As I read Wolf Hall (2009) by Hilary Mantel for my book club, I am struck by the story of Henry VIII. He is popularly known for his role in the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church. Henry's struggles with Rome ultimately led to the separation of the Church of England from papal authority, the dissolution of the Monastaries, and establishing himself as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Apparently, Henry's motivation for stirring this change was his desire for a male heir. Anne was charismatic, although she resisted Henry's attempts to seduce her. She said "I beseech your highness most earnestly to desist, and to this my answer in good part. I would rather lose my life than my honesty." This refusal made Henry even more attracted, and he pursued her relentlessly. As we all know, Anne's story ends with execution.

Henry VIII seized economic and political power from the Church by the aristocracy, chiefly though the acquisition of monastic lands and assets. Henry worked with some success to make England once again a major player on the European scene. Henry's break with Rome incurred the threat of a large-scale French or Spanish invasion. To guard against this he strengthened existing costal defence fortresses. He also built a chain of new castles along Britain's southern and eastern coasts.

To me, this is a tale of power, of seduction, of charisma and disloyalty. I see this story as a story that every family and every organization can tell. Henry VIII was focused on his legacy. He would do anything to engineer a male heir. This drive for power, even after his death, made him so focused that nothing else and no one else mattered. As far as I can tell Catherine of Aragon was a victim. She was persecuted for not having a male heir who survived. Anne was an opportunist. She was clever and charming. That started out well, but ended poorly.

I like thinking about Henry VIII because I am reminded that the world is a complicated place. Love does not always prevail. Good people do not always have happy endings. There are victims and persecutors. Power is powerful. Charm and charisma go a long way, at least initially. The 16th century is no different than the 21st century. These themes will always be true. For short periods we try to escape these powerful forces of human nature, but over time, we see these stories again and again. Some people will accuse me of being a pessimist. To them, I suggest that they look at history, both family histories and corporate histories. I suggest that almost every family and almost every corporation has a story of greed, power, and betrayal. There are also stories of love, devotion and altruism, but to look at one side without the other is to miss the big picture. There is the good and bad of human nature. We need to keep both in mind.

About the Author

Shirah Vollmer, MD

Shirah Vollmer, MD, is an Associate Clinical Professor of Family Medicine and Psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

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