Suzannah Lipscomb: The truth behind Henry VIII's reign

Roundup: Talking About History

We all think we know Henry VIII (r. 1509-47) and all there is to know about him. The Holbein portraits, the profusion of television dramas and films, the novels and histories set in his world make him ubiquitous. A whole set of clichés, truisms and fallacies accompany that famous silhouette. As a character, the king both repulses and fascinates us. His vast girth, larger than life persona, grandeur, pomp, arrogance and appetites make us strangely proud of this hyper-masculine, fabled monarch.

Yet much of what we think we know about Henry VIII is just that – fable. We think of him in stereotypes. In 2007, in her column in The Observer, Victoria Coren wrote with heavy sarcasm: ‘If you type “wife-killing” into Google, the first listing is a reference to Henry VIII, of wife-killing notoriety. Oh, that Henry VIII.’ Popular perceptions of Henry VIII, according to focus groups consulted by the market research agency BDRC for Historic Royal Palaces, are that he was a fat guy who had six, or maybe eight wives, and that he killed a lot of them. In April 2007, next to a tomb in Oxford’s Christ Church cathedral, where the heads of female figurines had broken off, I heard one man comment to another, ‘Henry VIII has a lot to answer for, hasn’t he?’

Myths and half-truths have accrued around Henry VIII through the distorted pictures given by filmmakers. Each film makes its own Henry and tells us far more about the preoccupations of each generation of filmmakers than they do about the king’s character. Recent scholarship has shown that the Henrys of the 1930s, 1960s and 2000s differ wildly because they were designed to appeal to the different cultural imperatives of each era. Charles Laughton’s Henry of 1933 in The Private Life of Henry VIII was an immature, sexually coy, sympathetic victim of his wives’ machinations. Made for a culture that revered royalty, he is a comic, overly sentimental manchild, to be pitied and petted. By 1969, in Anne of the Thousand Days, Richard Burton could play Henry as a good-looking, suave, alpha male. He may have been arrogant and self-centred, but this was the pre-feminist, James Bond era – such a macho, lovable rascal was an unproblematic hero. In the 21st century, Henry VIII changed again. Still an alpha male, this time Ray Winstone played him as a gangster-king, ‘the Godfather in tights’, according to the television series’ director Peter Travis. Winstone’s Henry mixes sensitivity with aggression; he’s easily led, has temper tantrums; and can be brutally aggressive, as in the disturbingly fictitious rape scene that writer Peter Morgan also added to the more recent film, The Other Boleyn Girl. As the critic Mark Lawson noted when the series came out, this Henry responds to sexual politics after the revolution – it is hard on Henry and soft on his women. The Tudors, a British television series made with more than one eye on the US market, plays into the zeitgeist in another way. Testament to a cultural obsession with male body image, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ Henry VIII looks like footballer David Beckham, but is otherwise characterised very similarly to the infantile king of The Private Life. Henry VIII’s screen appearances have seeped into the collective consciousness – but this does not make them any more reliable, or true, as representations of a historic figure....

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