Originally broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 2009

April 2009 was the five hundredth anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession to the throne and was marked by this series of five individual essays on key areas of his thirty eight year reign.



PART 1 – Henry as Renaissance Prince – Lucy Wooding

Everyone knows the Holbein image of Henry VIII – the colossus with the sumptuous clothes, impossibly wide shoulders, menacing expression  – which seems the epitome of majesty, an expression of royal authority bordering on tyranny. And in part the image is a truthful one. This is the man who single-handedly reconfigured kingship, religion, ideology and landscape in England. He was the first king to be called ‘Your Majesty’; he redrafted the coronation oath to suit his own purposes; he defied or destroyed every authority or individual who tried to stand in his way.

Yet behind this image lurked an abiding fear that his crown could be taken from him, and his pretensions to authority shattered by the kind of dynastic challenge and civil unrest which had characterised the previous century. Henry’s father, always portrayed as the dull, careful, parsimonious Henry VII, had begun his reign as a penniless adventurer who by a wild stroke of luck landed the English crown in a reckless gamble which paid off at the Battle of Bosworth. But Henry VII had no very convincing claim to the throne, and his children and grandchildren never forgot this. He spent his life fighting off pretenders to the throne, and Henry VIII never forgot this either.

So Henry’s magnificence, his luxurious court, his vast building projects, his jewels, his musicians, his banquets and masques – all the trappings of Renaissance rule, in fact – were an attempt to persuade, dazzle, convince, and paper over the cracks in his authority. We need to look at his jousts, his wars, his progresses, his tapestries, his vast hoard of belongings, and his allies at home and abroad, to understand the image he was trying to fashion. We also need to look at his disastrous marriages, to understand how desperate he was to secure the succession, and how frightening it was to him that he had to wait nearly 30 years as king for the birth of a male heir. The vindictiveness of his last years, too, needs to be understood in terms of his desperate anxiety about leaving his kingdom in the hands of a vulnerable child. He was always a brilliant actor, an alternately beguiling and terrifying king, but he was always only a step away from a terrible fear of betrayal, and the collapse of the image he had constructed like a house of cards.

Lucy Wooding is a Lecturer in Early Modern History at King’s College, London. Her research interests lie in the political, religious and cultural history of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, in particular the history of the Reformation. She is the author of “Rethinking Catholicism in Reformation England” and a recent acclaimed biography of Henry.


PART 2 – Henry Tudor and God – Prof. Peter Marshall
Among the many fickle and fragile relationships contracted by Henry Tudor there was only one that lasted across a lifetime, and in which Henry – just about – acknowledged himself as the junior partner: his relationship with God.  Religious devotion was part of the job description for medieval and renaissance monarchs, but Henry took his faith remarkably seriously. His piety was public and performed, but it was also the essence of Henry’s understanding of himself, self-serving and deluded though that often may have been. Monarchs – like priests – were anointed persons, who stood in a special relationship to the Almighty. Discerning His will was no private matter, but a political and public imperative. In Henry’s case, the determination to act on the dictates of his religious ‘conscience’ led not just to a change of wife, but to a political and cultural revolution, to a permanent reconfiguring of England’s relationship with the rest of Europe, and to the bloody deaths of hundreds of men and women who did not share the king’s reading of the mind of God.

Almost uniquely among British monarchs, Henry was a keen amateur theologian: in his early years he wrote a book against Martin Luther, and in his later incarnation as Supreme Head of the Church of England (an extraordinary innovation, found nowhere else in the Christian world, then or since) he scrutinised and corrected the pronouncements of bishops. An attempt to improve the wording of the Lord’s Prayer was gently headed off by Archbishop Cranmer. Henry’s religion was the Ayers Rock of the early Tudor cultural and political landscape. But its true purpose and character was an enigma to people at the time, and has remained so since. Was Henry a Catholic, a Protestant, or some other now extinct kind of Christian, an evolutionary dead end of theology and belief? No modern Christians want to claim Henry as one of their own, yet he did more than any other individual to shape the ways in which Christianity would develop in this country. Conformity, uniformity and obedience were key ingredients of Henry’s religious world view, but discord and division were its principal legacies.

Peter Marshall has been a history professor at Warwick University since 2006 where he teaches ‘Religion and Religious Change in England c. 1470-1558’. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, has edited several works on the Reformation and Protestantism and has written many papers and books, including “The Catholic Priesthood and the English Reformation”, Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England” and “Religious Identities in Henry VIII’s England.


PART 3 – Henry the Man o’ War – Geoffrey Moorhouse

The image of Henry VIII as a roistering, gluttonous and vicious serial husband, a despoiler of monasteries, is so powerful that it has obscured some of his more respectable achievements. He was a belligerent monarch and his rivalry with Francis I of France motivated a great deal of his non-domestic life, resulting in regular warfare between the two throughout their reigns. In the course of this, Henry increased English sea-power enormously (he was fascinated by warships and gunnery) and gave us a coastal defence system unheard of before his time. Effectively, he founded the Royal Navy; and in doing so, used so much timber for shipbuilding that he caused  Parliament to enact our first environmental legislation to protect natural resources. Geoffrey Moorhouse will trace the course of these enthusiasms and these largely ignored policies.

Known for his travel writing, Geoffrey Moorhouse has occasionally rested from his journeys through Samarkand and San Francisco to explore the Tudor world, particularly that of Henry the VIII. His books on Henry are   “The Pilgrimage of Grace, 1536-7: The Rebellion That Shook Henry VIII’s Throne” and “Great Harry’s Navy”.


PART 4 – Henry VIII and Drama – Dr Tom Betteridge

Henry VIII provoked different responses from writers and commentators during his reign.  The writers through their chosen dramatic metaphors commented on kingship and dealt with issues facing the king.  In John Skelton’s Magnfyfcence, written in 1519, Skelton depicts a Henry-like ruler being seduced by a gang of courtly vices who strip him of his wealth and power leaving him so desperate that he almost attempts suicide. The play Godly Queen Hester uses the Old Testament story of Esther to critically comment on Henry’s relationship with Wolsey, and in John Heywood’s The Play of the Weather, he combines support for Henry as head of the church with a plea for moderation.

Tom Betteridge argues that the most powerful dramatisation of Henry’s rule and in particular his personality was not put on stage until the reign of his daughter Elizabeth. Thomas More’s History of Richard III has at its centre a monstrous egotistical Richard who is at once Herrod and Henry – a king, like the real Henry, who uses the tricks of the stage to enhance and sustain his power.

It’s all a long way from the glamorous depiction of young Henry recently seen on television or the antics of Sid James in Carry On Henry – the playwrights of his own time understandably took him much more seriously.

Dr Tom Betteridge is a reader in early modern English literature at Oxford Brookes University where he works on early modern English literature and history. His particular interests lie in English Reformation literature, William Shakespeare, Tudor court drama, John Foxe, and critical theory. He has published and edited books on Tudor history writing, mid-Tudor literature and William Shakespeare, including “Shakespearean Fantasy and Politics”, “Literature and politics in the English Reformation” and “Tudor Histories of the English Reformations, 1530- 1583”.  Tom is currently working on a literary biography of Thomas More and study of love in Shakespeare. He is also working on a major project on Tudor court drama in collaboration with Hampton Court Palace. His essay will be on the subject of theatrical and cinematic representations of Henry from then to now.


PART 5 – Henry – 1536 – Suzannah Lipscomb

When Henry VIII came to the throne, and for the first twenty or so years of his reign, he was universally regarded as accomplished, benign, attractive, affable and gracious. But, by the end of his life, he had a reputation as a man of great savagery, caprice, rage and ruthlessness. What happened to make Henry VIII into a tyrant? Why and when did he change?

The answer seems to lie in one pivotal year of Henry VIII’s life. The year 1536 contained all the elements necessary to catalyse, foster and entrench this change. In the course of this one year, Henry suffered betrayals, threats, disappointments, anxieties, grief, injury and rebellion on a grand scale. It was his annus horribilis.

At the beginning of 1536, Henry had a near-fatal fall from his horse whilst jousting. The fall left this great athlete of the tiltyard unable to joust again, and injured with a debilitating ulcer in his leg that was the key to much of his later obesity and irascibility. Days later, Henry’s wife, Anne Boleyn suffered a miscarriage of a male child on the same day as his first wife, Katherine of Aragon’s funeral. Only a few months later, in May, Anne was ‘discovered’ to have been unfaithful to the King with a number of men from his privy chamber, and the confession of a key defendant provoked her rapid arrest, trial and execution. The fall, miscarriage, Anne’s alleged adultery and the death of Henry VIII’s only son, the illegitimate Henry Fitzroy, deeply affected Henry’s sense of his masculinity and potency, in the very year in which he turned 45, which in the sixteenth century marked the onset of old age. It is hardly surprising that Henry quickly remarried, to Jane Seymour, and commissioned portraits that boast of his great power and manliness.

It was also a year of great religious change. In March, Parliament passed the Act for the Dissolution of the Smaller Monasteries, and the summer saw a number of defiant religious innovations, including the publication of the Ten Articles, the first doctrinal statement of the new Church of England. These changes brought external and internal threats. Henry VIII’s cousin, Reginald Pole wrote a book in March 1536 attacking Henry’s role as the Supreme Head of the Church of England; a papal bull was circulating which threatened to make the invasion and overthrow of England’s throne legitimate, and in October, a series of linked uprisings together formed the largest peacetime rebellion against an English monarch. If it had come to battle, Henry’s small armies could not have withstood it.

Broken by the grief, failings and misfortunes of this year, Henry reacted with defiance and bombast – beginning a pattern of mistrust, fear, and merciless revenge that was to mark the rest of his reign. Understanding 1536 helps us really understand Henry VIII himself. It is possible to talk of Henry VIII ‘before’ and ‘after’ 1536.

Suzannah Lipscomb is a Research Curator at Hampton Court Palace and a member of the team re-interpreting the Tudor Palace to mark the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession to the throne in 2009. After gaining a double first in Modern History and a distinction in her Masters in Historical Research at Lincoln College, Oxford, Suzannah was offered the Jowett Senior Scholarship at Balliol College. She is just completing her D.Phil. in early modern French history, and is the author of “1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII”
N.B. Some music & extracts have been edited from the original broadcast version due to copyright restrictions


Lucy Wooding/Prof Peter Marshall/Geoffrey Moorhouse/Dr Tom Betteridge/Suzannah Lipscombe


Neil Rosser


Neil Rosser




There are no reviews yet.

Only logged in customers who have purchased this product may leave a review.

Select your currency
GBP Pound sterling