12 Most Royally Wrong Ways to Lead (Lessons from Henry VIII)

12 Most Royally Wrong Ways to Lead (Lessons from Henry VIII)

Henry VIII is one of the most well known kings in history. Famous (or infamous) for marrying six times and starting his own church, Henry has caught our imagination for years.

His reviews are not completely positive. Sir Walter Raleigh called him merciless and Charles Dickens thought him a “blot of blood and grease upon the history of England.”

Here are some of his “royally wrong” leadership lessons. (Note: “Things did not end well” is a euphemism for “Henry caused the death of this person.”)

1. Listen to a friend who tells you what you want to hear and ignore everyone else

Early in his reign, Henry was willing to delegate much of the hard work of governing to Thomas Wolsey, his Chancellor and the Archbishop of York. That close relationship created a bond where Wolsey knew what Henry wanted to hear and what he didn’t want to hear. Wolsey managed Henry in this way. Eventually Wolsey wasn’t able to tell Henry what he wanted to hear. Things did not end well for Wolsey.

2. Always be on the lookout for something better

Talk about a roving eye! Henry heard the marriage ceremony many times but he didn’t seem to take the “till death do you part” bit very seriously. Well, he did as long as it was the wife who did the dying. Within a nine-year period, he was married to Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, and Catherine Howard. Only one of them survived! Maintaining a lifelong pattern of self-delusion, Henry annulled four of his marriages, so in his mind he was married only twice. Things did not end well for Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.

3. Compete, don’t collaborate

Henry was obsessed with coming out on top. Rather than building on the accomplishments of his father, Henry set himself up in direct competition for who was the best king. In a life-size portrait commissioned to hang at the palace, Henry had his family clustered around a large “plinth” (16th century billboard) that posed the question “which king is greater?” and then went on to list all the reasons Henry was a greater king than his father. Have daddy issues much?

4. Demand obedience

There was certainly no such thing as “free speech” or even “free opinions” in Henry’s England. He believed he was God’s chosen king, so he expected complete obedience all the time. When his court went along with what he wanted, he could be charming and friendly. But he gave over to anger, shouting, and fits of power when thwarted. He enacted new laws to ensure everyone in his kingdom obeyed his wishes. Things did not end well for those who challenged him.

5. Take power and authority from others

To get a new wife, Henry declared himself to be Supreme Head of the Church of England and granted himself a divorce. In establishing himself as head of church and state, Henry wielded power over all aspects of life in England. Whereas church leaders had previously answered to Rome, now all answered to the king. The Act of Supremacy, passed in 1534, legally required everyone in England to recognize Henry as king and head of the church. Long-time friend, Thomas More, declined. Things did not end well for More.

6. Indulge every desire

Early in his life, Henry seemed to have it all: looks, wealth, popularity and physical prowess. But a lifetime of doing and eating everything he wanted took a toll. He depleted the national treasury pursuing useless wars. After a series of accidents that restricted his exercise, he seemed to make a sport out of eating. According to National Geographic, by the end of his life, Henry weighed approximately 400 pounds. (See Charles Dickens quote above.)

7. Overspend to indulge your lifestyle

One example of Henry’s extravagant spending was The Field of the Cloth of Gold, a nickname given to a summit between Henry and King Francis of France in June of 1520. The name comes from the elaborate accommodations Henry had erected for himself in the fields of France, including a temporary palace covering nearly 12,000 square yards decorated sumptuously and furnished with golden ornaments. Although the event made a great impression on those who attended, it yielded almost no political results. The people of England who paid taxes to provide Henry with his magnificent lodging never even had a glimpse.

8. Let ego chart your course

Faced with the failure of Katherine of Aragon to have a son, Henry set about to get a new wife. He reviewed the facts, always looking through the “this can’t possibly be my fault” lens, and determined that his “marriage” was cursed because it was forbidden by God. According to this view, the Pope had no power to grant an annulment that allowed him to marry his brother’s widow. As time dragged on, Henry’s own ministers encouraged him to pursue other courses to gain the divorce, but Henry insisted on challenging the Pope’s authority and eventually claiming that authority as his own.

9. Treat resources as your personal smorgasbord

Henry inherited a prosperous economy from his frugal father. He quickly embarked on a course of heavy spending to finance his ego-based military campaigns in France and on purchasing and remodeling several palaces. He also collected around 2,000 tapestries which were very expensive. One set, the Abraham series, cost as much as two battleships. At the same time, Henry invested heavily in the Royal Navy, expanding it to 53 ships. Despite coming to the throne with a surplus, ultimately, he died in debt.

10. Ignore public opinion and discount public trust

Henry thrived on the good feelings of his people, surrounding himself with adoring courtiers. Even so, he demonstrated a significant and seemingly deliberate lack of concern with his people’s response to his first divorce and particularly with his break with the Pope and the Catholic Church. People were angry when Henry divorced Katherine of Aragon and married Anne Boleyn; his execution of Anne less than three years later further undermined the monarchy’s prestige. Their dissatisfaction reached a peak during the Pilgrimage of Grace, a significant rebellion against the king and his policies.

11. Say whatever you need to keep control

Religious insurgents in northern England rebelled against the dissolution in a series of events called the Pilgrimage of Grace. The movements began in September of 1536 and continued until early 1537. The people took up arms to resist the crown’s plan to take over the land and wealth of church holdings, expressing objections to the economic, political, and religious actions of the king. The rebels agreed to disband if the king would hear their demands and the pilgrims would be pardoned. However, when they came to London, the leaders were arrested, found guilty, and executed. The dissolution of the monasteries continued, and church lands were seized by the crown. Henry had managed the crisis by lying about what he would do. Although they were promised a pardon, things did not end well for the rebel leaders.

12. Blame everyone but yourself

Throughout his reign, Henry made a regular habit of blaming everyone but himself. No son? Wife’s fault. No son again? Another wife’s fault. No divorce? Wolsey’s fault. Didn’t want to marry Anne of Cleves after all? Cromwell’s fault. Failed campaign in France? Ferdinand’s fault. Nothing was ever Henry’s fault, and he didn’t see a reason to change his behavior. As a result, he made a formidable impression on England and on Europe — but not a universally positive one.

After a reign lasting nearly 40 years and including six wives and a religious transformation, Henry died on January 28, 1547. He left an indelible impression on England and Europe, leaving three children who ruled the country for the next half century. He left clear examples of 12 ways NOT to lead. But he did get some things right. Will the good ideas outweigh the bad?

Featured image courtesy of ell brown licensed via Creative Commons.

Photo illustration work: Paul Biedermann, re:DESIGN

Carol Ann Stanger


Carol Ann Lloyd Stanger believes in the power of communication to create a wonderful life. For more than 20 years, she has helped organizations throughout the Washington, DC area be more effective. Carol Ann recently launched her own company, Bright Torch Communication, to provide speaking, training, and consulting to help individuals and organizations communicate their way to success.

468 ad

Escellent post! Where did you find out about that portrait with the plinth? I'd love to see that. As Jenjarratt says, Henry was the son of a usurper who had no legitimate claim to the throne, so what could be expected?


Thanks, Carol Ann. Good list. Those characteristics are all too common today among the world's leaderati.

Henry did have an awful, nasty father. OTOH he had an amazing daughter.

Carol Ann Lloyd Stanger
Carol Ann Lloyd Stanger

@ElaineKehoe Thanks! The Whitehall portrait was painted by Hans Holbein. Unfortunately, it was lost to fire; fortunately, Charles II had commissioned Flemish painter Remigius van Leemput to make a copy in 1698. The copy is now part of the Queen's collection at Hampton Court Palace. An original of the cartoon (a drawing on paper with holes which the artist could trace onto the wall) does survive and is at the National Portrait Gallery in London.