Henry, the ignoble noble, was a catalyst for our Bill of Rights


By Layne Smith 

Special to the Outlook

Although he has been dead for over 471 years, King Henry VIII continues to fascinate us, and nobody likes him better than the entertainment industry. Henry’s life and reign are featured on the BBC’s series, “Wolf Hall,” Showtime’s series, “The Tudors,” and the Academy Award winning movie, “A Man for All Seasons.”

Most people remember Henry for having six wives. He was so desperate to father a male heir that he beheaded two wives and annulled marriages to two others. Ironically, it was Henry’s infertility that prevented him from having more children.

Aside from his family issues, Henry was a ruthless tyrant and a self-centered jerk. He placed himself above the law and domineered parliament and his subjects.  Henry imprisoned, tortured, and killed his subjects with impunity, and without due process of law. He also got his way by bribery, patronage, and coercion.

Henry lived the high life and financed his reign by confiscating the assets of the Catholic Church and the private property of his subjects.

By “nationalizing” the assets of others without paying them any compensation, Henry served as a role-model for future communists.

Henry established a state religion, censored free speech, restricted a free press, and prevented people from peaceably assembling or petitioning his government for redress of their grievances. (Think the First Amendment).

His henchmen regularly searched people and seized private property without lawful justification. (Think the Fourth Amendment).

In addition to taking others’ property without due process of law or compensation, Henry compelled defendants to testify against themselves, and he used their silence to incriminate them. (Think the Fifth Amendment).

He eliminated some foes without making any formal charges against them. Others were denied the right to counsel and weren’t allowed to present defenses. They couldn’t confront adverse witnesses, compel favorable evidence, or have their cases decided by fair and impartial juries. (Think the Sixth Amendment).

Finally, during Henry’s reign people were caged, racked, starved, or otherwise tortured. Some were executed by being burned at the stake, boiled alive, or disemboweled. Cruelness was regularly practiced to discourage resistance. (Think the Eighth Amendment).

Our founders knew English history and they were aware of Henry, VIII’s chronic abuses of power. To protect us from like-minded tyrants, the federal government they formed divides its powers among three equal branches and employs a system of checks and balances. Henry VIII’s infamy was a catalyst for the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments to the U. S. Constitution.

Henry VIII was an ignoble noble. Perhaps had he been less tyrannical and better behaved, our Bill of Rights would read much differently.

J. Layne Smith is a Leon County Judge who speaks and writes about civics, the law and the administration of justice. Email your questions to askjudgesmith@gmail.com.