Monarchs under the Microscope: Henry VIII

Henry VIII has been made infamous for his multiple marriages and short temper, and alongside this it is often assumed that he was a great, all-powerful King. But when his reign is studied in finer detail this image starts to crack. Beneath the veneer of a totalitarian monastic reign actually laid a network of ministers whom Henry relied on to handle the day to day running of the country.

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First the Worst; Cardinal Thomas Wolsey-

Wolsey began his association with Henry early on the Henry’s reign in 1515, by this time Henry was 21 years old and 4 years into his reign. As he was still a young man at this point it was understandable that he would rely upon his advisors to help him run England. However his relationship with Wolsey soon became imbalanced. Wolsey was an incredibly intelligent and ambitious man, and he aimed to gain as much power as he could as quickly as he could. After a short time Wolsey began to become indispensable to Henry. His vast array of tasks included organising wars [which England always won, giving Wolsey a irrefutably positive reputation], negotiating successful foreign relations and Wolsey even began to have designs to improve domestic policies in England itself. Wolsey was innovative and bright and his actions never failed to paint Henry in a good light and the duo ruled England successfully for many years.

—But did Henry actually rule??

With Henry still being a young man he was less interested in the daily running of the country and more interested in winning wars and perfecting his jousting and hunting skills, the space was left open for Wolsey to make his mark on the running of the country. Wolsey influence was so potent that he was often was referred to as the ‘Alter Rex’ [that’s ‘the other King’ for those of us who aren’t fluent in Latin]. This nickname for Wolsey should really have been a very worrying issue for Henry. Surely a King who was completely in control of his own country wouldn’t allow another man to take the name King even in jest? Yet it happened. It is indisputable that Wolsey had considerable influence over both Henry and the country.

Wolsey and Henry’s partnership came to a sharp end in 1529, mostly after Wolsey failed to secure Henry’s divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon [but also partly due the skillful manipulation of other political factions in Henry’s court who wished to see Wolsey fall from power]. Wolsey was accused of treason but died of illness before he could be executed.

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Déjà vu; Thomas Cromwell-

After spending many years of his early career working under Wolsey in Henry’s court after Wolsey’s demise Cromwell took on the mantel of being Henry’s chief advisor. Much like Wolsey Cromwell was fiercely intelligent and knowledgeable. He had all the skills necessary to become a successful King himself– pragmatism, intelligence, ruthlessness, innovation, and vision. All he needed was the genetic claim to the throne, a minor detail he managed to dodge through his control over Henry. In many senses of the word Cromwell became the true leader of England. Cromwell thoroughly revolutionized the governmental system of England, stamping his influence on multiple processes from the tax system to the size of the privy council.

—But what of Henry? Surely Henry had some influence in this area too?

In answer to this all you need do is take a brief look at the time period after the fall of Cromwell in the 1540s. This time is often overlooked in historical study mostly because notable actions were few and far between. Essentially Henry made multiple unsuccessful conquests in France and managed to alienate most of his European neighbors with his heavy-handed approach to foreign policy. Most of the success of Henry’s reign were made during the tenure of either Cromwell or Wolsey… surely this is enough evidence to start t question the strength of Henry VIII’s leadership.

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