Study Guide

Henry VIII in The Other Boleyn Girl

By Philippa Gregory

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Henry VIII

Born: Jan. 28, 1941, Died: Jan. 28, 1547
Known for: Helping cause Protestant Reformation; being married six times; beheading two wives. (Source)

Control Freak

What we're going to say would get us beheaded in the 16th century: Henry VIII is a petulant immature hypocritical manchild. He is less a king and more like a toddler who throws a fit when his toys are taken away.

Now that we're all revved up, let's keep going:

  • Henry's insecurity about his ego makes him a crazy control freak.
  • He expects everyone to tell him how great he is. "He is the greatest king that this country has ever known" (2.147).
  • Mary is advised early on to stroke his ego. (And his ego isn't the only thing he expects her to stroke. Ahem.)

Control issues are also part of the reason he is attracted to young, inexperienced girls. These girls don't have the guts to tell him what they really think: "He doesn't want a woman who knows what to do. […] He'll like it if you are a little shy and a little uncertain" (2.241).

Anne is the opposite of shy and uncertain, but she sure acts innocent and naïve to attract Henry. Once they are married, she reveals her true self. Now, to Henry, it's like buying a pet: he expects it to be a cuddly kitten, but it turns out to be a vicious tiger. That's the main reason Henry grows to dislike Anne. She isn't meek, and she reminds him that he isn't all that and a bag of potato chips. Sometimes, he isn't even a crusty old Frito you found in the couch cushions.

Royal Review

For her part, over the course of the novel, Mary comes to realize how immature and volatile. "I thought for one illuminating moment what fools we were to make this one man's temper the very center of our lives" (3.234).

These moments grow more frequent as Mary thinks about the king's juvenile behavior. One of her most on-the-nose insights comes when she mentions the king's "adaptable conscience" (36.17), which is a diplomatic way of referring to Henry as a man whose morals can be changed on a dime whenever it's to his benefit to do so.

Mary later expands on this insight with a thorough analysis. We'll put it here with our commentary in parentheses:

I understood him: he was too proud to let anyone know that he had been disappointed (bingo, girl). I thought that he was a man of intense vanity (preach, sister), of dangerous whims (nailed it), and despite all of that—or perhaps because all of that—a great king (umm…)(39.24)

By this point, Henry has hurt Mary not only personally, but he has also made himself head of the newly created Church of England and is hurting the country. Yet Mary still believes him to be a great king. Old habits of thinking die hard, we guess.

Mid-Life Crisis

In 1521, Henry VIII is thirty years old. He died in 1547, at the age of fifty-five. This means that he is overdue for a mid-life crisis by the time the book begins.

The driving force behind Henry's crisis is a fear of death. His brother died of illness, and Henry is deathly afraid, pun intended, that it will happen to him, too. "What if I die? What happens then?" (16.36), he frets to Mary. Henry desperately wants a male heir to succeed him, as if that's the ticket to eternal life. Unable to produce one, Henry declares himself the head of the Church, almost like he's a god himself. Who gives him the authority? Don't ask, if you want to keep your head.

Spoiler alert: Henry didn't live forever. He died gross and unhealthy in 1547. Maybe instead of searching for eternal youth, he should have tried to exercise every now and again. (Mhm.)

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