Article
Culture
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

Column
Character
Culture
Economics
4 min read

This revolting rich list is a freak show

What are we to make of this quite nauseating spectacle?

George is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

A collage of famous, rich, people such as King Charles, Elton John and others.
The Sunday Times.

General elections are no longer a clear choice between socialism and capitalism, but we should still be as offended by the privilege of the few over the poverty of many. That’s only natural, whether we’re informed by envy, a secular sense of fairness or a religious faith.

The yawning chasm between rich and poor in the UK is offensive. When PM Rishi Sunak was drenched in his vale of tears this week outside Number 10, as he announced the general election, he was seeking a mandate to preside over this inequality, in which he so richly participates.

He stood there exactly three days after he and his wife waved from the pages of the Sunday Times Rich List, based on the newspaper’s “conservative estimates of the minimum wealth of Britain’s 350 richest people.”

The Sunaks stood at 245th on the list with a measly £651m. Just 20 years ago, when I was in business, that figure would have put them near the top. Some of my business contemporaries had even made the Rich List with just a few tens of millions.

Not anymore. Mere multimillionaires barely make the cut. The ever-widening gulf between the super-rich and the rest of us means that the top 165 of last Sunday’s list of 300 are now billionaires, compared with just 20 a quarter of a century ago, while the “bottom” of today’s heap struggle by as half-billionaires. 

It does make you wonder what the Sunday Times is doing with this revolting annual survey. It has become such an anachronism since it started in the Eighties, when greed was good and we worshipped Croesus impersonators.  

Every year, we’re invited to press our noses up against their plate-glass window and drool at a world that’s as alien as a pharaoh’s to the slaves building their pyramid. What do they want from us for this display of greed? Envy?   

Times (even on Sunday) have changed and the Rich List satirises itself. Look at the ads that support it. There’s one for a 122-metre yacht that can be chartered for three million euros a week. A few pages later there’s one for a Swiss clinic “for the treatment of mental health and issues of substance and behavioural dependency”. Could these ads be related?  

So what the Sunday Times is presenting is a kind of freak show. Roll up, roll up, see the people who are tax exiles from the planet. 

The Rich List is just for the British mega-rich. So no room here for Meta-billionaire Mark Zuckerberg or space-wingnut Elon Musk. But it’s nice to see at the top of the list, with just a couple of hundred million over the £37bn-mark, the Hinduja family, whose leading lights so publicly acquired British passports some years ago, with or without government help.  

And here’s Lakshmi Mittal (No. 8 with £15bn), who was recently accused of profiting from both sides of the Ukraine conflict, after a part-owned Indian company bought nearly £2.4bn of Russian oil since the start of the war. Which newspaper revealed this? Step forward the Sunday Times.  

And there’s vacuum magnate Sir James Dyson (No. 5 with £21bn) who backed Brexit and then moved his global HQ to Singapore. That’s the beauty of being so rich; you can escape the consequences of your own actions. 

Most of the list is what similarly might be called colourful. These cannot, by virtue of their economic separation, be normal people. So what the Sunday Times is presenting is a kind of freak show. Roll up, roll up, see the people who are tax exiles from the planet. 

Money is its own reward. But ultimately its power is empty. 

What are we to make of this quite nauseating spectacle? Sure. there is no virtue in poverty. But nor should there be a prosperity gospel, which holds that the righteous are financially rewarded, other than in the outer reaches of an American charismatic movement. 

Among the things that make us go “hmm” in this report is the attitude to life. Phones 4u founder John Caudwell (No. 109, £1.5bn) says “If I stopped I’d probably be desperately unhappy.” Hmm. New entrant to the list Graham King (No. 221=, £750m) made his fortune from public money contracts for accommodation for asylum seekers that inspectors have described as “decrepit” and is currently the subject of charges under the Housing Act 2004. Hmm. 

Cursed are the rich, for they shall lose touch with reality. That’s not a heretical rewrite of the Sermon on the Mount, with its “Blessed are...” Beatitudes. There are actually four lesser known woes in the Gospel of Luke: 

 “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” 

These woes aren’t about revenge. But they do speak to the consequences of extreme wealth – such as profiteering from desperately vulnerable people or working so hard you can’t think properly. 

Money is its own reward. But ultimately its power is empty. Today, the Sunday Times should be as ashamed of idolising it as those it lionises for making so much of it.