He is arguably England’s most notorious monarch, known for beheading wives who displeased him and advisers who dared challenge him. Every aspect of Henry VIII’s reign, and his life with his six wives, has been pored over in academic papers, books and documentary films, leaving little, seemingly, left to unearth.
But now an Ottawa university professor has stumbled across fresh evidence of the inner turmoil of England’s most famous king that has eluded Tudor scholars for centuries.
Carleton University literary scholar Micheline White has discovered doodles that Henry VIII made in the margins of a prayer book, revealing the private anguish the King may have suffered in his final years.
While researching a religious text produced by his last wife and Queen Consort Catherine Parr, Prof. White found pointing fingers, known as manicules, that the Tudor monarch drew to mark religious passages that appealed to him.
The verses he highlighted suggest that in the last years of his life, Henry was plagued by physical suffering and sins he had committed and was seeking divine wisdom and even forgiveness.
One manicule King Henry drew has a finger pointing at the passage: “Turn away thine anger from me, that I may know that thou art more merciful unto me than my sins deserve.”
Another doodle is in the margins of the passage: “O Lord God forsake me not, although I have done no good in thy sight.”
Prof. White, who published her findings earlier this year in the prestigious journal Renaissance Quarterly, said the doodles provide a snapshot of Henry’s thoughts as he read the Queen Consort’s text on at least two different occasions. He marked up passages in Psalm 4 about sinfulness and repentance, verses in Psalm 5 asking for divine wisdom and Psalm 7 verses about godly living.
King Henry beheaded dozens of people during his reign including two of his six wives – Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard – as well as his close advisers Lord High Chancellor Thomas More and Lord Great Chamberlain Thomas Cromwell. Centuries later, Sir Thomas More was declared a saint.
The King also executed hermits, nuns, monks and other clergy who refused to comply after his break from the Roman Catholic Church, including John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, who produced the original Latin version of Psalms or Prayers, the text that the Queen Consort translated.
The annotations were made in the final years of his reign when he was suffering physically, and was obese with a purulent ulcer on his leg.
Henry was very athletic during his younger years and may have sustained head injuries during jousting, hunting or other activities, which could have led to a change in personality, according to academic research. A paper published in the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience says he had at least three major head injuries.
The doodles he drew suggest that the King may have associated the physical suffering besetting him toward the end of his reign with his earlier conduct.
One passage he noted says “Take away thy plagues from me, for thy punishment hath made me both feeble and faint.”
Prof. White discovered the doodles – including trefoils composed of three dots … in the margins of an illuminated edition of the book of Psalms or Prayers, with Henry’s coat of arms in brilliant colours on the title page, held in the Wormsley Library in Buckinghamshire, England.
She came across them just as she was about to finish consulting the rare book kept in a collection assembled by British philanthropist Sir Paul Getty.
“I was getting tired and was going to leave when I thought that I should really have a look at every page, just in case,” she said. “I was not expecting to find any marginalia. But when I got to about page 60, I saw the first faint manicule, and then another, then another. I was very excited because only about 20 per cent of early modern books have marginalia in them.
“When I looked closer, I became even more excited because I thought they looked a lot like Henry’s trefoils and manicules. Luckily for me, I had spent the previous week at the British library looking at Henry VIII’s psalter and so I thought that the markings looked familiar. I was naturally speechless and delighted with the possibility that I had found something truly special.”
Prof. White then spent years painstakingly comparing the doodles to those known to have been made by the King elsewhere, even measuring the length and shape of the fingers and angles at which they point to the text, and comparing the ink. A distinctive cuff below the hands he drew was further evidence that the manicules were drawn by the King himself.
She says the verses he highlighted “resonate powerfully with Henry’s situation between the spring of 1544 and his death in January, 1547.”
In 1544, the year Psalms or Prayers was published and King Henry invaded France, the imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys told the Holy Roman Emperor that as well as his “age and weight,” Henry had “the worst legs in the world” but that “no one dare tell him so.”
“He had a lot of stuff to be worried about in the last few years of his life so it is no wonder he marked so many passages asking for wisdom,” Prof. White said.
“The expense of the war was crippling; his son was only 9 in 1547, so he had to figure out how to set up a regency council for him; the court was dominated by conflict between Catholics and Reformers; and Protestantism was flourishing in spite of his efforts to eradicate it.”