Uneasy Lies The Head

If there is one thing plain about Henry VIII; it was his yearning for a son. Catherine of Aragon prayed endlessly for one; Anne Boleyn dangled the prospect of one like a carrot on a stick for well over eight years. However, it wasn’t until Jane Seymour came along, in 1537, that a Queen was finally able to give him a legitimate one (Prince Edward). The Prince’s birth was all the more of a relief for Henry given that it came just months after the death of his illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond.

Edward, Prince of Wales. Finally born to Henry and Jane Seymour; 12th October, 1537

Although many historians will stress how much Henry wanted a son, they rarely delve too deeply into why he wanted a son. Consequently, it is all too easy to read this as some sort of vanity project. A vanity project that led Henry to setting aside one devoted wife after eighteen years, and the beheading of her successor to get what he wanted after just three years of marriage. However, as I will explain in this post, it wasn’t just what Henry wanted; it was what he desperately needed, and the events of his tumultuous childhood bear that out.

Henry VIII was born on 28th June, 1491. The second son, he was – as tradition dictated – slated to be created Duke of York. The second in line to the new Tudor Crown, with a healthy older brother taking the strain of being the first in line. For this reason, things should have been beyond good for Henry VII and his Queen, Elizabeth of York. But even as Prince Henry was making his discreet entrance into the world, trouble was brewing across the sea in the southern Irish port city, Cork.

Perkin Warbeck; a young, handsome man of about twenty-four years of age, was quickly spotted by disgruntled Yorkist sympathisers who’d sought refuge there. Ireland was Yorkist at heart, and had often been used as a launch pad for invasion of England (it was no coincidence that the earlier pretender, Lambert Simnel, was “crowned” at Dublin Cathedral). Warbeck was initially mistaken for Edward Plantagenet, seventeenth earl of Warwick. However, Simnel had already tried that trick, and Henry VII had responded by parading the real earl of Warwick through the streets of London. Simnel was exposed as the sham he was, and given a job turning the spits in the Palace kitchens (although, he rose to the exalted post of Falconer), and his insurrection was crushed. Warbeck’s followers were not about to make the same mistakes.

Perkin Warbeck: A threat to young Henry VIII, and his whole family.

As a result, Warbeck was set up as Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York. Shrewsbury was the younger son of Edward IV and Elizabeth Wydeville; one of the Princes in the Tower who’d vanished without trace in 1483. He was “recognised” by the old King’s sister, Margaret of Burgundy, through unique marks on his skin. Warbeck even wrote to Isabella of Castile, detailing how he had escaped England after Richard III sent him to the home of an unnamed nobleman, who took pity on him and helped him to flee the Country. He was lauded by the King of Scots, and even married Catherine Gordon, a prominent Scottish noblewoman (although not Scottish Royalty as is often claimed). The Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian, recognised him as “King Richard IV of England”. Warbeck had followers, and powerful ones to boot. Most worryingly of all for Henry VII; Warbeck was even Courting the favours of Isabella and Ferdinand in Spain, (jeopardising the future betrothal between Prince Arthur and the Spanish Infanta.)

All of this may seem as though it has little to do with the newly born Prince Henry. But, this was a part of Henry’s life right from his first breath, and continued for the first eight years of his life (until Warbeck was finally hanged in December, 1499). His formative years were spent under threat from a pretender to (what would eventually turn out to be) his crown. The experiences left him with a fear of Civil War, and a sense that the succession should be settled as quickly as possible. Of course, Henry VII having heirs male didn’t stop Warbeck from launching his rebellion, but it certainly solved at least half of the problems the new-found Tudor dynasty faced. Having no heir at all left Henry VIII even more dangerously exposed than his father before him.

Then there is the issue of legitimacy, and a whole new can of worms is opened. Again, we must reach back further in time to see where Henry’s fears possibly originated. In 1483, King Edward V (Henry’s uncle) was declared illegitimate with eviscerating ease by Richard of Gloucester. A simple act of Parliament, Titulus Regius, was passed and took away everything. The reason being, King Edward IV (Henry’s Grandfather) was said to have been already been pre-contracted at the time of his marriage to his Consort, Elizabeth Wydeville. Therefore, the union was bigamous and invalid in Canonical Law. All of the children of that union (including Henry’s mother – Elizabeth of York) were declared illegitimate and unfit to rule. So Henry VIII knew any son of his, for the sake of stability, had to be unimpeachably legitimate.

Edward V and Richard, Duke of York: Henry VIII’s murdered uncles.

All of these names and dates are just footnotes in history to the casual observer of History. But to Henry, these people were his family, his relations and people he knew. They were the recent events that moulded his mindset, and set him on a course that would end with him taking on the reputation of a bloodstained lecher. Especially since he had a living daughter from his first marriage, and another from his second; whom he willingly declared illegitimate himself.

But again, where Mary and Elizabeth are concerned, we must take into consideration the times that Henry lived in. To fully understand Henry’s fears, we must reach much further back in time; so forgive me while I digress yet again.

England had never had a female ruler before, but, there had been one attempt to place a woman on the throne. Empress Matilda was the only surviving child of King Henry I, after her brother drowned on board The White Ship, in 1120. King Henry recalled Matilda from France, and immediately named her his heir. Not once, but twice; Henry I made the nobility take an Oath of Allegiance to Matilda, swearing to recognise her as the Queen of England. One of those men swearing to be loyal to Matilda was Stephen of Blois. Like Matilda, Stephen was a grandchild of William the Conqueror, giving him a claim to the throne, too. It was a claim he wasted no time in acting on; he usurped Matilda, and twenty-five years of Civil War (aka The Anarchy) ensued. The civil wars on this occasion were only ended when Matilda’s son, Henry (II), was named as Stephen’s heir.

Through the example of Empress Matilda, Henry knew he could name Mary his heir. He knew that he could make his nobility swear Oaths of Allegiance until they were all blue in the face. But what happened after his death was, as with King Henry I, utterly beyond his control. No one was duty bound to uphold an Oath taken to a King who was now cold in his grave. In Henry’s case, a Courtenay or a Pole, would be used to wage war against Mary. Her life, and the stability of the whole realm would be, yet again, scattered to the winds.

The dynastic feuding that gripped England in the half-century or so prior to Henry’s birth was intermittent. The ordinary citizens were largely unaffected (beyond their lands being used as battlefields, and the prices of their goods going through the roof). But the battles were fierce. They lasted only hours, but thousands were killed. For example, the Battle of Towton (March, 1461) lasted for less than ten hours. But well over half of the fifty thousand combatants were left dead (the figure is set to around 27, 000 – 29,000), and that was just one battle out of many that were fought between 1455 and 1487. The victor of Towton was, of course, Henry VIII’s maternal Grandfather, Edward IV.

A Knight in Shining Armour: A skull from the numerous remains still being exhumed from the earth at Towton. Horrific injuries clearly visible; he was one of up to 28,000 killed that day.

Not only did the dynastic feuding cause great loss of life to the common soldiers. The deeply unstable, tragic King, Henry VI, was murdered in the Tower of London days after his only child, Edward of Lancaster, was killed on the battlefield of Tewkesbury, effectively wiping out the Lancastrian line. Whole noble families where killed off, and the wars wreaked havoc with the economy. This is what Henry VIII had to prevent by producing a male heir to succeed him. He had to build on the peace and stability created (at great price) by his father, and he had to ensure it’s continuation through the birth of a Prince.

The Wars of the Roses were more caused by a surplus of sons, rather than a lack of them. But whatever the cause, it (along with “The Anarchy”) serves to emphasise the type of brutal civil war that England would slide back into unless Henry secured the succession beyond all doubt with a legitimate, male heir. Which leads me on to one final point about the need for a male heir in particular. People often like to mock Henry, by pointing out that Elizabeth ruled as a Queen in her own right for forty-five years (they always seem to overlook Mary’s reign, but I guess her paltry-by-comparison five years isn’t quite good enough). Unfortunately, Henry was not psychic. That’s really all I can say to quell those smug observers looking back with the benefit of wonderful hindsight.

Henry had rotten luck with children. His first son, Henry, was born and died within six weeks. Catherine was pregnant a total of seven times, and just one child (Mary) lived to adulthood (the rest all dying before birth). Then Anne Boleyn delivered a daughter, followed by two miscarriages. Time was wearing on, and Henry not getting any younger, by the time Edward was finally born on 12th October, 1537. He had been King for nigh on thirty years; thirty years spent worrying endlessly about what could happen if he died suddenly.

Once Edward was born, however, Henry then had to ensure that his path to succession was as smooth as possible. Certain obstacles arose. For instance, there were still rival claimants waiting in the wings; some with the ever treacherous Reginald Pole backing them. Henry Courtenay Marquis of Exeter was one such rival claimant. Courtenay was the son of Catherine of York, the youngest sister of Elizabeth of York (she was also Edward IV’s youngest daughter; a Princess in her time). He was Henry VIII’s first Cousin, and had a lot of backing on his home turf of Devon and Exeter, and was known to be a Catholic Conservative. When a plot to place Courtenay on the throne was revealed through Geoffrey Pole (brother of Reginald), Henry VIII was quick to act. The Exeter Conspiracy led to the downfall of not only Courtenay, but the King’s other noble relatives, the Poles (the most senior of whom was the elderly Countess of Salisbury), and a raft of executions followed. Henry Courtenay, Nicholas Carew, Edward Neville, and finally, Lady Salisbury herself were all beheaded as a result of Geoffrey Pole’s revelations. If these people had risen against Edward, he would have stood little chance, and once again England would have fallen back into the old Civil Wars.

None of this excuses the way in which Henry VIII went about securing the safety of his son’s succession. The execution of the Countess of Salisbury (a harmless old lady) was a singularly deplorable act. But taken in context, Henry’s actions can be much more clearly understood (and I don’t believe that understanding actions is the same as condoning them). It is important to remember that he did not act arbitrarily, and he did not act entirely without reason.

There is an unfortunate tendency among amateur historians to take Henry’s reign as an isolated event – as though he existed in a vacuum and was completely unaffected by what came before him. Worse still, he is viewed through twenty-first century goggles that distort his actions even more. But Henry was very much a child of the Dynastic feuding. As a child he spent some time shut away in the Tower of London while his father fought yet another battle to secure the Crown. Henry must have remembered those terrifying events. He was five years old (and yes, our old friend Perkin Warbeck was at the centre of it). All of these events must have had an incalculable effect on Henry’s mindset. Is it really any wonder he felt an urge to beget a son? Are we really in a position to condemn him as a bloodstained tyrant when we look at the Civil Wars that he was fighting tooth and nail to avoid?

As I have said, Henry did shed blood. He shed a lot of blood. But the blood he shed in the short term was an attempt (by the standards of his time) to prevent a lot more bloodshed further down the line. One statistic that I have is that Henry VIII’s thirty-five year reign saw the executions of over 60,000 people for offences ranging from the usual petty villainy to high treason. It gets quoted everywhere to highlight what a cruel tyrant he was. However, in a reign not long before Henry’s, roughly the same amount of people were killed in one just one battle , in just one day, fought because of a disputed succession. Say what you like about the Tudors, but they restored peace to a once fractious realm.

(Written by Hannah)



Vincent, Nicholas; “Britain: 1066-1485” (information on Empress Matilda)

Seward, Desmond; “Wars of the Roses” (information about the Battle of Towton)

Penn, Thomas; “The Winter King” (information of the early reign of Henry VII and Perkin Warbeck).

Elton, G.R; “England Under The Tudors” (information about Henry Courtenay, and the Exeter Conspiracy).

10 thoughts on “Uneasy Lies The Head

  1. Henry may have started out with the pure motives you suggest, but IMO, his actions suggest that the pure motives did not last long. By bastardizing Mary, Henry left the realm without a certain heir until Edward’s birth. To the extent that the issue of legitimacy depended on a specific faith, Henry increased the chances that any civil war would be a religious war … and religious wars are often much more bitter than civil wars. Henry had alternatives. He could have protected Mary’s legitimacy during any divorce proceedings (his niece, Margaret Douglas, was declared by the Pope to be legitimate when he annulled her parents’ marriage) and then gotten Mary married to a suitable noble (one of Margaret Pole’s sons, for example). The throne could go directly to a grandson, bypassing Mary, just as Henry VII took the throne, bypassing his mother who actually held the claim. This would not stop Henry from seeking another wife at least after Catherine’s death — giving him two shots at a legitimate male heir (son by another wife or grandson by Mary)
    Also, the Wars of the Roses were triggered by problems involving regencies for monarchs that could not rule due to youth or illness; if Henry had followed this alternative, and Mary started breeding earlier, instead of wasting her most fertile years, another regency could have been avoided. IMO, Henry’s drive for his own son, even if that meant sacrificing his chances for a grandson, was ego-driven (his rivals, Francis and Charles had sons). .

    • The Wars of the Roses began much later on in Henry VI’s reign, so his Regency cannot really be blamed for what happened. He was a deeply unstable man, and Plantagenet felt that he should have been the one to act as stand in while King Henry was out of his senses.
      We will have to agree to disagree that Henry was driven by ego. Like I said, the events of the dynastic fuedings played an enormous part of his upbringing. That sort of environment can have a huge impact. I don’t see why Henry wanting to secure the succession himself was such a bad thing, either. It wasn’t up to Mary to do it; Henry was the King. Then that still left the issue of rival claimants. Either way, Henry always had extremely difficult decisions to make.

      • Perhaps protectorship would have been a better word than regency for Henry VI, but the effect was the same: the fighting started over the question of who would rule when he couldn’t, even though his inability to rule was due to illness, not youth.

  2. Pingback: The Royal Seven Year Itch | A bit of Henry love

  3. Great article. I’m sick to death of portrayals of Henry VIII as a one-dimensional tyrant and sex fiend who casually executed or divorced his wives when he wanted a new one. Henry was actually sexually fastidious, especially compared to his contemporaries like Francis I of France, who really WAS a sex fiend. England DID need a legitmate male heir. Had Mary wed a foreign prince, another country would gain control of England, and if she married an English nobleman, there would have been infighting within various court factions. Either option would have made England precariously unstable…again. Henry’s motives, for his time and circumstances, were completely valid. The manner in which he went about putting those motives into action are the problem. We see the leaders of nations as elected officals; if they prove incompetent or corrupt, we vote them out of office. A king in the 16th century was God’s representative on earth; he wasn’t subject to judgement by mere mortals. It wasn’t simply that he believed it, those around him believed it also. As bloodthirsty as some of Henry’s actions seem to us, they were SOP for his times, and his subjects, while unhappy and confused by what their King was doing, likely had faith that King Harry knew what he was doing, and it was for the good of the realm.

    • So sorry your comment went to spam, hence delay in approval. You are absolutely right that Henry was no sex fiend and Starkey makes a good case that he was actually searching for love. Agree with everything you say really!

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