Will the Real Henry VIII please stand up?

Henry VIII may be England’s most famous monarch, a man who still bestrides the country’s history as mightily as he dominated his kingdom nearly 500 years ago – but how well do we really understand him?

School children in Mussolini’s Italy were given a cartoon history book. The page devoted to Henry VIII showed him in the Tower of London, leaning on the headsman’s axe. In front was the block and a kneeling wife holding up an infant in supplication; behind, a queue of other wives waiting their turn. Italy and much of Europe had long seen Henry that way.

What, then, should we make of Henry today? There are two indisputable facts. First, Henry was personally dominant in both court and government. But dominant need not mean domineering. In any power structure where gaining and keeping the confidence of the head person is crucial to success, individuals are found in “sets” and “subsets” acting for mutual support and advantage. “Sets” are formed through natural ties of family, friendship, locality, taste, ambition and self- interest. Such patterns of relationship are observable in the courts of Byzantium, or around Hitler and Stalin or, for that matter around the Vice- Chancellor of a modern university. Henry VIII’s court was just like that.
The second certainty is that Henry the man and Henry the king cannot be separated. His private character and his political life interpenetrated.

Asking the real Henry to stand up reveals to twenty-first-century eyes a figure both monstrous and inadequate, but the perspective and values of Henry’s contemporaries were markedly different. For them Henry was a big man with big ideas. There is a chasm between the ways historians see Henry VIII and the way his subjects saw him. But it would be wrong to reject the latter because today we are so much better informed. Both characterisations have to be taken into account. Fallible though Henry was, modern criticism cannot destroy the reality that to his people he was a great king.


1. According to the text, Henry VIII was
A. a major character in children’s books.
B. a controversial historical figure that defies simple understanding.
C. England’s most obscure ruler.
D. none of the above.

2. Certain forms of government depend on
A. groups of individuals working together for their common benefit.
B. foreign powers.
C. Byzantine court policies.
D. modern universities.

3. The text claims that Henry VIII
A. never mixed private matters with politics.
B. set political concerns above private matters.
C. set private matters above political concerns.
D. none of the above

4. According to the text, modern historical research
A. presents Henry VIII the way his subjects saw him 500 years ago
B. presents Henry VIII as the most humane ruler in the world.
C. is intent upon destroying Henry’s positive image.
D. should not dismiss the view Henry’s subjects took of him.

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