How Could He Do It?: New Excerpt from Susan’s Book

Note: The Following is excerpted from a draft chapter of Susan Bordo, The Creation of Anne Boleyn, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, forthcoming 2012.  Do not cite or quote without attribution.

How Could He Do It?

When the guns sounded Anne’s death, Henry “immediately boarded a barge and went to Mistress Seymour.” Later that night he returned to Hampton Court, the magnificent palace that Henry had appropriated from his long-time mentor and Chancellor, Thomas Wolsey, and refurbished for Anne.  Jane Seymour followed Henry at six the next morning.  They were betrothed at nine o’clock.   The palace had been divested of all the emblems and other evidence of Anne’s queenship (except for those missed by the furiously scrambling revisionist carpenters and stonemasons.)  Soon it would be renovated, once again, to accommodate Prince Edward, the long prayed-for male heir.

The execution of a queen was unprecedented, extreme and shocking, even to Anne’s enemies. Henry had invested six years of time, energy, intellect, money, and blood in making the marriage happen. They were married less than three years. There is no evidence of an unbridgeable emotional estrangement between them. His earlier love letters to her, admittedly written in the bloom of fresh passion, portray a solicitous, tender suitor whom it is impossible to imagine coldly ordering a wife’s death. There are plenty of explanations for Henry’s desire for a new marriage–Anne’s failure to provide a male heir, Jane Seymour, waiting in the wings, fresh and fertile, Henry’s recognition that Anne was creating problems with his image, and perhaps the need to reaffirm his declining masculinity with a new, more pliant bride. […..] In the end, whichever account you find most convincing, it still takes a leap of incomprehension to find any of them sufficient to explain Henry’s willingness—in fact, seeming eagerness—to sign the order for Anne’s execution.  We are still left asking ourselves: How could he do it?

The answer to that question requires going deeper into Henry’s psychology, both as a man and as a King, in search of precisely that piece of his being that made the order to execute Anne possible for him. [………….] Ideas about this fall into one of two categories.  There are those that see the young Henry and the older Henry as two very different men.  Lipscomb’s and Starkey’s theories falls into this category, and so does Michael Hirst’s.  Hirst, creator of The Tudors, described in an interview with me what he views as a shattering of Henry’s psyche, brought on by the recognition that he had spent years of his life, shed the blood of friends, and broken with the church of his childhood, only to be proved mistaken in the supposition that this was what God wanted of him.  On this interpretation, Anne’s failure to produce an heir was not just a blow to the security of the Tudor line but a sign that the hope that he had built his entire life around was based on an illusion:

“He had attacked the church on the basis of a love affair, largely.  But he felt sure of what he was doing at the time, and Anne had mistaken promised him a son. After she’d given him a daughter and had the miscarriages, it began to seem to him as though he’d gone horribly wrong.  He was plunged back into reality, which is messy and not perfect. And I think that as he confronted the huge seriousness of it, he began to think in weird ways, that she was a witch and so forth.  This of course, shows how juvenile he still was.  And he did have an absolutely ruthless streak which his father, too, had possessed.  But beyond that, he did suffer a severe psychological crisis, knowing he had been so deluded. He came out of that crisis a much worse person, a complete tyrant and monster, who killed off the best part of himself in the attempt to reconcile his psychological issues.”

Hirst dramatized this transformation with a chilling last scene in the final episode of the second season of The Tudors.  This was the episode in which Anne is executed, and throughout, scenes of her suffering in the Tower were punctuated with the image of Henry, gazing contemplatively at two beautiful swans nuzzling in the pond outside the palace.  His mood and thoughts are left deliberately ambiguous; perhaps, the viewer imagines, he is thinking back over his love for Anne and the life they shared together, perhaps he is having regrets, feeling sorrow for the beauty that is about to be lost?  No.  After the execution scene, we are immediately taken to the King at his table, looking forward to his breakfast, which is being brought to him in a large gilt tureen on a silver platter.  The lid is lifted, and the servants and nobles surrounding Henry gasp and applaud in delight.  There on the platter is one of the swans, roasted and decorated with its own beautiful wings, posed as gracefully as if it were still swimming in a lake.  Henry, referencing Charles Laughton’s famous eating scene but giving Henry’s voraciousness a menace missing from Laughton’s comic depiction, tears off a wing, plunges his hand into the body of the swan, and begins eating, oblivious to the greasy drool spilling from his mouth.

But there are those who argue that although Henry’s resilience, emotional balance, and temper may have degenerated—and his waistline expanded[1]–as he got older, his personality and character were essentially the same from the beginning of his reign to the end.  Those who argue in this way generally believe, like Lacey Baldwin Smith, that Henry was always a man of many faces, a “baffling composite of shifting silhouettes” who could be good-natured, generous and charming one moment and dangerously cold as stone the next, highly emotional yet rigidly stubborn, a genuine searcher of his conscience for “God’s will” yet able to subordinate all moral scruples and guilt to solidifying his own authority or satisfying his own desires.  The combination of informal warmth and lethal self-interest meant that even the closest relationships with him were never on solid ground, always skating on thin ice.  Thomas More, of all of Henry’s contemporaries, was most perceptive about the inherent danger of making too much of the King’s outward gestures of affection. He told Fisher  that “the king has a way of making every man feel that he is enjoying his special favor.”  It may have been a compliment, but it was also a warning.  He told a young courtier—and this was in 1520, before any “crisis” had occurred in Henry’s reign—that having fun with the king was like “having fun with tamed lions—often it is harmless, but just as often there is the fear of harm.  Often he roars in rage for no known reason, and suddenly the roar becomes fatal.  The pleasure you get is not safe enough to relieve you of anxiety.  For you it is a great pleasure.  As for me, let my pleasure be less great—and safe” (Lion’s Court, p. 217).

But even More couldn’t remain safe.  He realized, as he told his son in law Roper, that even when he was favored by the King “more singularly” than any subject in the realm, “I have no cause to be proud thereof, for if my head could win him a castle in France, it should not fail to go.” (Ridley, 188)   In the end, Henry was just that cavalier with More’s life, although not over a castle in France. Henry had promised, years before, that he would always allow More to avoid any declarations or actions that went against his conscience.  But when Henry’s own supremacy was at issue, More’s conscience—and his head—proved to be easily dispensed with.  On the day of More’s execution, Henry went hunting in Reading.  This was the way Henry dealt with all his executions of old friends and lovers: go hunting, have a party, be merry. Move on.  It may have been a survival mechanism, whose aim was to defend him against normal human feelings of regret or grief.

Despite their many insights—I particularly value Suzanne Lipscomb’s work–the problem with theories that postulate a crisis or set of crises that turned Henry from a virtuous prince into the sort of man who could order the execution of a wife is that Henry was always capable of decisively and irrevocably turning off the switch of affection, love, tender feeling and shared memories, severing all ties, and refusing to look back.  In fact, those whom he loved the most—Wolsey, More, Anne, Cromwell–were most at risk.  Because he loved them, they had the most power to disappoint him—and for Henry, disappointment could never be “slight.”  All wounds to his authority, his manhood, his trust, were bloody gashes that he could only repair by annihilating (psychologically or literally) the one who inflicted the wound.  This, perhaps, is what distinguishes Henry’s pattern from “ordinary” royal imperiousness.  Kings execute people.  Kings have grandiose ambitions.  Kings are threatened by challenges to their authority.  Kings can become drunk on power, and often do.   But Henry may be unique among famous authoritarian kings in that his close relationships only had two switches: on and off.  As Howard Brenton, author of the play Anne Boleyn, put it in an interview with me, “With Henry, you were either totally in or you were dead.  He would have someone close to him, he’d elevate them, and they’d be terrific and virtually run everything on his behalf, and then when something went wrong, or a wind came his way, he would turn 180 degrees against them and they would be out.  It happened to Wolsey, it happened to More, it happened to Anne, it happened to Cromwell.”  It almost happened to Mary, who so enraged Henry when she refused, even after Anne was dead, to take the oath recognizing her father as Supreme Head of the Church of England, that Cranmer , at the last minute, had to talk him out of ordering her execution (Ridley, 274).  Mary was Henry’s daughter.

In 2011, this kind of personality would probably be diagnosed as indicating that Henry was a borderline or narcissistic personality type.  Phenomenologically—that is, without attempting to put a medical label on Henry, but simply looking at his patterns of behavior—he certainly exemplifies the phenomenon therapists call “splitting”:

“The world of a borderline, like that of a child, is split into heroes and villains.  A child emotionally, the borderline cannot tolerate human inconsistencies and ambiguities; he cannot reconcile another’s good and bad qualities into a constant coherent understanding of that person.  At any particular moment, one is either ‘good’ or ‘evil’; there is no in-between, no gray area.  Nuances and shadows are grasped with great difficulty, if at all.  Lovers and mates, mothers and father, siblings…and friends may be idolized one day, totally devalued and dismissed the next” (10, ‘I hate you’).

In a certain sense, of course, the medieval world view was itself a “split” universe, in which God and Satan, the saved and the fallen, were at starkly opposite poles, and “history was an extended moral homily upon the actions of men behaving rightly or wrongly.” (Mask of royalty, 75) It wasn’t until the psychological turn of the 19th century that human beings began to be seen as mixtures of good and evil, ego and id, light side and dark side.  But a dualistic ideology and a personality for whom others are either “for you” or “against you” are two very different things.  In philosophical or religious dualism it is God (or the universe) that assigns the categories of good and bad, which are relatively stable; for Henry, his own shifting needs were the measure of all things. “He is a prince of a royal disposition, and hath a princely heart, “ Wolsey told Kingston in 1529, long before Kingston became Anne’s warder in the Tower, but “rather than he will either miss or want any part of his will or appetite, he will put the loss of one half of his realm in danger.” (p. 256, Lion’s Court) But Henry’s “will” was not always easy to discern, for it was capricious.  In the screenplay of “A Man for All Seasons,” Robert Bolt brilliantly captures, in one brief action, not only the trembling uncertainty this produced in those around him, but Henry’s delight in it.  Henry’s boat has just arrived at Chelsea, More’s home, and the king (Robert Shaw), robust and athletic has jumped off the deck and into, unexpectedly, into a pool of mud.  He glares menacingly at the rowmen, who quake appropriately.  Henry then bursts into a hearty, howling laugh, and the tense atmosphere among the men is transformed into playtime, as they take their turn jumping into the mud.

There’s no evidence that Henry took such childish pleasure in manipulating the emotions of his subjects—although there are plenty of occasions when he used his ability to make people cower in order to show his magnanimity (e.g. staged last-minute pardons) or assert his authority.  Those tactics were pretty standard for kings, whose image was essential to maintaining power.  It was also judicious for royalty to develop a strong shell of mistrust, for the reality is that Henry’s life and line of descent were in constant danger.  He was not “paranoid” to be watchful for signs of betrayal.  But Henry’s turnabouts do not seem to have been always under his control.  The letters of ambassadors, even from the early years of his reign, describe sudden, explosive angers, “tears and tantrums.”   1535, the king’s fool almost lost his life over a joke about Anne Boleyn; a year later, Henry was weeping uncontrollably while hugging his illegitimate son, relieved that he was now safe from  “that accursed whore” who had slept with over a hundred men.  A hundred?  That would have meant a new man every ten days of her Queenship.  Yet it’s possible that Henry believed something near to this, for his emotional switch, for whatever reasons, had turned against her, and she was now as wholly evil in his eyes as she once was wholly virtuous.

If we want to go beyond the phenomenology of Henry’s “splitting” to causal explanation, we could find it in his childhood, which was itself split between the “cosy feminine world” of his mother and sisters and the cold indifference, then hostile domination, of his father.  “As the only boy in the royal nursery,” writes  Robert Hutchinson, Henry “was thoroughly spoilt and tenderly protected from the hard knocks and bruises of childhood misfortune.  The toddler prince was cosseted, his grumpiness and tears sweetly cooed away, and his every whim swiftly fulfilled by the doting matronly ladies who cared for him.” (15)  It’s not clear, however, that naturally energetic Henry was entirely happy with all this “doting,” which after Arthur’s death kept him “as locked away as a woman” out of fear that the precious spare heir would also be lost.  As soon as he was free to, he was non-stop jousting, wrestling, and showing off with his boy-pals. But the masculine attentions of his father came with a high price, too.  Until Arthur’s death, his father had virtually ignored Henry, leaving him to the care of the women; after Arthur died, however, he became obsessively focused on preparing him for the throne, and in the process, Henry became subject to his father’s famous rages when he didn’t do exactly as required.  He was so strict with the child that he gave the impression to Reginald Pole, Henry’s contemporary, that he had “no affection or fancy unto him.” (Erickson, 51)

You don’t need to venture into psychoanalytic territory, or engage in anachronistic psychologizing, to imagine Henry growing up with the belief that relationships were an either/or business, largely defined by gender:  You could be extravagantly loved but smothered by women (perhaps part of the reason why he was initially drawn to both Katherine and Anne, and later Katherine Parr, all of whom were strong-minded women whose strengths he came to resent.)  Or: you could excel in the competitive world of men, where you might exercise power and command fear but never achieve the unconditional adoration you crave.  Perhaps this intense desire for male love, and not only freedom from the restrictions of his childhood, helps to explain both his attraction to a father figure like Wolsey, and also why Henry was at his happiest, most generous, most exuberant, among the young men he hunted and cavorted with.   But in the end, everyone—with the exception of Charles Brandon and Katherine Parr, the two “survivors” of life with Henry—was bound to fail him, for he expected the impossible.

Whatever the origins of Henry’s personality, his problems were vastly exacerbated by the fact that he was, after all, king.  As such, he was continually flattered and pampered, his every whim indulged, his grandiosity rarely challenged, his illusions carefully maintained.  All of this encouraged his sense of omnipotence, which in turn made it all the riskier for those around him to show anything less than absolute allegiance.  In proving this, even obedience, ironically, put one at risk, for Henry wasn’t a fool; he knew those around him were afraid, and so never fully trusted anyone.  When he was young, he sought out people like More, and encouraged them to be honest with him, seeking some solid ground on which to base a relationship.  But it was a zero sum game; when More ran up against Henry’s need to be the center of the universe, More’s once-cherished independence of mind became worse than “nothing” in Henry’s “all or nothing” demands on relationships.

It’s hard to know exactly what threw the switch with Anne.  Her final miscarriage may have convinced him that God was not on the side of their relationship.  He may have believed in the charges of adultery—although his exaggerated estimates of her infidelities make me less rather than more likely to believe that; if he truly believed she had slept with five men, including her own brother, surely that would have been enough to “justify” his outrage without dragging half the men in court into her bed.  Or the humiliation of hearing that Anne gossiped about his lack of sexual performance may have been all that was needed.  We will never know, and it really doesn’t matter.  It was sufficient, whatever it was, to shut off any currents of empathy, memory, attachment that Henry felt for Anne.  This is where “Anne of the Thousand Days” has it so wrong.  The play and movie both open with Henry tormented by the decision whether or not to order Anne’s execution.  In Maxwell Anderson’s play, which is written in verse, Henry muses:

“This is hard to do

when you come to put pen to paper.

You say to yourself:

She must die.  And she must—

If thing are to go as planned.

Yes, if they are to go at all.

If I am to rule

And keep my sanity and hold my England off the rocks…

Go back to it, Henry, go back to it.

Keep your mind

On this parchment you must sign.

Dip the pen in the ink write your name…

It’s only that a woman you’ve held in your arms

And longer for when she was away,

And suffered with her—no, but she promised you an heir.

Write it down—

Write Henry Rex, and it’s done.

And then the headsman

Will cry out suddenly, “Look, look there!’

And point to the first flash of sunrise,

And she’ll look,

Not knowing what he means, and his sword will flash

In the flick of sun, through the little bones of her neck

As she looks away,

And it will be done.

It will be done.”

It’s romantic and moving, and beautifully written.  But it is not, I believe, the poetry of Henry’s reality.  In that reality, they handed him the parchment.  He dipped the pen in the ink.  He signed his name: Henry Rex.  And it was done.

[1] Something The Tudors never shows, in part due to the vanity of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.

Hans Holbein, Henry VIII


Filed under Anne and Gender, Book Excerpts

2 responses to “How Could He Do It?: New Excerpt from Susan’s Book

  1. I agree with your conclusion that Henry is a borderline. But I think what you must remember when dealing with a borderline personality is that they have no emotional skin. It is not so much the flipping of a switch due to an event, it is the flipping of a switch due to something which caused pain to the borderline. Whether the slight was real or perceived it causes pain and a person with a borderline personality has no emotional skin. Anything that hurts them hurts so badly that they can’t deal with it. So, in order to process it they turn that pain into anger. Thus, the switch is flipped. It is their way of dealing with pain. To them pain is intolerable because it is so great. The bigger the perceived slight the greater the anger. Those loved best by the borderline are always the victims, because they can hurt or as you said disappoint them the most. This is why I think Henry halfway believed Anne had in fact cheated on him. Not that she did, but those close to him were telling him that she did. So rumor + lack of ability to process emotions, especially painful ones, flipped his switch. She did things that caused him pain (although these things were not in fact true) therefore she was evil. She had to go, and I read, I think in Lipscomb’s book that he was obsessed with the details of her death, the building of the scaffold, the hiring of the executioner, but avoided knowing about her death itself as much as possible. Borderlines are never wrong either, so they will tolerate nothing which might put them at fault or make them feel guilt. They must control everything so that they do not get hurt. Only, in the end, they wind up hurting themselves most of all.

  2. Susan

    Great elaboration of the borderline concept and its application to Henry; thanks so much!!! And thanks also for reminding me about that part in Lipscomb (a book I admire very much) about Henry’s attention to the details of Anne’s death. (BTW, I interviewed Lipscomb, and will at some point post the interview on this website.)

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