Henry VIII: the boy who would be king

Historians have long believed that very little evidence exists to inform us about the early years of the little prince Henry, says David Starkey. In this 2009 article from BBC History Magazine, Starkey tells David Musgrove why the untold story of Henry VIII's childhood is crucial in understanding his attitude to women, and his early success as king…

Henry, who would would later accede to the throne as Henry VIII, as a baby. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

For the wives of Henry VIII, “he was a very considerate husband, until he cut your head off”. That may sound like a consummate TV sound bite, but it’s one of the main messages that David Starkey is trying to get across in his reconsideration of the much-studied Tudor monarch – in two books, a TV series and an exhibition at the British Library. Starkey believes that Henry’s upbringing imbued him with a surprisingly positive view of women, given that this is the man who famously had six spouses.

You might think that there really can’t be much more to say about Henry VIII. Surely we’ve gleaned all we can from the archives, and all that’s left to do is turn over the same hoary old sources searching for new angles to theorise over? Not so, according to Starkey. Historians, he says, have long believed that very little evidence exists to inform us about the early years of the little prince Henry. That’s because they have been looking in the wrong place, by restricting their search to the records of the royal chamber. Academic orthodoxy has it that this is where the centre of royal finance was based, and so that’s where we’ve got our evidence about the life of young Henry. However, historians have forgotten that the royal chamber only takes centre stage in 1492 when the boy’s father, Henry VII, invades France.

For the wives of Henry VIII, “he was a very considerate husband, until he cut your head off”. That may sound like a consummate TV sound bite, but it’s one of the main messages that David Starkey is trying to get across in his reconsideration of the much-studied Tudor monarch – in two books, a TV series and an exhibition at the British Library. Starkey believes that Henry’s upbringing imbued him with a surprisingly positive view of women, given that this is the man who famously had six spouses.

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You might think that there really can’t be much more to say about Henry VIII. Surely we’ve gleaned all we can from the archives, and all that’s left to do is turn over the same hoary old sources searching for new angles to theorise over? Not so, according to Starkey. Historians, he says, have long believed that very little evidence exists to inform us about the early years of the little prince Henry. That’s because they have been looking in the wrong place, by restricting their search to the records of the royal chamber. Academic orthodoxy has it that this is where the centre of royal finance was based, and so that’s where we’ve got our evidence about the life of young Henry. However, historians have forgotten that the royal chamber only takes centre stage in 1492 when the boy’s father, Henry VII, invades France.

“Before that Henry VII had gone back to the old-fashioned exchequer, which continues to be very important right through the 1490s. And all the records of Henry’s upbringing which people didn’t think existed, do exist in the exchequer and not in the chamber,” says Starkey. “I have found one of the principal accounts of Henry’s christening in this same cache of documents. That’s where I’ve got all this stuff about his upbringing.”

So from these “dusty old files” Starkey has been able to unravel the story of Henry VIII’s childhood. And it’s those early years, from his birth in 1491 until the death of his elder brother Arthur in 1502, that he believes give us a new insight into the King. One of the main themes is that Prince Arthur, as heir to the throne, was brought up on his own away from his brothers and sisters and indeed the royal court, while Henry grew up in an almost exclusively female household with his sisters, his nurses and most importantly his mother, Elizabeth of York, for close company.

Says Starkey: “Arthur is never brought up with his mother at all. From infancy, he has got his separate household at Farnham, then it goes somewhere else in the Home Counties. Then at the age of barely five, he’s packed off to Ludlow to become this little prince in the making in a heavily male household. Henry on the other hand is literally in the bosom of his family, with all of these adoring girls and ladies and his mother’s ladies around him. His mother probably taught him to read”.

Starkey believes we can learn much about the King’s psyche from this: “This is where we’ve got him so badly wrong in his married life. There are only two reasons why a man marries six times. One is that he doesn’t take marriage seriously at all. The other is that he takes it too seriously. He has this extraordinarily modern, wholly unroyal belief, that marriage and love are the same thing. I think that’s very clearly associated with this feminised upbringing. Henry likes women. Henry is only happy with women around him. We get some extraordinary vignettes of Henry, the old Horrible Henry, of the late 1540s laying on special parties for the women in court. He acts as their own gentleman usher. He welcomes them himself. He takes them to their rooms and arranges their entertainment. This is the side of Henry that we just don’t think of.

“It contrasts with Francis I of France, who treats his wives brutally,” continues Starkey. “He drags them heavily pregnant into the hunting field. Henry just isn’t like that. When Katherine of Aragon is pregnant, he’s all solicitude. The Queen is lodged in the special palace of retreat. The chap even neglects his hunting. What more is a man supposed to do? I would use the word tender; he is a tender husband. When Anne Boleyn comments at her execution about his being a gentle prince, it’s not just that she’s frightened about having a more unpleasant method of execution than having her head chopped off, I think it’s reflecting a real truth about Henry, which is conditioned by his upbringing.”

He’s all solicitude… I would use the word tender; he is a tender husband

As he wasn’t brought up to be the king, he had a very different childhood experience to his elder brother, and this made Henry something of an over-indulged mummy’s boy in Starkey’s view.

“I think he was spoilt. This is where we’ve got the psychology wrong. All previous accounts assume that he was brought up in the shadow of Arthur. Not so at all. He hardly meets Arthur. They probably spent no more than two or three months together in the whole of Arthur’s life. Even when they were together – we know they are in the summer of 1497 at Woodstock – but even then Arthur is with his father and Henry is with his mother, and the Italian ambassador is introduced to him separately. Henry therefore is never one step down from Arthur. He is always at the right hand of his mother.”

So what would have happened if Arthur had died even earlier than he did, or indeed if he had never been born at all? What sort of Henry would we have seen then? “If Henry had been the eldest son from the beginning, he would have been brought up like Arthur. That raises some very interesting questions. The decision to bring up Arthur in the Marches of Wales turns out to be an extremely bad one. It means that the English political elite don’t know him. He is always tucked away in the Marches. Arthur didn’t figure on the political radar. Henry VII brings Henry up at his own court. So that means he very quickly becomes a known figure.”

Thus the decision of Henry’s father to keep the young prince at court gave him a presence on the political stage from an early age that put him in a much better place to navigate his path to power. However, it was his mother’s influence once again that was truly instrumental in this regard. To understand why, we need to consider the state of English politics at the time of Henry’s youth.

Henry was born in the embers of the Wars of the Roses, which had pitched the Houses of York and Lancaster at each others’ throats for decades. His father Henry Tudor had come to power, as the holder of the Lancastrian claim to the throne, by defeating his Yorkist predecessor Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. This is traditionally seen as the end of the Wars of the Roses, with Tudor becoming Henry VII and then going on to cement his position by marrying Elizabeth, the eldest daughter of the Yorkist king Edward IV (Richard III’s elder brother who died in 1483). In doing so, he rejoined the two houses together under the brave new banner of the Tudors. Starkey’s position is that this judgement on the closure of the conflict is a little premature – he sees Henry VII as faced with a continuous struggle to consolidate his precarious position.

Throughout his reign he had to fend off a still bullish Yorkist faction, as exemplified by the support given to the pretender to the throne Perkin Warbeck. The true end of the Wars of the Roses, in Starkey’s eyes, comes with the accession of Henry VIII – and his relationship with his mother is the reason why.

“I think that it’s pretty clear that Henry had a genuine affection for his mother. What I think is important to register is that it’s not only a personal affection; it’s a dynastic affection. Henry sees himself as a Yorkist. His upbringing by his mother Elizabeth of York leads him to think of himself as such. It is Henry, not his father, who sorts out the Wars of the Roses. It is only Henry with this Yorkist blood, this Yorkist sense of himself, with this closeness to his mother and her place at the heart of the surviving members of the Yorkist royal family, who is able to bring about peace in England. The relationship with the mother is important psychologically but it’s also enormously important in terms of the politics.”

At Henry’s coronation in 1509, then, there was much to celebrate. This young prince was in a unique position to mend the dynastic divisions and put England right again. Even better, he was the doyen of his court, whose sporting prowess made him very popular. “The young Henry, unlike Arthur, seems to have been a natural sportsman. There’s no better way to win the hearts of the English elite, or indeed the English masses, than being good at games. And he is brilliant at games,” says Starkey.

And he does heal the wounds. Even though his mother had died in 1503, Henry continued to hold the Yorkists’ support and he rewarded them for their loyalty. So after Henry VIII, those old dynastic divisions do indeed die. But in their turn come a new set of rifts, this time focused around religion. Much of this new schism is Henry’s doing. It is of course his divorce from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, that leads to the break from the Catholic Church in Rome and the launch of the Reformation in England.

It is Henry, not his father, who sorts out the Wars of the Roses

“The divorce explains why the political settlement of the first part of Henry’s reign is completely ruptured. Henry has the great misfortune that apart from the Grey family, who do go as fully for the Reformation as possible, the other great surviving Yorkist families become impassioned supporters of traditional Catholic piety. Henry feels a great sense of ingratitude – these are people who he’s rescued from utter oblivion and the threat of execution. Henry has that sense of ‘I’ve given you your lives and made you royal again and now you betray me’.”

By the time of that divorce in the 1530s, Henry’s honeymoon period with his court and people is well and truly over. He’s mutated from the chivalrous prince of his youth, much applauded for this sporting prowess, scholarship and chivalry, to the hulking tyrant of his later years. David Starkey sees the two Henrys as very different people with barely any similarities in character. He does identify one trait that holds from Henry’s youth though: “There’s only one thing that you can say is a continuum. It’s his nicest feature: his attitude to women and love. He is a poet. Henry expects love and marriage to be the same”.

David Starkey is one of Britain’s most famous historians, with a number of bestselling books and TV series behind him. His doctoral research concerned Henry VIII

Dr David Starkey’s Henry: Virtuous Prince and Henry: Model of a Tyrant are out now.

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This article was first published in the April 2009 edition of BBC History Magazine