The Sociopath Henry VIII & Lessons for Today

It wasn’t the Black Death, Small Pox, the Spanish Flu, Cholera or the Yellow Fever that killed so many of the peace-loving English people during the first half of the 16th century. It was their own monarch – the sociopath – Henry VIII.

Henry, by way of the Tudor tribe, was king of England from 1509-47. By most definitions, he was a blood-stained pathological killer, keeping the ax-man in the Tower of London, busy 24/7. According to the historian, Julia Layton, Henry executed “tens of thousands during his 37-year reign.” Others insist the number was in the low thousands.

By comparison, the daughter who succeeded Henry on the throne, who came to be called ‘Bloody Mary,’ killed fewer than 300 people during her six years as queen. Her goal, which failed miserably, was to reinstate Catholicism as the state religion.

When Henry died, at age 55, he weighed in at about 400 pounds with a waist measurement of (double gasp) 44 inches. Said to “eat like a pig,” he suffered from liver and renal failure and also had gout. In addition, Henry had repugnant ulcers on both of his legs. In his last agonizing days, “his legs had to be cauterized with a hot iron,” revealed the writer, Robert Hutchinson.

More than likely, although disputed, the real cause of Henry’s demise was – syphilis – according to the historian, Will Durant. Henry had probably contracted it from one or more of his many mistresses over the years.

(The Chicago gangster, Al Capone, who also died from syphilis, contracted the disease at age eighteen. He then evolved, like King Henry, into a merciless murdering machine. By all accounts, Henry was also a sex maniac and since he was the king, too, he had his choice of young women to victimize.)

The sordid story about Henry and his six wives is well-known, along with the fact, that he had two of them, both innocent of any criminal conduct, executed. This included the ambitious wife No. 2, Anne Boleyn; and the “gentle and earnest” wife No. 5, Catherine Howard. Wife No. 3, Jane Seymour didn’t last long. After giving birth to a son, Edward, she soon died of natural causes.

When Henry couldn’t get a divorce from his first wife, the Spaniard, Catherine of Aragon, he went totally bonkers. In the end, he broke with the Catholic Church of Rome and stole their valuable monasteries and nunneries and large landed estates in England – worth billions of dollars by today’s standards. Henry, true to his monster-ego, appointed himself the head of his new religion.

Along the way, Layton underscored, Henry beheaded “a few cardinals…and countless members of the royal court who questioned the purity of his motives.” At the end of the day, “heads rolled and people were executed for a wide variety of crimes.”

John Fisher was one of the cardinals who got the ax, along with the saintly “Man for All Seasons,” Thomas More. With them out of the way, Henry had his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled.

(As the fates would have it, I performed the role of Thomas More in a staging of “Man for All Seasons,” at St. Matthew’s RC Church many moons ago. Someone told me after the play that some of the parish nuns, who were seated in the front row, openly wept when I gave my speech from the dock. Now, if accurate, that was, indeed, the highest compliment.)

Shifting to Thomas Cromwell. He had served faithfully for eight years, 1532-40, as Henry’s top advisor, (read hatchet man), but he ended up on the king’s wrong side. He was condemned. This was also an example of karma at work.

According to Layton, Cromwell was considered the “mastermind” with respect to starting the “English Reformation,” with all its lethal consequences, including the plot to get rid of wife No. 1, Catherine of Aragon. Nevertheless, Cromwell’s days were numbered. He had arranged the King’s marriage to Anne of Cleves, wife No. 4. It proved to be Cromwell’s downfall. That contrived relationship, to put it in the colloquial jargon, lacked “the necessary chemistry.” The King wasn’t happy.

The celebrated biographer Alison Weir described how Cromwell on July 28, 1540,  was taken from his dingy cell in the Tower and brought to the “public scaffold on Tower Hill…There the executioner bungled his work. It took two strokes to sever the neck of the prisoner. The King’s evil genius died in the manner of so many of his own victims.”

(Not on the same level, of course, but it is hard to miss how the destiny of an individual can so swiftly change in the arbitrary politics of today’s White House. On any given day, a wannabe member of Trump’s inner circle can be seen, with camera lights flashing away, shaking the president’s hand. Not long thereafter, however, that same ‘fallen star’ can be located over in Lafayette Park, sitting on a bench, deeply depressed, and crying in his/her’s coffee.)

More on Henry’s wives. Wife No. 6, the well-educated Catherine Parr, married the King in 1543. Fortunately for her, he died in his bed in 1547 and was succeeded by his daughter, Mary. The latter’s main claim to infamy is that she had “280 Protestants burned at the stakes as heretics,” wrote Meilan Solly for Smithsonian Magazine.

“Tower of London” (Public Domain)

As King of England, Henry VIII had absolute and unchecked power. Other tyrants in recent history have also wielded such dominating control. Two come to mind: Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany and Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union. Their criminal wrongdoings are well-documented.

Thanks to a gutsy former prisoner of Stalin, the talented author, the late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, we now know more about the millions who died in his labor camps and their killers. (See, Solzhenitsyn’s book, “The Gulag Archipelago.”)

Moving back to Henry’s 16th Century England, there was another group of people who suffered greatly under the King’s rule. Unlike the aristocracy, they had little or no say in their ultimate fate. I’m talking about the – poor! As a result of Henry’s suppression of the Catholic Church, about 20,000 monks, nuns, friars, and their servants were left roaming the countryside “homeless and penniless, begging for relief,” John Simkin reports.

Another historian of that grim period, Raphael Holinshed, estimated that thousands of so-called “thieves and vagabonds were hanged during the reign of Henry VIII.” To be tagged a thief or vagabond was entirely arbitrary with little or no recourse by the accused to a court of law.

There wasn’t any Public Defender System in Henry’s England! No newspapers to check the wrongdoers. No unions to stand up for the working class. And, no Internet to alert your fellow citizens of the dangers they faced.

Tyrants come and go. A resilient England survived the demented Henry VIII.

More importantly, this history taught the world a valuable lesson: Only a strong democratic system with an awakened citizenry willing to defend itself can prevent the emergence of a tyrant. This is true whether it is an individual or a power-hungry clique at our throats. One sure sign of a tyrant is that it will first look to trample on our Bill of Rights.

Keep in mind, what the patriot, Thomas Jefferson, said: “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”