Henry VIII Week


Henry VIII by Hans Holbein circa 1540.  Should he have such a towering cultural legacy?

Last week, Olga Hughes published a fantastic interview on Nerdalicious with historian John Matusiak, who just released a new book, Henry VIII: The Life and Rule of England’s Nero. The interview and, heck, even the title of this book make it pretty clear that Matsuiak will be less than complementary towards old King Hal. And, frankly, rightly so. I haven’t read the book yet, but I do agree with the refreshing perspective.

I loved this interview and it inspired me to do a series of posts about Henry VIII and Game of Thrones this week.

Henry VIII is increasingly glamorized in fiction and popular histories, which often emphasize Henry’s charismatic side. The postmodern Henry is not a fearsome corpulent bluebeard so much as a young, handsome, witty athlete who charms the ladies and dazzles scholars with his erudition. As a modern audience, we find it hard to reconcile this handsome Renaissance charmer with the blood-soaked tradition. Consequently, I think we are beginning to come up with ways to explain, and by extension justify, his behavior.

People have blamed Henry’s less-than-noble acts on his leg wound, his diabetes, and the legacy of the Wars of the Roses. Undoubtedly, any blood poisoning and diabetes would have exacerbated any paranoid tendencies and made Henry insecure and intolerant. Still, I’d argue that Henry’s narcissism and his despotic ways were there right from the start. He suffered from what I call the “princeling problem.” That is, children with whipping boys sometimes turn out to be sociopaths or malignant narcissists. Right from the start, Henry’s narcissism is apparent. His 1510 execution of his father’s tax collectors, Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley, was nothing more than a rhetorical attempt to boost his popularity with his subjects and signal a new era.

Don’t get me wrong. I love The Tudors and happily gobble up books on Henry VIII, even when he is in an idealized form. But, when I’m alert enough to notice, part of me wonders if it is wrong to let Henry off the hook just because we want to like him.



Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

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