Sunday, June 28, 2009

Happy Birthday Henry VIII, Mr. Perfect.

Today marks the birthday of Henry VIII. He was born at Greenwich Palace in 1491 as the second male heir and third child to Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. No one expected much from his birth. His grandmother, Margaret Beaufort noted the details sparingly in her book of hours and we can guess that many probably didn't expect him to even live. June through August was the worst time for a baby to be born because plague was more virulent in the summer months. But surviving infancy was an easy task for the future king of England.

With high expectations, Henry ascended to the thrown in 1509 in one of the first peaceful successions that England had seen in years. In a letter to Erasmus, Lord Mountjoy wrote:

‘When you know what a hero he now shows himself, how wisely he behaves, what a lover he is of justice and goodness, what affection he bears to the learned I will venture to swear that you will need no wings to make you fly to behold this new and auspicious star. Oh, my Erasmus, if you could see how all the world here is rejoicing in the possession of so great a prince, how his life is all their desire, you could not contain your tears for joy.'

It’s not hard to see why Mountjoy was so effusive with his praise. Henry was certainly a beautiful man. He had envious calves (calves were to be envied then) and a statuesque physique. He had the ideal humanist education with the poet laureate, John Skelton as his tutor and Erasmus as his confidant. He could sing amazingly well, compose music, dance and was a recognized patron of the arts. He excelled in almost every athletic sport, could debate in several languages and was a brilliant theologian. Henry was a seriously good catch. How could he fail?

Showtime’s the Tudors chose to tie their series to Queen's song, I WANT IT ALL - the perfect soundtrack to Henry’s self-aggrandizement. This Renaissance Prince did want it all. He wanted prestige. He wanted wealth. He wanted military power. He wanted stability with a male heir. And he actually wanted to be happy in his marriage. How dare he? 16th century princes were not expected to fall in love with their wives. That’s what mistresses were for.

Maybe Henry’s biggest problem was that he was just too perfect. Perfect people do tend to expect perfection from others. We can guess that Henry must have been disappointed when the people he raised from lowly positions fell short of his expectations. More, Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, Kathyrn Howard and several others paid for their shortcomings with their lives. Henry had made them so it was far easier to break them. That's the joy of playing god.

But gods are also not supposed to feel weakness. In his later years, Henry must have felt like his body was playing some cruel joke on him. It’s much harder for someone who once was so physically fit to lead a sedentary life style. Here was this man who had towered over his subjects being hoisted onto his horse like a bag of lard.

To be fair, Henry did accomplish much in his reign. He pretty much introduced the concept of state education. When he dissolved the monasteries, he used the money to fund a group of schools called the Kings Schools. Talented yet poor children could go to these schools on scholarship and many famously brilliant children rose from obscurity including Christopher Marlowe and William Harvey. Henry's reign also brought the first English bible to the people which unified English into one dialect. And we can't forget that he championed art and humanism, built several palaces, helped establish the first English Navy and contributed significant advancement in medical research by establishing the College of Barber Surgeons. Is this enough to give him a passing grade? Considering that he also left England a tiny broke island bankrupted by his warmongering policies with the coinage debased, I would say…not so sure.

Judging Henry as a ruler is tricky because we can’t help but view him through our own distorted lens of contemporary greatness. Which is why I often wonder - how did Henry feel on his deathbed? Did he believe that he left England in a position of strength? Judging by the Holbein painting, he certainly was trying to convince everyone around him that he had. Holbein’s Henry (shown above) was literally meant to tower over its subjects with the distorted length of its arms and menacing stare. But not everyone today is buying it.

What you think? Do you remember Henry as a great Renaissance Prince or just the overweight bully who killed two of his wives?


Susan Higginbotham said...

Can I cheat and answer, "Both"?

I do think Henry was an enormously complex character, so much so that it's not easy to sum him up.

Lucy said...

This guy is so hard to figure out- kind of like a love-hate relationship (and especially who and what you read...)

Carrie K said...

I'd have to answer both too. He did have the memory of his father's ascent to the throne - I'm sure Henry VII mentioned it at least, and he did have big dreams.

Big dreams, big disappointments, big power, big consequences.

Bearded Lady said...

Yep, I agree. Henry is really hard to either love or hate.