King Henry VIII. Beheader of wives. Noted fat guy. Lover of turkey legs.
Henry the 8th has become a punch line, known for his break with the Roman Catholic Church over his obsession with Anne Boleyn and gradual decay into a stinking, ulcerating...
King Henry VIII. Beheader of wives. Noted fat guy. Lover of turkey legs.
Henry the 8th has become a punch line, known for his break with the Roman Catholic Church over his obsession with Anne Boleyn and gradual decay into a stinking, ulcerating laughingstock by the time of his death at 55 in 1547. But Henry VIII wasn't just a big goofus...he also exhibited classic signs of psychopathy, narcissism, and traits of being a serial killer. One that didn't get his own hands dirty, of course, but a killer all the same.
The clergy, his wives, rebels and former friends and mentors: no one was safe from Henry's order of a falling axe and a missing head. If you stood in his way, it didn't matter if you were his lover or God Himself...Henry's word was gospel, and nothing - and no one - else mattered.
Join us to dissect the mind of this cold-hearted killer, one whose hot-blooded decisions changed the Tudor dynasty - and England itself - forever.
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Well, our listeners know that I have a passion for the hidden side of history. Much like our Renaissance Poisons episode or even with the Death of Princess Diana, this week I’ll be digging into the dark side of royalty. And who better to do that with than the legendary King Henry the 8th?
The title of this episode, Henry VIII - Serial Killer, may come off as dramatic to some, but to me he more than anyone else on the English throne embodies what a serial killer is in the modern era: cold, calculating, only out for themselves, and willing to dispose of anyone who gets in the way of what he wants. We know that the most dangerous men in history in terms of sheer numbers are not the Ted Bundies and Jeffrey Dahmers but rather the Adolf Hitlers and Josef Stalins, the men with the means to dispose of millions of lives for their own goals. But with Henry the 8th, these goals were so uniquely personal to him specifically that he became something closer to a Bundy or Dahmer, even though he never killed anyone with his own two hands. Considering he never did much else with his own two hands, anyway, this was as close as he’d get.
Let’s start with a little backstory, because I think this will help shed light on what would become Henry’s murderous obsessions in the future: his belief that he was truly put on the throne due to god’s will, and his all-consuming fixation on his legacy, which to him would come in the shape of a son to take the throne after his death. Oh, and keep in mind - almost everyone in this story is named Henry, Mary, Catherine, or Thomas. It’s actually wild. I’ll try my best to keep things straight for all of you!
So, Henry’s father, Henry the 7th, came to the throne not through birth, but through a forcible seizure of the crown. This is going to get a little dense, so bear with me: by 1485, Richard the 3rd was King of England. You may know Tricky Dick version 1.0 from the Shakespeare play that bears his name, in which he’s a scheming, villainous hunchback. In real life, Richard wasn’t much more of a prize than that, and almost certainly had had his young nephews murdered in the Tower of London to assure his ascent to the throne. So he wasn’t a good guy, and really wasn’t beloved by the people or his court. He’d already squashed one rebellion by the time he faced Henry Tudor, soon to become Henry the 7th, in the Battle of Bosworth Field.
Henry Tudor was promoted as an alternative to the House of York and eventually the much-hated Richard the 3rd practically from birth. In the Wars of the Roses, a series of English civil wars spanning the mid-to-late 15th century, two rival houses were fighting to be the rightful heirs of the throne. These were York, who was currently on the throne, and the house of Lancaster, who also felt like they were the rightful heirs. Both were related to the original royal House of Plantagenet, descended from Henry the 2nd, because everyone was intermarrying and it was all gross. They each had their reasons for feeling like they should be the ones on the throne, and the male lines were pretty much extinguished in the wars, so Henry Tudor - son of Lancastrian descendent Margaret Beaufort and Edmund Tudor, the half brother of Henry the 6th of England - was elevated as the last great hope to get a strong Lancastrian king on the throne. He won the support of France, Scotland, and Wales, who all had their reasons for hating Richard the 3rd and the House of York, and was able to make his way all the way to the Battle of Bosworth Field, which would decide the final winner of the war. Richard the 3rd was killed in the fight, the last king to die in battle, and Henry was immediately made King Henry the 7th of England, also the last king to win his crown in battle.
From there, it was all about ensuring the legacy of the House of Lancaster so they basically never had to deal with this again. Henry the 7th married Elizabeth of York, heir to the House of York and sister to the murdered Princes in the Tower, to symbolically bring the Houses together and establish one dynasty - the Tudors. Henry and Elizabeth had 5 children: the firstborn prince and heir, Arthur Prince of Wales; Margaret, Queen of Scots; Henry the 8th, the “spare”; Elizabeth Tudor, Mary, eventual queen of France; and Edmund, the Duke of Somerset. Because of all the aforementioned inbreeding, the supposed heir, Arthur, was never a well child, and was pretty sickly all his life. Despite this, around the ages of 14-16 he was married by proxy and then in person to 15 year old Catherine of Aragon, princess of the region we now know as Spain and daughter of the famous King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. This was meant to be a match made to consolidate the powers and create a firm Anglo-Spanish alliance against France, but that was complicated by Arthur dying of illness just 5 months or so after meeting Catherine in person for their official wedding ceremony in November 1501. So now Catherine was a widow, but still around - which will be important in a moment - and 10 year old Henry was now elevated to the heir to the throne and the Prince of Wales. Eventually, Henry the 7th died 7 years later, and Henry the 8th became King of England at the age of 17.
Here’s where the situation with marriage gets really complicated, and sets things up for Henry’s madness to come. Catherine had not been sent back to Spain after the death of her husband in 1502, for a couple of reasons, primarily because Henry the 7th did not want to pay back the hefty dowry he’d scored from the Spanish royals by bethrothing his son to her. So he kept the dowry and kept her around, but pretty much treated her terribly. Catherine had been desperate to go home but was absolutely stuck, a widow to a dead child. Not only that, but she swore - along with her ladies in waiting - that the marriage to Arthur had never been consummated.
Consummation was, uh, a big thing in Catholic marriage. Marriages were legitimately not valid until they were consummated, so even though she’d had the legal ceremony, that apparently meant nothing in the eyes of god because they’d never done the deed. There was a bit of uncertainty around this - Catherine was an honest and pious girl, who swore she would never lie; Arthur, after their 1st night together, had bragged to his bros that he’d “spent the night in Spain” - ugh, men - but Catherine basically said that he was covering up his embarrassment, and lying. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that this is the case, because again, Arthur wasn’t exactly a hale and hearty dude, and maybe hadn’t been up to it. Then they both got sick soon after, so it had never really been a good time. But accepting the non-consummation made Catherine both still eligible politically for a marriage, and still eligible in the eyes of god.
So, The Bible is a little...confusing about certain things. Weird, huh? In Leviticus 20:21, the Bible states “if a man marries his brother’s wife, it is an act of impurity, he has dishonored his brother. They will be childless.” HOWEVER, Deuteronomy 25:5 states “If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband's brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her.” Aka, the Bible both said you CAN’T marry your brother’s widow, and you MUST marry your brother’s widow. So, needless to say, it was sort of a grey area. But because Arthur and Catherine’s marriage was supposedly unconsummated, it wasn’t “valid”, and they were kind of able to get around this, with the intention of marrying Catherine to the 5 years younger Henry the 8th and keeping that alliance secure. They secured a papal dispensation from the Pope for the possibility of “affinity”, which was defined as an impediment to marriage of a couple due to the relationship which either party has as a result of a kinship relationship created by another marriage or as a result of extramarital intercourse. Catherine had to testify to the fact that the marriage had never been consummated, and it was eventually granted. They basically tried to cover all their bases, mostly in the eyes of the church. However, after this, a few things happened: Queen Isabella died, which affected Catherine’s “value”, and King Ferdinand procrastinated so much about paying the rest of Catherine’s dowry to England that it became doubtful the marriage would ever take place.
I’ve heard conflicting things about Henry the 8th’s feelings about Catherine at this point, but because I’m a bit of a romantic, I will go with the perspective that he was very fond of her because he basically grew up with her. So when Henry the 7th died in 1509, and Henry became king, he soon declared that he would be marrying Catherine, and did so on June 11th 1509. He was 17, Catherine was 23. They had their coronation in Westminster Abbey later that month, it was all very nice. Well, except for Sir Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley, two of his father’s most unpopular ministers. They were charged with high treason and executed in 1510. This established a trend that we’ll see a lot in the rest of Henry the 8th’s life: politically and emotionally motivated executions of anyone seen to be standing in his way.
Soon after getting married, Catherine got pregnant, but unfortunately gave birth to a sillborn girl in January 1510. A few months later, she was pregnant again, and on New Year’s Day in 1511, son Henry was born. Everyone was thrilled! A son to secure the line, Catherine had done her duty in providing that son, life is awesome! A two day joust was held in celebration, things were looking up. Until baby Henry died just 7 weeks later. Then Catherine gave birth to two more stillborn sons in 1513 and 1515. The royal couple finally were able to raise a healthy child when Mary was born in 1516, which helped ease some tensions between them, because I suppose there was at least SOME sort of lineage being established. But, Catherine would see, this would soon not be enough.
Now, most of Henry’s marriage to Catherine has been described as “unusually good”, with him being a fairly kind husband and her being a doting and respectful wife - no surprise, as she had been raised all her life to be exactly that. But Henry absolutely messed around, and Catherine knew that, and pretty much ignored it, which was for the best for both of them. Among the affairs he had a mistress for 3 years, Elizabeth Blount, who gave birth in June 1519 to Henry’s illegitimate son, Henry FitzRoy. This sort of proved to Henry the 8th that he was able to have living, healthy sons, which would become a bone of contention soon enough with Catherine. FitzRoy was officially recognized as his child and made Duke of Richmond in 1525, which was a logical step in his path to legitimisation. It seemed Henry was setting things up just in case he didn’t have a legit son, that perhaps FitzRoy could become king after his death. Though Mary was a legitimate child, at this point she wouldn’t have been able to become queen in her own right through inheriting the throne. So Henry the 8th was DESPERATE for a boy child, and ideally one that would be actually legitimate. Unfortunately for Catherine, the back luck continued, and she had a stillborn girl in 1518. Henry, straying further and further from the marital bed, eventually had another affair, this time with Mary Boleyn, Catherine’s lady in waiting. Hmmm, Boleyn, that’s familiar...yes, Mary was the famous Anne’s sister, which would also become an issue later in the game.
Because, in 1525, Henry became obsessed with Anne Boleyn. Anne was likely born around 1507 or a little earlier, making her somewhere around 18 to 20 or so when she first cast her spell on the king. Anne had been raised in the Austrian and then the French court, which was common for daughters of nobles. She had so impressed Margaret of Austria when she was around 12 that she was invited to have a place in her household, after which she attended Henry the 8th’s sister Mary in France for several years as she was about to and then eventually did marry Louis the 12th. This childhood gave her access to studies in French, art, fashion, literature, music, philosophy - it was an education even many noble girls would have dreamed of having. Apparently, this made her exceptionally striking in the arenas of conversation and flirtation, and it was said she was able to completely entrance men, who probably hadn’t had much experience with educated women before - of course, very unfortunately for all. It was this aspect of Anne that captured Henry’s attention a few years after she came back to the English court to serve as a lady in waiting to Queen Catherine. Henry had already had a taste of the Boleyn brand and liked what Anne was cookin’, so eventually, he simply became obsessed with her. Anne, for her part, skillfully kept him on the hook in one major way more than any other - she refused to sleep with him. Unlike her sister and many other ladies of the court, she didn’t give into the king’s physical whims, and this just intensified his obsession, because of course, everyone wants what they can’t have.
It’s likely Henry had begun to think of annuling his marriage to Catherine somehow years before he actually met Anne, because his obsession with a legitimate male heir to the Tudor crown had already become all-consuming at this point. But when Anne told him that she would only yield to him in the bedchamber as his acknowledged queen, well, that helped speed up the situation. It didn’t help that Catherine was around 40 already and years out of her childbearing prime. It wasn’t likely for her to ever conceive again, so that male heir was looking mighty unlikely coming from her. Anne, however, was young, hot, and ready to party.
This was a complicated thing, though. Henry was a devout Catholic, and had received papal dispensation from Pope Julius the 2nd to marry Catherine. For the current pope, Clement the 7th, to annul his marriage to Catherine, he’d have to directly admit that the previous pope had made a mistake, and he was NOT a fan of doing that. This wouldn’t deter Henry, though, and his quest for an official papal annulment became known as “The King’s Great Matter”. Now, annulment is basically the only way the church grants an official divorce, otherwise, you’re married for life, bucko. Annulment is their one get out of jail free card - and depends on the marriage being unconsummated or somehow invalid. The reason Henry was able to marry Catherine was because the marriage to Arthur was, by her testimony, unconsummated. Henry was basically using his same logic but flipped around to try and get an annulment from Catherine: he said that, since she was married to his brother (and he seemed to be hinting here that she had lied about the consummation), God was angry at their union, and the proof was in all the stillbirths of their children. Leviticus had said the couple will be childless if a man marries his brother’s wife, and yeah yeah yeah there WAS Mary, but she like, didn’t really COUNT, yknow, because she wasn’t a SON. There’s a lot of “close enoughs” in this story. Henry felt that their inability to conceive and birth a healthy boy was proof that God had cursed the marriage, and that was enough to grant an annulment. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the King’s right hand man, yes man, and chief ambassador to the Pope, was doing his darndest to get the annulment from Clement, but it was starting to look near impossible. There was also the small problem of Catherine’s nephew being Holy Roman Emperor Charles the 5th, and he was starting to get pissed off by this whole affair on his aunt’s behalf.
Wolsey was doing everything he could for the king, including convening an ecclesiastical court in England with a representative of the Pope presiding and Henry and Catherine themselves in attendance. Catherine had to, once again and in humiliation, testify that her marriage to Arthur had been unconsummated, and that she’d entered into her marriage with Henry in full accordance with God’s law. Due in part to his fear of angering Emperor Charles, the Pope just kept putting off the decision and refusing to grant the annulment, and Wolsey was dismissed from public office in 1529 due to his failure to, I dunno, rewrite the Bible. Wolsey began a secret plot to have Anne forced into exile, communicating with the Pope to that affect, but when this was discovered, Henry FREAKED THE HECK OUT. Wolsey was arrested under the charge of praemunire, which was an actually absurd law the King had recently cooked up for basically this very issue: praemunire prohibited the assertion of maintenance of papal jurisdiction, or any other foreign jurisdiction, against the supremacy of the English monarch. This was one of Henry’s first big steps toward making himself be seen as an all-powerful, Godlike entity in England - one more Godlike than, well, God.
Had Wolsey not been terminally ill and died while still in custody in 1530, he may have become “Serial Killer Henry the 8th”’s first official victim.
In 1531, Catherine was officially banished from court, and her rooms were given to Anne Boleyn. This must’ve been absolutely brutal for Catherine, who again, was very pious, and in that piety prized her honesty. She felt like she was being cut off by her rightful husband for something she hadn’t done, for another woman, after years of quietly standing by Henry’s side as he boinked around the royal court. It must’ve been absolute torture. She wrote that year in a letter to her nephew, Emperor Chuck:
“My tribulations are so great, my life so disturbed by the plans daily invented to further the King's wicked intention, the surprises which the King gives me, with certain persons of his council, are so mortal, and my treatment is what God knows, that it is enough to shorten ten lives, much more mine.”
Maybe Henry’s callous cruelty really did shorten her life, because - spoiler alert - she died only 5 years later, at age 50. In September 1531 Anne was created Marquessate of Pembroke, which was originally a male title, and she very officially became a rich and important woman in her own right. She now ranked above all other peeresses, and her family profited as well - her father was created Earl of Wiltshire, a step up from his original title of Viscount; her cousin became Earl of Ormond, and her brother adopted her father’s original Viscount Rochford title. Everything was coming up Boleyn - and it seems likely that around this time Anne would have finally submitted to him and consummated their relationship, even thought it was out of marriage. She probably felt confident enough in her position at this time to do so, as even if the king tossed her aside she’d still be a Marquess. And Henry, perhaps understandably, was getting very impatient, so maybe she thought to keep him on the hook, it was now the time to go to bed with him.
At this point, Hank is pushing right on through and trying to get this marriage thing locked in, literally WHATEVER it takes. The Boleyn family chaplain, Thomas Cranmer, was appointed to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury, and became the biggest yes-man of them all. Through Cranmer, Henry had someone supposedly with God on his side telling him he was soooo right, and soooo powerful, and oh my GOD soooo attractive! Well maybe not the last part, but I’m pretty sure Henry would’ve required that, too. Another yes man, Thomas Cromwell...oh, God, Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell?? What in the white-bread English naming conventions?? Ok, we’ll call Cranmer the Archbishop, and Cromwell the Chief Minister. In 1532 the Chief Minister brought before Parliament a number of acts, including the Supplication against the Ordinaries and Submission of the Clergy, which recognised royal supremacy over the church, thus finalising a break with Rome in favor of the King’s ultimate supremacy. These were passed, and so the King was like “Who do I have to bribe around here to get an annulment and marry Anne! Oh, me? It’s me now? Well...let’s do it!” A royal decree and a bippity boppity boo, and Henry and Anne were married in a secret ceremony on November 14th, 1532. It’s likely Anne was in the early days of pregnancy at this time, but whatever child she would have would now be legitimate, especially after a second wedding in accordance with the Royal Book in January 1533. And of course, everyone was sooooo certain at this point that she was pregnant with a boy, so praise be to god! The Archbishop declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine null and void, and the marriage of Henry and Anne good and valid. Catherine was formally stripped of her title as queen and Anne was crowned queen consort on June 1st, 1533. Anne gave birth on September 7th, 1533...but not to a boy. This child was named Elizabeth, and Henry was not thrilled.
In 1534 the Acts of Supremacy were passed, establishing English monarchs as the head of the Church of England, which meant that Henry the 8th and his successors were the Supreme Heads of the Church, replacing the Pope. At this point Pope Clement excommunicated Henry and the Archbishop, but Henry was like whatever, now I’M the Pope, and I do what I want, and everyone has to say “yes”.
On the other side of the coin, Cardinal John Fisher had become one of the king’s most outspoken detractors, along with Henry’s former bro Thomas More, another frigging Thomas, who are both nowadays recognized as Catholic saints. They both refused to swear allegiance to the new parliamentary Act of Succession, which stated that any children by Anne would be the heirs presumptive, and that the King’s older daughter Mary was a bastard. The Act also required all subjects to swear an oath to recognize this act as well as the king’s supremacy, and if they refused, they would be subject to a charge of treason. Both men pretty much stated that, like John the Baptist, they were ready to die on behalf of the indissolubility of marriage. Henry was like, “BET???”, and had them charged with, of course, treason. They were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Then Henry was like wait is that too much?? So he commuted both to simple beheading. Fisher and More were executed on Tower Hill June 22 1535 and July 6th 1535, respectively. I consider these the first real, official victims of Henry the 8th, Serial Killer. These executions were based purely on the King’s emotions and feeling slighted by their refusal to go against what they felt was God’s law to bow to the King’s will, and are particularly murderous actions from a man with almost absolute power in England. But it was that little “almost” that was continuing to drive Henry mad.
At this time Henry and Anne had been together in one way or another for around a decade, and Henry was starting to get bored. She hadn’t provided the promised male child to him by this point. To Henry, Elizabeth was just as useless as his other daughter, Mary. The whole reason he’d torn the church and his country apart was because Anne had apparently said “Oh yeah I’ll pop out boys like Orville Redenbacher, man.” Though they apparently did enjoy some periods of calm and affection, Henry was starting to realize that the things he liked about Anne initially were things he hated in a wife now, which I will quote Wikipedia for because the wording is just too good: the vivacity and opinionated intellect that had made her so attractive as an illicit lover made her too independent for the largely ceremonial role of a royal wife, and it made her many enemies, somewhat including her own uncle, the Duke of Suffolk, who had come to resent her attitude towards her power. She was once reported to have spoken to him in words that "shouldn't be used to a dog". Anne, for her part, refused to play the submissive role expected of her, one that Catherine had played to great aplomb. And Henry disliked Anne's constant irritability and violent temper. After a false pregnancy or miscarriage in 1534, he was fully OVER IT, which tends to happen when you finally get that illicit thing you want after years of pining after it. Henry was seeing Anne’s failure to give him a son as a betrayal, and as early as Christmastime 1534, Henry was discussing with the Archbishop and the Chief Minister the logistics of leaving Anne without having to return to Catherine. It appears Anne had one chance in his eyes to do good by him, and because she couldn’t control the gender of her baby any more than, cough cough, HE could, she’d blown it. Hank was all powerful now, and at age 43, the clock was ticking. He undertook his first affair in 1535 with an attendant and cousin of Anne, Madge Shelton, and never really looked back.
In greater England, Henry’s reforms to the church were encountering a lot of understandable resistance, 20,000 to 40,000 rebels were led by English lawyer Robert Aske, together with parts of the northern nobility, in a large uprising called the Pilgrimage of Grace, which began in October 1536. Henry the 8th promised these rebels he would pardon them and thanked them for raising the issues, but apparently this was just full blown shade, because Henry saw them as traitors and did not feel obliged to keep his promises to them. When further violence occurred after Henry's offer of a pardon, he was like “Actually, y’know what, NO” and the leaders, including Aske, were arrested and executed for treason. In total, about 200 rebels were executed, and seeing what happened to those who spoke up, the protestors decided they would rather keep their heads. Again, this is another, albeit less personal, action from Serial Killer Henry the 8th - you dare to even speak up against me? I’ll lie to you, and then I’ll KILL you. More psycho behavior came when Henry received the news in January 1536 that Catherine had died, and to mourn his former, loving wife, the next day he wore not black, but all yellow with a white feather in his bonnet, and celebrated. Anne was like “Yay love that for you!”, but she was pregnant at this point, and very aware this was likely her last chance to deliver what she wanted to the king, not least because he was barely sleeping with her anymore. Later that month, the king was unhorsed in a tournament and badly injured; it seemed for a time he could die. When news of this accident reached the queen, she was sent into shock and miscarried a male child at about 15 weeks' gestation, appropriately enough on the day of Catherine's funeral, January 29th, 1536. This personal and very symbolic loss was the real beginning of the end of this royal marriage to most who study the Tudors; indeed, Imperial Ambassador Eustace Chapuys wrote, “She has miscarried of her savior.”
Shortly after she recovered from this miscarraige, the dominoes began to fall. The King’s new mistress and Anne’s lady in waiting, Jane Seymour, was moved into new quarters closer to the king, and Anne’s brother George was refused the Order of the Garter, the most senior order of knighthood in the British honors system. Anne must have seen the signs plain as day in front of her, and I’m sure it was terrifying. But I don’t think she could have expected what happened next, because even for all of Henry’s previous machinations, it was absolutely psychopathic.
Her downfall appears to have been primarily engineered by Chief Minister Thomas Cromwell, who personally disliked Anne. Henry himself issued the crucial instructions, but it was Cromwell who helped carry them out. It seemed that it had been decided the best way to dispose of Anne and her allies would be to accuse her of adultery, which in this case was also of course treason. In late April a Flemish musician in Anne's service named Mark Smeaton was arrested. He initially denied being the queen's lover but was absolutely tortured and likely promised freedom, and eventually confessed. Courtier Sir Henry Norris, was arrested next, but couldn’t be tortured as he was an aristocrat. Norris denied his guilt and swore that Anne was innocent. Sir Francis Weston was arrested two days later on the same charge, as was Sir William Brereton, a groom of the king's Privy Chamber. Sir Thomas Wyatt, a poet and friend of the Boleyns who was allegedly infatuated with Anne before her marriage to the king, was also imprisoned for the same charge but later released, most likely due to his or his family's friendship with Thomas Cromwell, super conveniently for him. Sir Richard Page was also accused of having a sexual relationship with the queen, but he was acquitted of all charges after further investigation could not implicate him with Anne, which must’ve been amazing because all of the charges here were brought purely on speculation and circumstance. The final and perhaps cruelest accusation was against Queen Anne's own brother, George Boleyn, on charges of both incest and treason. He was accused of two incidents of incest: November 1535 at Whitehall and the following month at Eltham. I doubt there was much in the way of proof here, maybe he was simply just hanging out with his sister alone. But that gave them enough leverage, at least for a justice system ruled over by the very king that stood to benefit from the charges.
Mostly because of Mark Smeaton’s admitting sleeping with Anne - again, DEFINITELY due to being tortured, because none of the others that weren’t able to be tortured confessed - Anne was arrested on May 2nd 1536 and taken to the Tower of London. In a portion to her last letter to Henry, written a few days later, she said:
“Your Grace's displeasure, and my imprisonment are things so strange unto me, as what to write, or what to excuse, I am altogether ignorant. Whereas you send unto me (willing me to confess a truth, and so obtain your favour) by such an one, whom you know to be my ancient professed enemy. I no sooner received this message by him, than I rightly conceived your meaning; and if, as you say, confessing a truth indeed may procure my safety, I shall with all willingness and duty perform your demand.”
She spoke of her innocence, that enemies were conspiring against her, and her love of her husband. She ended with, “ If ever I found favour in your sight, if ever the name of Anne Boleyn hath been pleasing in your ears, then let me obtain this request, and I will so leave to trouble your Grace any further, with mine earnest prayers to the Trinity to have your Grace in his good keeping, and to direct you in all your actions.”
These words fell on deaf ears, or blind eyes, I suppose. 4 of the accused men were tried on May 12th, and Anne and George Boleyn were tried separately in the Tower of London for adultery, incest, and high treason. All were, of course, found guilty and condemned to death. George and the other men were executed on May 17th on Tower Hill. On the same day, the Archbishop declared the marriage of Anne Boleyn and Henry Tudor null and void.
Anne would be beheaded 2 days later, after undergoing the psychological torture of seeing her scaffold being constructed through her window in the Tower. In his only kindness toward Anne, Henry brought an expert French swordsman to perform the execution rather than the usual axe beheading, as sometimes those took several chops to get the job done, and a sword was both more accurate and, well, nicer. She climbed the scaffold with grace, and made a short speech to the crowd:
“Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.” With that, she knelt, was given a blindfold, and prayed “Jesu receive my soul, O Lord God have pity on my soul.” Then, she was beheaded in a single stroke. In the crowd were Thomas Cromwell, Henry FitzRoy, the Lord Mayor of London, and other notables - aside from, of course, Henry the 8th. Anne would be Serial Killer Henry’s most famous victim, but she wouldn’t be his last.
Let’s skip forward quickly. The day after Anne’s execution Henry became engaged to Jane Seymour, which must’ve been suuuuupes romantic, and the pair were married 10 days later. On October 12th, 1537, Jane gave birth FINALLY to Henry’s longed for son, Prince Edward. The birth was difficult, however, and Jane died on October 24th, having at least fulfilled her duty in Henry’s eyes. At the time, Hank recovered quickly from the one-two punch of the euphoria of receiving his son and losing his wife. Measures were immediately put in place to find another wife for Henry. Chief Minister Thomas Cromwell suggested yet ANOTHER Anne, the sister of the Duke of Cleves, an area in Germany today. This was seen to be a good ally move in case of a Roman Catholic attack on England. Hans Holbein the Younger, a painter whose images of Henry are absolutely the ones you have seen, was dispatched to paint a portrait of Anne of Cleves for the King, which is just so funny. There is speculation that Holbein painted Anne in an overly flattering light, but scholarly opinion nowadays is that the painting was indeed accurate, since he remained in the King’s employ. After Henry saw the portrait he was like “Oooh VERY NAHCCCE” and agreed to marry Anne. However, it didn’t take him long to get bored and want to annul this marriage to marry another. Anne didn’t argue and agreed with him that the marriage had never been consummated, which by the way at this point was likely because the older King with his burgeoning health issues was beginning to experience the very royal malady of erectile dysfunction. Anne got off better probably than any of the King’s wives til his death, as she received the title of "The King's Sister", two houses and a generous allowance. Though she had to live in England for the rest of her life, the King apparently treated her with kindness and affection, and from a madman like Henry, that was better even than the best that could be expected.
Now, what’s that rhyme about Henry’s wives? Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived? Well, looks like we’re on the second “beheaded” wife, and the 2nd most notable victim of his killing spree. Henry had probably become bored with Anne of Cleves because he was already obsessed with, yick, Anne Boleyn’s cousin, 17 year old Catherine Howard. Ugh, another Catherine. Let’s call this one Cat, because she was a goddamn teenager and that seems like something she would’ve gone by. Now, Chief Minister Thomas Cromwell wasn’t a fan of Cat, and Henry had become disillusioned with his former bro after his facilitation of the dud marriage to Anne of Cleves. Wildly, it seems that the king’s blaming of Cromwell for his lame marriage is what pushed him to have Cromwell arraigned for treason and heresy on July 28, 1540. This is one of the most egregious murders by Henry, to me - how is it Cromwell’s fault you can’t get it up with your wife? It seems Henry’s shame was so all consuming that he felt it most constructive to blame someone else, because how could the literal GOD ON EARTH have a limp peepee?
Just 19 days after the annulment of his marriage to Anne of Cleves, Henry wed Cat on...July 28 1540. Oh, cool, the same day he had Thomas Cromwell executed, very romantic. Henry was, yick, 49 years old, making him 32 years older than his new wife. Cat wasn’t new to the ways of love - though her royal husband didn’t know it, she had engaged in some kind of sexual relationship with her music teacher, Henry - UGH! - Mannox, a few years earlier. It’s speculated today that this was likely a case of grooming, because despite the fact that he wasn’t much older, he was in a position of power over her, and kept pressuring her to lose her virginity to him. Mannox and Catherine both later that they had engaged in sexual contact, but not actual coitus. Cat came to the royal court as a member of the household of Anne of Cleves, but quickly caught Henry’s eye.
However, from the beginning, the marriage was not a happy one. Henry was in constant agony from his now ulcerous legs - oh, we haven’t mentioned this! Since his injury way back during his marriage to Anne Boleyn, he’d been unable to undertake his usual exercises, like horse riding, and so had become obese. He suffered a leg wound during this accident, and since then it had become a chronic wound, festering and reopening. It was apparently so bad that his bad leg stunk and bandages wrapped around it had to be replaced multiple times a day, as they would get soaked through with pus. But Henry thought of himself as the ultimate prize despite this, because, helloooooo, King of England here! However, the constant pain made him, well, a pain to be around, and for a pretty young 17 year old, being saddled with an old, fat, stinking, and literally ROTTING husband was not exactly pleasant.
What sealed her fate was her possible involvement with Henry’s favorite male courtier, Thomas Culpeper - agh, another Thomas! Another Thomas C.! This preschool class would’ve been a nightmare to keep track of for any teacher. Culpeper was young, and cool, and Cat had even considered marrying him before Henry had scooped her up. Once she started regretting her marriage to the king, she may have found her way back to Culpeper, allegedly beginning to meet with him secretly in Spring 1541. Interestingly, their meetings were allegedly arranged by one of Catherine's older ladies-in-waiting, Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford, the widow of Catherine's executed cousin, George Boleyn, Anne Boleyn's brother. You’d think she would’ve known better, considering what happened to her own husband and sister-in-law.
Oh, and also, Cat had employed Francis Dereham, who had previously been informally engaged to her and had an affair with her prior to her marriage, as her secretary. So he was literally RIGHT there.
People began to talk, and her earlier conduct with Mannox also came out into the open. The Archbishop figured that to eliminate Cat would only be good for him, since her family, still Roman Catholics, could start to affect his own power. He had the Viscountess interrogated, and fearing torture, she told investigators that she had watched for Cat in the back stairs as Culpeper made his escapes from her bedchambers. Damningly, investigators also found a love letter written in Queen Cat’s distinctive handwriting in Culpeper’s chambers. On November 1st, 1541, the King arranged to be found praying in the Chapel Royal, which is such psycho behavior. There he received a letter describing the allegations against Cat, who was questioned on the 7th by a delegation of councillors and found to be frantic, incoherent, and pitiable, possibly even suicidal.
Cat was stripped of her title as queen on November 23rd, though her marriage to Henry was never formally annulled. Perhaps at this point he figured, the hell with it, I’m just going to kill her anyway, I don’t want to deal with the paperwork. Culpeper and Francis Dereham were arraigned at Guildhall on December 1st for high treason, and on December 10th, Culpeper was beheaded and Dereham was hanged, drawn, and quartered, their heads being placed on spikes on London Bridge. The Royal Assent by Commission Act of 1541 made it treason, and punishable by death, for a queen consort to fail to disclose her sexual history to the king within 20 days of their marriage, or to incite someone to commit adultery with her. This measure made Cat unequivocally guilty of having slept with someone before marriage, and committing adultery afterward. A formal trial was not even bothered to be held.
When the Lords of the Council came for her she allegedly panicked and screamed as they manhandled her into the barge that would escort her to the Tower on February 10th. Her flotilla passed under London Bridge, where the heads of Culpeper and Dereham were impaled (and where they remained until 1546). This is so psychotic. It’s like a serial killer showing his victim the bodies of those he’s killed before, saying “There’s no hope for you, look what happened to them. You’re next.”
She was beheaded by axe - no nice, sharp sword for Cat - February 13th, 1542. She died with relative composure but looked pale and terrified, requiring assistance to climb the scaffold. Viscountess Rochford was executed immediately thereafter on Tower Green, yet another Boleyn murdered by Henry’s wrath.
After this, Henry’s passion for murder may have waned until his death. He married wealthy widow Catherine Parr - good god, another Catherine, we’ll just call her Parr - in July 1543. Thankfully, Parr helped Henry reconcile his relationship with daughters Mary and Elizabeth, and with 1543’s Third Succession Act, they were put back in the line of succession after Edward. He wasn’t around for long, though - Henry died at age 55, hastened by his plethora of health problems - on January 28th, 1547. He was buried next to Jane Seymour, who he recognized as his true wife even through death, because she, unlike all the others, had provided him with the thing he most wanted, and to him, that made her the most real. Y’know, just like a psychopathic narcissist.
So why are we talking about Henry the 8th today? He doesn’t have the numbers of a Pol Pot or Genghis Khan, he’s not extraordinary in that way. No, in Henry specifically I see the marks of a serial killer, and a warning. Those given absolute power will be able to use those powers for whatever they want, and sometimes what they want is a fresh wife to give them kids, or for people to just shut UP already about the Pope. If madmen receive power, they can use it for whatever aims serve them - even those deeply personal and driven by emotion. Henry the 8th and his murderous attitude toward his wives, kinsmen, and whoever he perceived to stand in his way are a warning to us all: not everyone is fit to hold power, and many will use it selfishly and horribly. We have to recognize the signs before, like a Dahmer or a Gacy, a bunch of figurative bodies are found in their figurative homes, and it’s too late to do anything about it.
Let’s head to the Bizarre Bazaar!
Centuries after the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and 93, a condemned victim of the hysteria may receive a long overdue pardon, thanks to the work of a Massachusetts middle school class!
I just love this story. Elizabeth Johnson Jr. was convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to death during the trials in 1693, but escaped the noose when Governor William Phips put an end to the trials and threw out the outstanding convictions. However, due to a quirk of, well, record-keeping, Johnson’s conviction has basically remained on the books ever since.
In 1957 Massachusetts lawmakers passed a bill that exonerated numerous victims condemned during the witch trials, but her name just hadn’t made it to the list, and apparently had also slipped through the cracks when another similar bit of legislation was enacted in 2001. Her case remained in limbo until 2020, when an 8th grade civics class in North Andover Massachusetts took up her cause.
Spearheaded by teacher Carrie LaPierre - I love another badass Carrie - students researched Johnson's story and set about learning how an official pardon could be obtained for Johnson. Now State Senator Diana DiZoglio is on the case, and working with the class to put forward a new piece of legislation that will finally exonerate Johnson. Should the bill pass, she would be the last remaining 'witch' convicted during the trials to have their name officially cleared. DiZoglio told The Guardian, “Why Elizabeth was not exonerated is unclear but no action was ever taken on her behalf by the [state] general assembly or the courts. Possibly because she was neither a wife nor a mother, she was not considered worthy of having her name cleared. And because she never had children, there is no group of descendants acting on her behalf.”
The bill would amend the 1957 legislation to include Johnson on the official pardons list of those wrongly accused and convicted of witchcraft.
That’s it for this episode of Ain’t It Scary with Sean and Carrie! Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram @aintitscary, and check out our website at aintitscary.com. You can support the show by supporting our sponsors, and becoming a patron at www.patreon.com/aintitscary. And please, subscribe to the show and throw us a 5-star review on Apple Podcasts...we’ll be forever grateful.
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