Although I cut my historical teeth on him, I’ve never been a fan of Henry VIII. I took the appellations that have been applied to him, words like ‘monster and tyrant’ at face value. In my earlier Tudor novels, he appears as an omnipresent psychopath governing his country with a ruthless hand. But after several years of writing in and around his court, I noticed subtler aspects of his character and while I continue to be wary of him, I have come 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. The early Tudor chronicles provide no hint of the embittered man Henry was to become. On his assumption to the throne, he seemed to be the answer to the nation’s prayers. Because the blood of both York and Lancaster flowed through his veins, Henry, the embodiment of the renaissance prince, was welcomed by all. He was young, strong and vigorous, ad armed with Skelton’s self-help guide, Speculum Principis, which provided detailed instruction for noble princes, he promised virtue and prosperity and peace.
So what happened? What turned this glorious prince into the tyrant we all associate with his name today? To consider this question we must look to his upbringing, the expectations he 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 the Tudor dynasty’s tenuous claim to the throne. While his elder brother’s childhood was spent learning the art of kingship at Ludlow on the Welsh border, Henry passed his early years at Eltham, and it was there, tumbling in the nursery with his sisters, and learning his letters at his mother’s knee, that he learned the ‘ideals’ of family and loyalty.
As second son, Henry was intended for the church. As he matured, he admired Erasmus, and Thomas More, and learned philosophy and scripture from the greatest thinkers in Christendom. In teaching him the traits necessary for princes, John Skelton’s book 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. Henry was coached in a knight’s duty to protect 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 what he saw as 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 the kingdom and his father’s fear of invasion. Long into adulthood he will have recalled the Warbeck invasion of 1497; the fear of 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, the boy, 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 is no evidence of affection between him and his father. As a fiction author, It is easy to imagine he may have resented this parental lack of interest, his own princely promise overshadowed by the significant role of his elder brother.
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 whose physique was closer to that of his grandfather, Edward IV. Henry had the sort of bearing that gave men the confidence to follow. One wonders how this intelligent, well-grown, chivalrous, and valiant knight would have fared had he been anything other than king. I’d imagine he was restless beneath his father’s strict governance and that by his teens Henry was a lion cub just waiting to 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. His passing also shifted Henry up a rung in the royal ladder. He was now heir to his father’s throne.
How might Henry have felt to find himself so suddenly the heir to the throne? Was he fearful at the abrupt change of direction his life had taken? Did it feel like a trap: an imprisonment? Or was there a sense of fate; a conviction that, at last, he could fulfil the role he was born for?
Whatever Henry felt, his parents were devastated by Arthur’s death, offering each other comfort and, although Elizabeth was approaching thirty-seven, the royal couple immediately began to try for another son. This period more than any other must have impressed on young Henry the importance of the production of male royal heirs. The message would have been driven home – A king could never have too many sons.
Dutifully, Elizabeth of York 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, the queen, Henry’s beloved mother followed swiftly after.
There is no written record of Henry’s reaction, we can only surmise, but there are 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.
Henry VII was a good king. He brought peace to the realm, united the waring houses of York and Lancaster, saw off pretenders and invaders, and secured treaties and alliances. He had always been careful with his finances but in the latter years of his reign, this attention to detail 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 with Henry’s demands. 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 whose intention was to be as valiant and 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 viewed 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 little use to Tudor kings.
After the birth of Princess Mary came further miscarriages and still-births, and with each disappointment Catherine became wearier, older and defeated. Always pious, she sought comfort in fervent prayer, while Henry turned to other women.
Before the arrival of Anne Boleyn, Henry had already begun to contemplate 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 year 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. In the long years that followed, Catherine fought stoutly against the annulment 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 most of all her fertility but, by the time Henry was finally free from Catherine and able to marry Anne, she too was 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 hid his disappointment well. There were no tears and tantrums, those came later when she went on to produce a stillborn son and two further miscarriages. 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.
By this time Henry had begun to look around for another wife; someone more malleable and fertile. In 1536, Anne Boleyn was beheaded for incest and treason although it is clear to modern historians 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 the age of forty marked the onset of old age.
Also in 1536, Henry fell from his horse and lay unconscious for several hours, some reports suggest his life was despaired of. Although it didn’t kill him, this accident saw the beginning of the end of Henry’s active life. His hunting days were almost 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, raged against his dying youth and ebbing hopes. The Renaissance Prince of 1509 was gone, and in his place an increasingly frustrated lion, an ageing lion with uncomfortably sharp claws.
John Skelton’s guide instructed Henry in the art of knighthood and provided lessons that as a young king he had sincerely wanted to keep. He desired to be remembered for his nobility, his Christian humanity, his kingmanship, but instead he became a tyrant.
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 son, 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 son with his third wife, Jane Seymour, and two daughters of wavering legitimacy on his first two queens, he knew he had failed as a king. As age took hold of him, the suspicion and cynicism learned from his father, grew greater and each time he executed an old friend, I am certain his self-loathing increased.
As time went on it was for him easier to look the other way and pretend it wasn’t happening. It wasn’t his fault, it was everybody else. 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 is grounded in ignominy.
Starkey, David, Henry: The Prince who would Turn Tyrant
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
Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B08W48QQ9C
Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Matter-Conscience-Henry-Aragon-Years-ebook/dp/B08W48QQ9C
Meet Judith Arnopp
A lifelong history enthusiast and avid reader, Judith holds a BA in English/Creative writing and an MA in Medieval Studies.
She lives on the coast of West Wales where she writes both fiction and non-fiction based in the Medieval and Tudor period. Her main focus is on the perspective of historical women but more recently is writing from the perspective of Henry VIII himself.
Her novels include:
A Matter of Conscience: Henry VIII: the Aragon Years Book one of The Henrician Chronicle
The Heretic Wind: the life of Mary Tudor, Queen of England
Sisters of Arden: on the Pilgrimage of Grace
The Beaufort Bride: Book one of The Beaufort Chronicle
The Beaufort Woman: Book two of The Beaufort Chronicle
The King’s Mother: Book three of The Beaufort Chronicle
The Winchester Goose: at the Court of Henry VIII
A Song of Sixpence: the story of Elizabeth of York
Intractable Heart: the story of Katheryn Parr
The Kiss of the Concubine: a story of Anne Boleyn
The Song of Heledd
The Forest Dwellers
Judith is also a founder member of a re-enactment group called The Fyne Companye of Cambria and makes historical garments both for the group and others. She is not professionally trained but through trial, error and determination has learned how to make authentic looking, if not strictly HA, clothing. You can find her group Tudor Handmaid on Facebook. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram.
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