Henry VIII: Renaissance Prince and King

The iconic Henry VIII - Henry the tyrant

Before I launch into a series of posts on members of the Boleyn family, I’d first like to consider King Henry VIII. After last week’s post on Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, I received emails and comments from people wondering how, and why, Henry changed from the young, handsome, idealistic and virtuous King of the 1510s and 20s to the monster we see in the 1530s and 40s. What made him change? Did he change? When did he change? All of these are questions we ask ourselves as we try to come to grips with Henry’s psyche and make sense of his brutal actions.

But before we can even consider what caused Henry’s personality change, we need to consider whether Henry did in fact undergo a personality change. Just what was Henry like as a young king?

Prince Henry

Henry VIII was proclaimed King of England on the 22nd April 1509 after the death of his father, Henry VII. He had not been brought up to be king as he was Henry VII’s second son, the spare or reserve, and only became heir to the throne in 1502 when his older brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales, died.

Arthur, as heir to the throne, had been brought up in male dominated world, whereas “Henry’s world was shaped by his sisters, his mother and her women”1. Starkey points out that Henry was the only boy in his nursery at Eltham, “the king of the castle”, and “probably spoiled outrageously”, and ponders whether his childhood at Eltham, never being overshadowed by an older brother and being in the presence of girls and women, “helped to civilize him and give him poise and confidence”2. It certainly made him different to his brother, who David Starkey describes as stiff, precocious and formal – not words you would use to describe Henry!

So, how was Henry described? What was the young Henry like?

The Renaissance Prince

The young Prince Henry’s first tutor was the poet laureate John Skelton. He taught Henry skills in English and Latin and was responsible for Henry’s love of astronomy, mathematics and poetry. But this was not all Henry learned from Skelton; Starkey points out that Skelton also passed on to his pupil “his fierce patriotism and fiercer xenophobia”!3

After the death of his brother, when Henry became heir to the throne, Skelton was dismissed and replaced by John Holt, a friend of Thomas More, and this was the turning point for the prince, the moment when he “stepped from the middle ages into the renaissance”4, helped by three key players: Erasmus, William Blount (Lord Mountjoy) and Thomas More. Henry began to study modern languages, classical history, music and the works of Erasmus, alongside Latin and the physical skills needed by a king. It was a truly Renaissance education.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the young Henry

The Sportsman

In 1506, the 15 year old Prince Henry met Archduke Philip of Burgundy, a young, handsome ruler who loved fun and sport. Although he died just a few months after their meeting, Philip had a major influence on Henry, being the only ruler that Henry could use as a role model, apart from his father, Henry VII. Starkey credits Philip with helping to shape Henry the sportsman, the king who loved to joust.

Henry VIII: The Young King

When his father died in April 1509, Henry was just 17 years and 10 months, a young man and a Renaissance man, a man very different from his father. On the 27th April, the Spanish envoy Fuensalida reported Henry VII’s death, saying:-

“Henry VII’s death is now public knowledge because Henry VIII is in the Tower and has proclaimed a general pardon. He has released many prisoners and arrested all those responsible for the bribery and tyranny of his father’s reign. The people are very happy and few tears are being shed for Henry VII. Instead, people are as joyful as if they had been released from prison.”5

He went on to report that the new king had ordered the arrest of the two officials responsible for collecting “the King’s monies” and that Henry VIII had “proclaimed that all those who feel they were wronged by either his father or his officials should present their reasons to his council so that amends can be made.”6

How wonderful that this new king wanted to fight bribery and corruption, what a righteous and virtuous man! How sad that he did not remain so. However, cynics could suggest that Henry’s actions were simply political and were needed to make him popular and to strengthen the monarchy at a time when the Tudors could still be seen as usurpers.

Contemporary Descriptions

The writings of Henry VIII’s contemporaries help us to form a picture of the new king at this time. Lord Mountjoy wrote to Erasmus in 1509 of the new king:-

“When you know what a hero now shows himself, how wisely he behaves, what a lover he is of justice and goodness, what affection he bears to the learned, I will venture that you will need no wings to make you fly to behold this new and auspicious star. If you could see how all the world here is rejoicing in the possession of so great a prince, how his life is all their desire, you could not contain your tears of joy. The heavens laugh, the earth exults, all things are full of milk, of honey, of nectar. Avarice is expelled from the country. Liberality scatters wealth with bounteous hand. Our King does not desire gold or gems or precious metals, but virtue, glory and immortality.”7

An exaggeration perhaps, but it is obvious how proud of his mentee Lord Mountjoy is and what hopes he holds for the King and his reign.

David Starkey writes of how the poems written by Thomas More for Henry’s coronation hailed his accession as a second coming, Henry as the messiah who would “wipe the tear from every eye and put joy in the place of our long distress.”8 More also wrote of Henry:-

“Whatever virtues your ancestors had, these are yours too… For you, sir, have your father’s wisdom, you have your mother’s kindly strength, the devout intelligence of your paternal grandmother, the noble heart of your mother’s father.”9

Edward IV

And not only that, Henry was also drop dead gorgeous! Polydor Vergil likened him to his grandfather, Edward IV and the chronicler Edward Hall said:-

“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 of nature that God endowed him with all.”10

He was “young, lusty and courageous”11, lean and muscular, tall (around 6’3″), golden haired and fair-skinned, sporty, flamboyant and fun loving. The Venetian ambassador described him as:-

“the handsomest potentate I ever set eyes on; above the usual height, with an extremely fine calf to his leg, his complexion fair and bright, with auburn hair, combed straight and short in the French fashion, and a round face so very beautiful that it would become a pretty woman, his throat was rather long and thick”

and many others described his beauty, his musical talent, his gifts, his intelligence and education, and his valour. It is not hard to see why his Catherine of Aragon fell in love with him and why he inspired the love and loyalty of his people.

The Henry of the 1510s and 20s was a wonderful man. I think I would have idolised him and loved him, and written articles in praise of him. He gave everyone hope for the future, including his wife Catherine. What went wrong? Why did this beautiful and virtuous young man, a man who fought corruption and was likened to the Messiah, turn into a ruthless tyrant, a man who killed two of his wives and many of his friends and courtiers? We’ll explore that another time.

Notes and Sources

  1. Henry: Virtuous Prince, David Starkey, p 66
  2. Ibid., p134
  3. Ibid., p123
  4. Ibid., p173
  5. Ibid., p264, quoting LP I i, 11/10i & ii, Correspondencia de Fuensalida, 517
  6. Ibid., p264
  7. 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII Suzannah Lipscomb, p28-29
  8. Quoted in Starkey, p209
  9. Starkey, p305
  10. Lipscomb, p29
  11. Ibid., p30

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