6 min read

Henry VIII's toxic masculinity

There was much more to the famed monarch than a padded codpiece, Historian Suzannah Lipscomb unpacks how his toxic behaviour led to ridicule and dishonour. Part of The Problem with Men series.
King Henry VII, wearing a hat, stares away, in a portrait.
Henry VIII, by Hans Holbein the Younger.
Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.

History offers many examples of toxic masculinity – perhaps none better than King Henry VIII. Two central qualities of Henry's inflated sense of manhood remain familiar today: he believed that he was always right, and he treated brutally those who disagreed. 

The sixteenth century was a patriarchal age. Men dominated every position of power and influence, cultural values favoured men, and women were obsessively controlled. Wives had no existence under law; a husband had a legal right to dispose of his wife's property and money without her consent and knowledge. Women were barred from holding office, and were thought to be morally, mentally, and emotionally weaker than men. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, it was an age in which patriarchs were increasingly anxious and masculinity had to be repeatedly enacted.  

In an age before credit checks, personal honour counted for everything. Honour was chiefly a measure of someone's ability to conform to gender ideals. For women, this meant chastity: celibacy before marriage and fidelity after it. Men could demonstrate honour in a range of ways. As a young man, Henry VIII showed his masculinity in displays of courage and strength on the tiltyard and at war. But, for men too, honour could be sexual. Men had to demonstrate an energetic sexual appetite.  

1534. Henry wanted complicity even in his subjects' thoughts. The Treasons Act of the same year made it high treason to call the king a 'heretic, schismatic, tyrant, infidel or usurper of the crown'.

Henry VIII's blinkered patriarchal vision (and, to be fair, English history to that point) meant that, unlike Katherine his wife, Henry could not envisage their only surviving child, Mary, as a ruling queen. All their other children had died within a few hours, days or weeks of birth or had been born dead, and Katherine was in her forties. So, on grounds he knew were untrue – the suggestion that Katherine's marriage to his brother Arthur had been consummated – Henry sought one. The Pope refused – but Henry needed to be right. With a hefty dose of self-delusion, he used a partial reading of scripture to justify separating from his wife of twenty years. It took schism from the Roman Catholic Church to make it a reality.  

The whole country was pulled into saying black was white. The Act of Succession of 1534 included an oath that every man (only men) was required to swear. They were to state that they regarded Mary 'but as a bastard' and that Anne Boleyn was Henry's lawful wife and the rightful Queen of England 'without any scrupulosity of conscience'. Henry wanted complicity even in his subjects' thoughts. The Treasons Act of the same year made it high treason to call the king a 'heretic, schismatic, tyrant, infidel or usurper of the crown'. Those who failed to agree with Henry's perspective – Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher chief among them – were executed.  

Part of the reason was that Henry became very attached to his position as Supreme Head of the Church. He reckoned himself a theologian. In 1536, he wrote the first doctrinal statement of the Church of England. Henry’s theological position, in the all-to-play-for years of the 1530s, was his own idiosyncratic hodge-podge of contemporary Catholicism and Protestantism. He hated Martin Luther’s idea that a person could be made right with God without having earned it, but he also denied the reality of purgatory (though he left funds for his own soul to be prayed for after death, just in case). Later in life the king would annotate religious texts composed by his bishops and be compared in his commissioned tapestries and psalter to the Old Testament patriarchs Abraham and David, and the New Testament saint Paul. He was depicted on the frontispiece of the Great Bible as first under God. A rebellion that sought to challenge his supremacy was put down with extreme force.  

In other words, Henry’s preoccupation with preeminent masculinity can be seen even here: he thought his personal faith should determine the religious practice of the whole kingdom. Those who did not agree on a point of doctrine – like John Lambert, who held that the bread and wine of the Mass were symbols of, not literally, Christ’s body and blood – were executed. Henry personally presided over Lambert’s trial. On one day in 1540, on the king’s orders, three Protestants were burned as heretics, and three Catholics were hanged as traitors. 

Anne's alleged adultery (the evidence for any actual adultery is risible) therefore profoundly affected Henry's perceived honour. For a king, the apparent lack of control or dominance in his household was especially galling. 

This religious activity took place against a background of trials of Henry’s masculinity. Ultimately, the gamble of the break with Rome and marriage to Anne did not pay off. In fact, it exposed Henry to ridicule and dishonour. 

After Anne had a baby girl and miscarried a boy, Henry became convinced that she was committing adultery and incest with five men including her brother. That one of Henry’s reasons for being attracted to Anne had been her intense personal engagement with faith should have indicated to him how unlikely these charges were to be true. In conversation she had mentioned that the king might one day die – which was also illegal under the Treasons Act – and so, in addition to adultery and incest, she was convicted of conspiring the king's death. But the trials backfired. Anne’s brother admitted at his that Anne had told him that Henry was 'not skillful in copulating with a woman and had neither vigour and potency'. This was said in front of a crowd of two thousand people in the Great Hall at the Tower of London. 

Contemporary thought made a link between potency and fidelity. A woman's adultery was thought to be her husband's fault: The 1607 book, The court of good counsell, instructs a cuckolded man to 'find how the occasion came from himself, and that he hath not used her, as he ought to have done'. This was not an injunction to be kinder; in early modern parlance, 'use' was a euphemism for sex. Husbands needed to demonstrate sexual dominance, which was considered a crucial part of patriarchal control. In something called a charivari, men who were childless, thought to be ruled by their wives, or who cuckolded were mocked without mercy. 

Anne's alleged adultery (the evidence for any actual adultery is risible) therefore profoundly affected Henry's perceived honour. For a king, the apparent lack of control or dominance in his household was especially galling.  

A damaged sense of masculinity in a culture that insists on male dominance leads to doubling down.

It is for this reason that during the three short weeks between Anne's accusation and her execution, while she remained in the Tower, Henry visited Jane Seymour and danced with her late into the night. He remarried within eleven days of Anne's death. It was all to assert his sexual appetite – his manliness.  

Henry's profound anxiety about his manhood also influences the picture we have of him. His most-copied, full-length portrait focuses on Henry not as a king – there is no crown, orb or sceptre – but as a man. In a martial stance, with broad shoulders and splayed feet, the king wears an enormously padded codpiece. Painted after Anne's death, it reeks of masculine bravado. 

His toxic masculinity – as it has a habit of doing – replayed itself again and again. Henry had his marriage to Anne of Cleves (wife no. 4) dissolved on spurious grounds, but in fact because he was unable to consummate the marriage. He blamed his lack of arousal on her full breasts and large belly (which he took as indicators that she was not a virgin), insisting that wet dreams showed the problem was not with him. Meanwhile, wife no. 5, Kathryn Howard, was – history repeating itself – accused of adultery, raising once again the sense that Henry was unable to rule and reign.  

A damaged sense of masculinity in a culture that insists on male dominance leads to doubling down. Both Anne Boleyn and Kathryn Howard were executed: one on the basis of concocted evidence, the other without a trial (an act of parliament declared Howard guilty). Henry VIII's reign is just one example of just how poisonous patriarchy can be. 

Listen to Suzannah Lipscomb on Seen & Unseen's Re-enchanting podcast

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5 min read

The spiritual depths of the genius

Belle is the Reporter at the Centre for Cultural Witness, writing for Seen and Unseen. 

Moved by his songbook and his funeral, Belle TIndall considers the source, and sacrifice, of Shane MacGowan’s genius.
Upon his draped coffin, a picture of Shane MacGowan and a crucifix sit
Celebrating the life of Shane MacGowan at his funeral mass.

Have you ever seen a Catholic priest hold up a Buddha during a Mass? Or a crowd applaud and cheer after a reading from the book of Micah? Or Nick Cave miss his queue by half an hour?  


Then I suppose you’ve yet to see the footage of Shane MacGowan’s funeral.   

On a cold December afternoon - in a Tipperary church which was full to bursting – family, friends and fans gathered to (in the words of the presiding priest) "hold, help and handle the loss of the great Shane MacGowan… to celebrate his song, his story, his lyric, his living." I watched the footage because I had heard rumours of dancing in the aisles, renditions of The Pogues’ songs on the streets, bible readings by Bono and prayers led by Jonny Depp. And I can confirm, the rumours were all true.  

People really did climb out of their pews to dance around Shane’s coffin to ‘Fairytale of New York’, a song which has just lost its maestro. Fans really did line the streets of Dublin to greet Shane’s body with raised glasses of Guinness and renditions of his most-loved songs. What’s more, Bono really did read the bible and Jonny Depp really did pray for ‘a deeper spirit of compassion in our world’. In fact, far more interesting (but far less documented) than the presence of Jonny Depp, was the presence of Shane’s raw and gritty Christian faith, which was so obvious throughout. It wasn’t just cultural Christianity on display here, it was far deeper than that. But alas, I’m getting ahead of myself - I’ll get back to that in a moment.  

There was defiant joy, immense grief, loud laughter and silent sobs. There was lament and there was celebration, there was bitter and there was sweet, there was light and there was darkness. It was raw and messy and awkward and authentic and, in every way possible, profound. I suppose you could suggest that it was a lot like Shane in that way.  

Indeed, this was no ordinary funeral.  

Nick Cave performed a rendition of ‘Rainy Night in Soho’, which has only cemented my opinion that it is the most romantic song ever written (we can argue about it later). And then there was the eulogy, given by the person that I like to think inspired the song that Nick had just performed: Vicotria Mary Clarke, the woman who has loved, and been loved by, Shane MacGowan since she was twenty years old. And while it was the star-studded eccentricities that enticed me to watch the funeral, it is Victoria’s eulogy that has plagued me ever since. She delivered it with an eloquence befitting of a poet’s soulmate and the composure of someone who has been preparing to eulogise the man she loved her entire life.   

Victoria understood MacGowan completely, and through her words, she has helped us to understand him too. She told us how –  

"He wasn’t interested in living a normal life, he didn’t want a 9-5 or a mortgage or any of that stuff, he liked to explore all aspects of consciousness. He liked to explore where you could go with your mind…. He chose many, many, many mind-altering substances to help him on that journey of exploration. He really did live so close to edge that he seemed like he was going to fall off many times…"  

And I suppose therein lies the source, and sacrifice, of his genius. He was incredibly introspective, almost scarily so. It reminds me of another songwriter – a biblical one – King David, who once wrote:

‘Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.’  

I’m wondering if Shane made similar requests of God, whether anyone would have the boldness to pray this line with as much literality as someone who was fascinated by ‘all aspects of consciousness’. Perhaps such introspective depths are reserved for the geniuses that are brave enough to ask God to take them there. And that got me thinking about other such geniuses - some of them present in that very church - who have plunged the depths of themselves and gifted us with the spoils through their art, those who follow their romantic longing’s lead, those who have an eye for the unseen. I can’t claim to fully understand it, but how interesting that those who live as ‘close to the edge’ as Shane did tend to either bump into oblivion (Kurt Cobain, Nick Drake, Ian Curtis) or God. Or, as in the case of Shane MacGowan, both.  

The reason I could never write a song like ‘Rainy Night in Soho’, is that Shane boldly went where I doubt I ever could - to the costly depths reserved for the brilliant. 

At one point, MacGowan was taking one hundred tabs of acid a day, and Victoria recounted (with a hint of a giggle – her adoration of him utterly tangible) how, in the early days of their relationship, Shane carried an encyclopaedia of pharmacology around with him. This was so that he could look up each drug he was being offered before accepting it. I suppose to an explorer of consciousness, this encyclopaedia is as close to a compass as it gets. And so yes, there was darkness there. But Victoria wanted us to know that –  

"He didn’t just like to go to the dark places and the weird places, he also liked to go to the blissful and transcendent and spiritual places… he was intensely religious."

She evidenced this with a story drawn from the last months of his life, all of which were spent in hospital, when a priest had to confiscate Holy Communion from Shane – who had obtained it ‘illegally’ and taken it daily. You see, in the Catholic Church, Holy Communion has to be administered by a priest under specific circumstances. And so, Shane became, perhaps, ‘the only man in the world who’s been busted for Holy Communion’. But nevertheless, whenever he came to the end of himself, Shane found God. And while he held the belief that no religion had a monopoly on God (hence the afore mentioned reference to the Priest displaying a Buddha), he was utterly devoted to Jesus.  

"I think what he was trying to get across was that there’s something in this stuff’ explained Victoria, ‘there’s something in Jesus that’s worth thinking about. It’s worth valuing. It’s worth exploring that Jesus is real."

I didn’t know this about Shane MacGowan; how actively he sought God, how deeply he enjoyed Jesus. But it makes complete sense. If one goes looking in the deepest places, they’re likely to find the deepest thing. Roam around the truest place, and eventually you’ll bump into the truest thing. 

 I, like Shane, believe that to be God. 

I suppose the difference, and the reason I could never write a song like ‘Rainy Night in Soho’, is that Shane boldly went where I doubt I ever could - to the costly depths reserved for the brilliant. Instead, I shall simply ponder how beautiful it is that God appears to wait for the brilliant to notice him, even in those depths.   

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