Although I cut my historical teeth on him, I’ve never been a lover of Henry VIII. It is easy to write him off as a ‘monster;’ ‘tyrant;’ ‘wife murderer.’ He has featured as such in several of my novels, an omnipresent psychopath governing his country with a ruthless hand, dispatching anyone who dared to cross him. It was not until I began to research for my soon to be published book, The Kiss of the Concubine, that I began to notice subtler aspects of his character and see him differently. Not that I ‘like’ him any better but I am coming to have a greater understanding of this Tudor king.
Tyrants aren’t born, they evolve, just as saints do, their characters are slowly shaped over time, just as ours are. Early chronicles of Henry provide no hint of the embittered man he was to become. On his assumption to the throne, when his future stretched ahead of him in a unspotted landscape of graceful chivalry he must have seemed the answer to the nation’s prayers. Because the blood of both houses flowed through his veins, Henry himself personified an end to years of discord between York and Lancaster.
At the death of the old king the chroniclers wrote, “Few tears were shed”, and Henry, the embodiment of renaissance prince was welcomed by all parties. Henry, it seems, young, strong and vigorous, armed with Skelton’s self-help guide, Speculum principis, (which contained detailed instruction on how to be a noble prince) had every intention of ruling justly. He promised virtue and triumph for the country and, all in all, to prove be a king most unlike his father.
So what happened? What turned this glorious prince into the monstrous tyrant we all associate with his name today? To consider this question we must look to his upbringing, the expectations that were nurtured in childhood, and the later disillusion when he ultimately failed in almost every one of the necessary virtues.
Henry was not born to rule. As second son he was, in the words of David Starkey, ‘a spare’ – a runner-up to bolster his father’s tenuous claim to the throne, a double insurance for the continuation of the new Tudor dynasty. While his elder brother’s childhood was spent in luxury at Ludlow on the Welsh border, Henry passed his early years at Eltham, and it was there, tumbling in the nursery in the company of his sisters, learning his letters at his mother’s knee, where he learned the ‘ideals’ of family and loyalty.
As second son, Henry was intended for the church. As he grew older he admired Erasmus, and Thomas More, learning philosophy and scripture from the greatest thinkers in Christendom. In teaching him the traits necessary for princes, John Skelton’s book that I mentioned previously, looked back to the time of the old kings, to the exploits of Henry V, Agincourt and Glory for England; a time when chivalry and service to God were paramount. He was coached in a knight’s duty to protect innocent maidens and widows, to vanquish the nation’s foes and uphold the rights of the king, and above all God and the holy church.
A fundamental aspect of princely chivalry was the art of the joust, and Henry learned this skill alongside his peers. Jousting was dangerous and, although only the ‘spare’ Henry was too precious to risk. Allowed to train but not compete, there are indications that Henry begrudged his father’s mollycoddling. Forced to sit on the side lines while others competed can only have bred resentment in the young prince but, perhaps even harder, was the task of keeping that resentment hidden. It was at the tiltyard that he made his first friends, among them Henry Brandon who would prove a lifelong companion and one of the few to survive Henry’s reign unscathed.
Born just eight years after Bosworth Henry cannot have been unaware of the unrest in his father’s kindgdom, and he must have sensed the king’s constant fear of invasion. Long into adulthood he will have recalled the Warbeck invasion of 1497; the fear at being snatched from bed at midnight to escape with his mother to the safety of the Tower. While the king’s armies marched away to dispel the Cornish uprising, little Henry waited with the womenfolk behind the impenetrable walls of London’s Tower.
Although there are several clues that point to him being close to his mother, Elizabeth of York, there seems to have been little affection shown to him by his father. It is easy to imagine that Henry may have resented this parental lack of interest, the significant role of his elder brother, especially when his own princely promise was ignored.
De Puebla described Prince Henry as, “already taller than his father, and his limbs are of a gigantic size.” By all accounts Arthur resembled his father in looks and stature, and it was Henry who had the ideal physique of a knight, ideal for a monarch. Henry had the sort of build that gave men the confidence to follow. One wonders how this intelligent, well-grown, chivalrous, and valiant knight viewed his future as a churchman and how he bore the repression that seems to have been imposed upon him by his father and formidable grandmother, Margaret Beaufort. There are no obvious signs of rebellion but it is easy to imagine that by his teens Henry was a lion cub just waiting for the day he would be freed from his cage.
And then came the news that the Prince of Wales, Henry VII’s legendary heir, who was to have been King Arthur reborn, was dead, leaving Katherine of Aragon, a widow at the age of just fifteen. How did Henry feel to find himself so suddenly the heir to the throne? Was he fearful at the abrupt change of direction his life had taken? Was he sorry to be denied the chance to serve God, or was it all a great release? Was there a sense of fate; a conviction that, at last, he could carry out the task he was destined to do?
Whatever Henry felt, his parents were devastated, offering each other comfort and, although Elizabeth was approaching thirty-seven, almost immediately trying for another son. This period more than any other must have impressed on young Henry the importance of the production of male royal heirs. A king could not have too many sons.
Now that the ‘spare’ had stepped into his dead brother’s shoes, a frantic need for a replacement ‘second’ was born. Dutifully, Elizabeth fell pregnant quite quickly, but gave birth to a girl, a daughter who lived for just a few days and, to the nation’s sorrow, Henry’s mother followed swiftly after.
There is no written record of Henry’s reaction, we can only surmise, but her death left him in the company of a father whom he had always failed to please. There are many indications that Henry’s was a lonely youth. Since he was untrained in the art of kingship, he required an intensive course, and this involved almost constant contact with the king. This can only have been uncomfortable, for the king seems to have made little effort to hide his disappointment in an heir who had the temerity to physically resemble, not his father, but his maternal grandfather, Edward of York.
In the latter years of Henry VII’s reign his lifelong avarice was turned into policy. Years of rebellion and disloyalty had instilled deep insecurity in the king and, to use Starkey’s phrase, “the Result was a reign of fiscal terror.” Extortionate fines and charges were placed on those who did not comply. Part of the fine was imposed at once, the rest suspended. When the king felt like it, he called in the debt and this proved an effective way to keep unruly subjects in their place. Disempowered, they could only grumble and, for the ageing king, the resulting riches were gratifying.
On Henry VIII’s accession to the throne one of his first acts was to reverse these ‘bonds and recognizances’ as they were known and arrest the chief conspirators Dudley and Empson. They were executed in 1510 – a sign perhaps of what was to come. Elsewhere, the dungeons were thrown open, prisoners released and a new reign began, under a new king who was as valiant and as chivalrous as the kings of old.
Initially, Henry stuck to his intentions. Married to his brother’s widow, Catherine, with a special dispensation from the pope, the new king threw off the gloom of his predecessor and the royal court took on new light and colour. A lover of art and music, Henry embraced the new ideas from Europe and when his queen proved quickly fruitful, England looked set for a long and peaceful reign. Bells rang out and wine flowed. Things were looking good.
However, the first pregnancy ended in miscarriage. The second produced a son, Henry, and great celebrations were held throughout the realm – the future seemed set until, at just a few weeks old, the boy died in 1511.
No one knows when Henry first began to have doubts about the choice of his bride but we can be quite certain he never saw the failure to produce an heir as his own shortcoming. Catherine and Henry’s marriage lasted the longest of all; apparently content with one another, their only sorrow was that try as they may, they could only produce one daughter. And daughters were no use to medieval kings.
After Princess Mary there were further miscarriages and still births, and with each
disappointment Catherine became more weary, she grew older and more defeated. Always pious, she looked for comfort in fervent prayer, while Henry turned to other women.
Before his eye fell on the evocative figure of Anne Boleyn Henry had already begun to contemplate ways of freeing himself from Catherine. His senior by several years Catherine was already showing signs of age. Henry knew that her fertile years were limited. His need for a son grew more pressing with each passing month and the day he took his decision to replace his wife for a more fertile one, was the day his troubles really began.
Maybe he imagined the transition would be simple and that Catherine would retire quietly into a nunnery; if that was so, then he was never more mistaken in his life. Catherine fought against the annulment until the last breath left her body and never relinquished her right to be addressed as queen.
Anne, bright, vivacious and full of promise, kept Henry dancing on her string for seven years, skilfully keeping out of his bed until he was (almost) in the position to offer her marriage. The bait she dangled was her youth, her energy and fertility but, by the time Henry had spent years battling with Catherine and Spain and the pope for his divorce, and was able to marry Anne, she too was also growing old. Youth waits for no man, not even kings.
When the new queen fell quickly pregnant, Anne and Henry, the court astrologers, doctors, old wives from the marketplace, everybody, was certain that this time the child would live. This time it would be a prince. When Anne produced a daughter, Henry’s disappointment must have been monumental but he seemed to hide it well. There were no tears and tantrums, those came later when she went on to produce a stillborn son and two further miscarriages. By this time Henry had begun to look around for a more fertile wife. In 1536 Anne Boleyn was beheaded for incest and treason although it is clear to modern eyes that the evidence against her was both inaccurate and unsubstantiated.
Susanna Lipscombe identifies several events in this year in in her book 1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII. In 1536 Henry was approaching forty years old; these days we are accustomed to mid-life crisis’, we laugh behind our hands when men begin to wear wigs and chase younger women. But in Tudor times this was not acknowledged. In the 16th century forty marked the onset of old age. Henry in his own estimation had failed in the primary function of a king, to continue the male line, to produce an heir, to stabilise the country. And no one can accuse him of not trying.
Also in 1536 Henry fell from his horse and was unconscious for several hours, some reports suggest his life was despaired of. This accident, although it didn’t kill him, put an end to Henry’s active life, his hunting days were largely over, his tremendous energy forced into other avenues. No longer king of the joust, he became king of the feast, indulging in vast meals, and now that he was no longer active, his weight piled on, the ulcer in his leg refused to heal and his temper grew short. Disappointment can sour the best of us but Henry, in his position of power, was able to indulge that sense of disappointment and rage against the dying of his youth and hopes. The Renaissance Prince of 1509 was gone, and in his place an increasingly frustrated lion, an ageing lion with very sharp claws.
John Skelton’s guide instructed Henry in the art of knighthood and provided lessons that the young king sincerely wanted to keep. He wanted to be remembered for his nobility, his Christian humanity but instead he became a monster. After his excommunication from Rome, when he made himself head of the church in England, it was downhill all the way. Susannah Lipscomb says, “By the end of 1536, over a few short months, he had experienced an unbelievable catalogue of loss – two lost sons, two lost wives, the loss of his health and youth, and the loss of his sense of masculinity and honour. This was suffered in the midst of threats, which looked like betrayals – the judgement of his cousin Reginald Pole, and the sword of Damocles of the papal bull, prepared with the knowledge of his fellow monarchs.”
In producing just one puny son with his third wife, Jane Seymour, and two daughters of wavering legitimacy, he feared he was failing as a king. As age took a stronger hold on him, his suspicion and cynicism he had learnt from his father, grew greater and each time he executed an old friend his self-hatred increased. With each wife he dispatched, his self-loathing grew greater and, as time went on it was easier to look the other way and pretend it wasn’t happening. In failing in the fundamental laws of chivalry and kingship Henry, who had been searching for it all his life, never found love, and to the detriment of those closest to him, he never found happiness. The only ambition he realised was lasting fame and even that fame is grounded in ignominy.
Starkey, David, Six Wives; The Queens of Henry VIII
Lipscombe, Susannah, 1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII
Hutchinson, Robert, The Last Days of Henry VIII
Loades, David, Henry VIII and his Queens
Moorhouse, Geoffrey, The Pilgrimage of Grace
Schofield, John, the Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell
Weir, Alison, The Six Wives of Henry VIII
Weir, Alison, Henry VIII; King and Court
Photographs from Wikimedia Commons