All About History
Henry VIII Young Tyrant
Egotistical, impulsive and cruel, how a petulant prince became the greatest of the Tudors
When speaking of King Henry VIII, the majority of us probably conjure up the image of a lustful, overweight man prone to fits of fury. His six marriages, the break from Rome and the trigger of the English Reformation as well as his desperate race to have a male heir continue to provoke our interest to this day, largely because of his tyrannical behaviour. However, Henry was an insatiable monarch from the beginning, a man who did whatever it took to get what he wanted. He was, however, a monarch who was never actually meant to rule.
Henry’s parents, King Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth of York, had four children who survived infancy: Arthur, Margaret, Henry and Mary. Henry was the second son, the spare to the heir, born at Greenwich Palace on 28 June 1491. Unfortunately, there is little existing information regarding his early life. Having said that, we do know that he spent his childhood in the care of ladies at Eltham Palace, entertained with the tales of chivalric kings, while Arthur was groomed for the throne. Their separation meant that, sadly, little Henry barely got to know his older brother.
Although Prince Henry received an exemplary education, he was never taught the ways of government and administration — he was apparently intended for a life in the Church. Suddenly, everything changed. In 1502, Prince Arthur tragically died a mere five months into his marriage to the red-headed Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon. Just like that, Henry, a tenyear-old boy, was thrust into the spotlight as the heir to the throne, a position that nobody had dreamed he would be destined for.
Henry became the duke of Cornwall in 1502 and the Prince of Wales in 1503. Determined to keep his son away from outside influences, his father hid him away. The next logical step, you may think, was for the king to urgently begin training his son in matters of state but this didn’t happen. Instead, little Henry was given no opportunities to learn about rulership as the king continued to maintain control over all affairs of government. This was in stark contrast to the schooling Arthur had received as heir, when he was sent to Ludlow Castle in Shropshire to assume still more responsibility.
Already isolated, Henry’s situation worsened when his beloved mother passed away in February 1503 from childbirth. Elizabeth’s death, just a year after the loss of Arthur, left the royal family devastated and stole away the sole source of warmth and love in the young prince’s life. Henry was left to enter his teenage years alone with a cold and reserved father, who had become even more withdrawn after losing his treasured wife and queen.
The king, keen to maintain his alliance with Spain after the death of his firstborn son, suggested a marriage between Prince Henry and Arthur’s 19-year-old widow, Catherine. The new match was agreed and preparations were made for a papal dispensation to sanction the relationship, with Catherine testifying that her union to the late Prince of Wales had never been consummated. Everything seemed to be going according to plan.
However, the situation changed when Catherine’s mother, Queen Isabella of Castile, passed away in November 1504. The relationship between her father, King Ferdinand II of Aragon, and King Henry quickly soured and before long, the 14-year-old prince had broken off his engagement to Catherine. He allegedly justified his decision by claiming that he had been forced into the match by his father — whether he was made to break the engagement by the king or through his own free will is debated.
Regardless, the situation left Catherine in limbo in England with little income or resources. Meanwhile, Henry grew into an athletic and handsome man, though he was still denied the opportunity to learn the art of kingship by his father. He became the source of hope for courtiers who wished to see the back of Henry VII and his miserly ways — Prince Henry’s reign promised a revival of glory at the English court.
On 21 April 1509, Henry VII succumbed to tuberculosis and the prince succeeded him as Henry VIII. The new king, two months away from his 18th birthday, relished his new-found freedom and immediately rid his court of the remnants of his father’s reign. Two of Henry VII’S most trusted — and despised — advisors, Edmund Dudley and Richard Empson, were thrown into the Tower of London for high treason and executed.
At the same time, Henry renewed his engagement to Catherine and they married on 11 June, just two months into his reign. Claiming it was his father’s dying wish that they wed, it could have been an act of defiance in response to the oppression he had experienced under the late king. Two weeks later, the couple journeyed together to Westminster Abbey for their coronations — Henry and Catherine had officially become the king and queen of England.
Following his coronation, Henry’s court was filled with dancing, music, jousts and festivities day and night. His never-ending energy was widely remarked upon and the court was given a new lease of life as Henry lavishly spent the wealth that his father had painstakingly accumulated during his reign. Courtiers marvelled at the new era of luxury and glamour that Henry was ushering in.
Edward Hall, a lawyer and historian, wrote about Henry in his famous work Hall’s Chronicle. He stated, “The features of his body, his goodly personage, his amiable visage, princely countenance, with the noble qualities of his royal estate, to every man known, needs no rehearsal, considering that, for lack of cunning, I cannot express the gifts of grace and nature that God has endowed him with all.”
Clearly good-looking, charismatic and remarkably talented, Henry embodied all the qualities of a Renaissance king and enchanted all those who beheld him. However, for all of his qualities, he also possessed an impulsive and quick-tempered nature. Indulged as a child without access to the outside world, he had never known anything different. His father had avoided costly foreign wars to focus on consolidating his
rule and kingdom, which had been ravaged by the Wars of the Roses. But his son, inspired the heroic tales of his childhood, wanted to emulate the glory of his predecessors Edward III, the Black Prince and Henry V. His goal? France.
Henry VIII seemingly declared his intentions to invade France soon after his accession in 1509, essentially to reignite the Hundred Years’ War. Yet England had no allies who desired to wage war against the French and without support, he found himself at a loose end. It was also obvious that the English Navy needed to be expanded if Henry was to realise his hopes and dreams as a warrior king. He commissioned the building of brand new ships, the most famous of which was a carrack warship dubbed the Mary Rose.
As it turned out, foreign allies and the state of England’s navy were not Henry’s only obstacles. Although he had dispatched with the most hated of his father’s advisors, he had kept some — namely Richard Foxe, the bishop of Winchester, and William Warham, the archbishop of Canterbury. Both were opposed to war and tried to counsel the new king to steer clear from such ambitions in a bid to maintain the peace that Henry VII had strived for.
Luckily for them, Henry’s attention was briefly diverted when Catherine gave birth to a baby boy, Prince Henry, on 1 January 1511. After suffering a miscarriage the previous year, the arrival of a healthy heir was welcome news. Ecstatic at the arrival of his son, the king held the most glorious tournament of his reign at Westminster, where he reportedly took part in the joust as Sir Loyal Heart, currying the favour of his wife. The royal couple were incredibly happy and to onlookers, they cared for one another deeply.
But despite the jubilant celebrations, Henry and Catherine’s joy soon turned into heartbreak. After just seven weeks, their baby suddenly died. Distraught, the king decided it was time to renew his hostile intentions towards France. The right circumstances had finally arrived thanks to the ever-changing alliances of the Italian Wars.
In October, Pope Julius II created a holy league alongside Ferdinand and Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I against France’s Louis XII. Julius sought Henry’s support and the he needed little persuading to join a fight against France. His dreams of expanding his territory across the Channel had finally come within his grasp.
“The court was given a new lease of life as Henry lavishly spent the wealth”
A month later, Henry signed the Treaty of Westminster with Ferdinand in which they promised to support each other. In 1512, Henry’s army was finally on its way to France with the intention of meeting Ferdinand’s forces for a joint attack on Aquitaine, which would then fall into English hands after it was conquered. On the surface, it was a perfect plan.
However, Ferdinand, crafty as ever, decided that he would rather pursue his interests in the kingdom of Navarre in northern Spain and completely left Henry’s forces in the lurch. To make the experience even more humiliating, he then sought an alliance with the French, blindsiding the English. Not only had Henry’s ambitions been thwarted, but he had just been taught a lesson on the fickleness of foreign alliances — something that he had not been prepared for.
Despite the setback, Henry was determined to take French territory and rebounded with a new agreement with Maximilian. France had isolated itself from the other European powers in defiance of the pope and Henry’s alliance with the Holy Roman Empire was subsequently seen as a defence of the faith by the papacy. Julius himself offered to bestow upon Henry the title of the ‘Most Christian King’, stripping it away from Louis. The pontiff also promised that he would crown Henry as ruler of France, provided he successfully conquered the country. It was a tantalising offer for a sovereign who so desperately wanted the territory.
There was one major issue that Henry needed to face before he could continue his campaign against France: Edmund de la Pole, a nephew of Edward IV and heir to the Yorkist claim to the throne. The situation was difficult thanks to Edmund’s brother Richard, who was living in exile in France as an ally of King Louis. Henry couldn’t allow him to remain alive in England as a blatant beacon for Yorkist supporters, especially with Richard and his allies in France.
He promptly had Edmund executed at the Tower of London in 1513.
With the military campaign against France renewed that same year, Henry personally led his troops abroad, arriving in Calais in June. By August, the monarch and his troops had made significant progress and together with Maximilian, they seized the town of Thérouanne following the Battle of the Spurs. Shortly afterwards, Henry conquered the town of Tournai in September. These were not the greatest or most crucial of successes but they gave the king a taste of the victory he had hoped for since ascending the English throne.
Although he had dealt with the problem of Edmund and achieved moderate success in France, Henry’s determination to prove himself and his quest for glory drove him to make many questionable decisions. His choice to personally lead his military campaign in France invokes an image of a courageous and chivalrous king willing to go with his troops into battle, yet it was an extremely reckless move for a sovereign who had no heir to succeed him or a contingency plan for the throne in the event of his death. Henry had risked plunging his country into chaos for the sake of personal triumph.
Henry’s achievements in France were mild at best in comparison to those of his wife. While the king was away waging war in France, he had left Catherine as regent in England along with a group of councillors to support her. The queen was anxious that King James IV of Scotland would invade England, partly to take advantage of Henry’s absence and also to uphold his country’s accord with France, known as the Auld Alliance. Catherine’s concerns were confirmed when James and his army crossed the border into Northumberland that September, resulting in the Battle of Flodden.
Fortunately for Catherine, the conflict was disastrous for Scotland and left many of the
“The pontiff also promised that he would crown Henry as ruler of France, provided he successfully conquered the country”
Scottish nobles dead. King James — incidentally the husband of Henry’s oldest sister, Margaret, a marriage arranged by Henry VII to secure peace with Scotland — was also killed. Catherine sent the bloodstained coat of James to Henry in France as evidence of the historic defeat — in just one battle, she had overseen the bloody glory that her husband so desperately wanted. In comparison, Henry’s success in France was small, insignificant and, above all, expensive.
The king’s costly campaign in France became even more meaningless when, just a year later, he secured peace with Louis. Pope Julius II had succumbed to a fever earlier in the year and the push against France was abandoned under his successor, Leo X. As the new pontiff made peace with Louis, followed by both Maximilian and Ferdinand, the English monarch was left with no option but to do so as well.
Henry reached a truce with the aid of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who was now the most influential man at court as Lord Chancellor. He supported Henry’s desire for battle with France, effectively replacing the anti-war stances of Foxe and Warham. While Henry enjoyed his frivolities and pursued his obsession with war, he relied on Wolsey like a child. It was often the cardinal who was left to deal with the day-to-day matters of the state, both domestic and financial.
To secure his new peace with France, Henry promised his sister Mary to Louis even though the French king was 34 years older than the princess. It was a dramatic turnaround for Henry, after being so hellbent on defeating Louis. But his efforts turned out to be short-lived as Louis died in January 1515, less than three months into his marriage. He was succeeded by Francis I, a man who proved to be just as vivacious as Henry.