Canceling Henry VIII

Henry VIII was once lionized as an English patriotic icon and as one of the truly great men of history. No longer. But there’s a problem.

Detail from "Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons" (c. 1543) by Hans Holbein the Younger (WikiArt.org)

Times change. A century ago, Henry VIII was lionized as an English patriotic icon and as one of the truly great men of history. He was praised for being highly cultured and for his love of music, and was credited with writing the popular folk tune, “Greensleeves”. He was a strong leader who had not only founded the Royal Navy but had laid the foundations for the English nation and therefore the British Empire. With respect to the way he treated his wives, he was considered a “lady’s man”!

And, of course, he was to be praised for liberating England from the Catholic Church.

Today, Henry VIII is apparently a pariah who is unmentionable. This was evident in the decision by the BBC to cancel him from an eight-part television series on the history of British art. The plan had been to invite discussion of a work of art, Field of the Cloth of Gold, which depicts the Tudor monarch, dressed in a resplendent gown woven with gold and silver thread, riding to meet the French king, Francis I in 1520. The contemporary artist, Jeremy Deller, was invited to offer commentary on the painting but refused on the grounds that Henry VIII was one of the worst people in British culture, employing a less than charming or eloquent expletive to accentuate his point. “I despise him,” Mr. Deller added.

To Mr. Deller’s credit, he gave Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries as a principal reason for his low opinion of the Tudor tyrant. “He’s an iconoclast fundamentalist,” Mr. Deller explained, “just a horrible, horrible person.”

There can be no denying that Henry VIII was indeed “a horrible, horrible person” and Mr. Deller’s disdain for him is much healthier than British imperialism’s “patriotic” lionizing of him. His view is in keeping with the judgment of Hilaire Belloc. “Henry ruled by terror during all the later part of his life,” Belloc wrote. “Men yielded to new and dreadful powers abominably exercised for coercion, and very nearly all – all save a handful of heroic monks and the two shining examples of Fisher and More – became abject.” William Cobbett was even more vociferous in his condemnation of Henry’s reign:

[A]ll law and justice were laid prostrate at the feet of a single man, and that man a man with whom law was a mockery, on whom the name of justice was a libel, and to whom mercy was wholly unknown.

It is easy to imagine that no man’s property or life could have security with power like this in the hands of such a man…. Numerous things were made high treason which were never before thought criminal at all…. He spared neither sex nor age if the parties possessed, or were suspected of possessing, that integrity which made them disapprove of his deeds…. [H]is people, deserted by their natural leaders, who had been bribed by plunder or the hope of plunder, were the terrified and trembling flock; while he, the master-butcher, fat and jocose, sat in the palace issuing orders for the slaughter, while his high priest, Cranmer, stood ready to sanction and to sanctify all his deeds.

Such is the enormity of Henry VIII’s destructive and tyrannical impact, and such is the sheer grossness of his “achievement”, that Cobbett’s splenetic pouring forth of his scorn at the king and his diabolical work does not seem the least out of place or hyperbolic. For Cobbett, Henry was “the most unjust, hard-hearted, meanest and most sanguinary tyrant that the world had ever beheld, whether Christian or heathen”, a judgment that is too shrill, indubitably, but not unwarranted. Who, at any rate, will step forward in Henry’s defence, even in the presence of such a sweeping and over-the-top appraisal of his place in history?

Even if Cobbett goes too far, we are not minded to contradict him, even as many other tyrants, probably even worse, come to mind. Nor was Cobbett the only nineteenth century author to write so scathingly of Henry VIII. Charles Dickens was equally strident in his condemnation: “The plain truth is, that he was a most intolerable ruffian, a disgrace to human nature, and a blot of blood and grease upon the History of England.”

Taking these views together, it is clear the Mr. Deller is in very good company in seeing Henry VIII as “a horrible, horrible person”. But does this mean that the tyrant should simply be cancelled from the culture, not to be mentioned in discussions of history? Why didn’t Mr. Deller use the opportunity to discuss the painting’s depiction of pride and pomp to discuss the ugly reality of such pompous pride? Why did he not show, in a series on the history of art, how Henry’s “iconoclastic fundamentalism” had led to the destruction of numerous beautiful works of art and many splendidly magnificent architectural edifices? Why did he not speak up for those who had been executed for their Catholic faith? Why did he not comment on the manner in which self-worshipping, self-defining narcissism and the quest for self-empowerment leads to a cancel culture in which those who have power use it to cancel those who don’t have it?

These questions need answering. Might it be due to the present cancel culture bearing a creepy and uncanny similarity to Henry’s cancel culture? Today’s “iconoclastic fundamentalism” has cancelled the great works of western civilization on the grounds of their alleged “racism” or “sexism” or “fascism”, just as Tudor culture had cancelled artistic works, and the lives of people, on the grounds of their being “papist”. Today’s cancel culture has declared war on Christianity, cancelling any mention of the widespread persecution of Christians around the world. Today’s cancel culture is defined by self-worshipping, self-defining narcissism and the quest for self-empowerment in which those who have power use it to cancel those who don’t have it.

The key and primal issue, now and always, is the problem of pride and the destruction it causes, whether it’s the pride of the Tudors, the pride of the communists, the pride of the Nazis or the pride of todays’ Pride movement.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About Joseph Pearce 31 Articles
Joseph Pearce is the author of Faith of Our Fathers: A History of 'True' England (Ignatius Press, 2022), as well as of numerous literary works including Literary Converts, The Quest for Shakespeare and Shakespeare on Love,Poems Every Catholic Should Know (TAN Books) and Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know (Augustine Institute/Ignatius Press), and the editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions series. His other books include literary biographies of Oscar Wilde, J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. A native of England, he is Director of Book Publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, editor of Faith & Culture, and is Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. Visit his website at jpearce.co.

66 Comments

    • Mary Stewart was executed because she was involved with English traitors who endeavored to assasinate their queen so as to put a Catholic, Mary, on the throne.

      • Interesting article and follow on discussion. Two thoughts come to mind 1): History is much more complicated than we know. Very very few people read enough and have the where with all to objectively view the past. Also one needs to be aware of writer or authors biases. Even reading the bio’s of Ronald Reagan will lead one to many different opinions, depending on the authors perspective 2) Judging history by today’s culture can easily lead to wrong conclusions, although one has to wonder how today’s culture or standards will be viewed.

    • No, Mary was guilty of conspiring to usurp the throne from Elizabeth, the rightful Queen of England. That’s treason, not martyrdom.

      • CWR appears to be attracting what we might call “Arch-Anglicans,” group of people still devoted to the thoroughly discredited Whig interpretation of history and who collectively can fit in a Volkswagen Beetle.

      • Mmmm. But on the other hand, Mary had been held prisoner by Elizabeth for 18 years after fleeing to her for protection. That would tend to make anybody cranky.

    • She got what she deserved for scheming to take the throne of England and restoring corrupt Catholicism!

      • How about corrupt English Church. The murder of all who refused to change their religious beliefs. The stealing of private property, murdering those who refused to bow down to a man.
        The spoiled, pompous, privileged narcissist who thought his birth of privilege gave him the right to demand his way.
        This same spoiled eeliest married six women, while forcing at least 8 other women, some as young his daughters.
        Corrupt Catholic, how about the corrupt British royalty.

    • Elizabeth I very reluctantly agreed to the execution of her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, because she was given irrefutable evidence of Mary’s complicity in a plot to overthrow Elizabeth and install herself on the English throne. It had far less to do with her Catholicism and much more to do with her treachery. This is established history.

  1. Henry the V111 definitely needs to be show cased for the person he was. It’s just another fact of history that shouldn’t be shoved under the rug because someone doesn’t like him. He was a big player in England’s history and it shows the attitudes of the time and the effects of his position on his country and people.

    Canceling history is denying people the truth and learning from the past.

  2. Once again, the Roman Catholic writer uses the glass darkly.
    Given the age in which Henry the eighth lived, I would say that a King who tried to set minimum wages and maximum prices was enlightened.
    It was at the behest of Pipe Julius II that the young Henry invaded France. That same Henry then appealed to Pope Leo X to lift the excommunication from the deceased King James the fourth of Scotland, a treacherous King whom, as Thomas Spinelli warned Henry in 1509, was already making plans to invade England… It is all in the state papers. What Henry became was a tragedy for England and himself.
    The constant spinning of stories to whitewash the behaviour of the Roman Church has been and is untruthful and shameful. I write as one who has studied Oliver Cromwell and the eight years of Civil War in Ireland, which occurred before Cromwell went there. The legend spun by the Catholic Church belies the ‘indulgence’ given to the O’Neils by Pope Urban the eighth. Look it up.

    • Laurie Pettit – I suggest you remove the beam from your own eye before you discuss the motes you think are in Catholic writers’ eyes.

  3. I think trying to cancel Henry VIII is ironic. Catholics like More who is upheld as a martyr tortured and burned people for not believing in the catholic faith. That was horrible. What about bloody Mary? What about the inquisitions in Spain and other places in the world? I’m sorry, but this is a case take the plank from your own eye before looking at the speck in my. It’s rich that they want to cancel Henry when they have been a million times worse about executing people.

    • It was St. Thomas More’s duty as Chancellor to enforce the law to the extent it did not violate the laws of almighty God. His actions were in defense of Truth, however much modern man detests the methods of his day and age. Those who murdered him did so not in defense of Truth, but in support of abject heresy and schism. And as always, if one is going to condemn the Church for actions taken in centuries past, the question that must be answered is how did their actions compare with those of other entrenched powers of the day? No power accorded any semblance of modern notions of due process in the middle ages. The closest was the Church.

      • Viewing the situation honestly, it is difficult to justify More’s actions. He executed people with no sense of guilt or remorse. That’s not quite the behavior of a true saint.

        • Athanasius, not sure about guilt but from what I’ve read he did have remorse in that he wanted more than anything to see them repent at which point they would have been spared. And he didn’t execute anyone. He only enforced the laws of the realm. Ultimately it was Henry VIII who was responsible for what went on, for better and for worse.
          I have little patience for those (not meaning you, just generally) who fail to seek perspective and context when judging those who lived in a previous age and who bore burdens that none of us have. We take for granted a certain stability in the domestic order which they didn’t have. As seen from the perspective of his times, the so-called “Reformation” presented an enormous threat to the social order, as the Peasants War which resulted in the massacre of many thousands and which was then ongoing in Germany proved. Again, context is vital.

          • Faithful, it’s also worth noting that Henry VIII continued to burn Protestants while also executing Catholics after he decided to break with the Church because it was interfering with his libido.

          • Yes, very good points. I appreciate the reminder that we need to avoid the tendency to interpret the past through the present. As I think about both Henry and More, I see two complicated and complex people who accomplished some good and made some questionable decisions. Given their complexities and the culture of their historical age, a sense of ambivalence might be the most appropriate response. Thanks for the good thoughts.

        • No Heidi. Only justified withholding judgment on those who lived in prior times and who shouldered burdens we can’t imagine today,and who are no longer around to defend themselves.

    • “Bloody” Mary is so called over the deaths of some 300 people. Henry VIII’s tally is in the tens of thousands.

      The Spanish Inquisition? Maybe you should read Henry Kamen’s book instead of mindlessly believing the Black Legend. Or watch “The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition,” the BBC documentary that is available online.

      Oh, and in 350 years the Spanish Inquisition accounted for 3000-5000 deaths. Henry VIII would have scorned them as pikers.

      “It’s rich that they want to cancel Henry when they have been a million times worse about executing people.”

      Your math skills are faulty. And the “they” you are accusing is quite vague. It’s odd that you seem to blame Catholics for wanting to “cancel” Henry VIII when this article by a Catholic writer is about disapproving of “canceling” him.

    • Not saying I’m disagreeing with some of your points but Edward VI and Elizabeth I executed as many if not more Catholics than Mary did Protestants. On top of that Catholics were not even allowed to have rosaries if they were blessed by the Pope. And priests could be hanged drawn and quartered if caught. The households that kept them would also be punished.

  4. This is a disgusting and bigoted article. As a Christian you should be ashamed of spewing such sectarian nonsense.

    • “Disgusting and bigoted” are strong accusations, and I’m not sure I agree. In what sense does the article reflect those qualities specifically?

    • The BBC is hardly a Catholic institution. They were the ones doing the “cancelling”. As for the rest, people are entitled to their opinions. Henry VIII did considerable harm to a great many people, in and out of the Church. His actions deserve careful scrutiny, and IMO, condemnation. He helped divide Christians from one another for centuries. And sent many to their deaths for doing nothing more than defending Christ and His Church.

      • More harm was done to the Catholics under Henry the 8th’s son and Elizabeth. Although I agree he was a despicable tyrant, Henry considered himself a Catholic to the day that he died. He believed in Catholicism totally it’s just that he wanted to be head of the English Catholics instead of having the pope be the head of the English Catholics.

    • What I just came here to say – the last paragraph is insane, utterly bigoted.

      And also using one individual’s decision to not speak on a piece of art as a thinly veiled excuse to have a go at socialism and human rights movements. *eyeroll*

  5. How to break the news as gently as possible? No academics are writing Whig History these days. Neither are authors of “popular history.” That approach has been dead for generations. So why beat a decomposed horse?
    Surely Catholic writers could be consulting authors newer and more accurate than Belloc and Cobbett? J.J. Scarsbrick’s HENRY VIII, a standard work of academic biography, appeared in 1968. For readers seeking something less academic, Carrolly Erickson’s series on the Tudor monarchs are are fine examples of popular history. I just finished two excellent and deeply researched recent biographies of Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart by John Guy that expose all the players’ warts. Even Mary Tudor gets due sympathy these days, for example in Linda Porter’s MARY TUDOR: THE FIRST QUEEN. History is a never-ending quest to know the past, not a branch of Catholic apologetics.

      • That’s rather funny considering that Sandra Miesel co-authored the very fine work of apologetics titled The Da Vinci Hoax (yes, I’m biased, being the other author, but I am also correct).

    • “How to break the news as gently as possible? No academics are writing Whig History these days. Neither are authors of “popular history.” That approach has been dead for generations. So why beat a decomposed horse?”

      Perhaps you could point out the part of the article that claims that either academics or authors of popular history are writing Whig history?

      Mr. Pearce appeared to me to be pointing out that criticism of Henry VIII and the Whig view of history is not something new, hence his choice of Cobbett, Dickens, and Belloc. And also, of course, because their writing is forceful and forthright and robust and delightful to read.

      • I mentioned “Whig History” in my comment, so Sandra Miesel may be referring to me. Regardless of whether historians or scholars are peddling that narrative these days, many of them did so for generations, and the damage is done. You can observe its lasting influence on the popular imagination whenever this era is discussed.

  6. I have to laugh when “conservatives” complain about cancel culture. I’m 68 years old. Tbe first attempt to cancel someone that I ever witnessed was in 1960 or 61 when my father took me to the movies in Jersey City to see “Spartacus” The American Legion was picketing the tbeatre. Our Diocese of Trenton newspaper featured a column written by Hedda Hopper urging the same. Shoe on other foot hypocrisy.

    • A curious comment. As far as I can tell, Hedda Hopper was not Catholic, and the American Legion is not Catholic. But the author of this piece is Catholic and he is opposing the cancel culture. So…are you arguing that he must, by virtue of somehow being a “conservative”, be lumped in with something he had nothing to do with some 60+ years ago? As I say, curious. Certainly not convincing.

      • I call him a”conservative” because HE says in his bio description that he is a senior contributor at the Imagintive Conservative. I believe him. I am not criticizing him as a Catholic although as a graduate of St. John’s University and St Ambrose school in NJ I’ve seen plenty of “cancel culture” by the Catholic Church.

    • Am I to conclude that you think that “canceling” historical personages because you disapprove of their actions is a good thing? Or that cancel culture is something you admire?

  7. Charles Dickens isn’t exactly known for being kind to his own wife, though admittedly he didn’t send her to the block. How fortunate for him that Henry existed to make him look better.

  8. John 7:53-8:11. The need to be right is such an underrated human foible. I seem to recall a horrific heretical inquisition being carried out in Catholic Europe at the same time as Henry VIII. Like the current war between Russia and Ukraine or Tigre and Ahmara-Afar in Ethiopia, wouldn’t it be nice if we could practice what we preach as followers of Jesus Christ? That’s why Reconciliation and the Eucharist beside being great Soul Food also great Brain Food.

  9. I’ve always wondered if Henry had suffered a serious brain injury after his near death jousting accident in 1536. He was knocked unconscious and thought dead. Contemporary accounts noticed how his personality changed afterward and he was prone to anger, paranoia and irrationality etc.

    We know now that head injuries/concussions (especially repetitive ones…it wasn’t his first head injury) can have profound ramifications for physical and mental health as well as personality.

    I know in the Screwtape Letters CS Lewis places Henry in hell, but only God can truly judge…especially if he was ill.

    As for “cancelling him”, is that even possible for someone who lived close to half a millennium ago?

    • You can find much interesting speculation about Henry VIII’s health by using these search terms:

      henry viii diet mental health

  10. “Today’s cancel culture is defined by self-worshipping, self-defining narcissism and the quest for self-empowerment in which those who have power use it to cancel those who don’t have it. The key and primal issue, now and always, is the problem of pride and the destruction it causes, whether it’s the pride of the Tudors, the pride of the communists, the pride of the Nazis or the pride of todays’ Pride movement.” Let’s break this down: Having pride and confidence in oneself is not self-worshipping, rather it is a healthy approach to unfettered bigotry. There is no such thing as ‘self-defining narcissism’. It is clear the author was grappling for words and decided to make something up. The ‘quest for self-empowerment’ is apparently an affront to anyone seeking to control others through bigotry and fear-mongering. Stating that those who intend to harm others ‘have no power’ is ludicrous. Since when does the Catholic government NOT have power? Since when do cis folk NOT have power? This entire article is nothing more than a whiny piece of bigotry wrapped in piety. If you consider my comments uncivilized I suggest you actually read the article and consider if in fact the article itself is uncivilized.

  11. This article brought out all the apologists for the Anglican heresy, didn’t it?

    Face it, Henry was a heretic and a monster who broke with the church because they wouldn’t allow him to divorce and marry another woman, who slaughtered practitioners of the true faith as opposed to stamping out heresy like Mary did and was justified in doing. Get over it.

  12. Regarding Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries:

    Linked from the Twitter account of Francis X. Rocca:

    A Monk’s-Eye View
    The London Review of Books
    Vol. 44 No. 5 · 10 March 2022

    From A Monk’s-Eye View, by Diarmaid MacCulloch.

    The Dissolution of the Monasteries: A New History
    by James G. Clark.
    Yale, 649 pp., £25, October 2021, 978 0 300 11572 7
    Going to Church in Medieval England
    by Nicholas Orme.
    Yale, 483 pp., £20, July 2021, 978 0 300 25650 5

    Excerpt:

    Evesham​ in Worcestershire is one of those agreeable English provincial towns whose modest size preserves its medieval layout. It’s not hard to notice the absence at the heart of the town, a great green open space once occupied by a massive Benedictine abbey. Little of it is left: the remains of two monumental entrance gates plus a lofty detached bell tower, the latter dwarfing the two parish churches that once respectfully flanked an abbey church as large as Worcester or Gloucester Cathedrals. Evesham Abbey, founded when Mercia was a flourishing Anglo-Saxon kingdom, met its end on 30 January 1540, one of the last of the more than eight hundred English religious houses closed over the previous decade and a half. The final day of monastic life at Evesham witnessed the standard process of surrender by which Henry VIII’s government took possession of these ancient and supposedly perpetual corporations; but someone decided to add extra pointed drama to the occasion – probably the abbot himself, Philip Ballard alias Hawford (medieval Benedictines tended to acquire a second monastic surname, often the place they had come from).

    The life of a monastery centres on worship, an intricate performance of chanted services rhythmically punctuating every day of the year. On the evening of 30 January the 35 monks of Evesham gathered in their choir stalls as usual to chant vespers, which they took as far as the words ‘Deposuit potentes’ – and then stopped. The sound died away in the great 13th-century choir. The monks had broken off halfway through the Magnificat, the Virgin Mary’s hymn of thanksgiving for the message that she would bear the Christ Child, destined to make all things new. A decade later an English version of the Magnificat appeared in Archbishop Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, where ‘deposuit potentes’ was translated as ‘he hath put down the mighty [from their seats]’. So, there was a grim and ambiguous humour in this moment: was mighty Evesham’s destruction a moment for grief, or for hope of a new world to come?

  13. The review in the London Review of Books received one published reply, which repeats the view of Dickens, quoted above.

    Letters
    Vol. 44 No. 7 · 7 April 2022

    Diarmaid MacCulloch calls Henry VIII ‘Victorian England’s hero’ (LRB, 10 March). Yet in A Child’s History of England, Charles Dickens says the king was ‘a most intolerable ruffian, a disgrace to human nature and a blot of blood and grease upon the History of England’. Was Dickens’s attitude really so counter to the sentiment of his time? I wonder if the rehabilitation of Henry VIII isn’t actually the fault of Charles Laughton.
    David Mills
    London N6

  14. It is tricky but by breaking from Rome it kept more money in Britain. However to much bloodshed and murder. As person of Irish stock, I curse the Brit’s but if look into it was very smart. Why give money to Rome when they living way beyond it means. But after Henry death, his son Edward was real reformer. Bu5 queen Mary did help either. Also Queen Elizabeth was English queen and pope saying it was ok was treason. She was queen and should been respect.

  15. Puritanical propaganda is still very influential. The descendants of those who were ‘bribed by plunder’ from the despoiled monasteries continue to rationalize their smug contempt for the Catholic faith. They strain credulity by embracing the illegitimate Elizabeth and her barbarous reign and condemn Mary. The historically bigoted attitude towards blacks, Catholics and Jews in the Protestant south is an example of this enduring bias. This Puritanical propaganda is so powerful and persistent that we still have a drink called The Bloody Mary. It would be more accurate and just to have named it The Bloody Bess.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Canceling Henry VIII – Via Nova Media
  2. Cancelling Henry VIII - Joseph Pearce

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*