An Illusion of Virtue


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.

9 thoughts on “An Illusion of Virtue

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  1. I remember once reading the quote that “Reputation is what others know about you, but honor is what you know about yourself.”

    Most of us care at least a little about what people think (we’ve discussed how this might vary based on MBTI type and other factors), it’s natural because we have to deal with people, whether work or family or friends, and people generally treat us better when they have a positive opinion of us.

    But for some appearance is everything–a shattered image the ultimate horror. Which is why you had centuries of kings (or a few queens) refered to as “His Most Christian Majesty…” despite multiple mistresses.

    Though we tend to think of the preoccupation with appearances as something neo-Victorian, that went out with long skirts and top hats, it continues today. Celebrities face violent backlash over racist/sexist/otherwise tasteless remarks they are foolish enough to voice on twitter or before a camera. Yet–the remarks were there in their mind long before they voiced them, and the public “forgives” them after an official apology, but that doesn’t mean they had a genuine change of heart.

    1. That quote is similar to another great one: your true self is evident when no one is watching you.

      I suspect the people wearing a social mask are the ones most fearful of someone holding up a mirror. If the mask is all that is protecting you, having it torn off would be terrifying. Henry wore a mask of virtue to cover up a selfish heart. If he had been the same in public and in private — not a hypocrite — he would have had nothing to fear. But a combination of deception and pride (unwillingness to listen to others’ moral advice) prevented him from making the right choices. He insisted on pushing forward, rebuffing everyone who told him no, to the point where backing down would have been an enormous public humiliation instead of a small private moment. The more you fight correction, the more you have to go down the wrong path, because any other choice utterly destroys your pride. TRULY proud people never back down, and go up in flames.

      This is probably why we’re encouraged to be humble… the humble person may take six steps up the path, bluster a bit, and then fall back with correction and tears; the proud person will fall off the cliff, perhaps wishing toward the end they’d listened sooner. The truly unrepentant heart, as Henry had, never admits to wrongdoing, blames everyone else for their problems, and goes to their grave believing they are a victim.

      I respect someone much, much more who admits they were wrong freely, than someone who insists they are never wrong. I tend to hover in-between… to sometimes back myself up with pride, and sometimes yield ground later… but then, if I were not so frank in my opinions much of the time, I’d be proven wrong in public less. Pride undoes me both places: it makes me step forward and assert, and it makes me falter and defend. Which is probably also why we’re encouraged to “master the tongue.”

      (UGH, so many character flaws. Fortunately, I’ll probably have a long life to watch the Lord weed them one at a time, with gentle participation on my part.)

      The true test of a genuine change of heart is if they never do it again.

  2. You know, I never really thought about this aspect of Henry VIII before, but it’s quite true. He’s popularly depicted as a man who simply wanted to “have it all” in terms of physical/sensual pleasure; and while that’s true, it’s not the whole story–he ALSO wanted to “have it all” in terms of public reputation. He wanted to be able to do whatever he wanted WITHOUT fear of public reproach. Which is why he declared himself head of the church . . . and which is also why he desecrated the grave of St. Thomas a Becket, the martyred bishop famous for his public criticism of King Henry II. He simply couldn’t bear the idea of an independent ecclesiastical authority with the power to tell the king, “you are doing it wrong.”

    1. Yes.

      I read a psychology book not long ago in which the author delved into true narcissism and I swear, he might as well have written “Henry VIII” on it. True narcissists cannot abide anyone intruding on their delusion and will actively set out to discredit or destroy that person. Narcissists with power are dangerous, because of the punishment they can inflict on anyone under their authority who proves defiant — you see this with Katharine, Thomas More, Bishop Fisher, Anne Boleyn, and Cromwell… anyone who put him in a position where the illusion was threatened. He destroyed the Catholic Church in England and Thomas More for the same reason: both told him “no” and tried to limit his authority, thereby implying he was WRONG.

      Henry could not STAND being WRONG, especially in public. 😛

      1. I know. It’s so sad what happened–so much suffering and death and destruction, and all set into motion by one single guy who couldn’t stand criticism. Even honest and constructive criticism.

        The other sad thing is, he was never punished for it. (In this life, I mean.) He always got his way, right up to the bitter end.

        1. Even though Henry was utterly to blame for much of what happened, in a sense, the people around him who continually failed throughout his earlier reign to correct misbehavior are also somewhat responsible for the tyrant he became. Henry never heard “No” until suddenly everyone was “inexplicably” saying it to him all at once — and he did not handle it well.

          Thomas More: No, you are not the moral authority in England.
          Katharine of Aragon: No, you cannot annul our marriage and make Mary a bastard.
          Anne Boleyn: No, I will not sleep with you outside of wedlock.
          Bishop Fisher: No, you are not in the right.
          The Pope: No, you will not defy Church authority.

          Henry: I WILL!! 😛

          He may have gotten his way, but can a man truly be happy with getting his way if it destroys everything in his life? His punishment was continual and unceasing unhappiness — in which he made himself out to be the victim. 😛

          1. Oh, I don’t think he was truly happy, at all–I didn’t mean that. I just meant that he deserved something worse than personal unhappiness . . . y’know, public execution, that sort of thing.

          2. It doesn’t let you off-the-hook, though . . . because what happens AFTER this life? Lots of things. Especially if you’re Henry VIII.

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