Episode 54 – Henry VIII versus Robert Mugabe

Heading on back to the Villains bracket, we begin with the King of England who caused the Church of England to split off from the Roman Catholic Church to marry again and annul his marriage to his first wife, Henry VIII. He faces off against a man, who, as of the writing of this script is still alive, although barely, the dictator of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe. 

My primary sources for this episode include one of my stalwart works on the subject of villains, Monsters by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Also, I’ve used The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir as well as her other work, Henry VIII: The King and His Court. For Mugabe, I also used Tyrants: History’s 100 Most Evil Despots and Dictators by Nigel Cawthorne.

Henry VIII
King Henry VIII of England

Born on June 28, 149 Henry was a member of the Tudor lineage, son of Henry VII, who had seized the British throne in 1485, shortly after the disastrous War of the Roses, fought between the houses of York and Lancaster between 1455 and 1487. Henry was not the heir apparent; his brother Arthur was. He had just married the Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon, but died in 1502. Seven years later, Henry was to marry his late brother’s widow, but this was not to be his only marriage. No, it was to be just the first of six. The marriage was not assured as there were several other possibilities.

The early death of Arthur seemed to have affected Henry as from that point on; he feared contracting the many deadly diseases of the day like dysentery, influenza, smallpox, and others. There are records of young Henry suffering from smallpox and recurring bouts of malaria. The latter was also to affect the soon to become king for the rest of his life.

Ferdinand I of Spain and Henry VII were having a falling out and the marriage to Catherine was in serious in doubt until Henry died on April 21, 1509, leaving his son the throne. This solidified the bond between the two countries for now. Still, the wedding was a very low-key event being held at the friar’s cathedral in Greenwich on June 11, 1509. Their coronation was held twelve days later.

None of this gives us any clue as to why Henry VIII would do things that would land him in the Villains bracket. What happened two days after the coronation would. The king had two very unpopular ministers, Sir Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley arrested and later executed. One thing can be said about the executions and that they were popular with the English people as they were Henry VII’s tax collectors.

The way this was handled was to be a recurring theme throughout much of Henry’s reign. He would behead pretty much anyone who he viewed as either an enemy, someone who might do him harm or even worse, wound his pride. 

Before we go much further, we should talk a little about the VIII’s father, Henry VII. The War of the Roses between the House of Lancaster and the House of York had ended with Henry VII’s army winning at the Battle of Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485. King Richard III died at the battle ending the war and the reign of the Yorkists. Henry took control and began the process of reconciliation and rebuilding of the country. 

Since his marriage to Catherine of Aragon did not produce a son, only a daughter the future Mary I, irked the king, so he worked on a way to have their marriage annulled. Henry made numerous appeals to the Pope to allow the annulment to no avail. The Papacy was being protected by someone we met back in episode 7, the most connected man in the world, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Charles would not allow the Pope to annul the marriage as Catherine was in fact his aunt.

During this period of marital problems, there was a series of military battles between the two European powers, France, led by Francis I and the Holy Roman Empire led by the aforementioned Charles V. At first, Henry VIII was on the side of Charles but that changed when the English and French king met at The Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. Henry was trying to get Francis to help him persuade the Pope to release him from his marriage to Catherine, but this also failed miserably. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey took the blame for not getting the job done. 

Wolsey was imprisoned, reconciled, then charged with treason, but he died before he could be executed. Sir Thomas More would take his place. The problem with More was that Henry decided that the Papacy would no longer have any say in his kingdom causing a break with the Roman Catholic Church, setting up the English Reformation. More was staunchly opposed to the split and was forced to resign in 1532. 

Henry by now had his marriage to Catherine annulled in time to marry one of her ladies in waiting, the ill-fated Anne Boleyn. More did not attend their wedding which angered Henry who in 1535 had Thomas executed after a short trial. 

Ann didn’t do too well either as she could not bear the king a male heir, instead, giving birth to the future Elizabeth I. That and her ill-tempered behavior led Henry to have her executed in 1536 under trumped-up charges including witchcraft and treason.

Next up on the wife lineup for Henry VIII was the only one he genuinely seemed to have affection for after her death, Jane Seymour. Days after Anne’s execution, Henry married Seymour, and she was to give birth to his only son to live past infancy, the future Edward VI in November of 1537. Unfortunately, she died in childbirth; something Henry grieved over greatly.

Wife number four comes into the picture quite three years later, Anne of Cleaves. She was no beauty according to sources so, within six months of their marriage in 1540, Henry declared that they had not consummated their marriage, so it was officially annulled. She was treated well and sent off to live her life in luxury, outliving all of the rest of his wives.

Next up is the young Catherine Howard who was said to be 16 or 17 when she wed Henry, who was now 49, in 1540. This one was not to last very long as she was executed for supposedly having an affair with Thomas Culpepper. Here is where I want to make a quick break away from Henry’s marriages and talk about his health.

In many books and articles, I’ve read, Henry’s ill-health may play a role in his bad behavior. In 1532 during a jousting bout, Henry was hit above his right eye with a lance, which would cause him to have migraines for the rest of his life. When these would come about, he was known to lash out at the people in his entourage, causing some to lose their heads.

Another even more serious incident happened twelve years later when in full body armor he fell off his horse and was knocked unconscious for over two hours with some fearing him dead. He recovered, but his temperament worsened. 

His overall health was deteriorating by the time he was to marry wife number six, Catherine Parr in 1543. He weighed around 400 pounds or about 180 kilos. He likely had diabetes, syphilis, and Cushing’s syndrome. Ugly open sores pained his legs, and he couldn’t even walk on his own.

Parr’s time with Henry was tumultuous as she was a devout Protestant and those Catholics around Henry wanted her out of the way. They split up for a while but reconciled and continued until Henry VIII’s death on January 28, 1547.

Another health theory of why Henry didn’t have more children, and it wasn’t his wives’ fault, it was his. According to scientists in a 2012 report, Henry had McLeod’s syndrome and was something known as Kell positive, a rare blood grouping that affects less than 10 percent of the world’s population. If his wives were Kell negative, which they likely were, they would have had been unable to carry a child to term. It affects later pregnancies, which would explain the birth of Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward but no subsequent live births.

Henry VIII would have many of his ministers, along with wives and other perceived enemies executed. As Sir Robert Naunton said in 1641, “He never spared a man in his anger, nor a woman in his lust.” Author Simon Sebag Montefiore says of the king, “Henry was both hero and monster, brutal egotist and effective politician. As the duke of Norfolk understood: ‘The consequence of royal anger is death.'”

Next up is Robert Mugabe, the brutal dictator of Zimbabwe from 1980 until his ouster in 2017.

Robert Mugabe
Robert Mugabe

Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born February 21, 1924, to a Shona family in Kutama, Southern Rhodesia, which was to later become Zimbabwe. He was born into a family who was devoutly Jesuit Catholic, and it was planned that Robert would follow in his parents’ footsteps and get trained to teach at a missionary school.

In 1949, Mugabe would gain a scholarship to the University of Fort Hare in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. It was here that he would begin to develop his Marxist views. During his time at the university, he joined the African National Congress where he would become aware of the African Nationalist movement. He claims although I have severe doubts about the claims that he was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian independence movement.

At this time, there were two significant factors in Rhodesia, Joshua Nkomo‘s Zimbabwe People’s Union, and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union. The differences were part ideological, Nkomo wanted to negotiate with the white-minority leaders while Mugabe wanted them ousted completely using violence if necessary. Often the two groups fought each other in violent, gang-like clashes.

In 1963, Robert Mugabe was arrested and sent to prison for ten years. In 1964, Ian Smith became the Prime Minister of Rhodesia, and he began a total crackdown on blacks in either Nkomo’s or Mugabe’s party. At this time, the country’s name was Southern Rhodesia, and it was a commonwealth of the United Kingdom. Ian Smith’s government declared independence from the United Kingdom in November 1965, renaming itself as Rhodesia; Britain refused to recognize the legitimacy of this and imposed economic sanctions on the country.

By 1972, a guerilla war started with bases in Mozambique and Zambia. At the time, the world was still in the grips of the Cold War and also a time when China and the Soviet Union were at odds with each other as we recounted in episode 23. Rhodesia was a hot spot for this clash between the two communist powerhouses. The Soviets funded Mugabe’s group ZANU and Nkomo’s group ZAPU was supported by China. 

After Mugabe got out of prison, he made his way to Mozambique under the watchful eye of their Marxist leader Samora Machel. He was kept under house arrest for a year until Machel acknowledged him as a leader of the resistance in Rhodesia. 

During these few years between 1974 and 1976, there was a lot of in-fighting between Nkomo and Mugabe, but each had the same goal in mind, armed resistance to Ian Smith’s white-minority government. Their targets though were the white-owned farms. Many were murdered, and those that escaped abandoned their large farms.

The world was watching and not only were the communists helping arm the resistance, many in the western world, appalled by apartheid, supported Mugabe and Nkomo. In 1979, a measure called The Lancaster House Agreement was signed by all parties that ended the civil war and allowed for a democratic election to take place the following year. It also allowed for the minority whites to retain their economic privileges along with some guaranteed seats in parliament. Mugabe signed the accord but was very unhappy with it. 

Robert was to win the election for Prime Minister which was pretty much a foregone conclusion as his tribe; the Shona represented 70% of the black population while Nkomo’s tribe, the Ndebele was 20%. There were two assassination attempts on Mugabe’s life, both missing the mark.

At first, things went incredibly well in the newly named country, Zimbabwe. The number of public schools skyrocketed. Countries like the United States and the United Kingdom poured money in and helped with land reform. But underlying all of the functional economic and social changes were a deep racial divide between the blacks and whites. 

A bomb blast in December 1981 at ZANU headquarters killed 7 and injured hundreds. Mugabe blamed South African-backed white militants. This was to be the beginning of his plan to get rid of all white people from Zimbabwe. First, he had to get rid of Nkomo and his supporters.

In 1983, a large number of black dissidents were actively protesting and fighting against the government. Mugabe formed an armed group called the Fifth Brigade, sending them into Ndebele territory. They then began a campaign of beatings, arson, public executions, and massacres of those accused of being sympathetic to the dissidents.

In 1984, Nkomo fled the violence targeting his tribesmen, the Ndebele. The massacres of between 20-30,000 civilians were known as the “Gukurahundi,” a Shona word meaning “wind that sweeps away the chaff before the rains.” Mugabe justified the slaughter because “we can’t tell who is a dissident and who is not.”

All the while, the massacres were taking place, no one in the international community spoke up. Not Margret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan or anyone else because they didn’t want to anger Mugabe and push him towards the communists. Gukurahundi gave the Zimbabwean leader the power to turn his country from a free, multi-party democracy into a one-party system in 1987.

Although other parties were allowed to participate in the elections, they had no chance. Voter intimidation was out in the open with there even being a political ad stating with a picture of a car crash, “This is one way to die. Another is to vote ZUM. Don’t commit suicide, vote ZANU-PF, and live.”

Over the coming years, Mugabe continued to take more and more power over the country. He claimed to have given land to landless black, but the reality was most of the millions, and millions of acres of quality farmland went to ministers and allies of Mugabe. The worst though was yet to come.

The economy was crashing; unemployment was hovering around 50%. Many of the white farmers and business owners had left. Still, many of the commercial agriculture, mines, and manufacturing industry was in the hands of the white minority. Mugabe wasn’t going to have any of it, blaming the whites and foreign governments for all of the economic problems besetting Zimbabwe. What he did next destroyed any chance that the country would come out of its economic depression.

The land seizures of white farms began in earnest in 2000. Young black men who Mugabe called “war veterans” seized land, often murdering the owners and frequently their workers as well. Problem with the war veterans claim, most of the men weren’t old enough to have fought in the civil wars.

Mugabe said this about the land grab which the courts in Zimbabwe ruled were illegal, “The courts can do whatever they want, but no judicial decision will stand in our way … My own position is that we should not even be defending our position in the courts. This country is our country, and this land is our land … They think because they are white, they have a divine right to our resources. Not here. The white man is not indigenous to Africa. Africa is for Africans; Zimbabwe is for Zimbabwean.”

This was an absolute disaster for the country. Over the coming years, the Gross Domestic Product went from $7.4 billion in 2000 to $3.4 billion five years. They also had the highest inflation rate in the world, at 7600%. But it gets worse as in 2008; inflation skyrocketed to a mind-boggling 100,000%. 

The cost in human suffering and lives was staggering. The average life expectancy in Zimbabwe in 1997 was 63 for women and 54 for men. By 2008 is was 34 for women and 36 for men. HIV/AIDS was epidemic with 15.3% of the population infected that same year. Even the abundant wildlife was under siege. Poaching was rampant with Mugabe even ordering the slaughter of 100 elephants for a large banquet. 

Robert Mugabe was now not without opposition within the country. A party known as MDC challenged him starting around 2005. Operation Murambatsvina translated as “Operation Drive Out the Rubbish” was a clearing of a number of slums causing 700,000 people to become homeless, many MDC supporters.

Morgan Richard Tsvangirai was the leader of the MDC who tried to work with Mugabe to save the country, but that was destined for failure as well. By November of 2017, the state finally had enough of Mugabe. On November 15, 2017, the Zimbabwe National Army placed Mugabe under house arrest and ordered him to resign or else. While officially he did resign from the government, he has since denied it. 

His genocidal behavior and his destruction of a once-thriving economy is why he is in the villain’s bracket. While he freed the people of minority rule, his methods damaged his country for the foreseeable future.

Now we need to head on over to the scorer’s table.

The first 15 points we will dole out is for the amount of time each man was evil. This is tough as we have to pinpoint the time when things began to unravel for Mugabe and Henry. Henry, for the most part, was a pretty good chap early on, with the possible exception of the execution of the two unpopular ministers early on in his reign. I’m going to start with 1535 with the suppression of religious dissenters to Henry’s policies post-annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. It ends with his death in 1547 for a total of 12 years. 

As for Mugabe, I’m going to pick 1981 as his starting point when the use of torture began on anybody who he believed was a threat to his regime and policies. It ends with his ouster in 2017 for a total of 36 years. Fifteen points for Mugabe, 5 for Henry VIII.

The next point giveaway is the 20 for how they affected the rest of the world in their time. With Henry, we have his changing allegiances between Francis I of France and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. On top of that we have his break from the Catholic Church in Rome and his numerous marriages that scandalized England throughout Europe. 

Mugabe played sides against each other with the communist leaders China and the USSR as well as working the other side of the Cold War, the USA, and Great Britain. While significant, I’m not sure Mugabe had the same influence in the world as Henry did on his. Twenty points for the British Monarch and 10 for the Zimbabwean President.

Next up is their lasting effect on world history. This is, for obvious reasons, a slam dunk in favor of Henry if for no other reason than Mugabe has been out of the picture for a little over a year and Henry for 450 years. Twenty-five points for the Brit and 10 for the African leader.

Now is the time to give these men their score for how bad or evil they were to their country. Henry was a pretty bad guy, especially if a noted historian like Montefiore called him the British Stalin. Still, while he executed a lot of people, he didn’t ruin England’s economy as Mugabe did. England did have its inflationary period from 1544 on, but it paled in comparison to the record-breaking 100,000% level of Zimbabwe. According to historians Betteridge and Freeman, “throughout the centuries, Henry has been praised and reviled, but he has never been ignored.” He did many praiseworthy deeds as opposed to Mugabe who pretty much destroyed his country. I’m giving the full forty points to Robert Mugabe with Henry the VIII receiving 20. 

The final point total is 75-70 in what has to be called a mild upset, in favor of the man from Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe. 

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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