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Henry VIII: Biggest and baddest? March 10, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Longtime readers may have noticed that our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have something of an obsession for the Tudor era. (See our earlier posts via the search bar at upper right, “The late, irate Henry VIII,” “Pointing the finger at Anne Boleyn,” “The quiet life,” and “Thomas More, saint and statesman” for more on this.) So last night we settled down to watch a new-to-us National Geographic special, “Icons of Power: Madness of Henry VIII.”

We have no doubt that Henry VIII descended from the Golden Boy of his era into paranoia and madness. We’re indebted to this show for pointing out that his cruelty wasn’t a side effect of his madness, but was inherent, since his first act on becoming king of England at the ripe old age of 17 was to execute two of his father’s most loyal and trusted advisors.

We’re just sorry that the show didn’t do more to point out the causes of Henry’s deterioration and madness: syphilis and diabetes. Syphilis, untreated (or treated with the common “cures” of the day, arsenic and mercury), eventually causes madness and death. And diabetes is now thought to be responsible for the unhealed, ulcerated wounds in Henry’s legs that caused him unceasing agony and doubtless contributed to his foul humors, monstrous behavior, and rumored midlife-on impotence. (Diabetes ran in his family and killed one of his sisters.)

After watching the show, Silence and I were struck by the series title, “Icons of Power.” Silence started the ball rolling by saying that Henry’s daughter, Bloody Mary, came by her title naturally enough, since her maternal grandparents, Ferdinand and Isabella, launched the Spanish Inquisition and her father Henry VIII was responsible for butchering 72,000 of his fellow Englishmen, 4% of the population at the time, including pretty much everyone who’d ever been close to him. Ugh.

But then we started thinking about the era that spawned Henry VIII. We had to admit that Henry, and his larger-than life personality, size, and conduct, tended to blot out everyone else before his daughter Elizabeth proved herself the greatest monarch of all time. He may have been the biggest, at 6’2″ and, at his worst, over 350 pounds, but he had plenty of competition for the title of the baddest.

Long before Henry VIII, there was Henry II, wild and rampageous husband of the great Eleanor of Aquitaine and father of Richard the Lionheart and his infamous brother John. There was Richard II, of red-hot-poker fame. Then there were the Edwards, I and III. Edward I “Longshanks,” aka “The Hammer of the Scots,” wreaked destruction on the Scots, his own English barons, the Welsh, and the Jews, whom he drove out of England. He butchered the heroes Simon de Montfort and Lewellyn of Wales, setting the precedent for the “I’m the King and you’re not, so shut up and do as I say or else” stance that Henry VIII was later to adopt. Edward III was outraged by his royal mother’s affair with an English nobleman, Roger Mortimer, and at 17 killed Mortimer, exiled his mother, ascended the throne, and began a reign of unparallelled brutality.  

But what of Henry VIII’s era? Was he really the only “Icon of Power” of his age? Hardly. Truly, it was an age of giants. There was Francois I of France, arguably the greatest ruler of the age, who had Leonardo da Vinci designing his war engines. There were Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, parents of Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who funded Columbus’s journeys to the New World and (as noted) sponsored the birth of the Spanish Inquisition. There was the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, the nephew of Catherine of Aragon and the most powerful man in the world, who held the Pope, the head of all Christendom, in his pocket. 

Wow. History couldn’t produce another group of such powerful rulers if it tried. Surely an entire series of “Icons of Power” could have been based on the groups of monarchs reigning at the time. Today, when monarchies tend to be symbolic, and the only power resembling that of the monarchs of old resides in the hands of our assortment of less-than-beguiling dictators, we can’t help but ask ourselves if we aren’t better off without the Henrys and the Louis, the Augustuses and Alexanders. Yes, the world might seem a little duller, now that actors are the folks we follow as breathlessly as our forebears followed kings. But at least the Johnny Depps and even Charlie Sheens of the world aren’t running around shouting “Off with their heads!” and then enjoying a boisterous dinner while the axe falls.