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Dumb Things We Believe About Henry VIII Thanks To Movies And TV

Updated April 20, 2021 443 votes 65 voters 7.1k views13 items

List RulesVote up the most common Henry VIII tropes in movies and TV.

Henry VIII remains one of the most portrayed kings in history. But depictions of Henry VIII in movies and TV shows often have little in common with historical reality, since tropes misrepresent, reinvent, and oversimplify the life of one of the best-known and most reviled English monarchs.

Succeeding to the English throne in 1509 when he was only 17, for the next 36 years, Henry presided over some of the most dramatic events in English history. Henry is also infamous for his love life: He had a total of six wives. He executed Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, divorced Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves, and lost Jane Seymour in childbirth. Only one of his wives - Catherine Parr - survived the marriage without a premature ending.

Henry may have passed in 1547, but pop culture revives him again and again - and not always in historically grounded ways. From The Tudors inaccuracies to baseless myths perpetuated by Wolf Hall, movies and TV series often peddle misguided tropes about Henry VIII and his relationships.

  • Photo: A Man For All Seasons / Columbia Pictures

    He Was Immoderate And Raged All The Time

    The Trope: Henry VIII was an immoderate tyrant who let his emotions control him. 

    Why Is It Inaccurate? At the start of his reign, Henry was heralded as a golden prince. In 1509, one of the king's secretaries even praised his wisdom and level-headedness:

    What a passion he has for justice and honesty... Our king's heart is not set upon gold or jewels or mines of ore, but upon virtue, reputation, and eternal renown... a few days ago, when he said that he longed to be a more accomplished scholar, I remarked "We do not expect this of you; what we do expect is that you should foster and encourage those who are scholars." "Of course," he replied, "for without them we could scarcely exist." What better remark could be made by any king?

    While this is just one interpretation of the king's early years in power, it nonetheless shows that Henry could be more than a raging tyrant.

    Henry didn't remain a wise, golden prince forever, however. By the later years of his reign, most of his courtiers noticed a change in his behavior. Historian Suzannah Lipscomb dates a shift in Henry to around 1536:

    From being the glorious young prince of his accession, Henry changed to become a man who was markedly dour, irritable, mistrustful and repressively brutal towards his enemies. This was matched by his physical degeneration, from a handsome, athletic youth, into an obese old man, plagued by ill-health. Even before he died, people were starting to call him by the dreaded epithet "tyrant."

    Historians have different theories about what caused the change: Some insist it was a consequence of a traumatic brain injury, while others surmise it was from lead poisoning.

    Notable Offenders: Wolf HallA Man for All Seasons

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  • Photo: Anne Of The Thousand Days / Universal Pictures

    He Didn't Get Along With Catherine Of Aragon

    The Trope: Henry VIII couldn't stand his first wife Catherine of Aragon - she was a thorn in his side.

    Why Is It Inaccurate? Henry and Catherine not only got along; they genuinely cared for each other. He likely decided to take Catherine - his brother's widow - as his bride for political and romantic reasons

    Catherine wasn't a passive queen, sequestered in her chambers - she was also a worthy partner whom Henry could count on. She served as a capable regent during his absences and even led troops into battle.

    Films and TV shows that center on Henry's relationship with Anne Boleyn and his subsequent wives overlook or misrepresent his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, as they fixate on a period when he was no longer happy in his marriage.

    Notable Offenders: Wolf Hall; Anne of the Thousand DaysThe Other Boleyn Girl

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  • Photo: Carry On Henry / Rank Organisation

    Henry's Preferred Method Of Execution Was Beheading

    The Trope: If ever there was a king most associated with the phrase, "Off with their head!" it was Henry VIII. Whenever he passed a fatal sentence, the execution method was always beheading.

    Why Is It Inaccurate? It's true that some of Henry's highest-profile victims lost their heads beneath an executioner's blade: Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Thomas Cromwell, and Sir Thomas More.

    Henry may have been a prolific executioner, but he wasn't a one-trick pony. Although estimates vary as to exactly how many people were executed during his reign - some say it could have been upwards of 70,000, while others contend it was less than that - his policies and edicts ended many, many lives in a variety of ways.

    Often, the manner of execution reflected the crime as well as the prisoner. Heretics were often burned alive, for example, while rebels who participated in the Pilgrimage of Grace were hanged.

    Notable Offenders: Wolf HallAnne of the Thousand DaysA Man for All SeasonsCarry On Henry

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  • Photo: Wolf Hall / BBC Worldwide

    He Only Cared About Securing A Male Heir

    The Trope: Henry VIII was obsessed with producing a male heir at the expense of everything else. It was the only thing that motivated him and shaped all of his relationships.

    Why Is It Inaccurate? Securing a male heir really was one of Henry's chief concerns, especially in the 1520s and 1530s. It certainly shaped his marriage history and, by extension, the history of England.

    But it wasn't the only thing on his mind. For example, he maintained wars on the continent and in the British Isles. Moreover, Henry spent the last decade of his reign with a male heir, his much-indulged Prince Edward. 

    Although Henry's principal desire may have been to have a male heir, he would have understood that his daughters Mary and Elizabeth weren't useless. After all, alliances could be built through marriages between royal households. To that end, Henry entertained securing alliances with places like France and Bavaria through his daughters' marriages. He never followed through, however.

    By the time Henry passed in 1547, his daughters also had a place in the line of succession, thanks to the intervention of their final stepmother Catherine Parr.

    Notable Offenders: The Other Boleyn GirlWolf HallA Man for All Seasons

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