Spartacus Blog

Was Henry VIII as bad as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin?

Thursday, 12th February, 2015

John Simkin

In his book, Henry VIII (1984), the historian, Jasper Ridley, compared the crimes of Henry VIII with Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Ridley's main criticism of Henry concerns his treatment of the poor. During his reign he told Parliament to pass several acts against vagabonds (people wandering around the country looking for work). A law passed in 1530 stated that people who were too old or ill to work could apply to a local JP for a licence to beg; but any vagabond who begged without a licence was to be severely punished. If any able-bodied man or woman, who did not own land or carry on a recognised profession or was a trader in merchandise, was found outside his native parish and could not account for his presence there, the local JP was to send him to the nearest market town, where he was to be tied naked to the end of a cart and beaten with a whip.

Unemployment was a serious problem during this period. When large landowners changed from arable to sheep farming, unemployment increased rapidly. The closing down of the monasteries in the 1530s created even more unemployment. As the monasteries had also helped provide food for the poor, this added to the problem. More and more people left their villages to look for work. Eustace Chapuys reported that legions of monks, nuns and the servants employed in the suppressed religious houses, were roaming the countryside, homeless and penniless, begging for relief. He had been told that there were as many as 20,000 of them seeking help. (1)

In 1536 Parliament passed a new act to deal with vagabonds. For a second offence a vagabond was not only whipped but also had to have a part of his ear cut off. For the third offence, he was to be hanged. People found guilty of murder, rape, sodomy, arson, robbery, theft, forgery and coining were also hanged. People found guilty of treason were hanged, castrated, disembowelled, beheaded and quartered. The punishment for poisoners was to be boiled alive. According to the historian, Raphael Holinshed, who wrote twenty-five years after Henry's death, 72,000 thieves and vagabonds were hanged during his reign. (2)

Some historians have claimed that these figures are probably exaggerated.Jasper Ridley disagrees: "Many letters have survived from judges and government officials which give the number of malefactors executed after a recent assize or quarter sessions - some of them for high treason or murder, but the great majority for theft. The figures usually vary from six or eight to twelve or fourteen. If an average of ten persons were hanged at every session, this means that forty a year would be hanged in every county, which means 1,600 a year in the forty counties of England, even if we disregard Wales, where different circumstances prevailed. This would amount to about 60,000 during the thirty-eight years of Henry's reign. It is over 2 per cent of the 2,800,000 inhabitants of England, which equals the proportion of the 6,000,000 Jews exterminated by Hitler, who constituted 2 per cent of the population of occupied Europe, though it falls short of the 10,000,000 Russians who are said to have been put to death under Stalin's regime - more than 5 per cent of the population of the USSR." (3)

When people criticize the cruelty of Henry VIII they are often thinking about the execution of two of his wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. Interestingly, both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin were extremely reluctant to order the killing of women they knew. Alexandra Kollontai was the one person in the government who was able to criticize Stalin without losing her life. When he could not take it anymore Stalin sent her off to Norway as a diplomat.

Henry VIII
Henry VIII by Hans Holbein (1536)

Henry had no inhibitions when it came to women. A little known fact about Henry was that he came close to having his daughter, Mary, executed. In November 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy. This gave Henry the title of the "Supreme head of the Church of England". A Treason Act was also passed that made it an offence to attempt by any means, including writing and speaking, to accuse the King and his heirs of heresy or tyranny. All subjects were ordered to take an oath accepting this. (4)

Sir Thomas More and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, refused to take the oath and were later executed for this offence. Mary also refused to take the oath as it would mean renouncing her mother, Catherine of Aragon. Henry told Archbishop Thomas Cranmer that he had decided to send her to the Tower of London, and if she refused to take the oath, she would be prosecuted for high treason and executed. According to Ralph Morice it was Cranmer who finally persuaded Henry not to put her to death. Morice claims that when Henry at last agreed to spare Mary's life, he warned Cranmer that he would live to regret it. Henry was right as soon as she gained power she ordered Cranmer's arrest and he was burnt at the stake on 21st March, 1556. (5)

Henry's wives did what they could to talk him out of his decisions to execute people who resisted him. Jane Seymour, also interceded for Mary. Catherine Howard was another who persuaded her husband not to execute Thomas Wyatt when he was arrested on 17th January, 1541. The following month, Sir John Wallop, the conservative former ambassador to France, was also arrested. Charles de Marillac predicted a civil war in England: "There could be no worse war than the English carry on against each other... For after Cromwell had brought down the greatest of the realm... now others have arisen who will never rest till they have done as much to all Cromwell's adherents." (6)

All three men were eventually released. Eustace Chapuys claims "the Queen took courage to beg and entreat the King for the release of Mr. Wyatt, a prisoner of the Tower." David Starkey provides evidence that Catherine was involved in obtaining the release of all three men. "Catherine, like many teenagers, certainly showed herself to be wilful and sensual. But she also displayed leadership, resourcefulness and independence, which are qualities less commonly found in headstrong young girls... True, she was a good-time girl. But, like many good-time girls, she was also warm, loving and good-natured. She wanted to have a good time. But she wanted other people to have a good time, too. And she was prepared to make some effort to see that they did... Catherine, in short, had begun rather well. She had a good heart, and a less bad head than most of her chroniclers have assumed." (7)

However, Queen Catherine was unable to save the life of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury. Henry VIII had ordered her arrest in May 1539. She had been considered one of the leading Roman Catholics in England. However, the only evidence against her was that she had forbidden her servants to read the English Bible, and had once been seen burning a letter. (8) Margaret was the daughter of George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, who was the brother of Edward IV and Richard III, and therefore had a valid claim to the throne. (9)

Catherine Howard took an interest in Margaret's case. "That spring saw Catherine stirred to action by the plight of three people imprisoned in the Tower. One was Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, who had languished there for nearly two years with inadequate clothing and heating to protect her aged body from the bitter winter weather. When she learned of this, the Queen saw her tailor on 1st March and ordered him to make up garments which were to be sent to Lady Sailsbury: a furred night-gown, a bonnet and frontlet, four pairs of hose, four pairs of shoes and one pair of slippers. With the King's permission, Catherine paid for all these items out of her privy purse." (10)

Henry became more hostile with the rising in the north in the early months of 1541 led by Sir John Neville. He became convinced that Margaret was the figure-head of the opposition. Although she had a valid claim to the throne, she herself had never expressed any desire to occupy it. At the age of 68 she was also way beyond childbearing age and therefore constituted no threat in herself to the King.

On 28th May, 1541, Henry VIII gave orders for Margaret Pole to be executed. Antonia Fraser has argued: "This can claim to be the most repulsive piece of savagery ever carried out at the King's wishes... Her real crime was of course to be the mother of one who sided with the Pope and was beyond the King's vengeance." (11) Alison Weir agrees and has called it as "one of the worst atrocities of Henry's reign". (12) When she arrived at the scaffold she told the executioner that she would not lay her head upon the block, saying she had received no trial. The executioner was not the usual one employed on such occasions and was young and inexperienced. He hacked away at her head and neck for several minutes before her head was removed. (13)

Anne Boleyn was of course not guilty of the crimes she was executed for on 19th May 1536. Boleyn's problems began earlier that year when she was "delivered of a dead boy". (14) What is more, the baby was badly deformed. (15) This was a serious matter because in Tudor times Christians believed that a deformed child was God's way of punishing parents for committing serious sins. Henry feared that people might think that the Pope Clement VII was right when he claimed that God was angry because Henry had divorced Catherine of Aragon and married Anne.

Henry now approached Thomas Cromwell about how he could get out of his marriage with Anne. Cromwell decided to take this opportunity to remove the influence of Anne and her friends. Cromwell's biographer, Howard Leithead, has pointed out: "Anne Boleyn was well known for conducting herself with her courtiers in an informal and flirtatious manner, and Cromwell calculated that he could twist the language of courtly love to support an accusation of adultery." (16)

Cromwell suggested that one solution to this problem was to claim that he was not the father of this deformed child. On the king's instruction Cromwell was ordered to find out the name of the man who was the true father of the dead child. Philippa Jones has pointed out: "Cromwell was careful that the charge should stipulate that Anne Boleyn had only been unfaithful to the King after the Princess Elizabeth's birth in 1533. Henry wanted Elizabeth to be acknowledged as his daughter, but at the same time he wanted her removed from any future claim to the succession." (17)

The result was the arrest and execution of Anne Boleyn, George Boleyn, Henry Norris, Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton. Like Joseph Stalin, Henry forced his victims to praise him before they were executed. Anne Boleyn's last words were: "Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the King, and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never and to me he was ever a good, a gentle, and sovereign Lord.... And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me." (18)

The reason why Anne made this statement is that she was attempting to save the lives and property of family members. The same was true of Stalin. At his trial in August 1936, Lev Kamenev said: "I Kamenev, together with Zinoviev and Trotsky, organized and guided this conspiracy. My motives? I had become convinced that the party's - Stalin's policy - was successful and victorious. We, the opposition, had banked on a split in the party; but this hope proved groundless. We could no longer count on any serious domestic difficulties to allow us to overthrow. Stalin's leadership we were actuated by boundless hatred and by lust of power."

We now know that Kamenev was completely innocent of the crimes he had confessed to at his trial. He knew that he was going to be executed but his concern was with the lives of his wife and children. Kamenev's final words in the trial were about the plight of his children: "I should like to say a few words to my children. I have two children, one is an army pilot, the other a Young Pioneer. Whatever my sentence may be, I consider it just... Together with the people, follow where Stalin leads." This was a reference to the promise that Stalin made about his sons during an earlier meeting when Kamenev agreed to make a false confession. In this sense Stalin was worse that Henry. Both of Kamenev's sons were later executed whereas Thomas Boleyn was allowed to keep most of his property.

Catherine Howard, like Anne Boleyn, was accused of adultery. However, even after being tortured, Thomas Culpeper and Francis Dereham, refused to confess to this crime. The three did agree they had been sexually intimate before the marriage. Under the laws of the time, this made Catherine's marriage to Henry invalid and therefore she could not be guilty of adultery.

Henry VIII now asked Parliament to pass a new law that would enable him to order the execution of Catherine. Members were told that Catherine had led "an abominable, base, carnal, voluptuous and vicious life" and had acted "like a common harlot with divers (many) persons... maintaining however the outward appearance of chastity and honesty". (19) The proposed new law stated that "an unchaste woman marrying the King should be guilty of high treason". Anyone concealing this information was also guilty of high treason. The proposed law also stated that any woman who presumed to marry the King without admitting she had been unchaste would merit death. The Act was passed on 16th January 1542. As David Starkey has pointed out the "key clauses of the Act were flagrantly retrospective". (20)

At seven o'clock on Monday, 13th February, 1542, Catherine was taken to Tower Green. The Constable of the Tower, Sir John Gage, reported that she was so weak with crying that she could hardly stand or speak. Before her execution she said she merited a hundred deaths and prayed for her husband. According to one witness Catherine said she "desired all Christian people to take regard unto her worthy and just punishment". The executioner severed her head in a single blow. (21) Both her parents were dead but her grandfather, Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk, was now released from the Tower of London and was able to retain his lands.

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(1) Eustace Chapuys, report to King Charles V (January, 1536)

(2) Raphael Holinshed, Holinshed Chronicles Volume One (1577) page 314

(3) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 281

(4) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) pages 43-44

(5) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 274

(6) Charles de Marillac, report to François I (18th January, 1541)

(7) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003) page 655

(8) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 351

(9) Hazel Pierce, Margaret Pole : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(10) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 439

(11) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 342

(12) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 441

(13) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 135

(14) Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) page 191

(15) G. W. Bernard, Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions (2011) pages 174-175

(16) Howard Leithead, Thomas Cromwell : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(17) Philippa Jones, Elizabeth: Virgin Queen (2010) page 25

(18) Anne Boleyn, statement on the scaffold at Tower Green (19th May, 1536). Quoted by Edward Hall, in his book, History of England (1548) page 268-269

(19) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 351

(20) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003) page 681

(21) Ottwell Johnson, letter to his brother, John Johnson (15th February, 1542)