Henry VIII Was Indeed a ‘Horrible, Horrible Person’ — But Should We Cancel Him For It?
Pride — whether it’s the pride of the Tudors or the pride of moderns — is destructive.
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 defense, 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 19th-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 canceled 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 canceled the great works of Western civilization on the grounds of their alleged “racism” or “sexism” or “fascism,” just as Tudor culture had canceled artistic works, and the lives of people, on the grounds of their being “papist.” Today’s cancel culture has declared war on Christianity, canceling 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.
Joseph Pearce’s latest book, Faith of Our Fathers: A History of True England, is recently published by Ignatius Press.