How can we adequately describe the personality of Henry? Imagine that Henry VIII, the second son suddenly pulled into the spotlight by the death of your brother. Hosted and smothered by a father suddenly realized that he had only one heir left beautiful and intelligent and, in turn, both reckless and indulged then refused. Each of us would have emerged as a mass of contradictions and frustrations. Thus, Henry VIII, king crowned in the prime of his life, only eighteen years old and physically beautiful with more enthusiasm and energy than most of his contemporaries, became a man conflicted and confused. But it is a pity to let the last twenty years of his life the color of the interpretation of his life. It should not be seen merely as a king ogre who beheaded two wives, divorced two others, and rejected another in one of the most humiliating ways possible.
His personality was quite amazing, his intelligence, learning and curiosity impressed even the world-weary ambassadors who littered his yard. His thirst for knowledge is insatiable, so it never became the quasi-mania that haunted Philip II. Henry VIII did not spend his last years, surrounded by scraps of paper detailing the most minute occurrences in his kingdom. But he has spent his entire reign headlines reading, scribbling notations, meeting with diplomats and politicians. Very little product in England which has escaped his attention, in fact, very few products in Europe who escaped Henry VIII. He boasted of what he should and good; the Spanish ambassador reported that Henry was aware of the fall of Cadiz to the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
It was generally great company. He loved music and wrote his own. He loved dancing and entertainment. He has held countless banquets and tournaments. He enjoyed all physical activities and excelled in most of them. Hunting, archery, tennis tournaments – the king’s court in an endless round of competition and celebration. When he got older, they became torments former pleasures, such as older athletes, Henry grew fat as he aged and became a hobby when added bitter reminders of the ravages of time. And he reigned over a country where almost half the population was 18 or less! Youth was everywhere, the eyes of the old king in his face. One can imagine the effects. Naturally, he sought – women, his courtiers, his council. Business could distract him, but love was never his true love. Despite its reputation as licentious, Henry VIII was really a 16th century sexual prude among his European contemporaries, he philandered less. State affairs indulged his taste for war and glory; Family gnawing conscience and pride. But Henry VIII wanted no distractions. He wanted a great mission, a statement defining. Ultimately, he got his wish, but the most unlikely way possible.
He began his life as a second son for the church. It was the dream of Henry VII for his eldest son Arthur to be king and his second son, Henry, to the largest church in England. And so, for the first ten years of his life, Henry was a theology student. And for the next thirty years of his life he remained a dutiful son of the Church. It is therefore ironic that his most important accomplishment was the historic destruction of the Roman Catholic faith in England. The impact of the reform Henrician forever changed the course of English history. Henry VIII, who had engaged in endless quarrels diplomatic and foreign wars, has left no great accomplishment beyond its own borders. Vast sums of money have been spent on these foreign entanglements – and many lives – but ultimately, nothing has changed in the European balance. England, constantly torn between the two great continental powers of France and the Holy Roman Empire, itself close to bankruptcy in an attempt to become respected and feared.
Why Henry eventually fail in the tasks that are normally reserved for monarchs? Ultimately, he was the victim of his time. The 16th century was a mess of changing loyalties, betrayals, fights nearly constant, and most importantly, a growing skepticism of this great institution in the world fading medieval Roman Catholic Church. With the advent of the printing press a century ago, literacy and intellectual debate has grown rapidly. The High Renaissance in Italy occurred during the first 20 years of the reign of Henry VIII. There was a time of unprecedented scientific experiment, the intellectual fervor, and a lively debate. In that time, traditional views of royalty were related to changes in both the ruler and those he ruled.
(As evidence of this confusion, it suffices to recall that Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor crowned by the Pope led the brutal sack of Rome in 1527. Charles, supposedly anointed defender of the papacy, in fact, ordered his imperial army to loot, pillage, and kill their way through Rome and the Vatican. The pope eventually flee to the relative safety of his nightshirt.)
While reading a biography of Henry VIII, we must remember the taste of his time and judge him, if necessary, by the standards of the sixteenth century. It’s always fun to read descriptions of Henry as the lustful tyrant torn between women and beheading of innocent bedding, in truth, he blushed at dirty jokes and was more faithful than many husbands 20th century. He was married to Catherine of Aragon for over twenty years and had just a handful of mistresses. He waited years to physically consume his relationship with Anne Boleyn, and despite the strength of his life, remained faithful to her until marriage. Was it sexual assault following his first training church? Maybe. Anyway, it was a feature of his life. Henry VIII was always an incurable romantic.
His personal and political decisions have always been grand, melodramatic, and played to great effect. He loved pomp and pageantry, and he hated to face the consequences of his actions. Like his father, he was caught in the transition from medieval England to the renaissance of England. And like his father, he was well versed in English history and desperate to continue the Tudor dynasty, to secure its claims to Ireland, Scotland and France to England to raise the status of its continental neighbors, and expand its God-given right to rule all Englishmen. When playing on the political and dynastic ambitions of Henry, one is always struck by the magnitude of his desires. Although most have come to nothing in the end, he actually planned the invasions of France, drawn to join the invasion of Charles V in Italy, and intended to seize the Scottish throne. The word “ambitious” Great Harry does little justice.
His political ambitions have failed and it left a terrible mess to his successor in nine years, Edward VI. His greatest achievement was a dubious, and one for which he was often eager to distance himself – Henrician reform, the end of Catholicism in England and the birth of the Anglican Church. The king, for all its contradictions and failures, helped destroy the largest institution in medieval Europe. Once Germany and England fell to the new heresy, its spread throughout Europe was inevitable and invincible.
In the biography of Henry on this site, I hope to capture the personality of both the king and to assess its importance for history. The reign of Henry VIII was as tumultuous as the king himself. If nothing else, it makes reading fun.