Bosworth. A name that is firmly entrenched in the lexicon of England’s history as bridging point between the Medieval and Modern eras, a location where one King was slain and another was made. The wailing death throes of the Plantagenet dynasty was heard around these fields and equally so was the birth cries of their successor family, the Tudor’s. This fact alone makes the area a shrine for enthusiasts of both Royal houses. Bosworth and the battle that was pitched in these parts on a summer’s day in 1485 is rooted in the consciousness of the nation and certainly a place that deserves a visit every once in a while.
With such a prestigious history in its arsenal, a trip to this location is imperative if one wishes to transport themselves back to the beginning of the Tudor era and cast their own eyes over the very same landscape that would have greeted those involved 500 years earlier. The battle has always been known as “The Battle of Bosworth”, adapting the name of a near settlement in the traditional way that battles became known as, albeit two things need to be noted straight away. The Battle of Bosworth Heritage Visitor Centre is not located in Market Bosworth itself and after recent investigations it turns out it isn’t even the real battle location anyway. The Lottery-funded study a few years ago uncovered the most likely site a few miles in a south westerly direction towards Fenny Drayton but ultimately it is an irrelevant outcome to those of a non-archaeological background. The Visitor centre is built next to the previous battlesite candidate of Ambion Hill and is certainly set in one of the most rural and picturesque parts of England. The drive involves sweeping country lanes after leaving the Watling Street A5 with fields all around, many that would have been trampled across by hundreds of hooves and soldiers in 1485 on their way to and from the fighting. As you turn from the road and drive along the path you will notice to the right on the field an enormous flag blowing proudly in the wind, the banner being the very image of the one raised aloft at the head of Richard’s army on that fateful August morn.
When you arrive at the Visitor Centre itself the first thing that will attract your gaze is the large Coat of Arms of King Richard III on the brick wall, his White Boar emblem distinctive and quickly giving you an idea as to who truly is the King and centre of attention at this centre. As you walk through the gates on your left is a gathering of medieval devices in a small arena termed “Ambion Village”, a reconstruction of sorts and a taster of life for the peasant class of the locality. As you turn into the courtyard of sorts immediately on your right is the glass entrance to the “Tithe Restaurant”, a typical café/restaurant type structure in which the main selling point is the authentic barn it has been constructed in, complete with atmospheric wooden beams along the roof. The Jacket Potatoes are certainly worth a try too! As you enter the courtyard proper you will notice on your right a pair of stocks for the perfect photo opportunity and around the corner the standard Gift Shop and two more reasonable photo opportunities. It is here that “Richard’s Stone” is kept, a large boulder that used to be located in the field where it was previously thought the last Plantagenet King was killed and also an empty stone coffin in which it is thought his remains were at one time kept. Going indoors you are met with the ticket desk and the beginning of the impressive exhibition, with an interactive screen introducing you to a myriad of characters whom educate you about their daily lives as you make your way through the maze of information in the exhibition itself. The Exhibition itself begins when you walk through a faux field tent into the first room which educates you with a simple explanation of the Wars of the Roses as well as 15th century home furniture and tools including a cutlery knife and a wooden barrel for storing ale.
The next room gives you details about the preparation for battle and more information on Henry Tudor and where his claim and forces came from, complete with large portraits of both men. Moving onwards, the largest room in the display has one wall covered with the weaponry of the age including pikes, axes, swords and crossbows, giving an insight into the barbarity that existed during medieval warfare. To further enhance this mental image, there are two life size mannequins kitted out in the full armoury of a foot soldier, including chainmail and helmet. As well as heraldry practice for the children and the possibility to try on various pieces of armour in front of a mirror in the circle centrepiece of the exhibition is large screens playing a recurring video of the events of the battle complete with animated side panels offering further information. This room also offers you the opportunity to try a bow and arrow to see how far you can shoot this ancient weapon, myself of course scoring the highest of 240m and “losing an arrow” as I overshot the enemy! Whilst two large statues of the rival combatants look on, the atmospheric video room also has a side room entitled “The Surgeon” with a reconstructed skull displaying gruesome war injuries as well as a display case showing the horrendous tools available to an injured soldier, think of knifes, tweezers and hooks and you’re on the right lines.
In the room titled “Aftermath” we are given brief descriptions of how Henry Tudor quelled the wars itself by marrying Elizabeth of York albeit it does touch on the uprisings he suffered early in his reign. It also gives further information about the rest of the victorious dynasty including a statue of Henry VIII and details on Tudor artefacts and architecture. The final room is a recent inclusion and is dubbed the “BFI Lab”. It is here where the latest findings from extensive battle field investigations are stored, including a skeleton complete with war wounds and display cases with real finds including coins, horse pendants and belt buckles that would have fallen from the slain soldiers or fleeing Yorkists. Exiting through the gift shop you find yourself at the starting point of a roughly 2mile walk through around the battlefield path, the first section taking you up past the enormous Yorkist banner of Richard III to the remembrance sundial, two large wooden chairs representing each monarch. The path also takes you down to a well christened “Richard’s Well” and where he apparently took a drink before battle and which is now a popular spot for visitors. All in all, the walk is a pleasant stroll in the summer and the surrounding fields allow a perfect place to sit and enjoy a picnic. The Battle of Bosworth may no longer be accepted as being in this particular location but the centre is vital in not only providing detailed analysis and education to visitors it also allows the visitor to mentally revisit one of this country’s most infamous events with their own eyes. Set in an idyllic and rural part of Middle England, even without a passing interest in the topic should not stop you from visiting.
THE OFFICIAL WELSH GOVERNMENT PETITION HAS NOW BEEN SUBMITTED TO THE SENEDD.
“We call on the National Assembly for Wales to urge the Welsh Government to fund a statue of Henry VII in Pembroke, town of his birth and birthplace of the Tudor Dynasty.
There is no statue or memorial in the town of this man. A statue could improve the economy of the town as a Tudor must-visit place.’
As you may or may not know I am a keen amateur Tudor historian whom is currently attempting to work on his first historical book regarding the Welsh origins of the Tudor Dynasty. As part of my interest I have visited many locations throughout England ranging from the major attractions like Hampton Court to minor areas such as various Wars of the Roses Battlefields in the Welsh Marches. I have visited Windsor Castle, Greenwich Palace, St James Palace, Westminster Abbey amongst others. As a proud Welshman from Carmarthenshire I have a great love for this picturesque area of South Wales and have spent many hours, days and even weeks scouting any historic areas with links to the Tudor Dynasty with the sole intention of visiting and photographing for posterity. After all, the Tudors were a Welsh family and the links are throughout our country, albeit one must lament in a less obvious way than the major palaces in London where they achieved their later fame as Kings and Queens of England.
As locals to South Wales, you may or may not be aware of Tudor links in this part of the world but my hunch is that unless one has a reasonably deep interest in the subject then they will be ignorant to the history on their doorstep. If an area of historical interest isn’t publically advertised, then how is one supposed to learn about this local past? So where are these Tudor links first of all? There is the incredible ruins of Lamphey Bishop’s Palace just outside Pembroke where Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond and father to the future Monarch regularly stayed when on state business in South Wales. This plush retreat was seemingly a location the Earl of Richmond found relaxing, for the site was and still is situated in the middle of sprawling forest and parkland which together with the fishponds and orchards ensured everything the Earl required was openly available. It was at Lamphey palace that Edmund had honeymooned with his young bride Margaret Beaufort and seems very possible that it was here at his Pembrokeshire headquarters that his son was conceived.
Edmund died without ever having seen his newborn son and although initially buried in a monastery in Carmarthen, after his grandson Henry VIII dissolution of this monasteries a century later his tomb was moved to St David’s Cathedral where it now rests impressively in the centre of the religious soul of Wales, as befitting his role as ancestor of the Kings of the realm. Resting fittingly in the same region that Edmund had reached the zenith of his power shortly before his death, the epitaph that appears around his tomb declares: “under this marble stone here inclosed resteth the bones of that most noble lord Edmond Earl of Richmond father and brother to kings, the which departed out of this world in year of our lord God MCCCCLVI the third of the month of November: on whose soul Almighty Jesu have mercy”. Across the county lies Tenby, a favourite holiday resort of many and a town that has a deep Tudor connection. Henry’s uncle and Edmund’s brother Jasper Tudor was the Earl of Pembroke and as such made this region of South Wales his powerbase during the hazardous years of the Wars of the Roses. Jasper’s half-brother was King Henry VI whom was coming under attack from Yorkist forces and with defence in mind Jasper ensured the walls of Tenby were strengthened. The famous Five Arches can still be seen today as well as the multiple-storied Mayor’s House situated just in front of the harbour. On this building lies a blue plaque which proudly states “it is said that Henry Tudor (Later King Henry VII) escaped through a tunnel here, in 1471, when he fled to France”.
After living in exile in Brittany for 14 years to escape capture and probable execution at the hands of Yorkist King Edward IV, Henry found himself the new Lancastrian heir and eventually launched his invasion force to usurp the crown. Choosing his birth area and the Land of his Fathers for reasons of strategy and alliance, his forces landed at Mill Bay just outside the lovely village of Dale in 1485. His rag tag army of loyal soldiers and mercenaries landed here under both his and his uncle Jasper Tudor’s command and began the arduous task of marching through Wales to that fateful meeting with King Richard III at Bosworth in England. By the end of that day, Henry’s forces had vanquished Richard’s and the Welshman was acclaimed as King Henry VII. Similar to Tenby, Mill Bay is a rural outpost that is difficult to get to but has a memorial to this historic landing.
The final and greatest connection to the Tudor dynasty in Pembrokshire’s historical crown is the impressive Pembroke Castle, an impressive monument that would become the birthplace of a King and the birthplace of the world’s most famous dynasty. It was in one of the outer wards to the west of the main gate on 28th January 1457 that the 13-year-old Margaret Beaufort brought her young son into the world. As well as her young age, the new mother was also very slender and had a small frame not suited to the rigours of child birth and by all accounts it was a very difficult pregnancy. In fact it probably rendered her infertile for the remainder of her life as there were no other accounts of her baring child. The child was sickly soon after his birth and good care by both his mother and the attendant nurses seem to be the core reason for this young babe not becoming yet another statistic for the high infant mortality rates of the time.
Although the son was called Henry, a regal English name and possibly in tribute to the child’s half-uncle Henry VI, a later tradition suggested the original name was in fact Owain. Although no contemporary evidence exists to corroborate this account, it is interesting to note nevertheless that the aforementioned Welsh prophecies suggested an Owain would come to lead the Welsh as their Mab Darogan. Perhaps the story has some truth, although the likelihood is that it was an apocryphal story from a Welsh bard looking to further increase the myth surrounding this Welsh-born child. By blood Henry of Richmond, for he had inherited his father’s Earldom upon birth as was his hereditary right, was one quarter French, one quarter Welsh and half English but with his birthplace and father’s nationality considered most valid under patrilineal descent, it is indisputable which nation would claim Harri Tudur as their own. The courageous Edmund Tudor had passed before he could live up to the hopes and dreams of the Welsh bards whom watched from a distance but fittingly he had left something pure and new in his place, a young son with an equally impeccable Welsh bloodline hailing back to the great Welsh Princes.
With this in mind it is somewhat disappointing to note the lack of celebration towards the birth and subsequent life of Henry Tudor at this castle. This isn’t merely a location with a tenuous link to the Tudors, it’s an integral part of the Tudor story as the birthplace of Henry VII. With the plethora of Tudor related places in the region as already mentioned it is very surprising and almost unacceptable to learn that the Council or the relevant Tourist board hasn’t capitalised on this wonderful historical occurrence and looked to find its way into the lucrative Tudor market that is currently a major tourist stream in England. If people are willing to travel hundreds of miles, sometimes thousands, to visit Tudor locations throughout England then surely Pembroke and indeed Pembrokeshire should be marketing itself as the “Birthplace of the Tudor Dynasty”. It is difficult to overstate the financial benefits the Tudor’s being to the UK touristy industry, hundreds perhaps thousands of Americans alone regularly visiting the many palaces and castles in England to place themselves in the very spot History happened. Hampton Court. Windsor. Kenilworth Castle. Ludlow Castle. Even Stratford Upon Avon with its Shakespeare links. The list is endless. Disappointingly and somewhat with a degree of short sightedness Pembroke as a town and a council has not capitalised on this Tudor-mad industry by marketing itself as a core Tudor attraction. The castle itself, under the managerialship of Jon Williams, has certainly all it can financially do to increase tourism although their ambitions are drastically reduced by the economical issues of running such an enterprise. Jon stated to me “we are gradually adding to and modernising our intrepretation here and although we don’t lack ambition and ideas unfortunatly it takes money to make things happen on a major scale“. Indeed Pembroke Castle itself is a small independent charitable trust “that needs to spend a lot of resources to simply maintain the castle as a visitor attraction“.
I read with interest the other day that in 2010 Mrs Melanie Phillips campaigned for a statue of Henry VII at Pembroke castle and I feel that this would be a fantastic addition to the premises, or at least in the town. It would give an overt and obvious indication of the importance of the castle to the Tudor story and could prove to be a lucrative marketing aspect for Tudor addicts. It is all very well having exhibitions inside, but the key is attracting people to the area in the first place, and a statue would certainly do that. As a comparison, the small North Welsh village of Corwen has a magnificient statue of Owain Glyndwr and as a result has been able to attract scores of Welshmen from all over to view it. Imagine tapping into only a mere percentage of the gigantic Tudor Tourism Industry and persuading them to come to Pembroke for a similar pilgrimage to the one they already make to many different locales throughout England. Jon Williams of Pembroke Castle agrees, stating “it would make perfect sense to have a statue although my opinion is that it would benefit Pembroke more if it were at the opposite end of the main street to the Castle. Firstly this would encourage Castle visitors to wander the town and secondly it would act as a good welcome to people arriving at East End Square“. It would certainly benefit Pembroke and it would benefit Wales. Pembrokeshire’s most famous son deserves more than a couple of mere plaques and in an age of austerity any attempt to bring in tourism to boost the stuttering economy must be seriously looked at. I understand on that occasion Mrs Phillips’ campaign was not successful but I would urge the council and tourist board to take another look at this matter. Pembroke is the home of the world famous Tudor Dynasty and deserves recognition that would certainly place it on the global scale alongside other famous Tudor locations in England.
UPDATE: After an initial flurry of press interest when the petition was first opened in May 2012, the official submission of the petition to the Welsh Government petitions committee occured on 8th January 2013 and with it has brought further attention and awareness to the campaign. The first few days after the submission has brought articles in the Western Mail, Western Telegraph, Milford Mercury, Pembroke Dock Observer and a spot on BBC Radio Cymru.
As part of this campaign, there will be occasions where it will receive press interest.
The Western Mail; (11th May 2012) http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/2012/05/11/call-for-castle-to-make-most-of-its-role-in-tudor-dynasty-91466-30944610/
The Western Telegraph; (16th May 2012)
The Western Telegraph; (9th January 2013)http://www.westerntelegraph.co.uk/news/10150247.Petition_calling_for_a_Henry_VII_statue_in_Pembroke_is_handed_over/
The Western Mail; (10th January 2013) http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/2013/01/10/let-s-celebrate-pembrokeshire-s-links-to-the-tudor-dynasty-campaign-91466-32576759/
Response from Welsh Government Business Minister Edwina Hart (22nd May 2012)
PETITION SUBMISSION TO WELSH GOVERNMENT
Official handover of the petition to Assembly Members on the Petitions Committee at Y Senedd (8th January 2013)
Petition and supporting documents can be viewed – http://www.senedd.assemblywales.org/ieIssueDetails.aspx?IId=5324&Opt=3
The Petition has been under consideration since January. The committee wrote to the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, Welsh Government Minister for Housing, Regeneration and Housing and also Pembrokeshire County Council. The response from the Minister was dissapointing stating they do not fund the creation of new memorials or commemorations. Pembrokeshire County Council stated they are fully supportive of any proposals which highlight the Tudor link to the county and any rebranding proposal which improves tourism if not to a statue itself. Pembs Coast National Park stated they do not believe a statue is worth public money but do believe that new intrepretation panels would be more effective.
On 16th April the committee considered the responses and stated whilst it is clear no money or funding is being put forward, I have gained a partial win in attaining support for dedicated intrepretation panels on the Tudors in Pembroke. They have agreed the campaign is still ongoing and will now consult with Pembroke Castle Trust, Pembroke Town Council and the new Heritage Minister for further consultation.
With the recent passing of the 500th anniversary of King Henry VIII’s ascension to the throne, the previous year has re-established the Tudor King in the minds of the nation he once ruled over as well as foreign visitors.
With a plethora of exhibitions, books and the attraction of Hollywood, Henry is as much in demand as he has ever been. This current renaissance of England’s most notorious King has once again thrust his actions into popular psyche and led leading historians and amateur fans to once again ponder – “Was Henry really an evil tyrant or simply an effective leader and a product of the times?“
Recent portrayals of the 16th Century ruler paint him as a barbaric gargantuan of a man, a hard-hearted genocidal maniac with a lust for beheading wives. What tends to be overlooked is the reasons behind his behaviour and what influenced the actions that have left him demonised to subsequent generations.
Many events are used as evidence against the King, the most conjured tend to be surrounding his six wives. With the country being a firm catholic nation under the strict doctrinne of papal jurisdiction and authority, marriage was deemed a highly important union before God which was binding until the death of one partner. Henry’s “Great Matter” of the late 1520′s changed the fabric of the country from a deeply pious Catholic one to a divided country on the brink of another civil war, this time on religious lines between the followers of the “one true faith” and the new Protestants or Reformers influenced by the teaching of Luther on the continent.
Henry’s official reasoning for his attempt to have his marriage annulled by the Pope was due to a previous betrothal of his wife to his dead elder brother, thereby believing himself t be living in Biblical sin. The more likely reason is that after 20 years of trying for a son with wife she had only given birth to one surviving daughter after numerous others died in, during and after childbirth. What is often missed is that the older Katherine was in a marital abyss after the death of her husband, Henry’s elder brother Arthur. She was unwanted and unneeded by both England and her native Spain. Henry resolved to save this woman and married her as soon as he inherited the stone. Despite this however, his eagerness and obsession to have a healthy heir to the throne his father had physically won on the battlefield is what can most likely be attributed to his decision on annulment rather than religious conscience, his focus becoming more resolute as the young and virile court maiden Anne Boleyn caught his eye. Not receiving satisfaction and with a greater number of Protestant reformers and scrupulous new nobles within Henry’s influential circle than ever before, Henry’s idle threats began to become more serious and he withdrew his subservance to the Holy Father, isolating his kingdom from Europe and inserting himself as head of the new Church in England.
With far-reaching consequences that are still felt today, Henry instantly forced everyone to submit to his supremacy as he began his journey to becoming the most powerful monarch in the isles history. The outcome was that he married Anne Boleyn, exiled his shunned ex-wife and beheaded all who refused to accept him as the Supreme Head of the Church, including his mentor and friend Sir Thomas More.
After seemingly getting almost all that he wanted, namely the exotic and virile young Boleyn girl and the excessive power that comes with being God’s so-called “anointed one” in his Kingdom, Henry turned his world upside down yet again after Anne repeatedly failed to live up to her boasts of providing the as-yet heir-less monarch with a son. Her erratic and allegedly scandalous behaviour as well as the political aspirations of yet more new nobles prompted rumours of Witchcraft and the King aptly annulled the marriage, signed her death warrant and executed her and others for adultery and treason.
Contemporary defenders of Henry claim there was irrefutable evidence of her infidelity and the pious King may have truly believed he was in the midst of an instrument of the Devil whereas the more cynical historians claim it was simply the cruel King casting aside another woman only capable of providing a female child and moving on to yet another, younger, woman. Anne Boleyn’s story has captivated minds for centuries, her status as the most infamous Queen Consort in history a secure accolade. Contemporary theory painted her as a treacherous witch, whilst the truth is more likely that she was a willing pawn in the never ending and often fatal ambitions of noble families attempting to gain power of the King for personal greed. These families had everything to gain by having their blood linked to the King via the birth of an heir. No longer would they be struggling to remain in the good graces of an almost bi-polar monarch, but rather would be inextricably tied by plasma. In Anne’s case it was the scheming of her father and devious uncle, who as Duke of Norfolk was the most powerful noble in the land already, which led to her dramatic downfall, both of whom survived whilst she perished.
His short-lived marriage to plain but virtuous Jane Seymour resulted in the only mortal thing he craved, a healthy and legitimate baby son and male heir to the Tudor Dynasty. Her piety and good nature captured the King’s heart and when she died in the aftermath of a catastrophic childbirth Henry went into a prolonged period of mourning the woman he had elevated into a Madonna-type figure. An over-the-top reaction to a short marriage perhaps, but she became the prototype for perfection in the misty eyes of the King because of the fate of nature that was her giving birth to a male.
Resolving never to marry and even placing himself into semi-delusional retreat from court with only his fool for company, Henry’s right hand man Thomas Cromwell, and successor to Cardinal Wolsey as the alter rex, had began to grow alarmed at how the Protestant reformation he had fought hard to initiate was now stalling. Worried that the King, whom although broken from papal authority had yet to reject Catholic rituals, had gone cold on the process Cromwell felt that a Protestant marriage-cum-alliance was imperative to further the movement and also avoid England becoming isolated within Europe. He thus began probing the King. Finally succumbing to the incessant enquiries and on the assurance that his new bride was a beauty to soothe him into old age, Henry was enraged when he first came across his new wife. Considering Anne of Cleves a “flanders mare” he declared “I like her not” in a thunderous temper that within 6months had brought down his marriage and Cromwell’s influence. Apart from sexual attraction, Henry actually treated Anne well and moved her into many luxurious palaces where she was publicly lauded as “thy Kinges sister”.
Despite the setback, the King’s libido and lust had returned and the ever-alert Duke of Norfolk resolved to put another of his neices, Anne Boleyn’s precocious young cousin Katherine Howard, into the eyesight of his Lord. A promiscuous teenager whom knew how to use her womanly charms in a way made eternally famous by her tragic older kinswoman, she was used to ensnare the King with desire. Unbeknownst to him yet seemingly public knowledge amongst the court, Katherine was a vivacious lady with loose morals for the time, even continuing a love affair during her regency and unashamed to conceal it. After initially being disbelieving of the rumours, the King apparently sobbed for days before taking out complete wrath on all involved. Heads rolled, literally, and Katherine became the second Queen of her prominent family to be beheaded, although unlike Anne she remained unrepentant to the end. Taking one more wife more closer in age to himself and off an intellectual disposition rather than mere look, Katherine Parr nursed Henry to his death and helped patch up his fractured relationship with all three children, a small mercy that concluded the life of the most infamous married man in history.
Apart from the sometime brutal treatment of some of his wives, critics point at other aspects of Henry’s reign that support claims of barbarian behaviour. As briefly explored earlier, his break with Rome in order to secure a simple annulment from his first wife Katherine of Aragon directly led to many thousands of deaths and innumerable plots against the Crown that has never been fully eradicated. The battle of power and faith between warring denominations of Christianity may have eventually erupted without his significant input, but Henry’s vanity to be seen as “Supreme Ruler of England” and removing papal authority only accelerated it. Further influenced by staunch Protestant Cromwell, Henry allowed him to investigate and consequently pull apart old holy orders of monasteries around the land. Whilst enjoying a reputation for doing good work in the local communities, Cromwell’s investigations uncovered alleged corruption, fake relics and dubious moralist behaviour un becoming of priests. More significantly to the King, who’s vast inheritance and treasury had long been laid to waste with Palaces and War, the monasteries contained a gold mine of wealth which was instantly annexed to the crown. This once again helped enrich the King at the expense of his nemesis the Pope.
The brutal way Cromwell’s men dissolved the monasteries led to an uproar in the strong Catholic northern England and led to a rebellion called the “Pilgramage of Grace, led by Yorkshireman Robert Aske. Henry had the rebellion sharply and viciously suppressed at the hands of best friend Charles Brandon’s armies and had Aske and his collaborators executed en masse.
Having reimbursed his coffers with confiscated funds Henry continued to spend lavishly and recklessly, even commissioning Nonsuch Palace at a modern cost of £101m, whilst parts of his nation, although not uncharictaristically for the time, was ravaged with poverty and disease.
All of these events and actions are continually used against the ruler, painting him as a tyrannical despot, a temper tantrum throwing man-child who got what he wanted and simply executed people who dared to fall in his way. Cardinal Wolsely fell afoul of the Boleyn faction and was excluded until his mysterious death whilst being transported to imprisonment. Sir Thomas More was beheaded for refusing to cast aside his belief of the Pope being God’s only anointed head of the Church whilst Cromwell was also executed, all of whom were at one point or another his trusted number two’s. It is also estimated he ordered the deaths of between 50,000-75,000 people throughout his reign.
But what of the flipside? What good did King Henry VIII of England, France and Ireland do during his length reign, or was he simple the spawn of Satan and a genocidal, murderous heretic as believed by Continental Catholic Europe during his lifetime. One of the biggest disappointments of Henry’s later life was when his body began to let him down. The enduring view of him is that he was a gigantic man with a 50-plus inch chest who had to be lifted in and out of bed. In actuality, the King spent the majority of his life in fantastic shape, and was a wonderfully strong athlete whom regularly won jousting competitions amongst others. Whilst his body was the physical image and suitable metaphor for his strength as a King, mentally he considered himself a humanist and surrounded himself with learned scholars such as the aforementioned Sir Thomas More and Erasmus. He regularly agonised with the idealistic More over his duties as a humanist and his duties as a King. Central humanist principles such as peace simply didn’t collaborate with Kingly duties such as War. The famous conundrum of “is it better to be loved or feared” often gripped Henry in his younger days, his desire for the greater good often being overshadowed by his unrelenting responsibility for his Kingdom.
Henry was acknowledged as being a magnificently clever monarch and regaled in his in-depth debates with More amongst others granted such a distinction to speak freely around His Majesty. Deeply enamoured with Greek mythology and such new pursuits as Astronomy and the arts, Henry had a great desire to be a perfect King, an ideal combination of part academic, part warrior. He was greatly responsible for dragging the secluded island out of the dark middle ages and into the lavish and extravagant renaissance that was already in full-flow on the continent and which would be perfected under his daughter Elizabeth. His overwhelming desire to be considered the greatest King in Christendom directly led to his patronage of various artistic pursuits. Supporting and funding the best artists, musicians and poets in Europe, England was transformed from a ‘wild people’ into the leaders of European culture, which as briefly mentioned earlier peaked under his daughter’s “Golden Age” and Shakespeare.
A further policy of Henry which was to have dramatic effect within his Kingdom was that he allowed his daughters equal tutoring rights to males. Indeed, the Princess Mary and in particular Princess Elizabeth were two most well-taught youngsters in the land, something which inadvertently became useful when both ascended to the throne in their own right. On a similar note was Henry’s implementation of state education for children as opposed to their working as soon as physically possible. Despite his reputation as a King who jeopardised his country with his personal temper tantrums, the face remains that he took a troublesome, war-torn provincial island state and made it into a major continental power by the end of his substantial reign. Whilst his foreign policy was up and down, sometimes vain glorious and often constantly on the verge of war, his actions still established England as a regional super power.
His early peace treaties, albeit created by his trusted right-hand man and expert statesman Cardinal Thomas Wolsely established him as a respectable King and highlighted his promising humanist ideals in a world continually fractured by ambitious and war-mongering leaders keen to establish immortal reputations. Although the peace invariable crumbled , it was still an innovative ideal considering the tempestuous times.
A further implementation taken by Henry was his emasculation of the historic and often quarrelsome noble families, disempowering them and ending their right to raise private armies, something which had often been troublesome and in some cases fatal to previous monarchs. With the nobility losing much of their physical power, the crown subsequently became stronger than any time previous time, many felt this turned the King into a tyrannic dictator with complete control. The fact remained however that he had secured himself against renegade pretenders and allowed his realm to grow without the constant threat of the civil war that had decimated the people only a generation before. Whilst modern theory holds Henry guilty for the disastrous crime that was the dissolution of the monasteries for personal monetary gain, it is undisputed that some of the holy houses were engaging in duplicitous moral behaviour unbecoming of their station as well as severely undermining the King’s authority by paying homage and rent to a foreign power in the Pope. On the subject of money, a further allegation aimed towards the free-spending King was his obsession with new warships. He increased the nation’s fleet from 5 to 40, inadvertently becoming on of the recognised founders of the royal navy which would become irreplaceable in defending the realm and expanding the empire in subsequent centuries.
Whilst his break with Rome for personal, arrogant reasons has been condemned, he indirectly helped push the English language into constant growth until, 500 years later it has become the de facto language of the globe. Until Henry’s reign the language of court and thus officially was a mixture of French inherited from the Norman roots of the Plantagenet dynasty and Latin as the spoken-word of the church. English was a very fractured language radically different in the many distant communities. After the break from Rome Henry introduced the Tynsdale Bible, the first holy book written in a language other than Latin. The result was that for the first time a nation was, literally, on the same page and singing from the same sheet, bringing together the divided people.
Henry’s reign has seen many accusations levelled at him, both as a King and as a man. A tyrant, a despot, neglectful father and wife-killer are many of the labels thrown towards the monarch. It seems that despite honest, good intentions, the pious young man was irrevocably altered by court politics and the need to maintain a grip on his crown by being a ruthless ruler. What is indisputable is that his reign seems to be a case of means to an end. For all his faults, by the time he died his actions had left England on the cusp of becoming the world’s greatest superpower. He had taken a medieval, fuedal and unstable kingdom and set into action the policies and groundwork for what would subsequently become the most powerful empire in recent memory. So was Henry a good man who lost his way or simply an evil incarnation of the devil. As this article has proven, its never as easy as that.