The Real Henry VIII

When Anne Boleyn caught Henry's eye, he had been married to Katharine of Aragon for nearly twenty years. He was in his late thirties.

In his younger years, Henry was famed for his piety, generosity and charm. It was only after the days of Anne Boleyn that Henry acquired his reputation as a tyrant, but his earlier behavior sends up red flags, as well. He simply had never been thwarted into displaying it.

Some modern historians have sought a medical reason for Henry's behavior. Various theories of disease affecting his mind have been put forth. Syphilis was a popular explanation in the Victorian times - and some still believe it today - but Henry's medical records show no usage of mercury, the standard treatment of the era.

The most recent theory is that Henry may have had a rare blood disorder, which would also explain his wives' difficulty in childbearing. However, the theory doesn't fit because Henry's surviving daughter, Mary, was not from her mother's first pregnancy.

My personal opinion is that his wives' childbearing woes can be attributed to not allowing the body to recover between childbirth/miscarriage, poor diet and other environmental factors, and Henry's behavior can be attributed to what we call today a "dissocial (antisocial) personality disorder." To put it in more common terms, Henry fit the profile of a sociopath.

1) Callous unconcern for the feelings of others. 

Henry had no qualms about killing those he had counted as friends. He sent his wife of twenty years, and his daughter, into exile and refused to allow them to communicate, even when Katharine lay dying. Even given his anger at Katharine refusing to cooperate with the divorce, his utter lack of concern or regard for the woman who had shared his life for two decades is chilling, not to mention his complete indifference to the suffering of his daughter.

He killed Anne Boleyn, the woman with whom he had been passionately in love only a few years before, and spent the time she was in prison ostentatiously celebrating with her replacement.

I do not believe he accepted the accusations against her as true. Even 500 years later, we know she was in one palace in view of the entire court when she was supposedly committing adultery in another. A cursory examination of the evidence would have been sufficient to prove her innocence, but she never really had a chance or proving her innocence.

Henry chose to "believe" it because it was a convenient way of getting rid of a woman whom he had come to despise. Even Ambassador Chapuys, who hated Anne Boleyn, wrote ironically to the Emperor: "You never saw prince nor man who bore his cuckold’s horns more pleasantly. I leave you to imagine the cause.”

Compare Henry's behavior after Anne's arrest to his reaction when Katheryn Howard was accused of having been sexually active before he met her. He at first refused to believe it and demanded an inquiry into the matter. He then screamed and cried when the evidence was presented to him, and demanded a sword to slay her himself.

2) Gross and persistent attitude of irresponsibility and disregard for social norms, rules, and obligations.

-- Henry's profligate spending nearly bankrupted his country, squandering one of the greatest fortunes in Europe, inherited from his father, and the massive influx of cash which came from dissolving the monasteries and seizing their wealth.

-- He was rude to ambassadors and monarchs alike.

-- He annulled his marriage to Anna von Kleefes (Anne of Cleves) after only a few months, breaking his alliance with her brother and defying the expected form of royal marriage. (You do not reject a princess sent to your realm in good faith.) England's credibility in the  eyes of the world was greatly damaged.

-- He tried to get ambassadors to agree to send princesses for him to check out and reject if they didn't meet his standards, something which would cause deep personal embarrassment to the ladies in question, and their home countries. He thought he should be an exception to a thousand years of royal marriage traditions.

-- He married commoners for "love" instead of the expected dynastic alliances. This lowered the prestige of his dynasty in the eyes of the world and weakened its hold on the throne.

-- He executed a crowned and anointed queen, who was supposed to be above earthly judgement, due to the mystical bond created during the coronation. No queen had ever been executed for treason, even those who rebelled against their husbands.

-- He overturned the traditional treason law of qui tacet consentire videtur, "silence implies consent." This meant if a man did not speak out against a concept, he was not guilty of treason. Henry turned that notion on its ear by decreeing any man who did not swear his oath was guilty of treason.

-- He swore he would give amnesty to rebels who turned themselves in, then executed them anyway. He seems to have made a similar offer to Anne Boleyn in exchange for her "confessing" their marriage was not valid, for after Cranmer left the Tower, she was smiling and said she was to be sent to a nunnery. She died on the scaffold only a few days later.

3) Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships, though having no difficulty in establishing them.

-- He killed two of his wives, women with whom he had professed himself passionately in love.

-- He exiled his daughter when she refused to accept her parents' divorce and encouraged her abuse to force her submission.

--He killed friends like Thomas More and Henry Norris without any qualms.

4) Very low tolerance to frustration and a low threshold for discharge of aggression, including violence.

Henry was physically violent with Will Somers on at least one occasion. He tried to grab a sword and slay a mentally handicapped fool who insulted Anne Boleyn and his daughter at a banquet. He had a famous screaming fit when Chapuys challenged him over his treatment of Katharine of Aragon. 

5) Incapacity to experience guilt or to profit from experience, particularly punishment.
Henry said, "God and my conscience are perfectly agreed." And he really meant it.

6) Marked readiness to blame others or to offer plausible rationalizations for the behavior that has brought the person into conflict with society.

He believed his wives should bear the blame for failing to provide him with an heir. In his mind, Katharine and Mary bore the blame for their exile because of their refusal to accept the divorce.

After Katheryn Howard was arrested, he blamed his council for his series of "ill-conditioned" wives.

When Anna von Kleefes expressed disgust when he tried to kiss her, disguised as a peasant, he decided she was "ugly" and attacked the one who had arranged the union. He tried to get out of marrying her, defying a thousand years of European matrimonial tradition. (Had it really been about heirs, Anna would have been the perfect choice for a wife.)

I could be wrong. I probably am. As I said, I'm a historical fiction author, not a historian. It's just the opinion of someone who has been fascinated with the Tudor era for decades.


  1. How about the jousting accident theory? I see you've posted about it. (I wish these posts were dated!) I think he had tendencies towards selfishness and callousness before the accident, but that exacerbated it.

    1. I think the effects of the jousting accident were more psychological than physical. I think it and made him realize his mortality, something he resented and took out on others. It made him even more determined not to let others stand in the way of what he wanted because he felt the passage of time like never before.

      The lingering pain from his infected leg wound made him more short-tempered, and of course, he began gaining weight, which led to even more health problems. The vain king was no longer the "handsomest prince in Christendom" and so his pride was wounded, too.

      I think he felt like more and more was being taken away from him, and he couldn't understand why. It turned him from a "suave" sociopath into a brutal tyrant.

  2. Henry the 8th was no King. He was a psychopath and a murderer. Nothing more. Pure and simple.

  3. Thanks for this fascinating argument! I agree with you--the signs are all there. His responsibility avoidance tactics, ruthless abuse, and self-perception of blameless victimhood whenever the chips were's all there. I also think it's interesting that he, like so many other narcissist/sociopaths, seemed to know what he could and couldn't get away with. For example--he didn't dare to have Katherine of Aragon executed for fear of retribution from her powerful allies. Nor could he conveniently execute Anne of Cleves for similar reasons. Only the women who were both his subjects and of a lower social class died at his command. Jane Seymour wasn't vilified and killed because she died before the period of extreme idealization (a hallmark of malignant/predatory narcissism) had run its course. Henry's wives fall from the heights of perfection seemingly overnight. He could not seem to perceive others as being complex and nuanced--they were either perfectly evil or they were perfectly good. It is horrific...and fascinating.

  4. Thank you for this post with which I totally agree - Henry 8th was inherently evil. The people of the British Isles suffered great damage from his behaviour and in many ways did not recover their amour propre until the end of the 17th Century. Not a King but a political criminal, masquerading as one.