Henry VIII: The Man Behind the Mask
What if you could meet King Henry VIII of England? What questions would you be dying to ask him? How do you think you would feel about the encounter? Do you think your feelings towards him might change if you could get behind the mask? Well, on your behalf, I was granted an audience with Henry VIII at His Grace’s Palace of Hampton Court. Armed with many of your questions, and some of my own, I met with this most notorious of monarchs to see if I could uncover more of the man behind the legend…
An Audience with Henry VIII
Sarah: “Good day, Your Grace”.
Henry VIII: “God save you, my lady”.
Sarah: “Thank you very much for agreeing to speak with me today. I am most honoured by the pleasure to be here in your presence.” I notice how tentative I feel; excited and weirdly nervous. Nevertheless, a bit of sucking up to Henry VIII surely will work in my favour. “Here we are at the end of your reign. You’re most…”
Henry VIII: “At the end of my reign!” The King bellows at the top of his voice! “I trust that I will be spared by almighty God for a good few years yet, so I can see my son grow to man’s full estate.”
Sarah: Oops, I seem to have made my first faux pas. I try to gloss over that and move right along. “I hope so too, Your Grace. Yet it is true to say that you have been the King of England for many years now. I hoped that we might be able to reflect on some of the events that have taken place through your Majesty’s most glorious reign.” More sucking up.
Henry VIII: “Well, it cannot be often that you come into the presence of the king. So, by all means, ask your questions!”
Sarah: “I want to start when you were just a little boy; you were the Duke of York at one time.”
Henry VIII: “I was indeed. It was not expected that I should ever become the King of England, that honour was to fall to my brother, Arthur.”
Sarah: “That’s what I wanted to ask you about. How did you feel about the death of your elder brother? Were are you secretly happy because that meant you would become the Prince of Wales and inherit the throne or did you truly mourn the loss?”
Henry VIII: “Well, there is a question … ” The King strokes his short, cropped, ginger beard thoughtfully, before replying. He speaks softly, as if in fond remembrance of childhood innocence, “Of course, I was not happy at the death of my brother. He was my brother and I loved him. But we spent very little time with each other, you understand. He was very much in the company of our royal father, learning the business of kingship. Whereas I was brought up at Eltham Palace by my mother and Grandam, alongside my two sisters. So, we really didn’t see that much of each other, but I was … I was fond of him and it was sad when he died, but,” he shakes his head almost imperceptibly, as he remembers the time when destiny intervened to change the course of his life. “I had little time to think of anything else; my father swept me away from Eltham, for I was now the heir to the throne. And it … it fell to me to step into Arthur’s shoes.”
Sarah: “And did it feel like life changed for you at that point?”
Henry VIII: The king laughs aloud. He is clearly amused at the naivety of my question, “Of course my life changed! I came much more into the sphere of my father, rather than that of the household of women in which I’d grown up.” Intrigued to know more about this father-son relationship, I probe a little deeper.
Sarah: “And what was your relationship with your father like, Your Grace?”
Henry VIII: “My father was a…a very different man to me … different to look at. I’m told that I favour my grandsire, the fourth King Edward. He was a tall with red-gold hair, like his daughter, my mother. My father was a shorter and darker; Arthur rather favoured him.” He pauses for a moment and I wonder what he is remembering about the old king Henry. “He tried to protect me from danger. I mean as a boy, I … I wanted to ride, to joust, to climb trees and that was all very well while I was growing up at Eltham. But once I was the heir to the throne, my father, having no other son, was not unreasonably afeared that some ill might befall me. So, he was perhaps a little too protective, which I found very frustrating.”
Sarah: “Mmm…I see. You were still a young man, of course, when you inherited the throne upon your father’s death in 1509. You were 17 years old, I believe.”
Henry VIII: “I was but a month shy of my 18th birthday. So, for the first month of my reign, it was, my grandam, the Lady Margaret Beaufort who was officially in charge of the kingdom.”
Sarah: “I hear that she was quite an indomitable woman!”
Henry VIII: The king chuckles, his retort spoken more to himself than for my benefit. “That’s putting it mildly!” He continues, “It was she who put Bishop Fisher in place as my moral guardian.”
Sarah: “You say that with some disdain,” I knew that relationship would come to a sticky end, but I wanted to hear it from the king himself.
Henry VIII: “Well, he still looks down on me now … but that’s from a spike on the Traitor’s Gate on London Bridge!”
Sarah: I see dark clouds gather behind Henry’s piggish eyes, and I shift slightly in my seat. I know my next line of questioning is not going to make the conversation more congenial. “Indeed”, I reply, “But for now I’d like to ask about your marriages. You have had the pleasure of having six wives?” I use the word ‘pleasure’ deliberately. I can’t help myself. I am batting for the ladies.
Henry VIII: “I believe, Madam, that to be something of a miscalculation on your part.” Henry is indignant, threatening even …
Sarah: “Er … ” I am on the back foot and my pulse quickens. It is my second faux pas. I am realising that this man has an uncanny ability to make me doubt my own name!
Henry VIII: “There have, it is true, been six weddings, but they were not all lawfully my wife – and you will do well to remember that, madame!” That was definitely a warning shot across the bow. I make to correct my course, so as not to offend His Majesty any further.
Sarah: “Forgive me, Your Grace. Umm … perhaps we could talk a little bit about some of your ‘marriages’ then. Were there any of your wives who you really loved, or did you marry them simply because of your position, and the fact that you were called to do so; so that you might have an heir?”
Henry VIII: It is the duty of a king to wed and provide male heirs for the future security of the kingdom.” There is a long pause as Henry looks away, his gaze softens as he stares into a lost past. “I loved, or love, each and every one of them. But … well, feelings change over time. Take Katherine, for example … Katherine of Aragon. I will say that as a young man, I was besotted with her. I wrote poems. I wrote love songs. We were truly very, very happy.”
Sarah: “for 20 years!”
Henry VIII: “20 years. Yes … ” Henry sighs, still somewhat entranced in a reverie that no doubt reminded the king of a lustful youth, before his throne was steeped in the blood of those he had once cherished.
Sarah: I suddenly feel braver. I want to stand up and admonish him for being such an [bleep]. However, I manage to reign in the worst of my excesses, but nevertheless the question I ask is simple and direct. I want an answer, “What happened?!”
Henry VIII: “It turned out that I was not truly wedded to her in the eyes of God.”
Sarah: “And you really believe that?” I bite my tongue, as I so very much wanted to add the word ‘nonsense’ to the end of the sentence. Manners get the better of me. Henry seems oblivious to my irritation. He has a different line of attack in mind.
Henry VIII: “I take it that you are not schooled in theology? Well, it is hardly surprising! Being of the gentler sex, your education has doubtless been somewhat lacking. No, madame, it says quite clearly in the book of Leviticus, that a man shall not uncover the nakedness of his brother’s wife. It is an unclean thing and they shall be childless. The Bishop of Rome at the time should never have given his blessing to that match. I was never wedded to her in the eyes of God.”
Sarah: Feeling just a little mischievous I reply, “It wasn’t perhaps the fact that your eyes had fallen on another lady at court?” He growls at me. I sense it is a subject that he prefers not to discuss and that I am wading into very deep waters.
Henry VIII: “You are referring to the Boleyn woman …. ” There is a long pause before he adds, “I was bewitched.”
Sarah: I raise an eyebrow deliberately. “Bewitched, my lord?” There’s no mistaking the deep scepticism in my voice as I unleash an arrow aimed at piercing the heart of the king’s self deception.
Henry VIII: “Bewitched!” It’s clear Henry is not pleased with my temerity to question him. Nevertheless, I go on …
Sarah: “How so, Sir? “
Henry VIII: “It is true that it was my duty to put aside the woman to whom I was not lawfully wed, and to take in her place a lawful wife … The Lady Anne Boleyn saw her opportunity and … well…she must’ve caused some enchantment. What other explanation could there be?!”
Sarah: I wanted to say that ‘maybe you fell head over heels hopelessly in love with her because she was an incredible woman, so unlike anyone you had ever met before?’ I head down that road by stating, “She was, perhaps, different to some of the ladies at court … ?” The king cuts across me in a peel of laughter!
Henry VIII: “Different? Oh, she was certainly that! Katherine was in many ways a model wife. And I will say, that had it been proven that she was indeed lawfully my wife, I would happily have stayed married to her and had no other. Katherine was biddable, meek, charitable. I mean, she had strength of character. Certainly, as the daughter of a king and a queen regnant, she was very cognisant of her place and rank within this world …” Henry sits forward in his chair as he fixes me with an intensity that draws me in. “The Lady Anne was like fire!” I notice how his eyes burn at the memory of her. “Yes, like a, like a flame, and I like a moth drawn to it. She was argumentative … passionate.” He sits back and exhales, a long slow exhale as if to release the ties that still bound him to her. He finally concedes, “It was exciting. Whereas, Katherine had grown old. She was not the girl that I married.”
Sarah: “And so you feel in this way you were bewitched by Anne’s magnetism.”
Henry VIII: “Magnetism. Yes, that is a good way of putting it. Yes, I was … I was bewitched.”
Sarah: I knew I could go no further. While he would not say it directly, I had looked directly into his eyes, and sensed all too clearly how Anne still lingered in his heart … and that although he may strive to rid himself of all attachments to her through his justifications, the truth remained that he could never forget the intensity of feeling that Anne evoked in him. He would be bound to her forever. I let it go and changed tack. “I’ve got to come back to another point about Katherine. You said that she had consummated her marriage with your brother, Arthur?”
Henry VIII: “That is true.”
Sarah: “Of course, she denied it. Why should she do that; perjure her soul in a lie? After all, she was a deeply religious woman.”
Henry VIII: “I have often asked myself that question. I have no reason to doubt my brother’s declaration on the morning after his wedding night, when he said, and perhaps you will forgive me for repeating his words, that er … well he called for a cup of wine, saying that he had been in the midst of Spain all night – and it was very thirsty work! I have no reason to doubt him. My brother was a truthful fellow. It may have been that Katherine, in order to maintain her present position, saw no harm in a little white lie. Perhaps one that she might have mentioned to her confessor thereafter and received forgiveness for …?
Sarah: “You’ve put a few people aside in your reign, Katherine was one of them. Have you ever regretted it?”
Henry VIII: There is an awfully long silence as the king remembers those whom he would rather care to forget. Finally, the answer comes, wrapped up in a felt sense of lingering sadness, “I regret perhaps the hurt that was caused. I am not devoid of feeling, but as a king, I cannot be seen to show such feeling. It would be perceived by others, foreign kings, as a sign of weakness, but no, I am not without feeling. I wish that Katherine had accepted her position. She was to remain in England, honoured, given practically anything she asked for: but she refused.”
Sarah: “You speak a foreign lands? Of course there have been two other great players in Europe: Charles V and Francis I. What do you make of them?”
Henry VIII: The king laughs a raucous hearty guffaw, “You have only to look at the comparisons that are being made by others. The Venetian Ambassador described me as the most handsome prince in all the Christian world! Mind you, have you seen the portraits of Charles and Francois? I’m not up against much competition there!”
Sarah: Now it is my turn to chuckle. I remember the famous quote about Francis’s jester, who was said to be the only man in France with a nose larger than the king’s! Then I think of Charles and snort…”Oh yes…Charles with his rather large chin!”
Henry VIII: “That chin! I tell you, truly my lady, you could pull the Emperor Charles behind a horse and use that chin of his as a plough. By God, were I to lay hands on him that is precisely what I should do!”
Sarah: It is good to share a moment of jocularity with Henry, because all too soon, conversation returns to more serious matters. “Because he made life difficult for you, didn’t he, by indirectly controlling the Pope?”
Henry VIII: “Well, he was the reason that the Pope refused to grant my divorce from Katherine …. I mean, I had legal arguments, and arguments from all the learned divinities from the universities of Europe, in my favour. But Charles V was sitting outside Rome with an army, more or less saying, ‘You allow the King of England to put aside my Aunt Katherine and I shall filet you!’ ” He was protecting his own skin.
Sarah: “He had a rather interesting ambassador, did he not? Eustace Chapuys.”
Henry VIII: The king huffs in indignation. “Eustace Chapuys – that rogue.”
Sarah: “Was Eustace Chapuys as hilariously catty in real life as he was in his letters?”
Henry VIII: “Chapuys had some interesting opinions. I will own, with the benefit of hindsight, that his assessment of the Lady Anne was not without merit.”
Sarah: “Because he refused to acknowledge her – and you think that was acceptable?”
Henry VIII: “Huh!” We are clearly back on one of his least favourite subjects. “Having had her wickedness revealed to me, yes.” His reply is simple and brutal and I feel how raw this love-hate relationship between the king and Anne still is. But I just can’t let it lie. I love her too much.
Sarah: “Did you really believe she was guilty of incest, treason and adultery?” I am irritated now, and I make my disbelief clearly evident in the tone of my voice.
Henry VIII: “I have no reason to doubt my Lady Rochford. Well, I had no reason to doubt my Lady Rochford – at the time! Subsequent events prove that she could not necessarily be relied upon. But no, the Lady Anne was accused of a great many things, and there were witnesses to her conversation with Master Norris where she spoke of my death.”
Sarah: “You are referring to the fact that in Tudor law to refer to the death of a king is an act of treason.”
Henry VIII: “Yes, of course – to speak of the death of a king is treason, which you came perilously close to a few moments ago, Madame, but I shall overlook that!”
Sarah: [Gulps] Thank you, Your Grace.” I am still smarting from making that rookie error.
Henry VIII: “No, there were witnesses, and she was tried before the properly constituted court of English law and found guilty of the crimes of which she’d been accused – but I was merciful. By rights a woman found guilty of the crime of treason should have been burned at the stake.” He stares at me, and in that stare, I touch an ice cold core of steel in which his infamous cruelty lies. In the silence, I finish the sentence…
Sarah: “And so she was decapitated with a sword … “
Henry VIII: “Aye, a sword, and not an axe.”
Sarah: I am now definitely biting my tongue. The rather sarcastic ‘How kind of you!’ dances upon my lips. Instead, I ask a heartfelt question, “Do you ever feel guilty?”
Henry VIII: “Guilty? Why should I feel guilty when the law of the land is being administered? At my coronation, I swore an oath to protect this land and uphold its laws. And I’ve done so, sometimes at great personal cost. I must be seen to treat all of my subjects equally. Be they close, or someone wholly unknown to me.”
Sarah: Now I am curious. So I probe beneath the surface. “What has been the personal cost?”
Henry VIII: “I am only too aware what must be said of me around the courts of Europe. The King of England who was wedded not once, not twice, but six times! A king who…well, two of his queens have lain with others behind his back. No man likes to wear the cuckold’s horns. The king least of all!”
Sarah: “What about the likes of Wolsey, Thomas More and Cromwell; your principal ministers at various times, who did your bidding faithfully … and yet … in the case of More and Cromwell, they too ended up on the block. and Wolsey was headed that way…Do you regret your command to execute them? Do you miss them?”
Henry VIII: “They were in their time, good servants, and did excellent work for the Crown, for myself. But, ultimately, all of them failed. Wolsey and More made it clear that their primary allegiance was to the Bishop of Rome, not to ourself. I could not allow that to go unpunished.” Then in barely a whisper, “And Cromwell? Well, he grew over mighty … Now, had I been able to harness their talents in some other way … perhaps it were better that they had not died. Again, when a servant to the Crown lets down a king so badly, then surely, that needs be punished. Wolsey, true to tell in the fullness of time, I might well have forgiven; had he not died of the flux at Leicester Abbey. A little time in the Tower of London to er …. reflect … might have brought about a change of heart … Not that it had that effect on More.” I watch the king’s lip curl up as he snarls the name of his once great friend and mentor, “A more stiff-necked a subject as I have ever been blessed with..!”
Sarah: “And Cromwell … am I right in saying that his end was really wrapped up in his involvement in bringing you a new wife, in form of Anne of Cleves? You didn’t like her, did you?”
Henry VIII: “The Lady Anne of Cleves, our royal sister, was not what we had been led to expect.”
Sarah: “You’d seen the portrait painted by Master Holbein – and you were well pleased. But…?”
Henry VIII: “Her complexion was little browner than Master Holbein presented. Also by painting her gazing towards the viewer … it showed that, er … ” The king struggles for a moment in an effort to be polite, then quickly adds, “Well, the length of her nose came as something of a shock! But that, in and of itself, is of little matter. The truth is that we had nothing in common.” He shakes his head. Then looks up again to explain, “the ladies of the court of the Duke of Cleves are very, very different to the ladies of the English, or the French, court. I mean in Cleves, it is considered improper for a woman to play cards, to dance, to sing, to hunt. Anthony Brown and some of the others spent two weeks in Calais, trying to teach her to play cards so that she might have something to do on those long evenings with me. But, no, she was not the one for me. I was misled. And Master Secretary Cromwell, in his eagerness to bring about what he perceived to be a beneficial match did not have the usual eye for detail that I had come to expect of him. He let me down – badly. But what I will say is that though we are no longer wedded, I’m fond of the Lady Anne. We regard her as our royal sister – and she visits often. She’s very friendly with our daughter, Mary. We like her well enough.”
Sarah: “What about your daughters…and your son, of course. You must have been delighted when Jane Seymour delivered your son and heir – finally?.”
Henry VIII: “Finally, yes. She was put to much difficulty in the delivery of that little imp.”
Sarah: ‘What are your hopes for your son?”
Henry VIII: “My hope is that Almighty God will grant me sufficient time to see him grow to his man’s full estate, so that when the time comes, and I am gathered into the arms of the Almighty, I may pass this burden of the Crown – for the Crown is a burden – onto him in the full confidence that he will go on to even greater glory.”
Sarah: “It is clear, Your Grace, that you do not think that a woman can wear the Crown in the same way that a man can. What if I were to tell you that your daughter, Elizabeth, would be one of the greatest rulers England has ever known?
Henry VIII: “I should probably think, Madame, that you had been drinking over much! The notion, I mean… look, Katherine’s mother, Isabella, was a queen in her own right. But she is very much the exception. Only once in England’s history has there been a woman running the country, Maude or Matilda, or whatever you are pleased to call her. What happened to the country then?” Henry’s voice rises to a crescendo, clearly much exercised by the notion of a female ruler of his realm. “It ended up in civil war between her and her cousin, Stephen; a war that caused the deaths of tens of thousands of good English men and women. Now, my father, by his actions, brought to an end just such a conflict. How should it be that my legacy would be another such war? No! I cannot permit that: a woman, and this is ordained by Almighty God, is subservient to a man. She would have the same obligations as a king to wed and to produce children. But is it not for the wife to be subservient to her husband? What man is a fitting consort for a Princess of England? Must needs be a foreign prince! Would you wish to see England come under foreign domination as one of my daughters submits to her husband?”
Sarah: It’s a tough point to argue from his perspective. I just wish I could show him what has already come to pass. I move on. “Looking back over your reign, what’s the single thing you feared the most and why?”
Henry VIII: The repost causes me to shrink back in my seat as he bellows at me, “What makes you think for one moment that the King of England fears anything?”
Sarah: “Everybody has fears, Your Grace?” I offer this tentatively, feeling as if I am on very shaky ground indeed.
Henry VIII: “I am a king anointed by God. If I have any fear, it is of God himself. I am a God-fearing king, but I fear none other!”
Sarah: At this point I feel like I want the floor to swallow me up. Have I gone too far? I look nervously over my shoulder, sure that at any moment a burly yeoman of the guard would drag me off to the Tower. “Perhaps then we should move on and you can tell me about your single biggest triumph. Looking back over your reign thus far, what are you most proud of?”
Henry VIII: “That is an easy question to answer.” His voice is suddenly soft, filled with affection. “Over yonder,” Henry indicates with a nod of his head over my right shoulder, “there is a set of apartments, here at Hampton Court, builded only a few short years ago for occupation by my son. That boy, that little imp, is my proudest achievement. I have most excellent reports from his tutors. He is er … a little like his royal father at that age. At that age, I was not much given to my books. I’d rather been out riding – and he is the same. He is what the meaner sort call a chip from the old block.” He chuckles and I feel his love for his son, which knows no bounds. “He is the thing of which I am most proud.”
Sarah: “I understand. But also I want to know what would you change if you had the opportunity to turn back time and make a different choice?”
Henry VIII: “Now, here’s a question. I’m not sure that I would have done anything drastically different. I would only say that perhaps I have been too trusting. When I have entered in the past into alliances with the French King, or the Holy Roman Emperor … I stood by the terms of those treaties, those treaties, those promises, those oaths that were made were always broken by them, not by myself. So perhaps I was too trusting.” Henry narrows his eyes, recalling past disappointments. He flashes me a look which dares me do the same – knowing that there would be painful consequences might I try. I ignore it and ask…
Sarah: “And have you been too trusting here, in your own kingdom…with your own sub …”
Henry VIII: The king cuts me off, growling ferociously. “You are referring to my wives again, are you not?”
Sarah: I recoil a little, but manage to hold my ground. “Yes.”
Henry VIII: “I placed too much trust in the Howard girl; my rose without a thorn, as I thought to be.”
Sarah: “Deliberately playing devil’s advocate, I say, “she was a lovely young thing, wasn’t she?”
Henry VIII: The retort was immediate. “She was a harlot.” A long pause followed. “That is why, now, I have made it a necessity that the past life of any woman must be exposed to the full light of the sun before she marries an English king.”
Sarah: I want to dig underneath the bluster and see what Henry’s heart is made of, and so, quietly, I fix the king with my own steely glare and ask, “Did she break your heart?”
Henry VIII: “She came as close to breaking it as anyone alive.” I barely hear the words and they are heartfelt, sticky with the black, tarry sadness of betrayal. “I loved her, perhaps foolishly, but I loved her.” I notice that, surprisingly, I feel for him; for I too have known betrayal by one I have loved, and I know well the cut of its blade. Finally, Henry and I have found common ground in our shared human emotion, even though the circumstances of our births, of the times we lived in, are lifetimes apart. I let the silence sit heavily in the room for a moment. I know my time with the king is drawing to a close; the French Ambassador waits his turn for an audience in the room yonder, and so I move on…
Sarah: “We’re coming to the end of our interview, but I just have one final question, and that is, what do you want your greatest legacy to be? How do you want history to see you?”
Henry VIII: “I would like future generations of Tudor kings, centuries from now, to look back and see how I consolidated the strength of England, after the work done by my royal father … and I should like to receive credit for moving the Church in England away from the wicked corruption of Rome towards a purer faith. For as king, I am a shepherd. Each and every man, woman and child within the shores of this realm, they are my sheep, and I am pledged to protect each and every one of them, not only bodily, but also their immortal souls.”
Sarah: “That is a very heavy weight to bear.” I feel that weight hang ponderously in the room. In that moment, it is almost tangible. There is complete sincerity in these words. This is Henry’s world, and for the first time I feel empathy for the very peculiar predicament of Henry’s birth and, while I could never imagine doing the things that Henry has done, I feel a glimmer of genuine understanding.
Henry VIII: “And yet it is a way I have borne willingly.”
Sarah: Yes, ‘willingly’. The word strikes another blow. For all the luxury, glamour, wealth and privilege, some of the most difficult and gut-wrenching decisions that Henry made through his lifetime were the price to be paid for it all – and I realise that I would not walk in his shoes in a million years. However, my final words surprise me. Henry VIII, King of England, a notorious tyrant; someone who has long intrigued – and angered me – for the careless way in which he treated his wives, has left me feeling a lingering sense of pity for the burden he was born to carry every day of his life as king. So I thank him – and I mean it. “Then, I thank thee for doing so, and for taking the time to talk to me today, Your Grace.”
Henry VIII: “You are most welcome, my lady.”
If you wish to read more about Henry VIII and Hampton Court Palace, why not check out our popular blog: Henry VIII’s Lost Apartments at Hampton Court Palace.
Note of Thanks:
A very hearty thanks Hampton Court Palace and to Rosanna and Laura from Past Pleasures, the amazing, resident historical interpreters at Hampton Court Palace, for making this audience possible – and of course to Chris Bailey, part of Past Pleasures, who provided me with a slightly unnerving, but fascinating, insight in what it might have meant to be in the presence of King Henry VIII!