What sort of a man was this ogre of a king? Holbein the Younger, coming to England about 1536, painted portraits of Henry and Jane Seymour. The gorgeous costume almost conceals the royal corpulence; the gems and ermine, the hand on the jeweled sword, reveal the pride of authority, the vanity of the uncontradicted male; the broad fat face bespeaks a hearty sensualism; the nose is a pillar of strength; the tight lips and stern eyes warn of a despot quick to anger and cold to cruelty. Henry was now forty-six, at the top of his political curve, but entering physical decline. He was destined to marry thrice again, and yet to have no further progeny. From all his six wives he had but three children who outlived infancy. One of these three-Edward VI—was sickly and died at fifteen; Mary remained desolately barren in marriage; Elizabeth never dared marry, probably through consciousness of some physical impediment. The curse of semi-sterility or bodily defect lay upon the proudest dynasty in English history.
Henry’s mind was keen, his judgment of men was penetrating, his courage and will power were immense. His manners were coarse, and his scruples disappeared with his youth. To his friends, however, he remained kind and generous, jovially amiable, and capable of winning affection and devotion. Born to royalty, he was surrounded from birth with obeisance and flattery; only a few men dared withstand him, and they were buried without their heads. “Surely,” wrote More from the Tower, “it is a great pity that any Christian prince should by a flexible [knee-bending] council ready to follow his affections [desires], and by a weak clergy... be with flattery so shamefully abused.”42 This was the external source of Henry’s retrogression in character—that the absence of resistance to his will, after the death of More, made him as flabby in moral sense as in physique. He was not more lax in sex than Francis I, and after the passing of Anne Boleyn he seems to have been more monogamous, seriatim, than Charles V; sexual looseness was not his worst failing. He was greedy for money as well as for power, and seldom allowed considerations of humanity to halt his appropriations. His ungrateful readiness to kill women whom he had loved, or men who, like More and Cromwell, had served him loyally for many years, is despicable; yet in result he was not one tenth as murderous as the well-meaning Charles IX sanctioning the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, or Charles V condoning the sack of Rome, or German princes fighting through thirty years for their right to determine the religious beliefs of their subjects.
The inner source of his deterioration was the repeated frustration of his will in love and parentage. Long disappointed in his hope for a son, dishonestly checked in his reasonable request for an annulment of his first marriage, deceived (he believed) by the wife for whom he had risked his throne, bereaved so soon of the only wife who gave him an heir, tricked into marriage by a woman utterly alien to him in language and temperament, cuckolded (he thought) by the wife who seemed to promise him at last the happiness of a home—here was a king possessing all England but denied the domestic joys of the simplest husband in his realm. Suffering intermittent agony from an ulcer in his leg, buffeted with revolts and crises throughout his reign, forced at almost every moment to arm against invasion, betrayal, and assassination—how could such a man develop normally, or avoid degeneration into suspicion, craft, and cruelty? And how shall we, who fret at the pinpricks of private tribulation, understand a man who bore in his mind and person the storm and stress of the English Reformation, weaned his people by perilous steps from a deeply rooted loyalty, and yet must have felt in his divided soul an erosive wonder—had he freed a nation or shattered Christendom?
Danger, as well as power, was the medium in which he lived. He could never tell how far his enemies would go, or when they would succeed. In 1538 he ordered the arrest of Sir Geoffrey Pole, brother to Reginald. Fearing torture, Geoffrey confessed that he, another brother, Lord Montague, Sir Edward Neville, and the Marquis and Marchioness of Exeter had had treasonable correspondence with the Cardinal. Geoffrey was pardoned; Exeter, Montague, and several others were hanged and quartered (1538–39); Lady Exeter was imprisoned; and the Countess of Salisbury, mother of the Poles, was placed under guard. When the Cardinal visited Charles V in Toledo (1539), bearing a futile request from Paul III that the Emperor would join with Francis in outlawing all commerce with England,43 Henry retaliated by arresting the Countess, who was now seventy years old; perhaps he hoped that by keeping her in the Tower he could check the Cardinal’s enthusiasm for invasion. All was fair in the game of life and death.
Having remained for two years unmarried, Henry bade Cromwell seek for him a marital alliance that would strengthen his hand against Charles. Cromwell recommended Anne, sister-in-law of the Elector of Saxony, and sister of the Duke of Cleves, who was then at odds with the Emperor. Cromwell set his heart on the marriage, by which he hoped ultimately to form a league of Protestant states, and thereby compel Henry to repeal the anti-Lutheran Six Articles. Henry dispatched Holbein to paint a likeness of the lady; possibly Cromwell added some instructions to the artist; the picture came, and Henry judged the Princess bearable. She looks discouragingly sad in the Holbein portrait that hangs in the Louvre, but not less plain of feature than the Jane Seymour who had for a moment softened the heart of the King. When Anne came in body, and Henry laid eyes on her (January 1, 1540), love died at first sight. He shut his eyes, married her, and prayed again for a son to strengthen the Tudor succession now that Prince Edward was revealing his physical frailty. But he never forgave Cromwell.
Four months later, alleging malfeasance and corruption, he ordered the arrest of his most profitable minister. Hardly anyone objected; Cromwell was the most unpopular subject in England—for his origin, his methods, his venality, his wealth. In the Tower he was required to sign statements impugning the validity of the new marriage. Henry announced that he had not given his “inward consent” to the union, and had never consummated it. Anne, confessing that she was still a maid, agreed to an annulment in return for a comfortable pension. Loath to face her brother, she chose a lonely life in England; and it was small comfort to her that when she died (1557) she was buried in Westminster Abbey. Cromwell was beheaded on July 28, 1540.
On the same day Henry married Catherine Howard, twenty years old, of a strictly Catholic house; the Catholic party was gaining. The King ceased to flirt with Continental Protestants, and made his peace with the Emperor. Feeling himself at last safe in that quarter, he turned his fancy northward in the hope of annexing Scotland and thereby rounding out the geographical boundaries and security of Britain. He was distracted by another rebellion in the north of England. Before leaving to suppress it, and to discourage conspiracy at his back, he ordered all the political prisoners in the Tower, including the Countess of Salisbury, to be put to death (1541). The rebellion collapsed, and Henry, distraught with cares, returned to Hampton Court to seek solace from his new Queen.
The second Catherine was the fairest of his mates. More dependent than before on wifely ministrations, the King learned almost to love her, and he gave thanks to God for “the good life he was leading and hoped to lead” under her supervision. But on the day after this Te Deum (November 2, 1541), Archbishop Cranmer handed him documents indicating that Catherine had had premarital relations with three successive suitors. Two of these confessed; so did the Queen. Henry “took such grief,” the French ambassador reported, “that it was thought he had gone mad”; 44 the fear haunted him that God had cursed all his marriages. He was inclined to pardon Catherine, but evidence was given him that she had, since her royal marriage, committed adultery with her cousin. She admitted having received her cousin in her private apartment late at night, but only in the presence of Lady Rochford; she denied any misdeed then or at any time since her marriage; and Lady Rochford testified to the truth of these statements so far as her own knowledge went.45 But the royal court pronounced the Queen guilty; and on February 13, 1542, she was beheaded on the same spot where Anne Boleyn’s head had fallen six years before. Her paramours were sentenced to life imprisonment.
The King was now a broken man. His ulcer baffled the medical science of his time, and syphilis, never quite cured, was spreading its ravages through his frame.46 Losing the zest of life, he had allowed himself to become an un-wieldly mass of flesh, his cheeks overlapping his jaws, his narrowed eyes half lost in the convolutions of his face. He could not walk from one room to another without support. Realizing that he had not many years to live, he issued (1543) a new decree fixing the succession to his throne: first on Edward, then on Mary, then on Elizabeth; he went no further, for next in line was Mary Stuart of Scotland. In a final effort to beget a healthy son, and after repeated urging from his Council, he married a sixth wife (July 12, 1543). Catherine Parr had survived two previous husbands, but the King no longer insisted on virgins. She was a woman of culture and tact; she nursed her royal invalid patiently, reconciled him with his long-neglected daughter Elizabeth, and tried to soften his theology and his persecuting zeal.
Theological bonfires continued to the end of the reign: twenty-six persons were burned for heresy in its final eight years. In 1543 spies reported to Bishop Gardiner that Henry Filmer had said, “If God is really present [in the consecrated Host], then in my lifetime I have eaten twenty gods”; that Robert Testwood, at the elevation of the Host, had jocularly warned the priest not to let God fall; and that Anthony Pierson had called any priest a thief who preached anything but “the Word of God”—i.e., the Scriptures. All these men, by the Anglican Bishop’s orders, were burned in a meadow before the royal palace at Windsor. The King was disturbed to find that the evidence given by a witness in these cases was perjury; the culprit was sent to the Tower.47 In 1546 Gardiner condemned four more to the stake for denying the Real Presence. One was a young woman, Anne Askew, who kept to her heresy through five hours of questioning. “That which you call your God,” she said at her trial, “is a piece of bread; for proof thereof let it lie in a box three months, and it will be moldy.” She was tortured till nearly dead to elicit from her the names of other heretics; she remained silent in her agony, and went to her death, she said, “as merry as one that is bound toward heaven.” 48 The King was not active in these persecutions, but the victims appealed to him without result.
In 1543 he fell into war with Scotland and his “beloved brother” Francis I, and soon found himself allied with his old enemy Charles V. To finance his campaigns he demanded new “loans” from his subjects, repudiated payment on the loans of 1542, and confiscated the endowments of the universities.49 He was carried to the war in person, and supervised the siege and capture of Boulogne. His armies invaded Scotland and wrecked the abbeys of Melrose and Dryburgh, and five other monasteries, but were routed at Ancrum Moor (1545). A profitable accord was signed with France (1546), and the King could die in peace.
He was now so weak that noble families openly contended as to which should have the regency for young Edward. A poet, the Earl of Surrey, was so confident that his father, the Duke of York, would be regent that he adopted a coat of arms suitable only to an heir-apparent to the throne. Henry arrested both; they confessed their guilt; the poet was beheaded on January 9, 1547, and the Duke was scheduled for execution soon after the twenty-seventh. But on the twenty-eighth the King died. He was fifty-five years old, but he had lived a dozen lives in one. He left a large sum to pay for Masses for the repose of his soul.
The thirty-seven years of his reign transformed England more deeply than perhaps he imagined or desired. He thought to replace the pope while leaving unchanged the old faith that had habituated the people to moral restraints and obedience to law; but his successful defiance of the papacy, his swift dispersal of monks and relics, his repeated humiliation of the clergy, his appropriation of Church property, and his secularization of the government so weakened ecclesiastical prestige and authority as to invite the theological changes that followed in the reigns of Edward and Elizabeth. The English Reformation was less doctrinal than the German, but one outstanding result was the same—the victory of the state over the Church. The people escaped from an infallible pope into the arms of an absolute king.
In a material sense they had not benefited. They paid church tithes as before, but the net surplus went to the government. Many peasants now tilled their tenancies for “steplords” more ruthless than the abbots whom Carlyle was to idealize in Past and Present.William Cobbett thought that “viewed merely in its social aspect, the English Reformation was in reality the rising of the rich against the poor.” 50 Records of prices and wages indicate that the agricultural and town workers were better off at Henry’s accession than at his death.51
The moral aspects of the reign were bad. The King gave the nation a demoralizing example in his sexual indulgence, his callous passing in a few days from the execution of one wife to the bed of the next, his calm cruelty, fiscal dishonesty, and material greed. The upper classes disordered the court and government with corrupt intrigues; the gentry emulated Henry in grasping at the wealth of the Church; the industrialists mulcted their workers and were mulcted by the King. The decay of charity did not complete the picture, for there remained the debasing subserviency of a terrified people to a selfish autocrat. Only the courage of the Protestant and Catholic martyrs redeemed the scene, and Fisher and More, the noblest of them, had persecuted in their turn.
In a large perspective even those bitter years bore some good fruit. The Reformation had to be; we must repeatedly remind ourselves of this while we record the deviltry of the century that gave it birth. The break with the past was violent and painful, but only a brutal blow could shake its grip on the minds of men. When that incubus was removed, the spirit of nationalism, which at first permitted despotism, became a popular enthusiasm and a creative force. The elimination of the papacy from English affairs left the people for a time at the mercy of the state; but in the long run it compelled them to rely on themselves in checking their rulers and claiming, decade after decade, a measure of freedom commensurate with their intelligence. The government would not always be as powerful as under Henry the Terrible; it would be weak under a sickly son and an embittered daughter; then, under a vacillating but triumphant queen, the nation would rise in a burst of liberated energy, and lift itself to the leadership of the European mind. Perhaps Elizabeth and Shakespeare could not have been had not England been set free by her worst and strongest king.