Henry VIII: Renaissance Prince and King

Posted By on June 15, 2010

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

26 thoughts on “Henry VIII: Renaissance Prince and King”

  1. Angelina says:

    I am really intrested in what went wrong with Henry – and though he did change I can’t help but admire him. I loath him for the things he did, but somethings still captivate me and make me admire him. Great article, like usual Claire!

  2. Vin Smith says:

    Henry VIII and the contemporary players of his day offer not only a fascinating glimpse into human nature, but perhaps the most full and complete view of individual character arcs in all of history. The times–they were a changing; at no time in the history of world monarchies can we get a better notion of mankinds great strengths and accompanying flaws.

  3. Carly says:

    I think to understand what changed henry you only have to think of the two major accidents that he had in his life. The first jousting accident which nearly claimed his right eye, left him with headaches for the rest of his life (frontal lobe damage?) and then his second jousting accident which left him crushed under a horse and un concious for several hours, which is not good by any standards and these days head scans wiuld have been done as well as body xrays!!! I am sure again that this must have caused brain damage of some sorts as well as half the problems he had with his leg which would led to bloody poisoning which in turn would affect his moads to.

    I also think that Anne Boleyn gave him the taste for thinking that he really was in charge of everything even the church and believed that god spoke to him in many ways, once you have tasted power like this you dont turn back!!! And with no one to stop him he just got a bit out of control.

  4. Anne Barnhill says:

    Great article! My husband watched this video about Henry’s brain and they claimed it was a head injury in a joust that caused his personality change. Made a good case fo it, according to my husband. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch the show but I’m going to try to find it. Thanks, Claire.

    1. Harambe says:

      How cum ur name sayz Anne Barnhill and ye signed off as clare? eh?

      1. imstuckinahistoryexamthisisnotadrill says:

        Claire you have been #EXPOSED

      2. Claire says:

        She didn’t, she was thanking me (Claire Ridgway, writer of the article).

        1. nipnop says:

          calm down Claire

  5. Desiree says:

    I believe that Henry VIII may have suffered from mental illness which only manifested itself well into his adult life…. Paranoia/schizophrenia possibly, or at least bi-polar disorder (a/k/a manic depression)…. Could I be correct?

  6. April says:

    Read Alison Weir’s fabulous biography – Henry VIII: The King and His Court. It answered a lot of my questions that other biographies did not address. It’s very well researched, well written and an enjoyable read. Love your website!

  7. Carol says:

    It was the power, betrayal, aging, probably, the inability to have sex in the last years. The knowing that the women he married, were not attracted to him and if he weren’t king they wouldn’t have looked at him twice.

    He was bitter. He was in pain, he was excessively fat and he smelled. (Why would God do this to someone as chosen as myself??) He was only God-fearing when it was convenient to him and he knew it, and, so did everyone else.

    And, let’s face it. What he did to Catherine of Aragon was irreprehensible and he knew it for the rest of his life.

  8. Louise says:

    Starkey would have us believe that it was Anne’s fault that Henry became a tyrant, but the picure of a man so dominated by a woman does not fit with Starkey’s portrayal of a great King. Quite frankly he can’t have it both ways.
    Henry always had the capacity for ruthlessness. At the start of his reign he had his father’s two chief advisers murdered on false treason charges. Out with the old; in with the new. It was a sentiment which dominated his reign. If you suddenly failed to please him you had the life expectancy of a mayfly.
    This became more and more apparent as his reign progressed. The saying, ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’, suited him perfectly. He had been told for so long that he was wonderful and that he was truely God’s representative on earth that he came to believe it. The problem was that Henry had the power of life and death over his subjects, and rather than that teaching him humility, it completely ruined him.

  9. miladyblue says:

    Thank you for pursuing this, Claire! The sharp contrast between this idealistic, handsome, charming, charismatic, etc. young man and the man capable of executing two wives*, close friends, ministers is stunning, to put it mildly.

    A psychiatrist could become very rich trying to figure out the enigma of Henry VIII.

    There is no doubt whatsoever that Henry was perhaps one of the most influential Kings in English history, but it would still be interesting to know what made him tick.

    * = Especially considering how besotted he was with the two wives in question. Anne Boleyn was determinedly pursued for seven years, Henry broke with Rome, divorced his very popular first wife, and horribly mistreated his formerly beloved first wife and their daughter. Three years after catching his beloved Anne, he has her beheaded on obviously trumped up charges for adultery, incest and treason!

    Kathryn Howard, the sweet, pretty young lady who rejuvenated Henry, and made him feel young again did not fare well at all. To have her, he risked the sundering of an important alliance with Cleves by divorcing Anne of Cleves. Two years later, like Anne Boleyn, Kathryn Howard was also accused of and beheaded for adultery and treason.

  10. Jeane Westin says:

    Thoughtful piece, Claire. I’ve always wondered if the change from fair-haired boy to monster might have been caused by a venereal disease rampant through Europe at the time. I recall reading that it traveled as fast as the plague.

    It would certainly explain the leg lesion that would not heal as well as his total change of personality, which might also be explained by absolute power corrupting absolutely.

    Jeane Westin, His Last Letter: Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester, August, 2010

  11. lisaannejane says:

    Henry VII lived a bit later than Vlad the Impaler. I think I tend to forget that life was harsh and not valued as it is today. The death sentence was a common event back then and harsh punishments could be found in any country. Henry VIII did live in a world that probably shaped his personality, as well as life experiences, Life has always given out disappointments and I think that how we learn to cope with failure may be more significant than coping with success. But ultimately Henry was responsible for the choices he made and he needs to be accountable for his actions. The choices he made have helped create the image that we have of him.

  12. jenny says:

    Hampton Court’s website has a lot of information about Henry and his relationships with different people and in fact two years ago when they were promoting the young Henry, the did so as “The Pin-UP Prince”. On the site there is also a morph showing the change through the years of Henry. Extremely interesting. I have quite a lot of information from there but if you go into Google and put in the Morph of Henry VIII up pops the Hampton court website .

  13. Carolyn says:

    Thanks, jenny! I found the link for the morph.


  14. lisaannejane says:

    Jenny, Thanks for the website. It was very interesting to watch Henry morph LOL!

  15. Fiz says:

    That Hampton Court website is a real find and Henry changing like that is incredible! I must show it to my husband – he’s currently going up the A1M to fetch my youngest daughter back form uni in Lincoln, poor soul! She’s acquired so much stuff in her first year that there isn’t room for me as well!

  16. janice says:

    i would say that need of an heir, fear that the dynasty would be gone, strong religion and such facts can stress one out. even more if its a public person, a king with divine power from god who was so admired in his teenage age and the youth was slowly gone, i guess we cant imagine the pressure.. plus of course the injury/injuries.

  17. jenny says:

    Hi Carolyn and Lisanne Jane,

    The Morph certainly shows how Henry physically changed . At present I am fortunate to have a lot of work on my hands plus the fact I am fighting the Telephone company who control my E mail and internet as well so haven’t unfortunately got the time to do, what I would like, an in depth study of how Henry’s personality changed – As everyone knows I have never liked him but to compare how the physiocal and mental did go together would be an interesting study

  18. lana norris says:

    It is always interesting to look back at a person’s beginnings from the vantage point of their ending. But all things considered, Henry’s life is really no different from today’s celebrities and politicians.

    ” Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” This is a quotation from Lord Acton, in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, 1887. Acton was preceded by William Pitt the Elder, who voiced a similar thought in a House of Lords speech in 1770: “Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it; and this I know, my lords, that where laws end, tyranny begins.”
    This didn’t come along til long after Henry but for the most part is a true statement in whatever age a man lives.

    Henry was actually the lucky sibling (as opposed to Arthur). Being raised to be a king would not always be conductive to a happy childhood depending upon one’s temperament and personality. It certainly crippled poor Arthur to a degree and also Henry’s own son Edward VI did not prosper from the royal hothouse. As the spare, Henry had the benefit of not being brought up in the fishbowl, under constant scrutiny with the awesome burden of kingship upon him. He was allowed freedom to be himself, received love and affection from his mother and sisters, approval rather than constant criticism and correction.
    He received a good and loving foundation but too soon was thrust onto the stage at Arthur’s death. He was spoiled and pampered and had had no experiences in his young life to prepare him for responsibility, for reality. He had never had to earn his way. Such an upbringing would build personality but not character. Such a person would be agreeable as long as life went along according to his whims. But what happens when expectations are not met.
    It is likely that Henry’s mother, Elizabeth of York, raised him on stories and remembrances of Plantaganet chivalry and greatness. The charm and magnetism of Edward IV were in his blood and his imagination; but so to the cynicism and paranoia of Henry Tudor who had to literally fight for his crown. He enjoyed being a Plantaganet prince as an actor playing a part, but when circumstances warranted he was also a Tudor, a Beaufort, a Lancastrian.
    As we age, hopefully we acquire wisdom, the ability to show grace under fire, the ability to accept what life gives us, and we mellow into respectable old age. But, how many of us, given the unlimited power which Henry had to work with, would be willing to accept rather than to manipulate. How many of us would forgive wrongs if we had the power to eliminate the wrong doer. Would we mellow or fight. Would we jettison the gentler teachings of our youth for expediency. Would we accept life as it is handed to us or would we use the tools at our disposal to refashion the world as we would have it.
    My father sustained a closed head injury at the age of 43. Some would say it changed his personality…I as his oldest child, the child of his youth and his only daughter saw that it didn’t alter his personality as much as it intensified, magnified the traits that were already there. His easygoing disposition and ability to charm became instead the ability to play fast and easy with the truth, to manipulate those of us who loved him. What had been a sharp wit and wicked sense of humour became an ability to use words as weapons, disguising bitterness with humour. And the strong will and ambition which had made him a successful businessman morphed into a frightening and overwhelming ability to mow down anyone who stood in his way.
    That said, I never stopped loving my dad, but he changed forever my family…my mother and brothers and I are not the same people we were on the road to becoming before his accident. I know that the man he was would never have wanted it that way, nevertheless he was incapable of changing it. So, some people are able to have pain enter their lives and draw strength from it and change in ways that are good. Some aren’t. Henry was one of those who aren’t.
    I mourn for Catherine and Anne, those women who truly loved Henry, as well as those other unfortunate women who were used by him and the countless victims of his age. But I also mourn for that man who was “the most virtuous, most Christian prince”, the one who loved fun and sport and his people and his wife and child. The one who ceased to be for whatever reason or combination of reasons. How sad that one who had been blessed with all the graces was unable to realize them.

  19. Kathie P. says:

    Basic human nature applied to Henry more than most: absolute power corrupts absolutely.

  20. MaggieR says:

    “He … received love and affection from his mother and sisters, approval rather than constant criticism and correction.
    He received a good and loving foundation but too soon was thrust onto the stage at Arthur’s death. He was spoiled and pampered and had had no experiences in his young life to prepare him for responsibility, for reality. He had never had to earn his way. Such an upbringing would build personality but not character. Such a person would be agreeable as long as life went along according to his whims. But what happens when expectations are not met.”

    Very well put, lana norris! I wonder if Henry’s childhood, with all of the spoiling he must have received from his mother and sisters, ruined him for any kind of relationship with a strong woman who challenged him, and who wouldn’t automatically say, “Oh, Henry, you’re so wonderful!” (ie, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Anne of Cleves and Catherine Parr). He was so used to having his own way that any kind of resistance, especially from a woman, must have really enraged him.

    I was very moved by the example you gave of your father, and how his injury changed him; I do believe that Henry’s jousting injuries, especially the one in 1536, gave him brain damage. Of course, his sense of entitlement likely got worse with age as well, but I do believe that if Henry had not had those accidents, he would not have been so much of a tyrant.

    Excellent article, Claire! I hope you continue, with an account of Henry’s later years.

  21. Carolyn says:

    I can corroborate that chronic pain can change your personality. My uncle was severely burned and suffered kidney failure as a result. His only family member who could give him a kidney did, only for my uncle to contract hepatitis in the hospital and have the transplanted kidney die, too. He lived for 9 years on hemodialysis 3 times a week, 8 hours at a time, 100 miles from home. He aged rapidly, became frail and extremely cranky. He died at 53, looking 83.

    I can remember my Dad telling us stories of his brother from when we were younger. He used to laugh and joke and was a real cut-up (like Dad!). Dad wanted to stress to us that my uncle wasn’t like that before his health failed and wanted us to NOT remember him as that prematurely aged, cranky, frail old man.

    So I can totally buy Henry VIII seeming to be the complete opposite of that young, vital man who became King. Whether it was diabetes, a head injury, osteomyelitis, or some combination of all of the above, I can buy chronic illness and pain, the loss of his youth, and most importantly, the loss of his vitality and athleticism turning Henry into a tyrant who unfortunately could kill people in his frustration and anger.

  22. jenny says:

    I have mentioned before the idea of the “Gold and Silver children” The “Gild” children have it all in their youth and are not prepared for when things go wrong later in life and cannot cope. On the other hand the “silver” children usually have a harsh upbringing and as life progresses, are able to cope with the problems far easier. I know this for myself but that is another story.

    Henry, as has been said, was brought up in a women’s household, all of whom adored him and bent to his whims (Quite often, but not always the case with the younger son). The only person he did fear was his very distant father and he was very adament in not taking his father’s deathbed advice.

    Anne Bolyen must have been a real jolt for a man who could just click his fingers and get everything he wanted. Maybe she acted as a “catalyst” for the change but we also have to remember that Henry executed two of his father’s councillors not long after he came to power, so the tide was already turning then.

    His actual horoscope is fascinating for those interested in astrology and one can see the signs of change in it.

    Of course, pain does also change a person but then again I have met a number of people who have been in intense pain but have had a sense of humour and a love of life despite all that – It depends on the person.

    I do feel sad though for anyone who has had an adored relative only to see a completely different person under the circumstances raised by Lana and Carolyn. For a child it must be shocking, for an adult, extremely sad.

    On another note, over the King’s “Red hair” painting was stil in its infancy and I am sure the artists could not at that time reproduce the colours. Another interesting point about red-hairs is that in medeavial Italy they (men or women) were considered the only people to contract syphalis and were considered witches in any case.

    My dislike of HVIII is well known, but at teh same time, I have to admit that the fusion of teh Lancaster and York side brought about a peace that England needed (although funnily enough not that many people were affected by the wars of the Rose as is thought). Henry VII was a miser by upbringing and choice – His second son the reverse and soon emptied the coffers which is why he was also interested in Cromwell’s disolution of the monasteries. And I am sure the ideas of being the Spiritual Head of teh Church of England appealed even though it remained basically Catholic during his reign. In comparison to his daughter Elixzabeth, the reigns of Edward and Mary were not that exciting but Liz 1 certainly was the person to whom everyone refers as being the Tudor’s greatest monarch and although she did not have any children, I think that that is the way she wanted out – To be remembered as one of England’s greatest monarchs.

    When Liz II came to teh throne, it was thought that it would be the beginning of another golden “Elizabethan Age” which it has not turned out to be – However, Liz II is probably one of the wisest monarchs and “politicinas” that the 20th and 21st century has ever had and she certainly keeps going.

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