The lives of Henry VII and Henry VIII: Never the twain shall meet

Henry VIII and Henry VIII
Henry VIII (left) with his father Henry VII (right). The Tudor bloodline was seen as descending from the ‘wrong side of the blanket’

Henry VII became King of England and Wales in 1485, not by royal lineage but on the battlefield. In what has become the most synonymous of battles to end the violent civil war known as the War of the Roses, the young Henry Tudor fought nose-to-nose with King Richard III on Bosworth Field.

Henry’s victory at Bosworth meant that England’s history was to change forever as a mere nobleman with Welsh ancestry (Henry’s father was Owen Tudor, a Welsh servant) was to introduce one of the most famous royal dynasties in history. The Tudor bloodline was seen as descending from the ‘wrong side of the blanket’, basically illegitimate and therefore banned from claiming the throne. This was this reality of how Henry Tudor became king and this knowledge that there were other claimants with stronger royal bloodlines and pedigrees for the English throne persisted to haunt both father and son Henry VIII.

The Spare

Henry VIII was born on 28 June 1491 at Greenwich Palace to Henry VII and his wife Elizabeth of York as the second son and one of five surviving children. Elizabeth descended from a legitimate royal lineage as she was the daughter of King Richard III’s brother, Edward the IV and marriage to Henry VII allowed reconciliation between the two great rival houses of York and Lancaster following years of civil war. But their healthy, red-headed, athletic younger son was not expected to become king. That honour was reserved for King Henry’s elder and weak looking brother Arthur. While fragile Arthur was sent away at the age of six to Ludlow Castle in Wales to be raised as a future king as Prince of Wales, his brother Prince Henry’s status as the ‘spare’ meant he had no official tutoring designed to prepare him as a monarch.

However, young Henry excelled in his academic studies from Greek to Latin, Italian, astronomy and cartography which he enjoyed, while also showing an aptitude for sports, athletics and music. Prince Henry was brought up with his sisters, Margaret, Mary and Elizabeth at Eltham Palace, but had little contact with his brother Arthur. As a boy with a thirst for learning, he was admired by such celebrated men as Sir Thomas Moore who Prince Henry was to later cultivate a close but fateful relationship in adulthood. Without the pressures of being seen as his father’s successor, it can be assumed that his relationship with King Henry VII, known for his loving relationship with his wife, may have been an unusually affectionate one for royal families at the time. However, this was to change when unexpected and tragic events altered the dynamic between father and youngest son.

Family Tragedy

When Arthur, Prince of Wales at just 15 years-old was betrothed to the slightly older Catherine of Aragon - fusing England with the then second most powerful country in Europe after France - King Henry must have believed that England’s future was on a trajectory to greater prominence and influence in the world.

Princess Catherine was the daughter of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella of Castile. The real problem with an English royal marriage from their point of view was the shaky nature of the new Tudor dynasty which was established not through royal blood but by the sword. Such a belief contributed to King Henry’s increasing paranoia and fear of rivals with superior dynastic claims. However Arthur and Catherine had been part of a marriage pact since childhood and although the Spanish side was cooler about the match, plans for the two young royals to form a union representing England and Spain progressed with few quibbles.

After a spectacular celebration of Catherine’s arrival in England and her marriage on the 14 November 1501 in London to a young pallid fifteen-year-old prince Arthur, fate dealt a terrible and unexpected blow for the new Tudor dynasty, when soon afterwards Arthur contracted a disease - possibly the infectious ‘sweating sickness’ on 2 April 1502 - and died. His death so soon after his wedding to the sixteen-year-old Catherine was to form the most contentious debate nearly thirty years later over the issue of whether the two teenagers had consummated their marriage. Suddenly overnight younger brother Prince Henry’s status as the ‘spare’ now shifted to ‘heir’, as his anxious parents, devastated by Arthur’s death considered various plans to salvage the precious treaty between Tudor England and Spain. The answer was to put forwards a pre-teen but physically stronger second son to marry his brother’s widow when he came of age.

Throughout the protracted and endlessly complicated arrangements to marry Prince Arthur to Catherine, King Henry had displayed a degree of cunning and Machiavellian zeal over issues of Catherine’s rights and the dowry that King Henry, as father-in-law, was to receive. In many ways, he matched his counterpart King Ferdinand’s equally crafty ways. It is perhaps not that surprising that younger son Henry was to display similar wily traits, as history proved years later. The younger Henry exhibited a similar ruthless streak to rule with absolute power, although lacking his father’s notorious penny-pinching obsessions. Perhaps having witnessed what a miser his father could be influenced Henry VIII to be the opposite, as seen by his vast expenditure on feasting, building palaces and warships during his thirty-six-year reign.

Teenage resentment

After Prince Arthur died the then eleven-year-old Prince Henry was thrust into a position he was never meant to attain, that of the future king of England. His mother died shortly afterwards during childbirth of what was her last child, a girl who only survived a few days. King Henry’s emotional devastation at the loss of his adored wife may have affected the young Henry to understand that even despite the political necessities underpinning royal marriages, love also stood for something.

Suddenly Prince Henry’s education was taken into hand by his grieving father as he was prepared in all ways to succeed the ageing king. Henry now held the title of Prince of Wales and was betrothed to Catherine who was six years his senior.

The young prince’s teenage relationship with his father became increasingly strained by the King’s unyielding prohibition of Prince Henry’s involvement in extreme sports such as jousting which resulted in a bitter clash of wills between father and son. Such physically dangerous activities were seen as too risky for a valuable son and now heir to the Tudor dynasty. Embarrassed at being restricted to unarmed training exercises while his friends were allowed to exhibit their physical skills in violent jousts, may have fuelled the sport-loving Prince Henry’s growing resentment against his father, who also monitored his son’s education closely and often criticised his teenage son for the most trivial of matters.

But other factors contributed to a testy father-son relationship that although not known for being hostile went some way to demonstrate the emotional difference between them. The most notable reason being a mother’s love and influence.

Mother’s boy

One irony about Henry VIII, the notorious tyrant king who executed two of his wives, was that he was largely brought up by his mother and surrounded by women in his family, like his three sisters. Here displays of affection and adoration were granted mutually. It has been suggested that, unlike his ruthless and emotionally controlled father, the young Prince Henry, brought up in a circle of adoring women, was far more romantic. His pursuit of six women, primarily for a male heir was also a pursuit for love.

Meanwhile, as Prince Henry had to tolerate an environment where he was overprotected and cushioned from any kind of harm, King Henry took charge of the disastrous state of England’s finances after years of civil war known as the War of the Roses. His tactics earned him a reputation for penny-pinching. Soon young Henry shared the widespread resentment of the people towards his father, who he felt was acting more like a landlord than a great king. Ironically King Henry’s frugal accountancy during this period would leave his son with a vast fortune to rule England, which Prince Henry, on becoming king in 1509 did not hesitate to spend.

Before his coronation, Henry VIII had been given numerous titles in his childhood to grant him authority in many areas, such as his position as Constable of Dover Castle and Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. By the time Henry was three years of age his father had made him Duke of York, Knight of the Bath, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Warden of the Scottish Marches among many over titles. The six-foot-two prince was immediately proclaimed Henry VIII when his father died on 21 April 1509, in an atmosphere of hope where many predicted the beginning of a new golden age for England.

Popularity contest

Henry VII restored the reputation of the monarch as one who rules, not merely reigns. His basic methods were to enforce the law, especially against magnates who exceeded their rights and to exploit the Crown’s powers of patronage. He selected his closest advisors for their loyalty and ability, especially in raising Crown revenues. As King Henry also avoided foreign wars it meant Henry never needed to appeal to parliament for funds. If not quite the miser critics accused him of being, he was tough and ruthless in pursuit of his interests, and some of his expedients for raising money from his subjects were of doubtful legality. As a result, he was not popular with his subjects, some of whom greeted his death with celebration.

Henry VIII could not have been more different. Handsome, unusually tall for the time, intelligent, athletic, interested in the arts and music, the main difference between father and son was not only temperament (Henry VIII was famously volatile) but also in outlook. The Prince of Wales as young Henry was also known grew into a fun-loving, hedonistic show-off. His pleasure-seeking activities not only included an exhibitionistic streak and obsession to win in all things, especially in physical sports, but also in philandering. His father however was known to be quiet in comparison and deeply in love with his wife Elizabeth of York to whom he was loyal.

Unlike his father, Henry VIII was popular with his subjects, or at least added to his popularity by executing his father’s hated tax collectors when he became king. One advantage was the full treasury he could spend due to his father’s miserly attitude and illegal means for procuring wealth. Just as his father had relied on close advisors who were favoured for their loyalty, the young Henry VIII left the administration in the hands of powerful figures such as Thomas Wolsey and later Wolsey’s scheming usurper, Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell became Henry’s right-hand man and advisor helping him rid the king of his first wife Catherine of Aragon and masterminding a plot to kill his second wife Anne Boleyn.

Abandoning his father’s peaceful foreign policy, Henry VIII wasted resources and vast amounts of money on flamboyant but unsuccessful expeditions against France and wars with Scotland and Spain. In an act of cultural and religious vandalism that would have appalled his father, Henry plundered the wealth of monasteries by dissolving them during the Reformation (1532-6) and confiscating their property, only to squander most of it in military expenditure building battleships and fortresses around the country. If his father had the reputation of being a Tudor Scrooge, his son soon gained a reputation for being an indulgent spendthrift and warmonger.

Henry VII may not have been the warrior king his son became famous for, but he subsidised shipbuilding, strengthening the navy and commissioning Europe’s first-ever dry dock at Portsmouth in 1495. By contrast, Henry VIII built the then-largest and most impressive warship, the Mary Rose, which after 33 years of fighting Henry’s enemies on the seas, finally sank in the Solent. On the other hand, Henry VII had a reputation for being manipulative in the world of commerce. For instance, he convinced foreign dukes to sign treaties that favoured England economically, demonstrating shrewd diplomatic skills his son lacked.

Against his father’s wishes

In contrast to his father, Prince Henry proved in 1507 to be the most popular royal member, noted for his good looks, athletic ability and ability to charm both noblemen and commoners. It was clear for everyone to see the distinction between the tyrannical and dour King Henry VII and his handsome, smiling gregarious and well-loved son. Prince Henry the people believed would be a different kind of king, one who thirsted for honour and glory rather than gold or one ruling over his subjects with suspicion and extortion. Sadly the unattractive traits of his autocratic father were to become the very same characteristics of a middle-aged King VIII, who, afflicted by paranoia and suffering unbearable pain was to become as equally ruthless as his hated father.

King Henry VII’s ability to scheme and act in an unashamedly Machiavellian manner, particularly when it came to manipulating political situations for his benefit was less acute in his son. Even during convoluted wrangles over his daughter-in law’s fate after elder son Arthur’s death, King Henry displayed a cunning streak as he concealed plans to marry son Prince Henry to other eligible foreign princesses, while at the same time posturing as the caring, loving father-in-law who had Princess Catherine’s best interests at heart. Indeed, young Catherine was even prepared to return to Spain and be free of King Henry’s control when unexpectedly after a short illness the father of the Tudor dynasty died. It was Prince Henry, now to be King, who chose to honour the English-Spanish treaty and to marry Catherine of Aragon six weeks later in the oratory of the friary church just outside Greenwich Palace.

Royal romantics

In some ways, father and son shared an unusual virtue for kings of the time in that they loved their spouses and happily expressed affection to them, even if only revealing them only in private. Henry VII was known as a reserved man who rarely showed much raw emotion in public but his fiery red-headed son Henry had little trouble expressing his anger with violent explosions of his displeasure at courtiers and close advisors.

Henry senior even surprised his courtiers by his intense grief and open sobbing at his elder son’s death when 15-year-old Arthur suddenly died of a mysterious disease. Equally the unexpected death of his beloved wife Elizabeth of York in 1503 saw him shutting himself away several days, refusing to speak to anyone. After Elizabeth’s death, King Henry emerged a harder man and more autocratic. Through his grief, he appeared to have withdrawn from the hearts of his children, including the now valuable heir Prince Henry.

If history has painted a picture of Henry VIII as a psychopathic philanderer, historians believe he was at heart an emotional creature and genuinely distressed over the deaths of his infant children, particularly those born to Catherine of Aragon. He is also known to have broken down and wept, perhaps with a mix of self-pity and wounded pride, when told of his young wife Catherine Howard’s infidelity. But unlike his father, who may have shown a degree of clemency to the teenage Howard who had sexual relations with two courtiers, Henry had her beheaded and her secret lovers tortured and executed with inhuman savagery.

Autocracy and power

If there is one thing the two kings had in common it was a display of increasing ruthlessness and rule by autocracy. King Henry VII’s style of governing after his wife’s death became despotic as his obsession with wealth and power took prominence over anything else in his life. In the autumn of 1503, King Henry VII recruited an experienced London lawyer Edmund Dudley to assist him with his unscrupulous revenue-raising activities.

Not satisfied with simply pressurising landowners to sell their estates and give their annual revenue to him, King Henry VII now transformed the privy chamber and royal treasury into a racket, akin to a modern-day crime syndicate. Dudley revived laws long lost to impose fines on those who broke them. If anyone refused to pay or protested against the fines they were imprisoned. Many chose to pay the fines rather than risk dying in prison or being accused of treason and suffering a worse fate. Henry’s army of lawyers appropriated money from nobles and ordinary people to the treasury in any way possible, even inventing laws and crimes to charge people with.

The hostility that King Henry’s actions attracted as he accumulated wealth through ruthlessness even disturbed Prince Henry, who possibly in a move to curry favour with the people when he became King in 1509 had Edmund Dudley arrested on trumped-up charges and executed.

Finally after governing England for decades what united two very different men and monarchs was the fact that both father and son had started their lives as rulers of England with great promise, but where anxiety, suspicion, paranoia, illness and tragedy had reduced them to bitter shells of their former years resulting in them being either hated or resented by their subjects despite their singular achievements.

Written by:

Richard Bevan

Richard Bevan is an MA Screenwriter/playwright and freelance writer specialising in history and crime investigation writing.  He is currently contributing to Sky HISTORY channel. Represented by WGM Atlantic agency.