Henry VIII after his coronation (1509; age 18).
From about 1496, King Henry was involved in frenetic diplomatic activity aimed at securing his own and the nation’s position by means of a network of marriage alliances. His elder daughter, Margaret, was to be espoused to James IV of Scotland. Other matches were sought for the infants Henry and Mary, while Arthur was to be wed to Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. The various negotiations dragged on over several years, chiefly because, in the beginning, Henry VII was punching above his weight. In foreign eyes he was a usurping adventurer whose dynasty was unlikely to last long. However, as the English king stamped his authority within his realm other monarchs took him more seriously, realizing that his neutrality or military cooperation could be a significant factor in their rivalries. The marriage of Margaret and James (1503) bestowed much needed peace upon England’s northern border. Before the end of his reign Henry had agreed a match between Mary and the Archduke Charles (the future Emperor Charles V). Had this materialized, the course of European affairs over ensuing decades would have been very different but the proposal died with Henry. His major coup was the marriage of Arthur and Catherine, the most prestigious English dynastic alliance since Henry V’s marriage to Catherine of France in 1420. The treaty was drawn up in 1496 and the couple were betrothed the following year. It was not uncommon for such initial agreements to be set aside in the light of subsequent political or diplomatic complications and King Henry could not rest easily until the ring was on the princess’s finger. He obtained a papal dispensation to allow the union to take place before the couple reached marriageable age and Arthur and Catherine were wed by proxy in May 1499 when they were twelve and thirteen respectively. Still, there could have occurred a slip twixt cup and lip and it was November 1501 before the king could allow himself a sigh of relief. That was when Catherine arrived in her new homeland. Henry VII has often been represented unfairly as a parsimonious, cheese-paring monarch. The truth is that when he wanted to impress English and foreign spectators, no one put on a better show. To celebrate his diplomatic triumph he threw back the lid of the royal coffers.
No expense was spared in welcoming the Spanish princess and her suite with what was ‘perhaps, the supreme masterpiece of English civic pageantry’. Londoners love a parade and they turned out in their tens of thousands to catch a glimpse of their future queen. The Tudor propaganda machine did not disappoint either them or the foreign contingent. As they rode through the heart of the capital the guests were greeted by a spectacular series of allegorical scenes, the like of which the citizens had never seen. Catherine and her attendants could scarcely have understood much of the convoluted astrological and mythical allusions that confronted them but the general drift will have been clear. At each stage elaborate constructions covered in painted and gilded canvas provided platforms from which elaborately-robed figures recited adulatory verses extolling the virtues of the princess’s husband and father-in-law. Confident prophecies assured the young bride of future happiness and even an enthroned ‘God’ was enrolled to pronounce a benediction:
Blessed be the fruit of your belly.
Your substance and fruits I shall increase and multiply.
From the utter failure of this pseudo-divine promise sprang all the ills of the next half century.
However, this was only the beginning of splendours. The wedding was celebrated two days later (14 November) in St Paul’s Cathedral, magnificently draped in silken bunting for the occasion, and was followed by a week of court celebrations. These took the form of sumptuous banquets in Richmond Palace, recently enlarged and refurbished at immense cost, and tournament combats staged in an arena set up in front of Westminster Hall. Here, Henry and his guests beheld from specially-erected galleries a spectacle which was not just a feat of arms. Tournaments had taken on a highly theatrical character. Combatants and their attendants were applauded as much for their skill at ‘disguisings’ as for their athletic prowess. So, for example, one knight entered the lists on a simulated ship ‘floating’ on painted water; another appeared in a gilded carriage drawn by fabulous beasts; a third was borne along in a mobile castle, set with ‘turrets and pinnacles of curious work’.
For Prince Henry, now ten years old, this must have been the most exciting week of his life so far. For months the court had been in a fever of eager anticipation and the boy, who loved theatricality and dressing up, had particularly looked forward to the role allotted to him in the ceremonial. His most important part in the lavish rituals occurred at the marriage service. It was he who met the beautiful Spanish bride in her dazzling wedding gown at the west door of the cathedral and escorted her the entire length of the building to the high altar. Afterwards, he walked behind the newlyweds as they emerged from the church while bells rang, fountains gushed wine and crowds cheered. For anyone who, like Henry, loved an audience it was a thrilling experience – even if he was not the centre of attraction. Observers noted how much the little prince enjoyed himself, dancing with such vigour that he had to put off his outer garments. Yet, might there not have been a reverse side to the coin? It would be understandable if he had experienced at least a twinge of envy. Arthur was being feted with an expensive exuberance which would never be a younger brother’s lot. Whatever foreign princess was found for Henry, it was unlikely that such an extravaganza would be laid on for him. He would always be obliged to play second fiddle. And when Arthur and his lovely queen were crowned, Henry would be their subject.
However, if the little green demon had taken up lodging in the prince’s mind a tragic sequence of events soon drove it hence. The events of the wedding day ended, as tradition demanded, with the ceremonial ‘bedding’, a mix of good-natured Hymen worship and bawdy buffoonery during which the groom was conveyed to the bridal chamber and seen safely ensconced between the sheets with his new wife. History would love to know what happened next, not out prurient curiosity, but because the nature of the relationship between Arthur and Catherine would become a matter of the highest importance years later. The following morning the boasting prince claimed that he had spent much of the night in ‘the midst of Spain’. Catherine insisted, in the 1520s, that the marriage had never been consummated. Who should we believe – the bragging adolescent defending his macho image or the middle-aged woman clinging desperately to her reputation and her position?
Before the year’s end the newlyweds had left the capital in order to set up home for themselves. For the next stage of Arthur’s training in kingcraft it had been decided that he should assume control of his principality of Wales. Actual administration was in the hands of a council of trusted Tudor agents but Henry VII wanted to establish a dynastic presence in this distant part of the realm which had its own identity and traditions. Although Welsh support had been vital in his own progress to the throne, the loyalty of the whole country could not be relied upon and the king aimed to secure his grasp of the land beyond Offa’s Dyke and provide the people with a personal focus for their allegiance. It was important that, in any disturbance which might mark the beginning of Arthur’s reign the new king should have a strong power base in the west. The location chosen for the princely court was Ludlow Castle. This formidable Marcher fortress, set on high ground above the Teme and Corve, was an excellent stronghold but it had long been the centre of English administration and, as medieval castles went, it was comfortably appointed. With apparently no qualms, the king bade farewell to his elder son and settled down to the next priority of his diplomatic programme, the marriage of Margaret to the Scottish king. He was quite unprepared for the news with which he was awakened on a Tuesday morning four months later.
Ludlow Castle, for all its sixteenth-century mod cons, was not an ideal residence for anyone with a weak constitution. By the end of March 1502, winter had yet to relax its grip on the border country. Viruses flourished in the dank airs wafting up from the valley. Icy winds moaned round the battlements. Draughts defied the shutters and drapes covering doors and windows. Several of the castle’s inhabitants succumbed to chills and agues. The prince and princess were among them. Anxious royal physicians hovered round the curtained beds where the feverish young couple lay. They were relieved when Catherine’s temperature came down and there was hope, perhaps even expectation, that her husband would also make a complete recovery. But Arthur failed to respond to their primitive medical practices. On 2 April, the young Prince of Wales died – ‘suddenly’ according to the contemporary record. The dolorous news was rushed to London and it was Henry’s confessor who was delegated to break it to the king. A contemporary chronicler provides a touching picture of Henry’s grief and how the queen tried to comfort him:
She with full great and constant comfortable words besought his grace that he would first after God remember the weal of his own noble person, the comfort of his realm and of her. She then said that my lady his mother had never no more children but him only and that God by his grace had ever preserved him, and brought him where he was. Over that how that God had left him yet a fair prince, two fair princesses. . .and that we are both young enough.
This underlines the fact that what most concerned Henry VII was the succession. Elizabeth’s suggestion that there was still time to have more children (she was 38) was immediately acted on. Ten months later she was delivered of another daughter. Mother and baby survived the birth by only a few days.
Not surprisingly, the atmosphere in the royal court changed drastically from this time. Much of the gaiety went out of it after Elizabeth’s demise, to be replaced by a new anxiety. The king was only forty-six but he had witnessed the death of his younger wife and most of their children. He had worked with patient intensity to secure the dynasty and now, just when the Yorkist cause had been thoroughly weakened, rebellions crushed, the nobility brought to heel and the arrangement of an impressive edifice of foreign alliances taking shape brick by painstaking brick, fate had whittled the Tudor succession down to one eleven-year-old boy. If the accession of his son was to be peacefully achieved, the king would have to devote more energy to the task, be more vigilant in spying out possible trouble-makers and devise new policies to shore up the dynasty. According to contemporary chroniclers, in the last years of his reign Henry Tudor underwent a profound change of character. He became a secretive, obsessive, money-grubbing tyrant. The king who had ventured the royal person on campaign against his enemies and delighted in lavish public spectacles now secluded himself in his chamber, crouched over account books, personally supervising every penny of royal expenditure and working out ways of afflicting ‘over-mighty’ subjects in their purses rather than their bodies. Nor was it only wealthy landed magnates who, according to historian, Edward Hall, were marked for plunder:
It came into his head that Englishmen did little pass the observation and keeping of penal laws and financial statutes, made and enacted for the preservation of the common utility and wealth and, therefore, if inquisition were had of such penal statutes, there should be few noblemen, merchants, farmers, husbandmen, graziers, nor occupiers but they should be found transgressors and violators of the same statutes.
Whether or not Henry underwent quite such a dramatic, sudden and sinister transmogrification is debatable. The machinery created to explore the statute books in search of laws which might be profitably exploited and to send officials into every shire snooping into private muniments (the Council Learned in the Law) had been in existence some six or seven years before 1503. However, there is no doubt that he now focused fresh endeavours on a series of legal and financial measures which would bind substantial subjects to him with golden cords and provide the crown with a well-filled treasury capable of financing any counter-measures it might be necessary to take against military threats. Those on the receiving end accused the king of miserliness and oppression. Henry labelled his policies ‘prudence’.
If the rule of the first Tudor had degenerated into tyranny the impact of his autocratic rule was most keenly felt in his own household, and especially by his son. The king’s behaviour became erratic in the extreme. He suffered long bouts of illness and was given to sudden rages, of which his son often felt the full brunt. The effect of Arthur’s death on the status of his brother was, of course, momentous – but not immediate. If he expected to be promoted to the titles and honours of the late Prince of Wales, Henry had to possess his soul in patience and remain content for the time being with the numerous honours he already held. As one aspect of the king’s policy of cutting England’s powerful nobles down to size, he had loaded numerous important offices on his infant sons rather than on ambitious barons. As well as the royal dukedom of York, young Henry had already been appointed Earl Marshal, Lord Warden of the Scottish Marches, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and Constable of Dover Castle. The duties attendant on these offices were, of course, carried out by deputies but the titles – and the revenues – remained firmly in royal hands. For good measure little Henry was also a knight of the Garter and of the Bath before he reached the age of four. On Arthur’s death Henry exchanged the dukedom of York for that of Cornwall. However, it was not until 18 February 1503 that he was invested as Prince of Wales. The delay was occasioned by the possibility that Catherine might be pregnant. There was lively speculation on this subject. Even Catherine’s Spanish attendants were divided on the issue. Her duenna was adamant that her charge was still virgo intacta but this did not prevent everyone else around the princess waiting and watching intently for signs that the young widow might be carrying the heir to the throne of England.
Young Henry felt the loss of his mother more keenly than that of his brother but it was the combined effects of these deaths which inevitably made an impact on his character. On the cusp of adolescence, he was deprived of the two people who, more than any other, had provided his life with its shape. At about the same time he also lost his much-loved tutor. John Skelton was paid off by the king and left the court to become a country parson. Despite his cynicism about life in the royal household, Skelton did not enjoy his new role and was eager to return. The fact that Henry VIII brought him back to court soon after his accession suggests that he, too, regretted the break in their relationship. Now that he was heir to the throne, Henry’s education entered a new phase. He was setting out on the path to an unexpected future and doing so without the support and affection of those upon whom he had relied most closely. It was unlikely that in the future he would find it easy to form and sustain close relationships.
He was subjected to a rigid regimen within a claustrophobic court. After the fate which had befallen his brother there was no question of sending Henry to the Welsh border to take charge of his principality. The heir was now confined to his father’s court where he could be protected from disease, accident and conspiracy. And, perhaps, from himself. The athletic teenager who enjoyed boisterous and potentially dangerous sports had to be kept on a tight reign. Tiltyard exercise was strictly rationed. Now there was little dancing or music in the king’s house and the prince’s leisure hours were closely monitored. He was only allowed out in the company of his bodyguard. Even within the palace his movements were restricted. We know, for example, that he was forbidden to have communication with Catherine of Aragon even when they were living under the same roof. His father was, to Henry, a grim and distant figure. The Spanish ambassador described him as ‘so subjected that he does not speak a word except in response to what the king asks him’. And always behind Henry’s father was the figure of his grandmother, the formidably pious Lady Margaret.
What explanation is there for the unwholesome regimen of Henry’s teenage years? For the king it was a matter of the utmost importance to protect his son but that does not explain the lack of love or understanding he displayed. Was it just an example of the personality clash of the old lion and the young lion? English history is replete with instances of conflicts between the monarch and the heir to the throne, e.g. Henry IV and Prince Hal, George III and ‘Prinny’, Victoria and ‘Bertie’, George V and Edward. There is an almost inevitable clash of interests between the sovereign and the sovereign-in-waiting. In the fifteenth century, tensions within royal families were particularly disruptive. The Yorkists had destroyed themselves through fratricidal strife. Henry VII was almost paranoiacally insecure in his later years. Just as Henry IV had believed rumours that the popular Prince Hal was plotting against him, so Henry VII may have feared that if his son was allowed too much freedom discontented elements (of which, as he knew, there were many) might make him a figurehead for rebellion.
Possibly, the root of the problem is more simple – Prince Henry was not Arthur. By 1503 the king’s younger son was a spoiled, ebullient, fun-loving extrovert, quite unlike his serious and bookish brother. Henry VII had been able to mould his intended heir in his own image. If Arthur had lived, the old king could have died happy in the knowledge that his policies would be continued, but the boy on whom all Tudor hopes now rested was a frivolous prince preoccupied with his own pleasures and with a head full of romantic, chivalric ideas. The young boy showed signs of growing up to be the image of his maternal grandfather – a charmer with a penchant for glitzy display and jovial camaraderie, far too easygoing to continue the ruthless work of strengthening the position of the monarchy.
We do not need to rely on pure conjecture to understand something of the relationship between father and son. Over thirty years later, Henry VIII proclaimed to the world just how he saw himself in relation to the previous king. In 1537, he commissioned an impressive mural for the privy chamber at Whitehall Palace. In it he had himself displayed, with his mother, father and third wife, grouped round a plinth whose long Latin inscription deliberately compared and contrasted the achievements of the first two Tudors:
Between them there was great competition and rivalry and [posterity] may well debate whether father or son should take the palm. Both were victorious. The father triumphed over his foes, quenched the fires of civil war and brought his people lasting peace. The son was born to a greater destiny. He it was who banished from the altars undeserving men and replaced them with men of worth. Presumptuous popes were forced to yield before him and when Henry VIII bore the sceptre true religion was established and, in his reign, God’s teachings received their rightful reverence.
Three decades after the death of his father Henry still felt the need to exorcise the old man’s ghost. Despite his parents’ lack of faith in him, he insisted, he had proved himself a better king, even outdoing Henry VII in Christian piety.
In Freudian psychoanalytical theory the Oedipus Complex is identified as one cause of neurosis. It results from the subject’s unresolved, unconscious rivalry with a same-sex parent. The young Henry’s essential self (what Freud labelled the ‘id’) was certainly repressed and confined not only by the physical restraints placed upon him, but also by the unfavourable comparisons frequently drawn between himself and his dead brother. This was underlined in the closing years of his father’s reign by the policy fluctuations concerning his marriage. The situation after Arthur’s death was that his young widow remained a ‘guest’ in England, lodged for the most part at Durham House, one of the palatial town residences on the Strand with grounds running down to the river. Her fate remained undecided while her father and father-in-law discussed what should be done about her and her dowry. Both kings were eager to maintain the alliance and Henry VII was certainly not prepared to forego any of the money he had received from Ferdinand and Isabella. Catherine was still eligible for an English royal spouse because a papal dispensation had been obtained for her to marry a close relative of her late husband. According to the wording of this document the parties had to be dispensed from the demands of canon law, not only because they were in the first degree of affinity, but because, it was conceded, Catherine’s marriage to Arthur had been consummated. At the time, this was of purely academic interest. No one could possibly have foreseen how world-changing it would prove to be. Henry’s first proposed solution was that he, himself, should marry his seventeen-year-old daughter-in-law. This was indignantly rejected by Catherine’s relatives, not out of moral repugnance at the age gap, but because the marriage would put the princess in a humiliating situation. Instead of being Queen of England after Henry VIII’s accession, she would have been merely the king’s step-mother, a political nonentity.
Thus it was that, in the summer of 1503, a contract of marriage was agreed between Catherine and Henry, Prince of Wales. However, within a couple of years, the two kings had fallen out and the marriage was off. The fourteen-year-old Prince Henry was forced to take responsibility for the change of policy and to make a humiliating climb down. He was brought before a committee of the council and obliged to make a solemn affirmation that the match had been without his permission when he was a minor and that he now renounced it. Meanwhile, as a result of the changing cloudscape of international politics, the king selected a new bride for his son. He was to be betrothed to Princess Eleanor of Austria. It can scarcely be wondered at that in later years Henry VIII was adamant about choosing his own wives on his own terms.
As long as his father lived Henry was permitted no share in government, attended no council meetings and was not consulted on the framing of policy. It was as though the old king had given up all hope of training his heir. His thoughts were increasingly turned towards the next world and calling to mind the many sins he needed to confess. If King Henry was waiting for his death, it may be imagined that his son was looking forward to it no less impatiently.
Henry’s character traits germinated in the soil of his childhood and adolescence. Therein lies his tragedy. Aristotle described tragedy as a character’s descent into catastrophe as a result of hamartia, a Greek term borrowed from archery and meaning, literally, ‘falling short of the target’. An Aeschylus or a Sophocles, dramatizing the life of Harry of England, would have pointed out those defects of character which rendered him unequal to the tasks he was set and which were later punished by the gods. The king who came to the throne at his father’s death on 21 April 1509 was a young man forced into aggressive self-assertion by years of being suppressed; an eager competitive player with something to prove; an impetuous and impatient ruler determined to assert himself and determinedly smothering self-doubt. For the time being, the gods smiled on him. Ultimately, they would vent their indignation.