Henry VIII: Henry the horrible

England's cruellest king is back on TV, depicted as a gangster, more East End than Hampton Court. But despite our image of him as a vicious monster, he still has a paradoxical appeal. And, oh yes, he was the country's first Eurosceptic...
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The wrangling for Henry VIII's reputation began in his own lifetime. "Thy butcheries and horrible executions have made England the slaughterhouse of innocence," Reginald Pole, the future (and last) Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to him. For, to Pole, Henry was nothing less than a monster. He was the sponsor of the bastard new religion known as Anglicanism. And he had crowned his infamy by taking a slut, Anne Boleyn, as queen in place of the rightful Queen Catherine of Aragon. "Lucifer alone," the Archbishop concluded, "may fitly be compared to thee."

Pole was not alone. In the Catholic north of the country, they cursed as a devil the man who the Venetian ambassador once declared had "the face of an angel". Henry became known as the man who pulled down the monasteries - which fed and educated the people - and plundered the shrines. This man with an angel's face was, well, a monster.

When Henry heard of Pole's critical words, his response was spiteful. Unable to touch Pole abroad, he had his 80-year-old mother dragged to London and executed instead. His handling of the opponents of his religious changes revealed the man's inner cruelty. In 1536 the northern Catholics rose on behalf of their monks and shrines in a public outburst known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. Henry received their leaders kindly. Typically, once they had dispersed and no longer posed a threat, he had them strung up in their thousands.

If the Counter-Reformation of his elder daughter, Mary, had succeeded, Henry might today be no more than a footnote, a king responsible for an odd, not-quite-Protestant, interlude in a long Catholic history. If remembered at all, it might be for possessing such a grossly inflated ego that he believed he could be both King and Pope at once.

But it was Mary who became the curious interlude, consigned to history as "Bloody Mary" for her brief, inefficient purges. Power and the rewriting of history passed to her half-sister, Elizabeth, child of the usurper Anne Boleyn. And Elizabeth, unlike Mary, had not been disgusted by Henry's declaration that he was head of the church. As a child, she admired her colossal father. Once she was Queen, his reputation changed. In the new, expansionist Protestant England that Elizabeth I nursed, her father Henry became the first Eurosceptic. It was Henry who had apparently forged a new idea of England, no longer a small Catholic island kingdom dodging between the might of Spain and France, but destined for a more splendid and isolated role as a land apart and the centre of an empire.

By the time of Elizabeth's death this vision of England was in place. Sturdy Protestant colonies were growing fast in America. The new Protestant version of English history required a patriarchal figure: Henry. He became the architect of modern England - Protestant, imperial, idiosyncratic, distant from Europe, and defiantly alone. It was a strange epitaph for the man whose reign began, on a very different note, at the age of 18 in 1509. Our image of Henry tilts towards his last, crowded years of the divorce from Catherine, the Reformation and the succession of new wives. This is the king who has given so much copy to writers of operas, novels, tragic historical romances, films and television dramas. He is Charles Laughton, Sid James, Richard Burton, Keith Michell, and now tonight in ITV's new drama, he is portrayed by Ray Winstone as a rough-and-tumble gangster, more East End than Hampton Court.

We watch the life of Henry as if we were at a pantomime divided into six, juicy, bite-sized acts. First comes fat, pious Catherine of Aragon, the classic older wife displaced by the scheming office secretary, Anne Boleyn (Booh!). But she gets her comeuppance and is executed (Hooray!), leaving a gap for goody-two-shoes Jane Seymour. She produces the longed-for male heir (Hooray!), but dies tragically (Aah!). Then comes another set. There is comic relief in the form of the frumpy Anne of Cleves, a lesson in the dangers of promiscuous teenagers with Catherine Howard, and we end, sort of happily, with safety incarnate in school-marmish Catherine Parr, who survives by outliving him (Phew!).

Love, power and death. They make for an irresistible combination. Even at the time, Europe was agog, giggling but also appalled by the English bluebeard. Imagine the Charles and Di saga, not once but several times, with executions on top. The obsession is not modern, even if it has been reinforced by the way the modern heritage industry stamps Henry and his women on everything from playing cards to bars of chocolate.

In reality, the cavalcade of queens and religious changes for which we now remember Henry belonged to the last few years. The bloody 15-year twilight of his life has been stretched to cover the whole. We forget that Henry was married to one queen and a famously devout Catholic for a quarter of a century before any of this. The England of most of Henry's reign was part of the jigsaw of Catholic Europe. Its court was well known for the welcome it paid to Renaissance intellectuals, writers and artists. Erasmus, the intellectual superstar of the day, was an admiring visitor. So were a host of other Continental Catholic men of ideas. An Englishman or woman of the 1520s would have regarded the idea that the king might become an emblem of insular nationalism as madness. England's Queen was Spanish; its court was a centre of European thought, and Henry seemed far more devoted than most of his royal contemporaries to the living symbol of European Christian unity, the Pope. As the historian J J Scarisbrick noted, it was ironic that long after the titles "King of Ireland" and "Emperor of India" fell into the dust, British monarchs retained the title "Fides Defensor" (Defender of the Faith), which a grateful Pope awarded Henry for his furious written assault on Martin Luther.

Long after he turned on the Pope in 1533, Henry loathed Protestants. The man now remembered as the godfather of the Anglican church continued burning "heretics" to the end. England breathed a collective sigh of relief when this terrible bully breathed his last in Richmond Palace in 1547. Never again was England so near to being a state gripped by fear, a police state almost, as when Thomas Cromwell's spies were ferreting out "Papists" and "heretics", and hustling both to the stake. Never again was life at court quite so dangerous as it was under "bluff king Hal", when queens, bishops and statesmen as prominent as Sir Thomas More moved in single file up the royal hill of favour, and then down the other side to the block. Henry's England had in common with Stalin's Russia the fact that when your career went wrong, it could end in only one way.

But alongside the danger came the thrill. This is why the memory of his reign is still alive. It is extraordinary how many of those he destroyed praised him in their dying moments. "Mine eyes desire you above all things," the savagely mistreated and abandoned Catherine of Aragon wrote on her deathbed, in the malodorous ruin of a place where her husband had her confined. "I pray God to save the king," said Anne Boleyn on the scaffold, adding bizarrely: "For a gentler and more merciful prince was there never." There was an awesome magnetism to the monster called Henry Tudor. Those who felt it seem not to have regretted the experience, even when it ended in their death. We, too, feel just the pull that they felt.

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