Henry VIII: like father, like son?

Henry VIII spent much of his reign presenting himself as an athletic, gregarious antidote to the penny-pinching and paranoid Henry VII. Tracy Borman considers whether this was evidence of a confident young monarch following his own path or an insecure son struggling to escape his father's long shadow

A watercolour version of a mural showing Henry VIII (front left) with his father, Henry VII, his wife Jane Seymour (front right) and his mother, Elizabeth of York. The mural, which aimed to validate Henry's right to the throne, adorned Whitehall Palace before being destroyed by fire. (Photo by Bridgeman Royal Collection)

Henry VIII spent much of his reign presenting himself as an athletic, gregarious antidote to the penny-pinching and paranoid Henry VII. Tracy Borman considers whether this was evidence of a confident young monarch following his own path or an insecure son struggling to escape his father’s long shadow

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When Henry VIII ascended the throne in April 1509, his subjects were quick to draw favourable comparisons between the new king’s youthful exuberance and his dour old father. One contemporary verse rejoiced that the kingdom “now cleared is from the clerk… By Harry our king the flower of nature’s work.”

The philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon described Henry VII as “a dark prince, and infinitely suspicious”, and by the time of his death he was widely viewed as a grasping and miserly old recluse. In stark contrast, his strapping 17-year-old son and heir was hailed as an “Adonis” and “the handsomest potentate I ever set eyes on”. At 6ft 2ins tall and with an athletic physique honed in the tournament arena, Henry VIII was the living embodiment of his formidable Yorkist grandfather, Edward IV, and seemed to have little of his father’s Lancastrian blood coursing through his veins.

c1540, a portrait of King Henry VIII. An engraving by T A Dean from a painting by Hans Holbein. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Father and son had experienced a turbulent relationship, especially during the years leading up to Henry VII’s death. The elder Henry had not paid all that much attention to his young namesake after his birth in 1491, until the death of his elder son, Arthur, 11 years later. Prince Henry had then been thrust into the limelight as the only surviving son and heir of the Tudor dynasty. From that day forward, his father controlled every aspect of his upbringing and, paranoid about his son’s safety, introduced a regime that the young prince soon found suffocating. As Prince Henry grew to maturity and hungered for power, he had a series of high-profile clashes with his father. One of the most notable came in 1508 when, according to the Spanish ambassador, the king quarrelled so violently with his son that it seemed “as if he sought to kill him”.

Breaking with the past

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that when he at last came into his inheritance, Henry VIII was quick to distance himself from his predecessor. One of his first acts was to order the arrest of Henry VII’s despised advisers, Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley. Although he stopped short of openly criticising his father’s policies, this was strongly implied in the notices that were issued after the men had been taken to the Tower of London. Henry VII was acknowledged to be “a most prudent and politic prince”, but his laws had been executed “through avarice and covetousness and for the filthy desire of gain… to the loss of many an honest man’s goods, [which] should now be recompensed with the loss of their [Empson and Dudley’s] heads”.

Henry VIII’s response to the enormous responsibilities of kingship could not have been more different to his father’s. Henry VII had spent countless hours toiling over account books, correspondence and other minutiae of government. His son had witnessed first hand how weighed down his father had become with the endless business and cares of his kingdom, and that he had not been any more loved by his people for it. “There were many who rather feared than loved [Henry VII],” observed Polydore Vergil. “His sole interest was to ensure his safety by supervising all details of government; through which preoccupation he at last so wore out his mind and body that his energies gradually declined, he fell into a state of weakness and from that, not long after, came to his death.” Little wonder that the new king decided to leave the management of such affairs to others.

Instead, Henry VIII lived “in continual festival”, as his wife, Catherine of Aragon, put it. Among the many songs that he liked to practise with his companions in the privy chamber was one of his own composing, ‘Pastime with Good Company’. The lyrics encapsulate the young king’s philosophy: The last line reads as a challenge to Henry’s late father, who had always curtailed his son’s more wayward tendencies. If anything captures the black and the white, the yin and yang, of the two men’s style of kingship, then these four short words appear to be it.

“For my pastance, Hunt, sing and dance, My heart is set, All goodly sport For my comfort Who shall me let?”

But there’s a problem in the finely honed image of father and son being cut from an entirely different cloth. And it’s that – for all his bluff and bluster – Henry VIII shared a good deal more in common with his predecessor than he or his contemporaries ever admitted. Only later commentators, writing with the wisdom of hindsight, observed that, despite their contrasting characters, there were some notable similarities between the two Henrys.

For a start, Francis Bacon’s description of the father could just as easily have applied to the son: “He was of a high mind and loved his own will, and his own way: as one that revered himself, and would reign indeed.” Both Bacon and other commentators drew attention to the exceptional memory that the younger Henry had inherited from his father. And while they were physically very different, both men were noted as being unable to look people straight in the eye.

Henry VII might have become grasping and suspicious in his later years, but for much of his reign he had been just as open-handed and genial a monarch as his son, and kept a court that was every bit as splendid. Polydore Vergil described him as “gracious and kind, and as attractive to visitors as he was easy of access. His hospitality was splendidly generous: he liked having foreign visitors, and freely conferred favours on them… He well knew how to maintain his royal dignity, and everything belonging to his kingship, at all times and places.” This would be echoed by his son Henry, who as king was much better known for his splendour and generosity than his apparently dull, avaricious old father. The younger Henry was also noted for his “self-control”, which goes against many of the stereotypes of this indulged spare heir and owes much to the example of his father.

Although he has the reputation of a serious and sober-minded monarch, Henry VII certainly knew how to have fun. His privy chamber accounts include payments to jesters, minstrels, pipers and singers. Like his son, Henry VII liked to gamble and, despite his reputation as a miser, he thought nothing of waging substantial amounts on card games. He always took care to dress in magnificent style and lavished enormous sums on his wardrobe, anxious to project an image of majesty that might disguise his questionable claim to the throne.

For all his thrusting power and exuberance, the younger Henry shared his father’s intense piety. He carried around with him a “bede roll”, or portable aid to prayer, like a talisman, believing that it would ward off evil. The younger Henry may also have inherited his impressive intellect from his father. Priestly scholar Vergil wrote of Henry VII as being “not devoid of scholarship” and possessed of “a most tenacious memory”.

Champion athlete

Both men were praised for their bravery and athleticism. Physically fit from his years of campaigning, Henry VII held regular jousts and liked to play tennis. He was so keen to improve his game that he even employed two professional players as coaches. These same coaches probably tutored his son from an early age. As king, Henry VIII would play tennis most afternoons and had lavish courts built at palaces such as Hampton Court. The Venetian ambassador was so impressed by his prowess that he observed: “It is the prettiest thing in the world to see him play.”

Henry VII and his son saw themselves as military leaders, not just political ones. In attempting to establish and safeguard his fledgling dynasty against rival claimants, the elder Henry successfully led his forces in battle to put down rebellions on a number of occasions. His son thirsted for military glory too and plundered the royal coffers on a series of cripplingly expensive but not always effective campaigns. While Henry VIII has been viewed as the more warlike of the two kings, in contrast to his father, when faced with the Pilgrimage of Grace (a rebellion in the north of England against his break with the Roman Catholic church) in 1536, he did not ride out to command his forces. Instead, he shut himself away at Windsor and issued instructions to every “gentleman and man of influence… to be ready with his power”.

The knowledge that he had not quite lived up to his father’s example, in this and other important respects, was something of which Henry VIII was painfully aware. A detailed reappraisal of his relationship with his predecessor – both during and after Henry VII’s lifetime – betrays the deep-seated insecurity, as well as the fear of parental disapproval, that plagued him throughout his life. The father had filled the treasury, subdued his over-mighty subjects and sired four healthy children; the son had depleted the royal coffers thanks to his extravagant lifestyle and futile military campaigns, provoked dissent and rebellion, and had gone through three wives and almost 30 years of marriage before finally siring a legitimate son.

But Henry VIII was also able to convince posterity that he was the mightier king. This was in no small part due to his celebrated court painter, Hans Holbein, whose iconic portraits have cemented Henry in our minds as the embodiment of kingly magnificence. One commission was particularly influential. In 1537, Henry VIII instructed Holbein to begin a huge mural (see above) to decorate the wall of his privy chamber at Whitehall Palace. The finished artwork showed Henry with his third wife, Jane Seymour, and his parents in the background. Henry VIII dominated the scene, staring straight ahead, as if facing down an opponent, with one hand on his hips and legs astride. By stark contrast, his father was shown in a much more hesitant pose, leaning on a pillar and looking rather listless. To hammer home the point, Henry commissioned the following inscription:

“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.”

It was a defiant gesture by a man who privately resented and feared his late father.

Although he would never have admitted it, as Henry VIII neared the end of his reign, the similarities between son and father became ever more apparent. Overcome with paranoia about the plots that swarmed about his throne, Henry VII had increasingly retreated to his privy chamber with just a few trusted servants for company. Now, his son did the same. Seeing treason everywhere and no longer trusting even loyal ministers such as Thomas Cromwell, he had “secret chambers” built at several of his palaces so that he could live away from the glare of the court. “[The king] does not trust a single man,” observed the French ambassador, and Henry’s minister, Sir John Russell, concurred that his master was “much given to suspicion”.

The man who had gloried in living his life on as public a stage as possible was a virtual recluse by the time he died, attended by just a handful of men. He breathed his last at two o’clock in the morning of 28 January 1547. Whether he was conscious enough, in his final moments, to realise that it would have been his father’s 90th birthday is impossible to say. But given how often he had been plagued by memories of the man whose shadow he had never quite managed to cast off, it is likely that the significance of the date was not lost upon him.

Tracy Borman is a Tudor historian and joint chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces.

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This article was first published in the December 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine