Happy New Year! This time last year, we introduced our first edition of Horrific History, so as per tradition, here is another, this time discussing one of the most murderous monarchs Britain has seen. There have been many horrific tales through history, from gruesome medical practices to bizarre punishments and even some very questionable cleaning habits. Today, we’ll be diving into King Henry VIII’s murderous tendencies. Not only did these unfortunate spouses, advisors and subjects get sentenced to death, which was bad enough, but many of those executions were based on false charges or just the king’s whim.

Did you know that during his 36 year reign, it is estimated that he sentenced over 50,000 people to death, many of whom were ordinary citizens or religious figures. The crime? Mostly supposed treason but also heresy and refusing to accept him as being head of the church of England. Of course, we can’t tell you about every victim of Henry’s but here’s some of the most prominent figures.

Queens Catherine Howard and Anne Boleyn

Cousins and queens Catherine Howard and Anne Boleyn both fared badly after marrying Henry. Anne Boleyn was the second and possibly best known of his six wives, she was instrumental in his decision to break England away from Rome and was politically influential, as well as being interested in charity and education. Following a fall out with Thomas Cromwell (more on him later) and her inability to give Henry a son, she found herself at the centre of several charges, including adultery and incest. The conspiracy accused her of infidelity with five men, including her own brother. Anne was imprisoned in the Tower of London and then executed, though Henry very kindly commuted the sentence from being burned at the stake to beheading and even had an expert swordsman brought in from France. Anne was executed in a private setting, with him proposing to Jane Seymour shortly after.

Wife number five, Catherine Howard also ended up being accused of adultery and under the Bill of Attainder which was brought in especially to help them get around a slight issue regarding her charges. Catherine was just 17 when she was married to the 49 year old Henry and had spent most of her life being used and abused by older men. As well as being accused of adultery with her cousin Thomas Culpeper, she was also accused of failing to reveal her sexual history to the king and for having a pre-contract with her abuser.

Catherine was imprisoned at Syon Abbey before being moved to the Tower of London where she was beheaded at Tower Green, on the same spot that her cousin Anne was executed seen years earlier.

Other members of the Howard/Boleyn clan

The Boleyns and the Howard families gains influence and power in the wake of Anne and Catherine being noticed by the king but it also meant that they were in his eyeline when he went into one of his murderous rages.

As we’ve already mentioned, George Boleyn, the Viscount Rochford, Anne’s younger brother was one of five men arrested on suspicion of being involved with the queen. Though George was known to be rather sexually liberated for the time, there is no evidence that his relationship with his sister was in any way sexual. The pair had always been close and affectionate with each other but it is now believed that George may have been homosexual. He was executed on Tower Hill on 17th May 1536.

His wife, Jane Boleyn, the Viscountess Rochford also ended up on the chopping block, being executed at the same time as Catherine Howard. It is believed that she willfully contributed to the accusations of her husband and sister in law and seven years later, still having a position in the royal household, was accused of arranging and assisting Catherine Howard in her affair with Thomas Culpeper.

The last person executed by King Henry was also a member of the Howard/Boleyn family. Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey was a cousin to both Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard and was famous for founding English Renaissance poetry. He was a soldier and was known for having a bit violent temper. Among his crimes were changing his coat of arms, plotting to take over the throne. He and his father, the Duke of Norfolk, were both arrested on charges of treason and he was beheaded on Tower Hill. His father was spared only because Henry himself died before his scheduled execution.

Thomas Cromwell

At one point, Cromwell was one of the most powerful men in the country, serving Henry as his Chief Minister. Unlike other members of the court, he wasn’t descended from nobility, instead he was the son of a merchant that worked his way up. He had just as many enemies as supporters at court, especially after his work to help get Anne Boleyn on the throne.

He was also instrumental in getting her off the throne. Even before the funeral of Jane Seymour, he was tasked with finding Henry a new wife and negotiated the marriage contract with Anne of Cleves – Henry famously didn’t find her to his liking, and it was Cromwell that bore the brunt of his rage. He was accused of treason and executed on Tower Hill with his head being displayed on a spike on London Bridge.   

Sir Thomas More

Before Cromwell, More was the most important Thomas in Henry’s life. He was a close friend and advisor to the king, having known him since boyhood. His downfall from high office was because he opposed the annulment with Catherine of Aragon and the break from Rome.

Sir Thomas More ended up being canonised as a pope as a martyr and was accused of treason with others deemed heretics, unlike the others he was arrested with, More was given ample opportunities to sign his allegiance to Henry as Supreme Head of the Church of England and ended up being beheaded.

Margaret Pole, Countess of Surrey

Another person murdered by Henry VIII who was made into a martyr by the Catholic Church, Margaret Pole’s execution has been covered on our blog before because of the brutal nature of her killing. She was a peeress in her own right and was one of the richest women in the country and for a time served in the royal house hold as a lady in waiting. However, she fell out of favour when the king married Anne Boleyn and was exiled from court until after her execution. There she returned to her original position until her sons inadvertently linked her to a plot to install a Catholic government. Her son Reginald was suggested as a future husband for Mary Tudor and was involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace, a group of rebels. Her other son, Geoffrey was arrested in another group who plotted against the king, which led to Margaret being imprisoned in the Tower of London for two years. Though she had quite nice lodgings in comparison to some of the other inhabitants of the Tower, Margaret would be executed at the age of 67 in one of the most gruesome executions in British history. She was only given an hour to prepare for her end and refused to comply with the executioner’s instructions. He chased her around, hacking at her, pretty much tearing her to pieces.

The Pilgrimage of Grace

As we just mentioned them, lets tell you about the fate of these rebels. Calling themselves the Pilgrimage of Grace was led by Robert Aske and began in Yorkshire. It was the most serious rebellion of Henry’s reign and mostly centred around the policies associated with Thomas Cromwell. Essentially they wanted to replace the government with a Catholic led movement. Eventually 216 rebels were executed, including lords, knights and abbots.

The rebellion’s leader, Aske was hanged in chains at Clifford’s Tower in York, while some of the others were hanged, drawn and quartered, burnt at the stake or hanged.

Carthusian Monks

The Houses of the Carthusian Monks had a terrible time during the dissolution of the monasteries. During the Reformation, there were a host of monks who refused to comply with the new rules and were executed including this order, who ended up being systematically persecuted and banned. Many of the monks from this order were tortured, either to death or burned at the stake. One particularly nasty execution ordered by Henry took place at London Charterhouse (known today as Charterhouse Square). A huge number of monks were arrested, interrogated and then disembowelled while still alive before being beheaded and quartered.

Anne Askew

It wasn’t just Catholics who were killed in their droves by Henry – no one was safe. Anne Askew was a protestant woman who was condemned as a heretic. She actively fought against church oppression and challenged male control, becoming the first Englishwoman to demand a divorce on spiritual grounds. She was tortured at the Tower of London, one of only two women to have received such treatment. While in the Tower she was placed on the rack twice, which left her with her joints being dislocated. It is said her screams could be heard from outside the White Tower but she refused to answer the questions put to her and ended up being burned at the stake for heresy.

Elizabeth Barton

Elizabeth made the grave mistake of predicting the king’s death – for which she received a charge of treason. Probably because many of the things she said came true. Known as the Nun of Kent or the Mad Maid of Kent, Henry had her investigated by the Catholic Church and for a time, Henry was impressed with her abilities. However, after he began his quest to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, she became outspoken against the royal family and  prophesised that if he married Anne Boleyn he would die within a few months. She was arrested and tortured into confessing it was part of a conspiracy to kill the king. She was just 28 when she was hanged.




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