Last Night’s TV – Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant


This series of four programmes was made to mark the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession to the throne and to wit, Dr David Starkey travelled across Europe to “understand the inner life of this feared English king.” Why??

Surely that kind of history is something we can find on the internet should we suddenly get the urge? Did we really need a whole series on Channel 4 dedicated to finding out what King Henry VIII was like and how his life went? I personally think not. Maybe I’m just a philistine but my god, this was, in the main, boring and ultimately, pointless.

Channel 4 says of this four part series – which thankfully drew to a close last night – “Presenting a vivid four-part biography, Dr David Starkey goes inside the mind of Henry VIII. This is not the story of Henry and his six wives, but an unprecedented examination to find out how Prince Charming became Bluebeard, the English Stalin…

David Starkey – of whom the Independent’s Brian Viner amusingly and correctly said, “I have alluded before to Starkey’s eerie resemblance to Steve Pemberton from The League of Gentlemen” – this series has without doubt been informative but was it really information that we needed to get in a primetime slot on Channel 4?


In the four episodes, we first heard about Henry’s childhood and his rival, Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be the real Duke of York and therefore the rightful king, and how Henry Tudor had to defend his throne twice in battle, as well as how the death of his brother Arthur made Henry Prince of Wales, and his father’s heir and rival.

Next we learned that Henry’s successes at the Battle of the Spurs – which had nothing to do with football I was surprised to note – and the Field of the Cloth of Gold – which sounds like something Kate Winslet should star in –  as well as his eventual humiliation following the Battle of Pavia. Again, that sounds a lot like a neighbour dispute over patio flagging but as I said, I’m a philistine evidently.

We learned too of his relationship with the Machiavellian Thomas Wolsey who was central to his reign. Then in the third installment, we heard all about Henry’s ten-year affair with Anne Boleyn and how he needed a Papal annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Henry learned later though that simply lopping the heads off his wives was way quicker…

During his wait for said Papal annulment, and prompted by Anne – who like most women, tell their men what to do in such a way as to make them think it was their idea in the first place – Henry came to believe that the King, not the Pope, should rule the Church in England. The result was a break with Rome, a new wife for Henry, and a new religion for his subjects. But their marriage didn’t last and rather than just dividing up the CDs and deciding who got which sofa, Henry had her executed. Nice.

And finally last night, we got to hear about how the death of Jane Seymour “robbed him of someone he was genuinely fond of”. Clearly he’d never heard of that whole, what-goes-round-comes-round thing, but she’d managed to give him the heir he desperately wanted before she shuffled off the mortal coil, so that was nice. His subsequent marriage to Katherine Howard, which was his fifth, “briefly rekindled the flames of desire”, but her adultery made her another victim of the beheader’s axe.

The six wives of Henry VIII of England were, in order: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, and Catherine Parr. Of the six queens, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour each gave Henry one child each who survived infancy; two daughters and one son, all three of whom would eventually accede to the throne. They were Queen Mary I, Queen Elizabeth I, and King Edward VI.

Now I must admit, I did find the parts about his ‘marriages’ – even though he either had most of them annulled or ended them by beheading his spouse – interesting but the rest was the kind of fodder one might expect to get in an Open University programme from a tank-top wearing long haired hippy on BBC2.

For me anyway, documentaries and other TV shows are things you can discuss; talk about at work or in the pub, but can you imagine showing up at the office and saying, “Did you see that thing last night about Henry whatshisface? He was a bit of a lad eh? And the ascension to the throne wasn’t easy for the poor fella was it?” I think not…

This entire thing seemed to me more of a televised journey into David Starkey’s own interests and I wasn’t impressed overall. If it’s something I can look up on t’interweb or read a book about, then I don’t particularly want to watch it, unless it’s a drama adaptation or something like that, but this wasn’t. It seemed to me, as I said, this series was just indulging David Starkey’s own fascination at our expense.

What did you think of it?

Lynn is an editor and writer here at Unreality TV and is trained psychotherapist and the author of two books. She's addicted to soaps, period drama and reality TV shows such as X Factor, I'm A Celeb and Big Brother.