Fiction can be more society shaping than fact, particularly where historical figures are involved. Ask anyone on the street their impression of Henry VIII, and most impressions will come not from historical documentation but popular fictionalized representations of a larger than life tyrant. Perhaps the most accessible contributor to Henry’s maligned reputation comes from The Tudors.
In the series, he’s a notorious public libertine, bedding half the ladies of court and flaunting his illegitimate son all over England. The boy is welcomed into the world through public celebrations and immediately granted lands and tittles. Katharine turns up, appropriately humiliated, in every episode as her husband shows preference for and beds every buxom beauty he sees, including foreign female dignitaries. She has several run ins with his “whores.” When Anne refuses to become Henry’s “official mistress,” he tears England apart to have her.
That part, at least, is true… but this interpretation ignores an even bigger scandal.
Appearances were everything to Henry, who later wound up killing anyone who flouted his public facade of virtue. Sir Thomas More went to the block for no reason other than denial of Henry’s egocentric delusions of godliness. The same goes for Bishop Fisher.
Early in his reign, the Duke of Buckingham made a public scene, after finding out that the king’s close friend and servant was making romantic overtures to his married sister. The scandal flooded court. Henry was so upset at the disgrace, he turned on Buckingham’s other sister, who had tattled, and banned her from court. She happened to be one of Katharine’s favorites. Furious, Katharine lashed out at Henry—creating another public scandal, which he responded to badly. Debate rages on whether the servant was actually making overtures, or was an intermediary for Henry in an affair, but either way, public knowledge of the event was so distasteful to Henry that from that moment on, he strove to keep his personal life extremely private, to avoid anyone knowing anything about his affairs.
He was so obsessed with “appearing moral” that a few years before his own scandalous divorce, he berated his sister for hers. Margaret, the Queen Regent of Scotland, married impetuously after James’ death. She applied for a divorce / annulment from Rome, while living publicly with her lover. Henry was furious (and humiliated by association) and wrote her vicious letters denouncing the public nature of her “sin.”
If not for Anne Boleyn, we might have never known Henry as an unfaithful husband outside a single affair. His mistresses were so secret from his contemporaries, we know about only two for certain: Bessie Blount and Mary Boleyn. If not for their illegitimate child, who Henry later legitimized before believing he might have a official male heir, Bessie would have slipped into the cracks of history. If not for the clause in Henry’s dispensation request to Rome referencing “carnal relations” with Anne’s sister, we’d know nothing about Mary, either. Can we even be sure Katharine knew of the affairs? She may have had no idea, any more than anyone else at court, what went on inside Henry’s bedroom.
Henry begging Anne to become his “official mistress” is huge, because up until that point, he put on such a good pretense of being a loyal, dutiful, loving, faithful husband that such an action shows his total desperation to have her. After two decades of secrecy, Henry was willing to put aside his true god — reputation — for a woman.
Katharine knew her husband’s hatred of public scandal, and used it against him when he tried to annul their marriage. She made what was happening to her the most-talked about scandal in Europe. Everything he wanted kept secret, Katharine made public. The masses sided with her. She beat him at every turn until Henry broke with Rome and married Anne illegally. It may be why Henry treated her with such cruelty the last few years of her life; punishment for destroying his illusion of virtue.
Illusions are never good enough. Virtue must be real, to be admired. If Henry had spent as much effort on genuine godliness as he did in keeping his affairs private, he would have obtained the public admiration he sought all his life, from contemporaries as well as future generations. Instead, five hundred odd years later, he is known and often depicted in a shroud of public scandal as a shameless libertine.