Henry VIII’s style of Kingship - Kevin Hughes MA (Oct 2016)

To understand the man, is to understand the King!  Personality, proclivities and predispositions all underpinned the complexities of the Henrician governance. The premature death of Henry VII’s eldest son Arthur, in 1502, left a young Prince Henry ‘unseasoned and untrained in the art of kingship’[1] ready to take the throne of England.  Nobody expected Henry VII’s second born to be crowned. John Guy refers to the young Henry as ‘able but second rate.’ [2]  However, the new heir was not altogether unprepared, enjoying a first class education under his private tutor John Skelton. He advised the young prince of the importance of doing a job himself rather than trusting lazy councillors. Perhaps noted more favourably by Henry was Skelton’s advice never to rest easy with his status, and to remember the grisly end some of his antecedents faced. One could argue that this later manifested itself into some of Henry’s decisions, seemingly based on insecurity.

Once King, Henry was faced with the machinery of government of which he had no experience. But the Venetian diplomat Pasqualigo recognised Henry as ‘a most accomplished prince.’ [3]  L.B. Smith’s modern analysis of the new King was not so positive, referring to his ‘emotional imbalance, self-indulgence, over-reaction to events and his failure to understand the consequences of his short-term pleasure seeking ideas.’[4] Despite Scarisbrick’s analysis of Henry’s unpreparedness, he recognises Henry’s splendid conviction in portraying his regal position. In other words, he played the part of king very well, but his personality as a man was not so successful; angry, violent, cruel and even Oedipus-based sexual undercurrents. [5]  John Guy supports this evaluation of Henry VIII’s cruel streak,  citing the execution of Empson and Dudley as a way to cash in on his father’s successful methods, whilst distancing himself from its stigma, at the cost of the lives of two men who had simply been carrying out their duties.

Henry had not inherited his father’s work ethic, replacing micromanaged accounts and affairs of State with a court based on revelry and entertainment. The court, as David Ferriby argues, was merely an extension of the King’s personality.[6] Henry’s court of sport, hunting, exploration, scholars, noblemen and refinement offer a small insight into Henry’s character.  Whilst hard at play, Henry’s lack of hands on day-to-day governing had three major consequences. The first was his occasional knee-jerk and contradictory interference which had a major impact on the quality of well-considered decisions. Secondly, there was a resurgence of conciliar-based government. Finally, the role of chief minister evolved; with Thomas Wolsey and later Thomas Cromwell shaping decisions to satisfy their own agendas. Henry was not completely disinterested in government; whilst he was keen to let his chief ministers deal with domestic and financial matters, he took a serious interest in foreign affairs. [7]

Henry’s personality and ideals of kingship were intertwined in his desire for imperial kingship and the divine right of kings.  He also wanted to be a chivalrous king and a warrior king. His chivalrous attempts were evident in his speedy marriage to Catherine rather than keeping her waiting, like his father, for the most lucrative diplomatic time. In doing this, Henry VIII had shown his desire for honour, chivalry and valour. Meanwhile, Susan Doran is unsurprised at Henry’s debut as a warrior king against France [8] dreaming of restoring England’s military pride, ancestral lands in France and Henry V’s glory at Agincourt in 1415. Henry’s victories at Tournai and Therouanna, in 1513, were England’s first in France since the 1440s. This victory was not just about being a warrior king, but also doubled as his passion for imperial kingship, based on the ideas of the Roman Empire. Henry’s pride had flowed as French troops cowered at his manliness and fled, only their spurs glistening in the distance. The Battle of the Spurs ignited Henry’s international reputation as a true warrior king.[9] Meanwhile, victory at the battle of Flodden Field in September 1513, when France invoked the terms of the auld alliance, further enhanced Henry's reputation as a warrior king. The battle had cost Scotland ten-thousand soldiers, its king, nine earls, thirteen barons and three bishops.


[1] J.J. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII, 1997, p.6.

[2] M. Tillbrook, The Tudors, 2015, p.64.

[3] D. Rogerson et.al. The Early Tudors, 2001, p.89.

[4] L.B. Smith, Henry VIII: The Mask of Royalty, 2005, p.17.

[5] Op.Cit., Scarisbrick, p. 17.

[6] D. Ferriby, The Tudors, 2015, p.43.

[7] Op.Cit., Tillbrook, p.65.

[8] S. Doran, Henry VIII: Man and Monarch, 2009. p.70-73.

[9] Ibid., Doran, p.73.