If 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.