Who hijacked Henry VIII’s will?

Historians have long argued that the Tudor king's last will and testament was the product not of his own volition, but of a shadowy court conspiracy. But are they right? Suzannah Lipscomb considers the evidence...

Henry VIII

This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

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The Act passed in parliament some 13 years earlier had made it treason to speak of the king’s death, but as the 55-year-old, grossly overweight monarch lay dying, one of his courtiers had to pluck up the courage to tell Henry VIII that the end was nigh.

It was Sir Anthony Denny, chief gentleman of the Privy Chamber, who was brave. He urged Henry to prepare himself for death and asked if he wanted to see a priest. Henry said he would have Dr Cranmer, his archbishop of Canterbury, but first would “take a little sleep; and then, as I feel myself, I will advise upon the matter”.

When he awoke, Henry commanded Cranmer be sent for but, delayed on the frozen roads, it took the archbishop too long to reach the king. When he arrived, Henry was unable to speak and perilously close to unconsciousness. The king wordlessly stretched out his hand to his faithful servant and, sensing the urgency, Cranmer did not bother with the usual rites, but simply charged him to make some sign that he put his trust in Jesus Christ. “Then the king… did wring his hand in his as hard as he could” – a desperate, impassioned last gesture – and, at 2am on 28 January 1547, in the 38th year of his reign, Henry drew his last breath.

Constitutional clout

A month before he died, on 26 December 1546, Henry VIII had amended his will, which was signed and witnessed four days later. This, his last will and testament, is one of the most intriguing and contested documents in British history.

It was also a document with unique constitutional clout. The Succession Acts of 1536 and 1544 had empowered Henry to designate his successor and to appoint a regency council, should his heir be a minor at the time of his death, through letters patent or his last will. As a result, Henry’s will is dedicated in large part to outlining possible succession scenarios. He may have died, but that didn’t mean Henry was prepared to cede power, and his will was intended to be his chief instrument of control from beyond the grave.

Historians have disagreed, however, about whether the last will really represents Henry’s final wishes. Until now, the consensus has been that the contents of the will were the result of a court conspiracy. This conspiracy theory argues that the will was the product of a coup, that it was not signed when it was dated, and that it was later doctored.

When Henry revised his will for the last time, one of the major changes he made was to remove certain people from among those whom he had previously nominated to make up a regency council to govern the country during his son Edward’s minority. Among the names he purged were Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester and Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, both conservatives in religion, inclined more to Catholic theology than reform.

The conspiracy theory view is that these men were removed by Henry under extreme pressure from an ‘evangelical faction’. The purported leaders of this faction were Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford; John Dudley, Lord Lisle; and Sir William Paget, the king’s chief secretary. All were apparently united by their evangelicalism – that is, their eagerness for further religious reformation.

The argument goes that Henry had deteriorated to such an extent that he could be manoeuvred into destroying those he had previously valued, against his better judgment; that he could be manipulated into creating conditions that were favourable to the reformers; and that, in the end, his last will and testament could be altered as he lay dying. But the accumulated evidence points persuasively in a very different direction.

The summer of 1546 had seen attempts by the conservatives at court – chiefly Thomas Wriothesley, Henry’s lord chancellor, and Bishop Gardiner, to indict a number of evangelicals at court for heresy. Wriothesley had gone so far as to rack Anne Askewe, a young gentlewoman from Lincolnshire who was accused of heresy, with his own hands, in a highly illegal and savagely brutal effort to get her to condemn Queen Katherine Parr and her ladies.

But with the return of Hertford and Lisle from fighting in France, the balance of power shifted, and some historians have argued that the evangelicals at court now deliberately conspired to seize control of the throne after Henry’s death.

Yet there is more to this story. In late November 1546, Gardiner was invited to ‘exchange’, that is, donate, some lands to the crown. His truculent response to what was a normal, if tyrannical, demand by the crown was enough to anger the king. Henry wrote Gardiner an absolutely scorching letter of reprimand: he could not “but marvel” at Gardiner’s temerity. Unless he wished to conform to the crown’s wishes, Henry could see “no cause why you should molest us any further”. Gardiner was in the royal doghouse, and was thereafter removed from the regency council listed in the will. Was this a situation created by Gardiner’s enemies, “a trumped-up quarrel” where Gardiner was made to look deceitful and thankless by “misleading whispers” in Henry’s ear? It is possible – but the only person who had the means was Paget, and he was Gardiner’s protégée.

As Occam’s razor states, the simplest explanation is often the most likely. Gardiner was proud and obstinate, he upset the king, and it was the king who decided to remove him from Edward’s regency council as specified in his last will. Those who were present on 26 December heard the king’s explanation directly. Henry said that Gardiner was “too wilful and heady to be about his son”, adding, “he would [en]cumber you all, and you should never rule him, he is of so troublesome a nature…”  We don’t need to look for a plot to explain Gardiner’s fall from grace: Gardiner was stubborn and pig-headed, and not suitable to rule over the young prince. Henry wanted him out.

Sheer recklessness

Just as with Gardiner, some commentators have construed the dramatic downfall of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey and his father, the Duke of Norfolk, as a bid by the supposed evangelical faction to seize power. But, it simply isn’t necessary to conjure this up to explain why the Howards were arrested for treason. The reckless Surrey created the circumstances of their disgrace himself.

Surrey had plans to make his father regent after Henry’s death (neatly implicating Norfolk in his treason) and, above all, had quartered the royal arms of Edward the Confessor with his own. This heraldic misdemeanour might not seem terribly significant to us but, in the 16th century, it was treason.

Henry VIII’s response to Surrey’s egotism was his usual reaction to perceived betrayal: revenge, no doubt sharpened, in this instance, by the haste and horror of sickness. Henry’s imprint is over the whole investigation and trial: the list of questions to be asked at Surrey’s interrogation was personally amended by Henry himself. Rather than evangelical machinations, it was sheer arrogant idiocy on Surrey’s part that dragged him and his father into the Tudor quicksand.

Throughout his life, Henry reacted vindictively towards those who fell short of his expectations. The changes that the king made to his will to remove Gardiner and Norfolk were a product of dogged determination, not of a doddering old man whose course was determined by others.

In fact, the actual evidence for any evangelical cabal is very slim. We really have just two main pieces to go on. The first is an enigmatic memo in Wriothesley’s files from the end of 1546, which states: “Things in common: Paget, Hertford, Admiral, Denny.” This implies some sort of alliance, but tells us nothing concrete.

The second, supposedly pivotal, piece of evidence is the assertion by François van der Delft, imperial ambassador to Henry’s court, that in the crucial month of December 1546, when the Howards’ downfall was secured, “nothing is now done at court without their [Hertford and Lisle’s] intervention, and the meetings of the council are mostly held in the Earl of Hertford’s house”.

Several historians have followed Van der Delft to his conclusion: that the evangelicals were meeting at the house of their leader, in order to arrogate power. Yet, Van der Delft was wrong. The minutes of the Privy Council clearly state that the councillors did not meet at Hertford’s town house. Instead, between 8 December 1546 and 2 January 1547, the council met at Ely Place in Holborn – the house of Thomas Wriothesley, the arch-conservative. Whatever the council’s reason for meeting away from court, it seems unlikely to have been anything to do with a consolidation of reformist power.

What, then, of the suggestions that the will was not signed when dated, and was tampered with later? The will states “we have signed it with our hand in our Palace of Westminster the thirty day of December in the year of our Lord a thousand five hundred forty and six”, and bears Henry signature, at the top and bottom, together with the signatures of 10 witnesses.

Pardoned for treason

The statement that the will had been signed with the king’s hand was not, technically, true. The king had not signed anything with his own hand since September 1545. Instead, a system had been developed to save him from the tedium of inscribing his name on state documents. Three designated royal clerks had been given the authority to impress a facsimile of Henry’s signature on each document with a stamp made for the purpose, and then to ink in the indentation that remained. Signature by ‘dry stamp’ was therefore a sort of officially sanctioned forgery, and the clerks involved had to be regularly pardoned for the treason of counterfeiting.

This system was used to authenticate everything issued in the king’s name. By December 1546 around 1,600 state papers had been signed by dry stamp. The condition for its use was that the clerks record each document signed in this way in a schedule, which the king endorsed each month. On 30 December 1546, Henry VIII’s will received the same treatment as any other official state document. It was signed by dry stamp and recorded in the schedule of documents.

Dry stamp did not require Henry to be present for it to be applied. This made it open to abuse, and as such, it is possible that the will was not signed on the day stated, but at some later stage. This possibility is exaggerated when one considers that Henry’s will was not registered in the schedule of documents stamped in December, but in that of January 1547, where it is the penultimate item. For those looking for evidence of a conspiracy, this delay only bolsters the suggestion that Henry was not the sole author of his will.

Some historians have argued that the will was tampered with after its official witnessing on 30 December. And for them, only a later doctoring of the will can explain the presence of two clauses that gave Henry’s executors great latitude to remake the post-Henrician world – clauses that, so the argument goes, it is highly unlikely that Henry would have written himself. The first clause states that any unfulfilled gifts ought to be honoured. The second gives Henry’s chosen councillors carte blanche to act as they saw fit to ensure the surety of the realm.

But what evidence is there for this alleged falsification? David Starkey suggests that the 10 witnesses may have signed a blank sheet, “for the last lines of the will are written more closely together, as though the signatures were already there”. Yet, I’m not sure this can be sustained. The last lines of the will are spaced out on the page with the great precision of an expert calligrapher. There are no squeezed characters or cramped lines. Where changes have been made to the rest of the will, they are minor and obvious. Substantive edits could not have been made to the will after the addition of signatures without them leaving some record on the text.

Starkey also offers “incontrovertible evidence” that the will was altered after the supposed date of its making. His proof is that “Sir Thomas Seymour was listed as a councillor in the will”, and he was only made a privy councillor on 23 January 1547. Thus, the will must have been altered after this date.

The trouble is that Seymour is not listed as a councillor in the will. The testament only appoints him to be one of the assistants to the 16 councillors named to make up Edward’s regency council, and his inclusion in this list does not imply that he was already a member of the existing Privy Council. He was, rather, one of three non-councillors among the assistants. Rather than this being a pivotal fact in the light of which “no modern court would hesitate to overturn Henry’s last will and testament”, Seymour’s inclusion proves nothing.

In fact, the only credible suggestion that the will might have been stamped later comes from the fact that it was entered in the January register of documents. But this was not an insertion that anyone was attempting to hide. In the register, the first two words of “Your majesties last will and testament” are written in extra-large calligraphy: it was there to be noticed.

The most plausible explanation is that the king’s presence at the witnessing and stamping of the will made its inclusion in a separate register of documents to be endorsed by him appear superfluous. But then, as it became ever more evident that his death was imminent, those around him may have began to worry that its absence from the register was undermining its legality. So they entered it into the January register for the ostentatious purpose of proclaiming its authenticity.

If the will had been stamped later to facilitate some sort of tampering, surely it would have been deemed too risky to include it so prominently in the January register. This would have betrayed the fact that it was not the will Henry had authorised. Its very inclusion would have cast doubt on its legitimacy.

So the answer to the question – who hijacked Henry’s will? – is, no one did. Henry VIII’s will was quite literally his will: the product of his volition alone.


What did the will say?

When it came to appointing an heir, Henry had all scenarios covered…

Now housed at the National Archives, the 28 parchment folios of Henry VIII’s last will and testament are written in a clear and gorgeous calligraphic hand by Sir William Paget. The will is inscribed top and bottom by the king (using the ‘dry stamp’), signed by 10 witnesses, and dated 30 December 1546.

It opens with the words, “In the name of God and of the glorious blessed Virgin Our Lady Saint Mary”, before outlining plans for Henry’s burial, tomb and funeral. It then details the money he wanted to be given as alms to the poor and needy (though “avoiding common beggars” – Henry VIII was discriminating in his generosity) and the £1,266 to be donated to the dean and chapter of Windsor in exchange for daily masses to be said for Henry’s soul “perpetually while the world shall endure”.

Then, at length, Henry VIII names his successors. He provides eight scenarios of succession: his son, Edward; any heirs from his “entirely beloved” wife, Katherine Parr; any heirs from any other lawful wife “we shall hereafter marry” (he has to be applauded for his optimism!); his daughter Mary and the heirs of her body; his daughter Elizabeth and the heirs of her body; the heirs of Lady Frances, his niece, that is, the Grey sisters (not, though, Frances herself); the heirs of Lady Eleanor, his second niece by his sister Mary; and, finally, exhausting his imagination, “the next rightful heirs”.

The will then nominates his executors, 16 of his most senior servants, in whom, Henry states, “we put our singular trust and confidence”. They were to pay his debts, fulfil any grants or gifts he had promised, and “devise what things soever they think meet, necessary and convenient for the benefit, honour and surety of the realm”. The same men were to be privy councillors during Edward’s minority; Henry envisaged a 16-person council, working in harmony. He also named 12 assistants to the council.

Finally, the will ends with his bequests. The lion’s share of Henry’s estate went to Edward, with money left also to Mary, Elizabeth and Katherine, and, in smaller amounts, to his executors, assistant-executors, household servants and doctors.


The alleged conspirators

Did these three religious reformers engineer an audacious power-grab after Henry’s death?

The “sour” lord protector

Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford and Lord Great Chamberlain of England (1500–52), was Henry VIII’s brother-in-law, a member of his Privy Council and a brilliant soldier. Famous under his later title of Duke of Somerset, he was a bullish autocratic lord protector during the reign of Edward VI, and was subsequently deposed in 1549 and executed three years later.

Seymour had a profound sense of his own self-importance, and his audacity could look like arrogance to his enemies (as Protector Somerset, he would cause offence by using the royal ‘we’). The imperial ambassador François van der Delft thought him “a dry, sour, opinionated man”.

The conciliatory council leader

John Dudley, Lord Lisle and Lord High Admiral of England, later Earl of Warwick and Duke of Northumberland (1504–53), was a long-serving member of the court and a successful naval commander. As Earl of Warwick, in 1549, he defeated Robert Kett’s rebellion (against the enclosure of land) in Norfolk and, following Somerset’s subsequent fall, emerged as a more conciliatory council leader. His attempt to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne in 1553, however, led to his execution by the new queen, Mary I.

The shrewd secretary

Sir William Paget (1506–63), the king’s chief secretary, had transcended his undistinguished background to climb to the position of principal secretary by 1543, and over the next three years, established himself as the most intimate of Henry’s confidants. He was extremely capable, shrewd and circumspect. He would go on to serve in the governments of both Edward VI and Mary I.

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Suzannah Lipscomb is an author, broadcaster and senior lecturer and head of the Faculty of History at New College of the Humanities.