The first twenty-five years of Henry VIII’s reign were reasonably tolerable for the King’s relatives. Only those involved in treasonous plots had anything to fear. During this period, Henry killed just two of his kin, both for treason. Edmund de la Pole, third duke of Suffolk and Henry’s maternal cousin, was the first to go in 1513 after he attempted to enlist foreign support to steal the crown. In 1521, Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, a direct descendant of Edward III followed him, beheaded for “imagining the death of the king’ by consulting fortunetellers.
However, following the break with Rome, Henry found himself deeply unpopular. The King’s ex-communication left England fair game for other European monarchs, and many nobles wanted a return to the Catholic faith. Fearful of foreign and domestic plots against him, the King’s paranoia escalated. Soon, not only ministers and nobles were in danger of the ax; Henry’s own family were too. First to go was Anne Boleyn on trumped-up charges of treason and adultery. Soon others followed who had: ‘little offended save that he [Henry] is of their kin, ”
This bloodbath was due in part to Henry’s paranoia about his claim to the throne. In the good times, it did not matter for the Tudor dynasty had brought stability to England. Now, in uncertain times, there were plenty of other candidates for the throne- especially those of Plantagenet descent. Chief amongst them was the family of Margaret de la Pole, Countess of Salisbury- and daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, the brother of Henry’s grandfather, Edward IV.
Unlike Henry’s mother, Elizabeth, whose parent’s marriage had at one time been declared invalid; there was no stain of illegitimacy against the De la Poles. So, in Henry’s eyes, they had to go. He could not touch Reginald, Cardinal Pole, Margaret’s son, who was safe in exile. However, the rest of the family was fair game. In 1540, Henry De la Pole, Margaret’s son was beheaded and her young grandson was imprisoned and left to die. Then in 1541, the 67-year-old Countess was herself beheaded to great public discord.
It could be that pure paranoia was not the cause of Henry’s murderous rampage through his relatives. A 2009 medical report suggests that a jousting accident that the King suffered in 1536, and which almost killed him, could be at fault. The accident, which left Henry unconscious for 2 hours may have caused a personality change by damaging his frontal lobe; damage which increased paranoia, decreased tolerance and as a consequence caused the heads of his relatives to roll.
One of Henry’s daughters was to follow in her father’s footsteps. However, her motivation was survival, not paranoia.