The Desperation of King Henry VIII

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For more than a thousand years the art of alchemy captivated
many noble spirits and was believed in by millions.

~ from Extraordinary
Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

England's King Henry VIII (1491–1547) died 463
years ago this month but still deserves our attention, for even
antiquity can ring familiar to a modern ear — none more so than
King Henry. He ascended the throne in 1509 at the tender age of
17 and was, compared to his contemporaries, a rather enlightened
tyrant for though he ordered the deaths of many people innocent
of no crime but angering him, he "never took a life with his
own hand," (Bowle, 15) so that's something in his favor. Yet,
in many important respects he was exactly alike his fellow rulers
(both then and now) as shown by his insatiable desire for tax revenue
and his numerous interventions into the economic activity of his

The latter severely compromised his ability to
sate the former, so much so that at one point King Henry, despite
a formidable mind, was reduced to fruitless searches to employ an
alchemist to bring into his court. (One of the more prominent alchemists
he tried to recruit was the famous Cornelius Agrippa, who was reputed
to be able to "turn iron into gold by his mere word.")
(Mackay, 127) Alchemy, now mostly forgotten, was the "science"
of turning base metal into gold.

The King's search for an alchemist may strike us as laughable but
he was, as we all are, a victim of his times, and his exhibited
a widespread belief in alchemists or at least a widespread desire
to believe the alchemists' promises, which gives much the same result.
He was, like any good king-in-waiting, surrounded from birth by
a litany of tutors; one of whom was Giles d'Ewes, the French grammarian
and alchemist. (Bowle, 30)

King Henry was "gigantic in build and gargantuan in appetite,"
(Bowle, 19) with a special hunger for northern France, and the costs
of his endless wars "led to taxation which rendered the government
unpopular" (Bowle, 116) but not the King himself, mind
you, as he was a too shrewd political mover for that. Cardinal Wosley,
his right hand man (who was believed by the unemployed to take beggars,
lock them in barns, then "brenne em up')" (Bowle, 78)
was tasked the job of being the public face for Henry's rapacious
tax policies. To Wosley's credit he played the part well, and whenever
the targeted merchants balked at the King's repeated "requests"
for revenue, Wosley would parry that "it were better that some
should suffer indigence than that the King should lack." (Bowle,

As early as 1523 taxes were an onerous part of
English life, and "the tentacles of fiscal power already gripped
the land." (Bowle, 117n) Throughout his reign, endless
complaints about taxes, rising prices and high unemployment were
heard continuously. (Bowle, 176, 209) It is often said that King
Henry split England's church from Rome due to his desire to rid
himself of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Yet, it was more
likely the bankruptcy of the British crown and Henry's desperation
for revenue that led him to attack the Roman church and confiscate
a large part of its wealth.

As part and parcel to the King's endless fiscal problems, he began
early in his reign to inflate the currency — a difficult process
when your money is gold coin, for despite the alchemists' claim
(and many a ruler's wish) gold is impossible to counterfeit. Henry
continuously resorted to the time honored tactic of "clipping
the coin," by making the coins stamped with his seal a little
less gold and a little more base metal, and "after 1525, serious
inflation had begun: it was to continue through the rest of (his)
reign." (Bowle, 184) By 1544 he was, as was his habit, teetering
on the edge of bankruptcy, and interest charged to the crown for
loans rose from 12% in June to 16% by September of that year. By
that latter date, Henry was reduced to hawking to any taker lead
that he'd ordered plundered from English monasteries. (Bowle, 269)

Toward the last years of his reign bankers in Antwerp (at the time
the Wall Street of the Western world) refused settlement of debts
in English coin, given the minimal quantity of gold in them. Even
worse, there was "less money in the Treasury than had been
thought." (Bowle, 281) The only saving grace for the English
economy was a notoriously inefficient royal bureaucracy, which was
never able to "interfere as much as they wished" in the
economy's productive sector. (Bowle, 269) Though the poor suffered
cruelly under King Henry's meddling with the currency and the economy,
England lived on and would soon rise to a greater glory than even
he could have imagined.

Despite his formidable education and great historic
reputation, the disastrous interventions into the economy, the lifelong
dishonesty with the currency in his care and, most of all, his laughable
attempts to bring a sorcerer into his court to conjure gold, mark
the great King Henry VIII as a fool. Yet there is no reason, be
warned, for anyone to feel superior to the King; one only needs
to pick up a newspaper to see that though alchemy may be a dead
science, it has merely taken up new forms.

This has always been and always will be, for its
immortality is powered by economic man's most dangerous, fondest
wish, the one that will drive us to endless imbecilities and repeated
destruction — the ardent desire to believe that you can get something
for nothing. His adherence to that belief made King Henry VIII a
man of his times — and ours.

Sources Cited

Bowle, John. Henry
. (Little, Brown, & Co. Boston, MA, 1964)

Mackay, Charles. Extraordinary
Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds
. (Barnes &
Noble Books, New York, 2004)

14, 2011

CJ Maloney
[send him mail] lives and
works in New York City. He blogs
for Liberty & Power on the History News Network website and
the DailyKos.
His first book Back
to the Land (Arthurdale, FDR's New Deal, and the Costs of Economic
is to be released by John Wiley and Sons in
March 2011.

Best of C.J. Maloney

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