christendom". By the end of his
life, Henry was so corpulent he could hardly walk. The portrait of 1539/40
by the Court Painter to the English Court,
Holbein the Younger,
a native of Augsburg, shows that the king was already quite portly. Only a
few years after it was painted, it took four gentlemen of the bedchamber
and a block and tackle to hoist Henry VIII into bed. Amorous escapades
were now out of the question, though he probably had had more than enough
of those anyway. Married six times, he became more notorious for his
marriages than for any other reason. Not that Henry VIII, in his youth an
excellent dancer and a witty raconteur, was the only Casanova in history
to grace, or disgrace, a throne. History has known far worse characters.
Three of Henry's marriages ended harmlessly, or at least
conventionally. His third wife died in childbirth; his fourth marriage
ended in divorce and his sixth wife survived him.
What makes Henry VIII such a fascinating villain is the
brutal way he rid himself of his other three wives. Because the Pope
refused to annul his first marriage, Henry broke with the Church of Rome
although he was a practising Catholic. He founded the Anglican Church,
made himself sovereign head of it and declared his marriage vows null and
void, which enabled him to marry Anne Boleyn without having to worry about
Papal interference. Anne Boleyn, like his fifth wife, was executed in the
Tower of London by the king's order. Both ladies were accused of having
been unfaithful to their lord and sovereign. The truth is, Anne Boleyn was
beheaded because Henry had fallen in love with another woman, whom he
wanted to marry. The charge of infidelity may have been true in Catherine
Howard's case. Only twenty when she married the king, she may well have
been bored by the marriage. At forty-nine, he had bags under his eyes and
was fat, surely not a man to die for.