Was Henry VIII a Glorious Leader or the Saddam of His Generation?

  April 18, 2009 at 4:28 pm by

With the upcoming 500th anniversary of his accession, Henry VIII continues to garner headlines in Britain. Marvin Gayford, the chief art critic for Bloomberg News, compares the English king to more recent tyrants like Saddam Hussein and North Korea’s Glorious Leader, Kim Jung Il.

Gayford thinks that Henry may have been one of the most influential people in world history. Had Henry successfully fathered a son with Catherine of Aragon, there might have been no English Reformation, no Puritans escaping to North America, and our world might have been vastly different.

Gayford notes that, although he may have been among the most influential, he was not among the best-looking. (I would object to this description of Henry. As a young man he reminded many of his handsome and charismatic grandfather, Edward IV: a tall, imposing athlete with red hair, Henry was very much admired in Europe during his youth and compared very favorably to other rulers.) The older Henry was depicted by Holbein with “piggy eyes, tiny pursed mouth and slab of a face.” As part of the celebrations an early copy of the Holbein portrait is now on display at Windsor Castle (until April 18, 2010). One of Henry VIII’s physical characteristics best known to us was his great size, which may be tracked by the progression in size of his suits of armor, also on display at the Tower of London (through January 17, 2010).

Gayford uses a Winston Churchill quote about a rather unattractive MP, that the man wasn’t as nice as he looked, to describe Henry as a ruler. In modern-language Henry committed “human rights abuses” with great enthusiasm.

Dr. David Starkey concurs, thinking that Henry killed more of England’s Who’s Who than any other English ruler. Among his victims, two queens, four prominent civil servants, a cardinal, 20 members of the peerage including one elderly female relative who was chased around the scaffold before being hacked to death, and six of his best friends.

The carnage was a result of Henry’s desire for a healthy male heir, which led to the break with the Roman Church. Starkey says that Henry created “a national Church and an insular, xenophobic politics that shaped the development of England for the next 500 years.”

Gayford continues his comparison of Henry with modern leaders who have continued to use some of the same methods of government. In a comment that is sure to be controversial Gayford notes that Gordon Brown is employing Henry’s financial policies (hiking taxes, borrowing from foreign bankers and debasing the currency).

Filed under British Royals, Historical Royals
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Related posts:

  1. Henry VIII Exhibit Contains Love Letter to Anne Boleyn
  2. A New Look at the Psychology of Henry VIII
  3. On the Trail of Henry VIII

One Response to Was Henry VIII a Glorious Leader or the Saddam of His Generation?

  1. iowabelle says:

    I meant to refer to the leader of North Korea, Kim Jung Il, when I said Glorious Leader.

    Despite a partiality for Henry, I probably wouldn’t refer to him as A Glorious Leader.

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