Regarding Henry (and his bodycount)

henry viiiIf in doubt, resort to a cheap Carry On reference

For once I’m going to respond to something right up to date – a claim on the nonetheless excellent and thoroughly entertaining (if somewhat ghoulish) ‘Execution of the Day‘ blog that King Henry VIII, famous for killing all his wives (two of them actually), also had executed 72,000 of his subjects. In its defence, they do say that it came from ‘reality’ TV programme ‘Big Brother’, although you might think that this would be reason enough to reject it out of hand.

Except it’s not really an up to date claim. It’s been doing the rounds since the 16th century, and is practically received knowledge. But more on that in a moment, as I like to subject these things to the old bullshit ‘smell test’. How plausible is the claim?

Well, the population in 1550 was around 2,800,000. 72,000 is 2.6% of the population – more than the percentage of the US population killed in the American Civil War, for example. That’s 2000 people a day on average – the equivalent of a large scale set-piece medieval battle. In fact, 72,000 deaths is more than twice the number of deaths than occurred in the bloodiest battle in English history. And I think the battle analogy is appropriate, because you’d be talking about a majority of physically able males – precisely the sort of people required to keep a strained post-medieval economy and fluctuating birth-rate going (bearing in mind that we aren’t just talking ‘capital’ crimes here). This would surely be a massive impact upon society (for better or worse) that (to the best of my knowledge) we just don’t see evidence of in the historical record. More than just one chronicler would have noticed a death toll of that nature. But more than that there’s the logistical difficulty of getting that many people killed. The Nazis had poison gas and automatic weapons. The Tudors had archery, arquebuses, and artillery. Then there’s the expense of (for the sake of argument) firing several people at a time out of a bombard – much easier to half-starve a criminal in a disease-ridden shithole of a prison that he might well die in anyway.

Anyway, we’re verging on argument from incredulity, so let’s look at the evidence. This work has already been done, by James Anthony Froude and mid-19th century contributors to Notes and Queries. To summarise, the figure of 72,000 is usually (even today) attributed to chronicler Holinshed, but incorrectly so (a sure sign of a lack of primary source checking by those perpetuating a claim). The figure is sometimes disputed on the basis that said author was writing some 30 years after Henry’s death, but in fact by historical standards, that’s still a primary source. It’s actually William Harrison’s ‘Description of England‘ that the claim appears;

“Henry the Eighth, executing his laws very severely against such idle persons, I mean, great thieves, petty thieves, and rogues, did hang up threescore-and-twelve thousand of them in his time.”

Note that far from decrying Henry’s brutality, Harrison is actually approving of the idea, due to a perceived rise in crime at the time of writing (despite 3-400 crims still being executed by his own estimation!). This is a bit like pining for the days of Margaret Thatcher, but ironically this hard-line criminal justice angle isn’t the origin of the claim. Thanks to Harrison giving his sources, we see that, via astrologer Girolamo Cardano, the source is actually the Bishop of Lisieux. Now, I don’t need to tell you that bishop is a Catholic post. Nor should I that Henry’s relationship with the Pope was not the most cordial. But if I also told you also that the claim by this bishop is often given as being 72,000 Catholics, and not “thieves and rogues”, you might get a sense of the bias bound up in this myth. Note also an Irish Republican who states that the figure has been “computed” in order to lend it extra weight.

What if I then told you that the bishop in question was the brother of one of King Henry’s sworn enemies – the Admiral of France who led the same failed invasion of England that also saw the loss of Henry’s flagship, the Mary Rose? Between the personal, national, and denominational angst that the bish must have held toward Henry, we have more than enough bias to have serious concerns over the figure given.

There is also the extreme unreliability of figures in individual historical sources in general. It’s rare for historians to go with a single claimed figure for anything because of an awareness of this tendency to over-estimate numbers – people were not, for one thing, aware of the population of the country at the time. Take battle casualties – which are routinely re-assessed at much lower totals, sometimes even 50% lower. Or, as the Notes and Queries link relates, the number of churches in England was overestimated by fives times the actual figure. In short, we cannot take this source on face value.

Now, let’s qualify this debunking somewhat: Henry absolutely did have people killed for being Catholic – amongst other things – and directly or indirectly, must have been responsible for a lot of deaths. In the best (or worst) traditions of English monarchs, he also killed lots of French people – as the source of this piece of propaganda would have been all too aware! By today’s standards, he was bloodthirsty, and although he was not responsible for killing that many people, it may not have been for want of trying – the implication of Froude’s research is that the laws enacted during Henry’s reign were actually too harsh and were unworkable, ironically (and unintentionally) saving lives. But whatever the truth, this is why we need to critically examine sources in order to make reasonable judgements of figures from history, without being blinded by our evolved sense of morality and social justice.

12 thoughts on “Regarding Henry (and his bodycount)

  1. What a great site. Thanks for your kind words and for debunking the dubious 72,000 stat. And yes, you’re absolutely right ‘Big Brother’ is a truly alarming source to quote. It won’t happen again.

    BTW, apologies if I made it sound like Henry overzealously bumped off all his wives. That was not my intention. I’ve hopefully clarified our latest post to ensure the record is straight.

    As for ‘Deadliest Warrior’ being arse gravy, so very true.

    1. Not a bit of it – you can’t be expected to fact-check every little thing. That’s what pedants like me are for! Keep up the good work.

  2. Well, unless they claimed 72000 per year, I make it about 5 a day or 36 a week, for the whole of his reign. That’s a lot, but assuming it was spread over the whole country, not just London, but approximately pro rata to population with extra for London to allow for the greater wickedness of the capital, that would be something like 10 a week in London (3 or 4 batches perhaps), 3 each in Norwich and Bristol, and the rest in ones and twos up and down the country. And given that executions would have peaked at times of unrest, like the Pilgrimage of Grace, the “peacetime” average could have been quite a lot lower.

    So though a large number, it’s not impossible, but is it likely? In the 18th century executions seem to have averaged about 100 per year for England and Wales, and I think (without evidence) that contemporaries would have remarked had there been a steep decline in the intervening tyears. So my guess would have been for perhaps 4 or 5 times the rate in the bloodthirstly Tudor period- giving Henry a gross total of about 17000 or so.

    1. Thanks Jack, a nice bit of considered working-out. Your result seems about right considering the order of magnitude by which (post)medieval sources tend to exaggerate numbers.

  3. But there was that business with the monasteries. I would imagine that would cause some sort of spike in the numbers. I remember hearing the number 10,000 deaths from the destruction of the monasteries but I don’t remember where so I can’t vouch for its veracity.

    Considering that monasteries tended to organize the agriculture, manufactures and commerce in the areas where they operated, it seems likely that there might have been some kind of “Great Leap Forward” type disruption that might have resulted in similar sorts of results even if people were not being stabbed with swords or dragged to the gallows.

  4. None of you seem to have read the source. Given in the article.(Lisieux in: Cardano, G., (ca. 1553) in: Harrison, W., in Edelen, G. (ed.), The Description of England: Classic Contemporary Account of Tudor Social Life. Dover, (1577) 1995, p. 193.) Given in the article. It states 72000 during his reign, and just above in average that: 3-400 a year, “eaten and devoured by the gallows”. But then there is the pilgrimage of grace-mopup and counterinsurgency. The dissolution om monestaries and all.

    Like the “Great leap” theory pronounced by Mark in Texas. Disruption like the Monestary buissnes would lead to a spike in crime as well.

    He ruled for 38 years and forgivnes was not one of his virtues. Just being in his inner circles was hazardus to your health. Not just his wives were executed, their famly, other noblemen, and officials often suffered his wrath. He was a Unlimited Emperor for Gods sake (act in restraint of appeals, act of supremacy, made him Law, judge and executioner)

    I do however think that if he only killed 20000, it does not make him a better person.

    I find body-count-competitions rather tedious. To manipulate statistics is not hard, and to make them with fragmentary sources, that have been ‘scrubbed by the sands of time’ is profoundly suspicious.

    1. I’m not sure who you’re directing that at. I quoted the source (perhaps what you mean by ‘given in the article’?), and none of the subsequent commenters seem to show any particular ignorance of said source, unless I’m missing something.

      Also, “I do however think that if he only killed 20000, it does not make him a better person.”

      I certainly didn’t suggest that it does, and I don’t think any commenter did either. The facts are important even if they don’t change the bigger picture – rather like debunking the human skin lampshades reported at Nuremburg doesn’t make one a Holocaust denier.

      1. I am directing it at the Author of the article. I am not after trolling you, but you give the source in a link to google books: Lisieux in: Cardano, G., (ca. 1553) in: Harrison, W., in Edelen, G. (ed.), The Description of England: Classic Contemporary Account of Tudor Social Life. Dover, (1577) 1995, p. 193. I think it would benefit your article if you read the whole page again, because you are contradicting the source you are giving.

      2. In what way am I contradicting it? I’m all for constructive criticism, but if you can’t point out my error, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to correct myself.

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