by  Winston  Churchill

King Henry VIII

THE age in which the young King Henry VIII grew up was, when seen from the perspective of later centuries, one in which an old order was dying. But it scarcely seemed so to those who lived in it. The change most visible to the eyes of a ruler was the creation of the modern European state system. This novelty, menacing ano! baffling, was no remote phenomenon. Across the Channel the new French monarchy had emerged much strengthened from the Hundred Years War. Louis XI and his son, Charles VIII, were no longer mere heads of a loosely integrated group of feudal principalities. They ruled a united and populous France from the Channel to the Mediterranean. The most formidable of French feudatories, the King of England, had been finally expelled from the land where his predecessors had been great lords and claimants to an equality with the house of France. Only Calais remained to the heir of William the Conqueror and Henry Plantagenet.

Meanwhile the cadet branch of the French royal line, the house of Burgundy, which had for nearly a century disputed the authority of die Kings of France, had come to an end with the death of Charles the Bold in 1477. Louis XI contrived to lay hands on Burgundy itself. All the rest of the Burgundian inheritance passed through the marriage of Mary of Burgundy to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian. Henceforth the Habsburgs controlled the duchies, counties, lordships, and cities that the Dukes of Burgundy had, with craft and fortune, acquired in the Netherlands, and Belgium. Now Habsburg and Valois confronted one aaother on the northeastern frontiers of France. It was the opening of a long struggle. But although time was to show the instability of royal authority in France, the Valois kings ruled over a unity that could be called a French state. And the head of that state had come out of thelong struggle with England doubly strengthened; he could now raise taxes from non-noble classes without any need to appeal to the Estates, and he had a permanent* army. With his revenues he could hire Swiss infantry, make and maintain his great artillery park, and take into his pay the ardent chivalry of France.

One medieval state seemed to defy this process of aggregation and concentration. The Holy Roman Empire was visibly in dissolution. But for two generations past the Emperor had been the head of the house of Habsburg, and what arms could not do diplomacy and luck did. As Emperor, Maximilian was for ever illustrating the difference between reach and grasp, but he had married the greatest heiress in Europe. The house of Austria thus began to act on the maxim of gaining its major victories by marriage. In the next generation the counsel was fallowed with even more brilliant results, for the Archduke Philip, heir of Maximilian and Mary, married an even greater heiress than his mother, the Infanta Joanna, heir to Castile, Aragon, Sicily, and Naples. It was her sister who had accelerated the rise of the house of Tudor by marrying Prince Arthur and after him King Henry VIII.

In this world of growing power the King of England had to move and act with far fewer resources than his neighbours. His subjects numbered not many more than three millions. He had smaller revenues, no standing army, no state apparatus answerable only to the royal will. And yet by the mere proximity of France and the Imperial Netherlands England was forced to play a part in European politics. Her King was involved in wars and negotiations, shifts in alliances and changes in the balance of power, of which he had had little experience and could only in a secondary degree affect.

In this changing world, where battle on land was decided by the invincible Spanish infantry of Gonsalvo de Cordova, "the Great Captain," or occasionally by the Swiss infantry and the terrible cavalry of Gaston de Foix or other generals of the French king, the old politics, the old tried recipes of war and victory that had stood English kings in good stead for so long, were of little avail. Andjso for a century the rulers of England had to move warily, threatened with disaster and conscious of dangerous weakness if any shift of Continental politics should leave England alone in face of France or Spain.

Until the death of his elder brother, Prince Arthur, Henry had been intended for the Church. He had therefore been brought up by his father in an atmosphere of learning. Much time was devoted to serious studies—Latin, French, Italian, theology, music—and also to bodily exercise, to the sport of jousting, at which he excelled, to tennis, and hunting the stag. His manner was straightforward, and he impressed one of the cleverest women of the age, Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands, as a young man on whose word reliance could be placed. Owing to his father's careful savings he had at his accession more ready money than any other prince in Christendom. The ambassadors reported favourably on him. "His Majesty is the handsomest potentate I have ever set eyes on; above the usual height, with an extremely fine calf to his leg; his complexion fair and bright, with auburn hair combed straight and short in the French fashion, and a round face so very beautiful that it would become a pretty woman; his throat rather long and thick. ... He speaks French, English, Latin, and a little Italian plays well on the lute and harpsichord, sings from a boot' at sight, draws the bow with greater strength than any man in England, and jousts marvellously." "He is fond of hunting, and never takes his diversion without tiring eight or ten horses, which he causes to be stationed beforehand along the line of country he means to cover. He is extremely fond of tennis, at which game it is the prettiest thing in the world to see him play, his fair skin glowing through a shirt of the finest texture." 1

Henry in his maturity was a tall, red-headed man who preserved the vigour and energy of ancestors accustomed for centuries to the warfare of the Welsh marches. His massive frame towered above the thrqng, and those about him felt in it a sense of concealed desperation, of latent force and passion. A French ambassador confessed, after residing for months at Court, that he could never approach the King without fear of personal violence. Although Henry appeared to strangers open, jovial, and trustworthy, with a bluff good humour which appealed at once to the crowd, even those who knew him most intimately seldom penetrated the inward secrecy and reserve which allowed him to confide freely in no one. To those who saw him often he seemed almost like two men, one the merry monarch of the^ttpnt and banquet and procession, the friend of children, the patron of every kind of sport, the other the cold, acute observer of the audience chamber or the Council, watching vigilantly, weighing arguments, refusing except under the stress of great events to speak his own mind. On his long hunting expeditions, when the courier arrived with papers, he swiftly left his companions of the chase and summoned the "counsellors attendant" for what he was wont to call "London business."

Bursts of restless energy and ferocity were combined with

1 Quoted from A. F. Pollard: Henry VIU (1919), pp. 39-40.

extraordinary patience and diligence. Deeply religious, Henry regularly listened to sermons lasting between one and two hours, and wrote more than one theological treatise of a high standard. He was accustomed to hear five Masses on Church days, and three on other days, served the priest at Mass himself, was never deprived of holy bread and holy water on Sunday, and always did penance on Good Friday. His zeal in theological controversy earned him from the Pope the title of "Defender of the Faith." An indefatigable worker, he digested a mass of dispatches, memoranda, and plans each day without the help of his secretary. He wrote verses and composed music. Profoundly secretive in public business, he chose as his advisers men for the most part of the meanest origin: Thomas Wolsey, the son of a poor and rascally butcher of Ipswich, whose name appears on the borough records for selling meat unfit for human consumption; Thomas Cromwell, a small attorney; Thomas Cranmer, an obscure lecturer in divinity. Like his father he distrusted the hereditary nobility, preferring the discreet counsel of men without a wide circle of friends.

Early in his reign he declared, "I will not allow anyone to have it in his power to govern me." As time passed his wilfulness hardened and his temper worsened. His rages were terrible to behold. There was no noble head in the country, he once said, "but he would make it fly," if his will were crossed. Many heads were indeed to fly in his thirty-eight years on the throne.

This enormous man was the nightmare of his advisers. Once a scheme was fixed in his mind he could seldom be turned from it; resistance only made him more stubborn; and, once embarked, he always tended to go too far unless restrained. Although he prided himself on his tolerance of any expression of opinion by his advisers, however outspoken, it was usually unwise to continue to oppose him after he had made up his mind. "His Highness," as Sir Thomas More put it to Wolsey, "esteemeth nothing in counsel more perilous than one to persevere in the maintenance of his advice because he hath once given it." The only secret of managing him, both Wolsey and Cromwell disclosed after they had fallen, was to see that dangerous ideas were not permitted to reach him. But arrangements of this sort could not be complete. His habit was to talk to all classes—barbers, huntsmen, his "yeoman cook to the King's mouth"—and particularly anyone, however humble, connected with the sea, to ferret out opinions, and ride off on hunting expeditions whieh sometimes lasted for weeks. He showed himself everywhere. Each summer he went on progress through the country, keeping close to the mass of his subjects, whom he understood so well.

Almost his first act, six weeks after the death of his father in 1509, was to marry his brother Arthur's widow, Princess Catherine of Aragon. He was aged eighteen and she was five years and five months older. She had made great efforts to fascinate him, and succeeded so well that while Ferdinand and Henry VII had made plans for the match long beforehand, and had obtained from the Pope a dispensation for a marriage within the degrees of affinity prohibited by the Church, there can be no doubt that Henryvslfes eager to complete the proceedings. Catherine was at Henry's side during the first twenty-two years of his reign, while England was becoming a force in European affairs, perilous for foreign rulers to ignore. Until she reached the age of thirty-eight she remained, apart from three or four short lapses, the mistress of his affections, restrained'his follies, and in her narrow way helped to guide public affairs between the intervals of her numerous confinements. Henry settled down to married life very quickly, in spite of a series of misfortunes which would have daunted a less robust character. The Queen's first baby was bom dead, just after Henry's nineteenth birthday; another died soon after birth a year later. In all there were to be five such disappointments.

The King continued the standing alliance with his father-in-law, Ferdinand of Aragon, which had brought honour and wealth to England. He supported the Pope, and was sent the Golden Rose, the highest distinction which could be conferred on any Christian prince. He deliberated with his father's grave counsellors—William Warham, Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury; Richard Fox,. Bishop of Winchester; Thomas Ruthal, Bishop of Durham, and royal Secretary—and under their guidance pursued for a short time the policy which his father had always favoured—isolation, provided that France continued to pay tribute. But Henry was on the edge of the vortex of Europe's new politics. Should he plunge in? The richest cities of Europe had changed hands many times during the last few years, paying tribute on each occasion. Frontiers were altering almost from month to month. Ferdinand of Aragon, Catherine's father, had conquered the Kingdom of Naples, and the two French border provinces of Cerdagne and Roussillon. Other princes had done nearly as well. Amid the alluring vistas of conquest which opened up before Henry his father's aged counsellors remained obstinately men of peace. Henry VII had only once sent English levies abroad, preferring to hire mercenaries who fought alongside foreign armies. Henry VIII now determined that this policy should be reversed.

For some time he had been watching Dean Wolsey of Lincoln, a discovery of the Marquis of Dorset, whose sons had been to Magdalen^College School at ^xford when Wolsey was the master there. Dorset had liked Wolsey well enough to invite him to stay for the Christmas holidays and had provided him with several livings. The young priest then obtained a post as chaplain to the Governor of Calais. Besides academic learning Wolsey possessed a remarkable aptitude for negotiation and finance—he had been bursar of Magdalen College— and Henry VII, sensing his abilities, had taken him over from the Governor and employed him on minor official business abroad. He was promoted by Henry VIII to the Council Board in November 1509, with the office of almoner to the royal household. He was then aged thirty-six.

Two years later Wolsey's growing influence may be perceived in the decision to join the Holy League against France, for it was in the same week that Wolsey signed his first documents as an executive member of the Council. He was put in charge of preparations for the war, and his former pupil, the young Marquis of Dorset, was Commander-in-Chief. France was preoccupied with Italian adventures, and Henry planned to reconquer Bordeaux, lost sixty years before, while King Ferdinand invaded Navarre, an independent kingdom lying athwart the Pyrenees, and the Pope and the republic of Venice operated against the French armies in Italy. The year was 1512, and this was the first time since the Hundred Years War that an English army had campaigned in Europe.

The English expedition to Gascony failed. Ferdinand took the whole of Navarre, and, according to Dr William Knight, the senior English Ambassador in Spain, showed great zeal, passing his cannon across the Pyrenees and inviting the English to join him in operations against France. But the English found that the style of warfare they had learned in the Wars of the Roses, with long-bows and ponderously armed mounted men, had become obsolete on the Continent. Both Ferdinand and the French employed professional infantry, Swiss and Austrian, who advanced at a great pace in solid squares with eighteen-foot pikes bristling in every direction. The primitive firearms of the day, known as arquebuses, were too heavy and slow-firing to inflict serious damage on these fast-moving squares. Ferdinand sent a great deal of military advice to Henry, and suggested that he should use his gathered wealth to procure an overwhelming professional force of his own. But, before Henry could adopt this plan, Dorset's army, as unaccustomed to Gascon wine as to French tactics, and ravaged by dysentery, disintegrated. The troops refused to obey their officers and boarded the transports for home. Dorset abandoned a fruidess campaign and followed them. After negotiations lasting throughout^ tfie winter of 1512-13 Ferdinand and the Venetians deserted Henry and the Pope and made peace with France. The Holy League, they concluded, although high-sounding in name, had proved futile as a political combination.

In England the responsibility for these failures was cast on the new adviser, Wolsey. In fact it was in the hard work of administration necessitated by the war that he had first shown his abilities and immense energy. The lay members of the Council however had from the beginning opposed a war policy managed by a priest and had intrigued to get rid of him. But Henry VIJI and the Pope never wavered. Pope Julius II, who had been besieged by a French force in Rome, had excommunicated the entire French army, and now grew a beard, an adornment then out of fashion, and swore he would not shave until he was revenged on the King of France. Henry, not to be outdone, also grew a beard. It was auburn, like his hair. He arranged to hire the Emperor Maximilian, with the Imperial artillery and the greater part of the Austrian army, to serve under the royal standard of England. The Emperor, we are told, was requested to spread his standard, but refused to do so, saying he would be the servant, for the campaign, of the King and St George. 


These arrangements, though costly, were brilliantly successful. Under Henry's command, the English, with Austrian mercenaries, routed the French in August 1513 at the Battle of the Spurs, so called because of the rapidity of the French retreat. Bayard, the most famous knight in Europe, was captured, together with a host of French notables. Tournai, the richest city of all North-East France, surrendered at the mere sight of the Imperial artillery, and was occupied by an English garrison. To crown all, Queen Catherine, who had been left behind as Regent of England, sent great news from the North.

To aid their French ally the Scots in the King's absence had crossed the Tweed in September and invaded England with an army of fifty thousand men. Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, son of Richard Ill's Duke of Norfolk, slain at Bos-worth, and still under the family attainder, was none the less entrusted with the command. This skilful veteran, the only experienced general left in England after Dorset's failure, knowing every inch of the ground, did not hesitate to march round the Scottisfcyjarmy, and, although outnumbered by two to one, placed btipself between the enemy and Edinburgh. At Flodden Field a bloody battle was fought on September 9, 1513. Both armies faced their homeland. The whole of Scotland, Highland and Lowland alike, drew out with their retainers in the traditional schiltrons, or circles of spearmen, and around the standard of their King. The English archers once again directed upon these redoubtable masses a long, intense, and murderous arrow storm. Moreover, the bills or axes in the hands of English infantry were highly effective against the Scottish spears in hand-to-hand assault, while the English cavalry awaited the chance of piercing the gaps caused by slaughter. When night fell the flower of the Scottish chivalry lay in their ranks where they had fought, and among them King James IV. This was the last great victory gained by the longbow. Surrey was rewarded by the restoration of the Norfolk dukedom. In Scotland a year-old child succeeded to the throne as James V. His mother, the Regent, was Henry's sister Margaret, and peace now descended on the Northern border for the greater part of the reign.

Fitting celebrations were arranged in Brussels by the Emperor's daughter, Margaret of Austria. Henry, now twenty-two, was permitted to spend wjrole nights dancing "in his shirt" with the leading beautiffc of the Imperial Court. "In this," the Milanese Ambassador reported, "he performs wonders, leaping like a stag." The Council had forbidden gaming and the presence of women in the English lines, but "for him," the Ambassador added, "the Austrians provide everything." His rewards were princely; he never sat down to the table without losing in a royal manner, and the chief personalities were gratified with rich presents.