Illustration from Vaux Passional thought to show Henry (top) mourning his mother, with his sisters, Mary and Margaret, at age 11, 1503
The king’s grace is but a weak and sickly man, not likely to be a long-lived man. Not long since he was sick and lay at his manor at Wanstead. At that time a number of great personages discussed among themselves the shape of things that might come should his grace depart this life. Some of them spoke of my lord of Buckingham, saying that he was a noble man and would be a royal ruler. Others spoke of Edmund de la Pole. But none of them spoke of the Prince of Wales.
Sometime in 1504 or 1505 a group of royal servants, in the relative safety of England’s continental port of Calais, speculated on the future of their country. Such political gossip reflected two assumptions: the current regime of Henry VII was vastly unpopular and it would be succeeded by that of any rival to the house of Tudor who could command a large enough following among the leading magnates of the realm. The fact that the new dynasty warded off rebellions and coups and survived, for a further century, despite depending for that survival on a royal minor and two royal women, says much for the political tenacity and acumen of England’s greatest reigning house. It also reflects the preoccupation of most of the crown’s subjects with stability and continuity. Whatever scheming nobles might have thought in the twilight years of Henry VII’s reign, the people at large had no taste for a return to the carnage and dislocation of the Wars of the Roses.
The boy who was to become Henry VIII would be the most absolute monarch England ever experienced and would preside over fundamental and far-reaching changes in the cultural, political and economic life of the nation. It is tempting to put all this down to his strength of character but the truth is more complex. It has to do with the impact of revolutionary ideas over which the king had no control and with a succession of gifted royal servants able not only to give Henry what he wanted but what they wanted him to want. It also reflects the passivity of a people unwilling to engage in major rebellion until pushed beyond endurance. Yet, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, those supposedly in the know could discount the possibility of young Harry succeeding to or maintaining his hold of the crown. To begin to understand the reign of Henry VIII we, too, must expunge from our minds what we know of Renaissance and Reformation England, the matrimonial convolutions of the king’s life, the lavish royal rituals, the transfer of ecclesiastical wealth and power to the crown and the emergence of a new class of land-rich gentlemen and businessmen, who were partners in change but steadily developing an awareness of their own corporate interests. We must submit to the mental conditioning of Henry’s contemporaries. They could only predict the future in terms of the past.
At the dawn of the sixteenth century there were very good reasons for discounting the accession to the throne of Henry VII’s only surviving son, born in 1491. Twice during the previous 100 years the crown had passed to a minor and on both occasions the results had been disastrous. Henry V had been succeeded by Henry VI, a nine-month-old boy who became the pawn of aristocratic factions and was murdered, after a reign as chaotic as it was long, in 1471. Twelve years later the usurper, Edward IV, died and bequeathed his realm to the twelve-year-old Prince Edward. The new king and his brother were removed by their uncle, Richard of Gloucester, who was driven not only by his own ambition, but by the conviction that England could never be secure under the rule of a minor. As the movers and shakers of Gothic England waited for Henry VII to die, there seemed every reason to suppose that the future would lie in their own scheming hands and an effective military leader of their own choosing. The king disappointed their hopes. His last service to England was his eking out of his life until young Harry of Wales was within sight of his eighteenth birthday. The crown passed without challenge to the legitimate heir amidst demonstrations of wild rejoicing. The dynasty was secure – for the moment.
Our story, however, must start further back in time. A few months before Columbus gained his first sight of the Americas and the surviving Moors their last sight of Spain before being driven out by Ferdinand and Isabella, little Henry Tudor entered the world on 28 June 1491 in the palace of Greenwich, downriver from the fetid summer airs of the capital whither Elizabeth of York had resorted with her ladies for her lying-in. The birth process was always hazardous but the queen was robust and had already been safely delivered of one boy child (Arthur, 1486) and one girl child (Margaret, 1489). It was, nevertheless, a relief for the king to know that he had another healthy son, a ‘spare’ heir. The royal family continued to grow. Over the next few years Henry had three younger siblings, though only one, Mary (1496), survived infancy. By the standards of the day it was a good-sized brood, particularly valuable to King Henry because it enabled him to secure his position by negotiating a series of marriages with other royal houses. Childhood was short in those days. Long before puberty the young princes and princesses had become accustomed to the idea that they were destined for separation and dispersion to various European courts.
What little we can know about the upbringing of the royal children suggests that the dominant figure in their enclosed world was their grandmother. Lady Margaret Beaufort was a femme formidable in every sense. Scheming, ambitious and strong-willed, the king’s mother had been one of the principle agents in Henry VII’s acquisition of the throne. From a very early age she had been caught up in the sinister game of dynastic snakes and ladders. Because she was descended from Edward III, she was married off by Henry VI to his half-brother, Edmund Tudor, with the sole intention of producing more supporters of the Lancastrian cause. Edward lost no time in making his young bride pregnant by an act which must have been very close to rape. It left Margaret unable to have more children but she did have a son (the future Henry VII) and the two would always be very close. The bond was even stronger because Henry never knew his father, who died of plague before he was born. In 1471, when Henry was thirteen, the Yorkist Edward IV confirmed his grasp of the throne by murdering Henry VI. The young Tudor now became a theoretical rival and Margaret organized his hurried flight across the Channel. While Henry spent the next fourteen years in asylum in Brittany, his mother negotiated, plotted and schemed to gain the royal favour which would allow his return. However, the possibility of making a bid for the crown was never far from her thoughts and when Richard III’s usurpation created a backlash among many of the nobility she grasped her opportunity to place her son at the head of a rebellion. Her scheming was as audacious as it was energetic. Her agents scurried secretly to and fro among disaffected Yorkist magnates, promising not a Lancastrian takeover but the union of the rival houses by the marriage of her son to Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth. Meanwhile, other conspirators bargained with the rulers of France and Brittany for the provision of men and arms. The outcome of the rebellion was by no means a foregone conclusion and there were a number of false starts to the campaign before Henry Tudor landed safely at Milford Haven in August 1485. His eventual victory at Bosworth had as much to do with defections from the royal ranks as with the accomplishments of Henry’s mongrel army.
It was inevitable that Margaret Beaufort would exercise considerable influence in the new regime. Henry relied heavily on his mother’s advice and she enjoyed greater prominence than Henry’s new wife, Elizabeth of York. She assumed the royal coat of arms, signed documents ‘Margaret R.’ and appeared at court rituals beside the king. She maintained a large, magnificently appointed household not a whit less impressive than her that of her son. She wore sumptuous jewellery and beautifully tailored gowns, though almost always these were of simple cut and in chaste black. The portrait of her in Christ’s College, one of two centres of learning she founded at Cambridge, reveals an austere woman in a nun-like habit, reading a devotional book.
There is no contradiction here. Margaret managed to combine worldly pomp and power with genuine religious devotion. Although she never entered a convent, she separated from her third husband in order to organize her daily life around a ritual of prayer and worship. She endowed ancient religious houses but was interested in modern developments in theology and religious art. And technology: she was the foremost patroness of the new, revolutionary printing industry. She ordered several devotional works from the presses of William Caxton and Wynkyn de Worde and bought copies as gifts for friends and protégés.
The most devout King David. . .taught the people of Israel to praise God with their whole hearts and with voices full of melody to bless and praise him every day. If so great devotion was then used. . .what reverence and devotion ought now to be preserved by me and all Christian people during the ministration of the sacrament.
These words from the early fifteenth-century devotional classic, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, were translated personally by Margaret for the first English edition and it is no surprise to learn that she took the writer’s advice. Her chapel staff rivalled that of the king for numbers and musicality and was an important centre for the development of English polyphony. As a widow in her fifties who had experienced – and survived – many of the changes and chances of a troubled age, Margaret was an awe-inspiring old woman who wielded immense political and moral authority. According to the Spanish ambassador, she dominated her daughter-in-law and if Elizabeth was overwhelmed by the older woman the young princes and princesses must have been even more so. They were brought up in royal manors south of the Thames – Eltham, Greenwich and Richmond – and Margaret could easily visit them from her residence at Woking or her riverside town mansion of Coldharbour, near London Bridge. The grandmother they encountered in those early years was a strict disciplinarian with firm ideas about everything and everyone – especially education and religion.
The queen mother’s confessor and closest adviser on things scholarly and spiritual was John Fisher, vice-chancellor of Cambridge University and one of the most advanced thinkers of the day. He belonged to that circle of international cognoscenti whom traditionalists dismissed contemptuously as trendy advocates of ‘New Learning’ because they had absorbed the Renaissance passion for classical scholarship and the original Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible instead of being content with the time-honoured regurgitation of accepted patristic interpretations. Margaret naturally turned to Fisher when it came to selecting those men who should be employed as tutors for the royal children. Each of the siblings was appointed his or her own household staff and the academic avant-garde featured prominently among the appointees. The man installed as tutor to Prince Henry in about 1496 was the very remarkable poet and scholar, John Skelton. He had recently been appointed poet laureate at Cambridge and probably belonged to Fisher’s circle. Skelton was in his mid-thirties and, if not exactly an ‘angry young man’, he was certainly a very intense one. His religious and moral earnestness displayed itself in his personal devotion (he took holy orders in 1498), in pedagogical books such as the Boke how Men Shulde Fle Synne and also in satirical verse. In 1499 he turned his pen to invective against the hypocrisy of the royal household in The Bouge of Court, in which he described an allegorical dream where certain characters representing established courtiers offered to guide him in the workings of the court:
The first was Duplicity, full of flattery,
With fables false, that well could feign a tale.
The second was Suspicion which that daily
Misjudged each man, with face deadly and pale,
And Deceiver, that well could pick a quarrel,
With other four of their affinity:
Disdain, Riot, Dissimulation, Subtlety.
It seems that Skelton was determined to make his young charge aware of the unreality and false values of the enclosed little world in which he was growing up. The tutor certainly took his job very seriously. We know of several treatises written by him on subjects, such as grammar and the theory of government, which would have been useful for the education of a prince.
The queen, the queen mother and the king were all concerned to see the next generation of Tudors brought up not only by the best intellects of the day, but also by men who were at the cutting edge of intellectual enquiry. It was, perhaps, a concern inspired by their desire to establish the family as a dynamic dynasty, looking to the future, not the past. Henry VII had spent most of his formative years on the continent among cultivated men and women influenced by the Renaissance airs blowing across the Alps. He was well aware that England was regarded as culturally backward and he made a point of bringing into his realm the best artists and craftsmen who could be induced to come and work in the land of fogs and damp humours. Among the members of Prince Henry’s entourage was William Blount, Baron Mountjoy, a scholarly young man who was a friend of Fisher and also of a London lawyer just beginning to create a name for himself called Thomas More. Blount made an intellectual pilgrimage to Paris in order to sit at the feet of the doyen of the avant-garde movement, the great Dutch scholar, Desiderius Erasmus, and the two became close friends. When Erasmus arrived to visit his pupil in 1499, Mountjoy arranged for the great scholar to be received by the royal children. Thus it was that Erasmus and More made the brief journey from Mountjoy’s house to Eltham Palace. Erasmus’ account of the visit, written many years later, gives us the only word picture we have of Henry VIII as a child. Arthur was not present, for he had already left the nursery to begin his serious training as future king. The eight-year-old Henry assumed the role of host, greeting the visitors and engaging them in self-assured conversation. He graciously received a Latin tribute More had thoughtfully composed for the occasion and asked whether the visiting international celebrity might have a similar offering for him. This caught Erasmus on the hop, for he had not thought to equip himself with a suitable present. Only after returning to Mountjoy’s home and burning the midnight oil was he able to make good the omission. According to Erasmus, Henry already had a good command of Latin and French (the languages of scholarship and diplomacy) and to these he later added some facility in Spanish and Italian.
However, Henry never fully embraced fashionable humanism. Traditional influences were just as strong as challenging new ideas and the favourite part of his educational syllabus was history – or what, then, passed for history. This was a mix of courtly romance, moral tales and propaganda. Europe was in the grip of a revolution in information technology. The invention of the printing press with its unlimited potential for the instruction of children in well-to-do households raised the question of what texts should be set before them. No one doubted what the author of The Book of the Knight of the Tower, published by Caxton in 1484, pointed out: that the past was a repository of improving stories from which the young could learn how to conduct themselves in the present. The immediate appeal of such tales in the classroom, however, was the Boy’s Own Paper–style heroism lauded in accounts of knightly derring-do. Prince Henry, like many sons of royal and noble parentage, was brought up on the chivalric adventures recorded in Jean Froissart’s Chronicles, Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur (published in English by Caxton in 1485) and a wealth of other books and manuscripts of the same genre. They glorified personal combat and just war while extolling the pure code of honour which supposedly inspired all true knights. Such stories received vivid real-life illustration in the feats of arms performed in the ‘lists’, the enclosures where tournaments were held.
Here the young prince could thrill to the glorious spectacle of heraldically accoutred knights dashing their lances on one another’s shields and enjoy the atmosphere created by cheering crowds, the clash of steel and the whinnying of horses. Henry longed for the day when he could take his place as a hero of the joust and the battlefield. As soon as he could handle small swords and bows he began to practise for that day.
Learning the martial arts intermeshed completely with the prince’s religious and moral education. The business of bashing heads, besieging castles, burning villages and wasting farmland was to be considered highly commendable if the cause for which the knight was contending was just and holy, and as long as his own life was pure. In Le Morte Darthur, Lancelot rejects sexual temptation which would besmirch his knightly honour:
To take my pleasure with paramours, that will I refuse: firstly for dread of God, for the knight who is an adventurer should not be an adulterer nor lecherous, for then he will be neither happy nor fortunate in the wars. Either he will be overcome by a simpler knight than he is himself or else he will by mischance and the curse upon him slay better men than himself. And so whoever resorts to paramours will be unhappy and everything about them will be unhappy.
The disastrous consequences of Lancelot’s subsequent liaison with Guinevere, of course, drive home the moral.
This code of honour was subscribed to by all young noblemen and gentlemen but for the son of the king of England it carried greater weight, for was he not directly descended from the hero-king who presided over the Round Table? When Henry VII ensured that his firstborn was brought into the world at Winchester, the ancient capital of England, and christened with the unusual name of ‘Arthur’ these were propaganda acts and parts of an overall plan to use every means possible to give his regime credibility. He was deliberately linking his dynasty with ancient legend and with the genealogy proposed by Geoffrey of Monmouth, the twelfth-century chronicler in his Historia Regum Britanniae. Geoffrey claimed to have discovered ancient sources which linked the rulers of England not only with King Arthur, but also with fugitives from the fall of Troy. Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century readers had no accurate sense of chronology. ‘History’ was for them a radiant tapestry in which kings, saints, knights, magicians and heroes all had their interconnected panels.
Henry VII was determined to weave his family into this imposing fabric. He commissioned the Italian scholar, Polydore Vergil, to write an updated history of England which would be very much a narrative with a Tudor spin. Prince Henry was brought up to see himself as the inheritor of this melange of romantic, militaristic, idealized, politicized mumbo-jumbo. If he had a favourite personal hero it was Henry V, the warrior-king whose spectacular military exploits were still celebrated in legend and ballad. His cross-Channel campaigns had added Normandy and much of northern France to England’s continental possession of Gascony in the southwest. By his death in 1422, approximately one-third of what we now call ‘France’ owed allegiance to the English crown and he had been named as heir to the French throne. That was before England’s warrior-class split into factions and began to turn their swords against each other. By 1453 everything had been lost except Calais. Since then the political map of nearer-Europe had changed considerably. Louis XI (1423–83) united most of the independent duchies west of the Rhine by a combination of war and diplomacy and made of France a centralized monarchy. The union of Aragon and Castile and the expulsion of the Moors turned Spain into a formidable state. It was the relationship between these two nations which would determine the shape of European politics throughout the ensuing century and introduce the concept of the ‘balance of power’. England had ceased to be a major player. For Prince Henry, however, Anglo-French rivalry was a matter of unfinished business and the relegation of England to the status of second-rate nation, a mere spectator in the Habsburg-Valois struggle, was not to be borne. From an early age he dreamed of emulating the exploits of his illustrious ancestors.
As well as the time he spent at his lessons, Henry’s days were passed in the company of two groups of people, his female relatives and his socii studiorum. The latter were the sons of noble parents who shared the prince’s classroom and leisure hours. They were selected as suitable companions and as a means of tying their families more securely to the Tudor regime. It was with this peer group that Henry took exercise – in the tennis court, in the butts, in the hunting field and in the tiltyard. These recreational activities developed and expressed his macho self-image and his intensely competitive nature, which were also reinforced by the fact that he spent much of his time in a household of women in which he was the leading male figure. He was much in the company of his admiring mother and his sisters and always in the background was the dominatrix, Lady Margaret. Young Henry never really had a male role model. He saw little of his father and his elder brother. Arthur would always remain a shadowy figure. Francis Bacon, writing in the early seventeenth century, asserted that Henry VII’s heir was ‘strong and able’. The fact that, by his early teens, he had received various important offices and that plans for his marriage were pursued with vigour may suggest that there was no long-standing concern about his health. On the other hand, portraits of the prince show him with the rather pinched features of his father and other Lancastrians. His tutors reported that he was a studious boy and an apt learner. (We might be tempted to respond, ‘They would, wouldn’t they?’) There are no references to his appearing in the tiltyard or participating in athletic exercises apart from archery. This evidence – such as it is – may support the generally accepted opinion that Arthur was a sickly child. In any case, his contact with the brother who was five years his junior was limited. Arthur had his own household and, as the heir, received a distinctive upbringing.
It is interesting, and not entirely fanciful, to speculate about what would have happened to Henry if Arthur had lived. The two brothers were very different. One might almost see them as representing the Lancastrian and Yorkist elements of their ancestry. Henry grew up tall, athletic and passionate, like his grandfather, Edward IV. If we are at all correct in portraying Arthur as studious, reserved and pious, like his father or even the unfortunate Henry VI, there could hardly have been more difference between the siblings. Would the younger have settled happily as a loyal subject and supporter of the elder? The immediate family of Edward IV had destroyed itself by fraternal rivalry. George, Duke of Clarence, was impelled by ambition and hubris to those acts which obliged his brother to order his execution. Richard of Gloucester had come to grief as the result of grasping the crown rightfully belonging to Edward’s son. Might Henry have decided, like his great-uncles, that he was a more worthy candidate for kingship than his bookish brother? The forceful, impatient Henry known to history could only have found a subservient role irksome and, perhaps, intolerable.
Nor should we neglect the impact of Arthurian legend. The heir to the throne bore the magical name of the ‘once and future king’. Henry VII had sought to merge the mystical past with the promise of a radiant future, safe in the hands of a dynasty which would restore internal unity and make England once again great. Around 1500 there existed a very real sense of new beginnings. Many English men and women felt that somehow they were on the cusp of a golden age. They looked to the Tudors with expectancy. However, if the heroic mantle of ‘Arthur’ sat only loosely around the slender shoulders of a weak king might not his brother have felt that it was imperative for him to make good the deficiency? And even if Henry had given loyal support to the anointed king, what would have happened if that king had died young, bequeathing the crown to a minor? For the third time in a century England would have been faced with the disastrous reign of a child. It is difficult to imagine Henry standing passively by while noble factions once again threatened chaos. These possibilities are not just make-believe scenarios of no real interest to the historian. They certainly occurred to Henry VII and members of the political nation. As we saw at the beginning of this chapter, ‘what ifs’ were certainly questions for debate and speculation among the nation’s leaders. They were no less so for members of the royal family whose very survival was bound up with the smooth transfer of the crown to men of stature able to wear it with dignity and conviction. As for little Henry, he emerged from the chrysalis of infancy not knowing what his future might be. There was even a suggestion that he might be pushed into the church, presumably to prevent him appearing as a rival for the crown.
If Henry saw little of his father during his childhood years it was only partly because he was lodged in his own residences. The king was preoccupied in establishing his throne. From 1491, the year of his second son’s birth, to 1500 Henry VII was seldom able to feel secure. He was repeatedly involved in dealing with rebellions and rumours of rebellions. Yorkist plots, centred round the pretender Perkin Warbeck, obliged him to despatch or lead armies to Ireland, Scotland and France as well as make frequent sorties into various parts of his realm. These military activities were expensive and the tax burden imposed by the government was the heaviest England had had to bear for more than a century. In the spring of 1497 the men of Cornwall had had enough. They raised the standard of revolt and marched eastwards. The five-year-old Prince Henry was staying at his grandmother’s house at Coldharbour when news arrived that the Cornishmen had reached Farnham. Margaret hastily packed her daughter-in-law and her children into barges and had them rowed down to the Tower. There, in the safety of the ancient royal apartments, they waited anxiously for news while the king gathered his forces together to confront his disobedient subjects on Blackheath Common. Defeating the ill-disciplined revolt was not difficult but simultaneous risings in other places made this the most hazardous summer of the reign. Henry sent troops northwards while he led his main army into the heartland of the revolution. In Devon the last vestiges of rebellion were dispelled and Warbeck was taken prisoner. However, the troubles were not over. Eighteen months later, another pretender, Ralph Wilford, put himself forward and no sooner were his pretensions brought to an end than the leading Yorkist contender, Edmund de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, fled abroad to make a nuisance of himself in foreign courts. It is hardly surprising that the king and his younger son were able to spend little ‘quality time’ together. By the time that all immediate military threats were past it was 1502 and in that year Prince Henry’s life changed dramatically.