King Henry VIII is often perceived as a monster. The heads of various wives were just a fraction of an epidemic of the people losing their heads during his reign. But to understand why he acted the way he did, you must know where he came from. A new book sheds light on the young Henry.
Young Henry: The Rise Of Henry VIII by Robert Hutchinson was published by Weidenfeld. The book stops well short of the time when wifely heads were starting to roll, but if you are able to live with that minor disappointment you’ll be into a most informative book.
Paranoia had been part of Henry’s make-up for most of his reign. But the paranoia was not of his making, it was inherited. He inherited it from his father and from a series of Lancastrian and York kings stemming from the War of the Roses. Henry Tudor put an end to that war by killing Richard III and taking on the kingship while having even less claim on it than his predecessors.
Usurpers are always paranoid, and that paranoia is what keeps them on the throne, usually. And they are in immediate need of proving to be a strong dynasty, usually by fathering one and if possible several sons. He ruthlessly secured his position by eliminating everybody with the slightest pretensions on the throne. This single minded pursuit would have covered a lot of Henry VII’s childhood and given him an idea what it takes to remain in the driving seat.
King Henry VII married his heir Prince Arthur to Princess Catherine of Aragon. The marriage endured for only four months when Arthur suddenly died at the age of 15. Henry now received all his brothers titles, and England and France had an interest in keeping their contracts (marriage and otherwise) which led to a marriage between Henry and Catherine. The Pope, though, dithered over the necessary dispensation to the marriage and Henry was only able to marry her in 1509 after the death of his father and his own accession to the throne.
The prior transfer of power was far from unproblematic. Henry VII’s death was kept under wraps by his advisors while they rifled the palace for valuables and money; they found about £180,000 (about £3 million in today’s money). Henry VIII and his advisors had retired to the Tower for its defensive possibilities. His first move was to get rid of the old government clique; unlike today, he did it right by removing their heads instead of only removing them from office.
The necessarily ruthless political persona was contrasted to the private persona. He was extremely good at all kinds of exercise, wrestling, fencing, fighting on foot and in armour, you name it, he excelled at it. His father had prohibited his using the lance, but Henry took that up immediately after his coronation, and excelled at it as well. But besides all that, he was friends with Thomas More and a regular correspondent with Erasmus of Rotterdam.
Catherine gave birth to several children (both boys and girls), but only Mary survived more than a few days. A daughter, by Henry’s standards, was not a guaranty for a strong dynasty. A son must follow on the throne to continue the Tudor line.
The book takes you through these early years and shows the shaping of a character. It makes what followed more understandable; it doesn’t make him lovable, but it explains many of his later decisions.