Many in England believed that the succession of Henry VIII would usher in a less austere era than the one Henry VII had ruled over. While Henry VII was seen as being a less than colourful character, Henry VIII was viewed as the opposite and many hoped that the whole royal court would become a more colourful environment.
Henry had played a secondary role while Prince Arthur was alive. As was common then, Arthur received the education and training that a future king required while Henry effectively stayed in the background. Arthur’s unexpected death meant that Prince Henry had to learn quickly about the task of kingship. He impressed many. On the day that Henry was crown king (April 21st 1509), Thomas More wrote in a poem presented to Henry at his coronation:
“This day is the end of our slavery, the fount of our liberty; the end of sadness and the beginning of joy.”
In contrast to his father, Henry VIII was viewed as a man who expected to enjoy himself. He dressed in colourful clothes, enjoyed wearing jewels, ate and drank well and spent money with abandon. Almost as a gesture of how his reign would proceed, one of Henry’s first decisions was to order the arrest of Sir Richard Empson and Edward Dudley – the two men who had been responsible for implementing Henry VII’s financial measures.
Henry VIII has also gained a reputation for having a less than chivalrous attitude towards some of his six wives. However, at the start of his reign, Henry showed that the opposite could also be true. Catherine of Aragon had been held in effective limbo after the death of Arthur. In fact, her treatment by both her parents and Henry VII in the whole diplomatic saga surrounding her marriage to Arthur, though typical for the time, must have been very stressful for her. Catherine won over many people by the dignified manner in which she faced her tribulations – primarily a foreigner being made to live in England. Possibly in a gesture to redress this, Henry VIII ordered that she should be specifically known as Queen Catherine as opposed to any other title. “The new king’s decision was interpreted as a conscious attempt to put right the wrongs of the past.” (Keith Randall)
The young king was considered by contemporaries to have an impressive physique. Some historians believe that he was quite a sickly child but by the time of his accession this was certainly not the case. While contemporary descriptions are always going to be in favour of a monarch, especially a new one who, it was hoped, would be ushering in a new era, it is generally accepted that Henry was a handsome young man with a powerful physique. One description of Henry (“nature could not have done more for him”) probably oversteps the mark but by the standards of the time he was tall, large-framed and muscular. This was all offset by the way he dressed himself. Henry’s clothes emphasised his physique to such an extent that even foreign observers, who would have been free of retribution, commented in a positive way. One anonymous foreigner wrote that Henry was “the best dressed sovereign in the world.”
As a young man Henry had a passion for sport – a passion that continued into his later years but in a non-participatory manner. His greatest love was hunting on horseback, preferably deer or wild boar. Such hunts could go on for hours and were physically very demanding. The young Henry was never found to be wanting. Henry also played real tennis to a very good level. Shortly after becoming king, Henry also took up jousting. Though there was a great deal of ceremony about jousting, the actual joust itself was very dangerous despite the full suit of armour worn by both competitors. Henry continued to joust for 25 years despite nearly being killed on one occasion. Though he was allowed to win by sycophantic opponents, it is generally accepted that Henry had some skill in this ‘sport’.
Henry also had a great love of food and drink. He lived in an age when those who could afford to do so, ate in huge quantities. It was a demonstration of your wealth as was a sizeable waistline in your later years. Henry was not unique in having a considerable problem with his weight in his twilight years.
Henry liked to think of himself as an intellectual. He believed that he had a quality mind and that he was a true Renaissance man. He surrounded himself with men of intellectual ability – men who could match his own ability. Thomas Cromwell, Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey were all men of high intellectual ability and it is believed that Henry selected men to work for him only if they matched his perceived ability level. While Henry’s later years and his attitude to his wives have tarnished his reign, there is little doubt among historians that Henry had every reason to believe that he was an intellectual. Clearly his father was a shrewd and intelligent man and it seems very likely that Henry simply inherited this ability. He was not the “universal genius” that Erasmus labelled him but Henry was certainly more than capable of outthinking most of Europe’s monarchs. The only time when he made decisions that history will judge him on (such as putting on trial Anne Boleyn) was when he allowed his emotions to take precedent over his intellectual thinking.
What type of person was Henry? A great deal of the evidence from the time is very biased towards Henry – as would be expected – and provides historians with little that can provide them with a full ‘picture’. Was he an overbearing bully of people or a strong leader? Did he abuse his position and authority if he did not get his way or simply act as a king did then? Did he treat people as disposable assets as and when it suited his purpose or, again, was he merely acting as any monarch did then? Was he merely a product of the time and if Arthur had lived, would he have been the same to some degree? If you were brought up to believe that you were king because of God’s will, then can Henry be criticised for what he did to others when he was simply fulfilling the will of God? Some might consider Henry’s seeming bullying of others strong leadership. Such was the complexity of Henry VIII that there is a school of thought that he was a strong, calculating and decisive monarch who built on what Henry VII had bequeathed him. There is also another school of thought that he was a weak and indecisive leader who let others gain far too much power and who had, by the time of his death, squandered what Henry VII had left him leaving a ‘Mid-Tudor Crisis’ for others to solve. Probably, as with so many complex people, Henry VIII was a mixture of both.