Mind of a tyrant or just his father’s son?

Ah, it takes annual leave for me to be able to, finally, add all these thoughts on history that I’ve been accumulating for months.

 

I was recently watching David Starkey’s Mind of a Tyrant, which was a four part documentary on Channel 4 a number of years ago. Interestingly, the book to accompany the series drops the “mind” part from the title.

 

And I know why!

 

As a psychologist, I was hoping for some deep insight into the mind of Henry VIII but that isn’t what you get. There are some brief moments that allude to this and that but nothing firm.

 

Strangely, one of the very sources that I think underlies Henry become a tyrant is ignored. It might seem rather Freudian, but his father sticks out in my mind as a primary motivator.

 

The son certainly had some issues with his father and I don’t think that he necessarily put him up on a pedestal (although it is interesting that the tight reign and control that Henry VII kept over his son, particularly when he became heir, is also found in Henry VIII’s treatment of his own son, Edward). The big thing that sticks out for me is the way Henry VII treated his wife, Elizabeth of York, which I think set a really bad example for their son in how to treat women.

 

Elizabeth of York was the heir to the throne of England. Henry won his kingship by right of conquest. If he hadn’t married Elizabeth he would probably have been toppled fairly quickly. But Henry knew this and so he subjugated and controlled Elizabeth, and particularly her public image, to assert his right to the throne. He wanted everyone to know that he didn’t need Elizabeth to be king, he was the rightful heir through blood and conquest. He could rule without her.

 

So, Elizabeth’s role of queen was marginalised. If you look back to the early queen’s of England you see that they wielded immense power but that that power decreased gradually over the centuries until you reach Elizabeth of York who had no power at all.

 

I always feel sorry for Elizabeth of York and the way she was treated. Bar the title, there was nothing about her “rule” that makes her a queen. She had no power, she made no decisions. Henry pretty much treated her like a doormat.

 

And, I think their son got his idea of queenship from watching his parents. One of the reasons that Anne Boleyn fell was because she failed to transition from the flirty all powerful mistress to the demure and obedient wife. Jane Seymour observed this and managed to, mostly, avoid Henry VIII’s wrath. Katherine Parr fell foul of it. Queens, in Henry VIII’s mind, where to be seen as a pretty show piece, and certainly not heard.

 

And, if he could treat his wife like that, was there any hope for anyone else? If his wife couldn’t disagree with him without fear of having her head chopped off, was anyone else likely to disagree with him?

 

Mind of a tyrant? I present you with Exhibit A, m’lord.

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