On This Day in 1491 – The Birth of Henry VIII

On the 28th June 1491 the young Henry Tudor was born to Henry VII and Elizabeth of York at Greenwich Palace. He was their third child, the ‘spare’ to their pre-existing heir and second-in-line to the throne of England behind Arthur, his elder brother by five years. Hardly an inauspicious start, it must be said – but Henry was not destined from birth to become the king that now dominates English history.

Until the age of eleven, Henry was brought up alongside his sisters, Mary and Margaret, at the nursery at Eltham Palace.[1] There has been a greater appreciation in recent scholarship for consideration of Henry’s formative childhood years. David Starkey has led the way in stating that the young Duke’s education amongst women – as opposed to the princely education that his brother was receiving until his untimely death in 1502 – shaped many of his later proclivities and affinities. His handwriting, for instance, has been revealed to be very similar to that of his mother rather than of any of his tutors; we might divine from this that he was personally close with Elizabeth, and that her death in 1503 had a lasting effect on his personal development. [2]

Henry ascended to the throne in 1509 at the age of 17. The advice provided by the jailed Edmund Dudley, ex-minister of Henry VII, for the new king was to be “clere to his owne spouse and queen,” to avoid participating in violent courtly tournaments, and to keep the peace with his European neighbours [3]. This seems mightily ironic in hindsight, even if it is unlikely that Henry ever read Dudley’s well-intentioned words. It was already obvious long before 1509 that Henry was not going to follow in the footsteps of his shrewd and cautious father. Their earlier clashes over the young prince’s desire to fight in court tournaments was an early sign that the two did not see eye to eye. [4] This was no matter to the diligent gentlemen and nobility waiting in the wings to form Henry VIII’s household and Council; Henry VII’s last years were a ‘winter’ that they were pleased to escape from: The new king “does not desire gold or gems or precious metals,” one nobleman wrote at the time of Henry VIII’s accession, presumably thinking of Henry VII’s financial rapacity, “but virtue, glory and immortality.”[5] He may not have realized how true his words would become.

It is almost impossible in the space provided to produce an adequate assessment of all of the events of Henry VIII’s reign. His six marriages are perhaps what make Henry most famous in historical memory, and certainly historical fiction surrounding Henry’s love life continues to draw audiences year on year. Whether Henry was sincere in his affections for any of his wives and simply desired to find love, or whether he was inherently a misogynist that saw women as a means to an end to be disposed of is a debate that continues to this day. His sincerity for his faith has also been questioned in the light of his dramatic rejection of papal authority and declaration of his own supremacy over a newly-established Church of England in the 1530s. In reality our view of Henry VIII’s reign has been skewed by hindsight, and by the great amount of focus that history has put on his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and the subsequent break from Rome that has been seen to dominate the reign. Historians of recent years have taken to seeing Henry VIII’s reign as being divided down the middle into two distinct periods: the first covering roughly the first two decades, during which time Henry was the ‘perfect prince’; and the second in which he started to extend ‘imperial’ control over everything around him, producing an atmosphere of fear at court that has been seen as tyrannical. Ultimately debate around the actual events of the reign is fuelled by controversies surrounding the king’s personality itself.

henry viii ugly

An unflattering engraving of Henry VIII by Cornelis Metsys, dating to 1545.

So what do we know about Henry VIII? He was tall, especially by fifteenth century standards, and was attractive and athletic in his youth, but became the obese ‘bluff King Hal’ that we are familiar with later in life. He enjoyed many of life’s pleasures, including feasting, hunting, progressing around the countryside, and jousting, as well as being a patron of artists (most famously Hans Holbein) and composing his own music. He was an intelligent and precocious child, unafraid to embarrass the humanist writer Erasmus at court whilst still a young teen.[6] We know from his surviving letters that Henry possessed a strong temper, especially when his authority was challenged. In response to the rebellion in Lincolnshire that sparked the later Pilgrimage of Grace in Yorkshire, Henry wrote: “How presumptuous then are ye, the rude commons of one shire, and that one of the most brute and beastly of the whole realm and of least experience, to find fault with your prince for the electing of his counsellors and prelates? Thus you take upon yourself to rule your prince.” [7] Advisors and ministers of the Henrician court would survive so long as they could fulfil the king’s wishes. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey’s ascendancy at Court in the 1510s and 20s was much to do with his ability to agree with the king even when others did not, but his failure to secure an annulment for Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon marked the beginning of his fall from grace in 1529. The same fate befell Thomas More (for refusing to take the oath of supremacy), Anne Boleyn (allegedly for having several affairs), and Thomas Cromwell later in the reign. His ability to so easily do away with people that he had once trusted is perhaps a sign of personal insecurity and fear. Henry’s most well-known biographer, J.J. Scarisbrick, wrote in 1968 that he was ultimately a vulnerable man who was easily led; [8] John Guy concurred, describing him as having “a second-rate mind with what looks suspiciously like an inferiority complex.” [9] His decades-spanning feud with Francis I of France, notoriously involving a wrestling match between the two monarchs at the 1520 Field of the Cloth of Gold summit, is perhaps evidence of Henry’s desire for glory above all others.

Historiographical opinions of Henry VIII really extend across the entire spectrum. It is unlikely that historians will ever reach a consensus on Henry VIII’s character, motivations, and achievements. He will always be controversial, and there is no answer to the question of his legacy that will appease everyone. This same monarch has variably been celebrated as a pious and well-motivated crusader for English nationalism, responsible for throwing off the popish ‘governess’,[10] whilst in contrast being called out as a “cold, callous, calculating political animal”[11] and an out-and-out tyrant. He has at once been seen as holding an almost authoritarian personal rule over Crown policy, and as a man who was easily led and vulnerable to manipulation by the great men around him. That both of his daughters built their own unstable reigns upon his, and that Mary would openly wish that “he might come to life again for a month” to establish order,[12] goes to show however that, no matter how unpopular he might have been in his own time, his death in 1547 still left something of a vacuum. It is of course ironic that a man so seemingly fixated on virility and the production of a male heir left behind two queen regnant daughters with reigns that would come to overshadow that of his only surviving son, who was king for only six years before his death.

Despite the seemingly circular nature of historiographical study of Henry, research related to his personality and life is not in vain. Our desire to understand the personality of Henry VIII is in some way connected to our acknowledgement that he was personally involved in his regime. In fact Henry VIII stands as evidence that in some cases the popular draw to the day-to-day life of a monarch – an interest that to many historians has seemed non-academic (Geoffrey Elton indeed believed that biography and history were mutually exclusive entities) – is not entirely at odds with the ‘academic’ approach to the political and diplomatic themes of History. The Tudor age is, as Starkey once put it, the “Goldilocks period”, [13] with just enough evidence surviving to build up a colourful picture but enough gaps to make a consensus difficult to reach. What we can say is that “Henry was a huge, consequential, and majestic figure… Nothing would ever be quite the same after he had gone” [14] – the consequences of his reign simply remain debateable even in the present day.

Written by Laura Flannigan


[1] John Guy, Henry VIII: The Quest for Glory (London: Penguin Books, 2014).

[2] David Starkey. Henry: Virtuous Prince (London: Harper Collins, 2008), 118-119.

[3] Edmund Dudley, The Tree of Commonwealth ed. D.M. Brodie (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1048)

[4] John Guy, Henry VIII

[5] Cited in John Duncan Mackie, The Earlier Tudors, 1485-1558 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), 235.

[6] Guy, Henry VIII

[7] R. O. St. Pap. i. 463. In Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 11, ed. James Gairdner (London, 1888), pp. 284-314 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/letters-papers-hen8/vol11/pp284-314. Accessed 26 June 2015.

[9] J.J. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1968).

[9] John Guy, Tudor England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992),

[10] A.F. Pollard, Henry VIII (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1925), 433.

[11] Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (London: Constable, 1984), 160.

[12] Guy, Henry VIII

[13] Iain Dale, “In conversation with… David Starkey.” Total Politics, 18 September 2009. Accessed 27 June 2015. http://www.totalpolitics.com/articles/2893/in-conversation-with-david-starkey.thtml.

[14] Scarisbrick, Henry VIII, 506.