Shakespeare's play based on the life of Henry VIII, begins with a description of the Field of the Cloth of Gold. This, for me, is the most poignant event in the reign of Henry VIII. It was a vast festival of peace set against a background of war, rather like the Woodstock Festival at the time of the Vietnam conflict. This kind of violent contradiction is typical of the reign of Henry VIII. He sought to be a hero of peace and a hero of war, pursuing both with the same aggressive zeal. But you can't aggressively pursue peace. Peace has to come by itself. Henry never let things come by themselves.
Henry was born on 28th June 1491 at the royal palace in Greenwich, third child of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. Not much is known about his childhood, because being a younger brother to Prince Arthur he was not meant to be king. Lord Herbert of Cherbury claimed that young Prince Henry was prepared for a life in the Church, but there is no other evidence for this. We do know that poet-laureate John Skelton was his first tutor, and his pupil seemed adept at languages and music. Then in April 1502 Arthur died, making Henry heir to the throne. At this point his parents became extremely protective of him. Kept under strict supervision, he was given no responsibility. Becoming king on 21st April 1509 Henry had no experience, and seemingly threw himself into a fantasy of kingship, very different to the quiet conscientious administration of his father. The young man had a choice to make between being a quiet working king, and a hero. Henry decided he was going to be a hero, and released from the luxurious confinement of his youth, he looked for any excuse to invade France.
For a while some of the king's ministers resisted the king's warmongering. But when France fell out with the pope, Henry seized the opportunity to portray France as enemy of the Church. It was difficult for any minister to oppose such an emotive crusade, and England soon found itself in an alliance with Spain, the Netherlands and Italy against France. A shambolic campaign began in 1512, supposedly with Spanish support, to take Aquitane for England. King Ferdinand of Spain was not really interested in fighting for the Church, and was certainly not interested in England. Ferdinand only had his own interests in mind, using English troops as a diversion while he seized Navarre. A second campaign the following year was a little more successful. The towns of Therouanne and Tournai were taken by English troops. Henry named skirmishes with grand names. A short struggle on August 16th at Guinegate was called the "Battle of the Spurs". Once again Henry was shamelessly used by his allies. During the sixteenth century the approximate area of present day Belgium, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Switzerland, was collectively known as the Holy Roman Empire. This huge region was ruled by the cunning Emperor Maximillian, who had his own interest in undermining French influence. Not wanting to spend his own money Maximillian devised a plan to get Henry to pay for his campaign. Maximillian seemingly paid Henry the great complement of putting his troops under English command, and allowing the English king to march first into conquered towns. In reality this meant that Henry had to pay for the upkeep of his ally's men. English money paid for the thrill of apparently marching into a couple of French towns as a conquering hero. Meanwhile Maximillian got someone else to pay for his military activities. Back in England Henry's wife, Catherine of Aragon, got on with the real business of defending England. The Scots in time honoured fashion had used the absence of an English king, on campaign in France, to stage an invasion. Catherine worked hard with her advisors to counter this threat, and on 9th September 1513 these preparations paid off when the Scots were totally defeated at the Battle of Flodden. James IV, King of Scotland was killed, along with most of the Scottish aristocracy.
Wolsey's palace at Hampton Court
While Henry was pretending to be a great military hero, someone had to run the country. To an extent Catherine filled this role, as demonstrated by her part in the preparations for Flodden. But the main figure who emerged at this time was a tradesman's son named Thomas Wolsey. In 1512 and 1513 Wolsey's rise was spectacular. In a year he rose from being a dean to an archbishop. By 1515 he was chancellor, and had taken over the day to day running of government, while Henry got on with banquets, jousts and the like. Into the 1520s Henry was taking a more personal interest in affairs of state, but Wolsey remained extremely powerful. His influence was enduring, while Henry's enthusiasm ebbed and flowed with his volatile moods. These volatile moods continued to express themselves in an aggressive foreign policy, although Henry often found it difficult to decide where to direct his aggression. The duplicity of Ferdinand, King of Spain, during the early French campaigns meant that for a while Henry planned an alliance with France to exact revenge on Spain. But then on 1st June 1515, Louis XII of France died and was replaced by young and ambitious Francis. Henry and Francis quickly fell out over French expansionist plans. Preparations were made to work with Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian in an attack on France. Large amounts of money were paid to Maximillian, only for the slippery emperor to accept even more money from France, and a French bride. Henry lost a lot of money and became a joke in European diplomatic circles.
Clearly being a military hero wasn't working, so some other type of heroism was required. By 1518 Wolsey was trying hard to engineer a European peace treaty, which culminated in the Treaty of London that October. Henry decided that if there was going to be peace, then this was going to be the most heroic peace the world had ever seen. Plans for the Treaty of London were finalised at a vastly elaborate meeting in May 1518 between Henry and Francis at Val d'Or, a shallow valley halfway between Guines and Ardres. This was the Field of the Cloth of Gold. In preparation England was "emptied of most of its nobility, hierarchy, courtiers, precious stuffs, jewels and high born women. All were shipped to France" (Henry Vlll by J.J. Scarisbrick p77). The ritual meeting and celebrations that followed, the jousting, wrestling, dancing and music, were the Woodstock of its day. This might sound a fanciful analogy but both were giant celebrations of peace, taking place in a rural area in a gentle valley, against a background of war. Henry threw himself into the celebrations with as much energy and competitiveness as he invested in his crazy wars. Both England and France spent a fortune trying to outshine each other at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Still it was cheaper than fighting, and people had more fun. The effect of this event remained with Henry for some time afterwards. For three years Henry, led probably by Wolsey, played the role of peacemaker. Emperor Maximillian had died, and relations between Francis and the new Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, were very poor. But English led peace efforts failed. Shakespeare's play, which opens with a description of the Field of the Cloth of Gold, suggests that one sort of coming together will result in another sort of falling apart. The peace found at Val d'Or clearly leads to suspicion and hostility from Charles V, who fears an alliance of France and England. The great celebration of peace seemed to change nothing.
Hever Castle, childhood home of Anne Boleyn
By 1521 England was being pulled back into war against France, under the terms of the Treaty of London. This treaty had tried to ensure peace by obliging each European power to act against any one of their number who acted belligerently. But this effort to guarantee peace only led to a wider conflict as other powers who had signed the treaty were dragged in. Something similar happened at the beginning of the First World War. Squabbling between France and Spain was interpreted as French aggression, which legally meant England now had to act. Wolsey struggled at Calais to maintain peace, but the failure of his mission meant that the wars of the 1520s began. By 1522 England was at war with France, supposedly as an ally of Charles V. England dragged its feet at every opportunity. This was an unwanted war, with Henry, and Wolsey actually getting away with doing very little. August 1525 saw another attempt to build a balance of power that would bring peace. Henry really had no time for war, since his personal life was beginning to take up all his attention. Henry had started his marriage to Catherine of Aragon as a devoted husband, laying the keys of captured French towns at her feet, wearing her initials on his sleeve during jousts. But within five years affairs had begun. Elizabeth Blount may have been first, followed by Mary Boleyn, and then by Mary's sister Anne Boleyn. The chronology is unclear, but by 1525-1526 the dalliance with Anne had become something more significant and dangerous. Anne resisted the role of mistress, which made Henry desire her all the more. Meanwhile Catherine had not produced a son, which made her vulnerable. Henry appealed to Pope Clement for dispensation to divorce. The fact that Catherine was once the wife of his dead brother Arthur was used as a legal basis for the divorce. Passages in the Bible's Book of Leviticus seemed to support the invalidity of his marriage to his brother's wife: "If a man shall take his brother's wife, it is an impurity " (Leviticus XVIII. 16). On the other hand lines in the Book of Deuteronomy said the opposite: "When brethren dwell together and one dieth without children, the wife of the deceased shall not marry to another; but his brother shall take her, and raise her up seed for his brother " (Deuteronomy XXV. 5). This is a definitive example of what a literal reading of the Bible leads to. Scholars were consulted all over Europe, and a huge amount of effort was put into various justifications and counter claims. It was as delusional as it was learned. In the event all this learned agonising was beside the point. The outcome was decided by politics. Pope Clement at this time was in the power of Charles V whose troops had stormed Rome in May 1527: Charles V was Catherine of Aragon's uncle, which meant the pope could not afford to offend Charles. This eventually decided the matter against Henry. This was a huge disappointment, and if Henry could not have his divorce he needed someone to blame. The obvious choice was Wolsey. Henry's arrogant but supremely competent chief minister was removed from office in 1529. All Wolsey's property - including York Palace, which became Whitehall, and Hampton Court - was transferred to Henry. Wolsey lived another year hoping to return to his beloved job. But he had powerful enemies among the aristocracy who resented his lowly origins. Eventually he was arrested and charged with treason. Fortunately he died quietly at Leicester Abbey before he could be taken to the Tower of London. Henry was then to find that jealous aristocrats made poor administrators. Henry tried to get around this problem by appointing scholar Thomas More as chancellor, but he proved unsuitable due to his lack of support for the royal divorce. The aristocrats and More were displaced by another minister from a humble background, Thomas Cromwell. It was Cromwell who would direct the plan of last resort, the break with Rome, and the switch of England's official religion to Protestantism. This was a battle of obscure law, and even more obscure "history". Stories were trotted out to try and show that historically English kings had been free of the pope's influence. For example, a seal supposedly belonging to King Arthur was produced as proof that the English king was actually an independent emperor. This would be laughable, but it was all recounted in deadly earnest. History was not some academic interest. It was a battlefield.
By January 1533 Anne was pregnant, which decided the matter. Henry felt compelled to take the situation into his own hands. All this paved the way for the proclamation of Royal Supremacy in 1534 which transferred the pope's religious authority in England to Henry himself. Inevitably Henry's decision to go for the final solution only met with more problems, which piled up on each other like some kind of denouement in a moral tale. Anne had a girl, Elizabeth, rather than a boy. And inspite of Cromwell's vigorous propaganda mission, using the new power of the printing press, society was thrown into turmoil by the change from Catholicism to Protestantism. Many of course were happy at the change, following centuries of Catholic Church corruption. But a primary function of religion is to provide a sense of stability and continuity, which meant religious change was a source of great distress. As the monasteries were pulled down, many resisted. The last abbot of Glastonbury Abbey Richard Whything, refused to submit to Henry. He was to be executed on Glastonbury Tor. His story was typical of many.
May 1536 saw the beheading of Anne Boleyn in the Tower on trumped up charges of adultery, and the king's marriage ten days later to Jane Seymour. As Henry celebrated his new marriage a largely religious rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace broke out in the north, which was brutally suppressed. In October 1537 Jane Seymour had the son, called Edward, which Henry had worked so hard for. But he lost his wife, probably to the horrors of Tudor medicine, only twelve days later. Henry then started bartering for a fourth wife, trying to use the candidates to play the monarchs of France and Spain off against one another. They ignored his efforts and signed a ten year truce at Nice in June 1538. Now Henry faced the threat of combined catholic powers potentially invading England to force a return to the true faith. Early 1539 was a period of crisis, with defensive coastal castles being built with stone from demolished monasteries. By May Francis, King of France, had assured Henry that he had no intention of wasting his time invading England. But work on the coastal defences continued. Partly this was preparation for an unknown future. Partly it was also a symbolic act, the creation of defenses against a supposed external enemy helping to shore up more dangerous internal divisions. In all this hectic activity Henry went further than any past monarch to achieve power for himself and England. He threw off an international religious authority which all others had accepted. In return he finally got a son, along with the fear of invasion, rebellion, and then in 1540, a hopeless marriage to Anne of Cleves, which only lasted a matter of months. Those ruthless aristocrats who brought down Wolsey now dangled the Duke of Norfolk's attractive niece Catherine Howard in front of Henry. She became his fifth wife. In this way the aristocrats tied Norfolk's family closer to Henry and used their leverage to get rid of the competent Cromwell. He was taken to the Tower and murdered. Henry had moved heaven and earth to get what he wanted, and had ended up with this mess.
From the spring of 1541 Henry was probably suffering from serious depression, and pain from an ulcer on his thigh. Perhaps he had reflected on all his years of ruthless effort and wondered what it was all for. He probably regretted being pushed into having Cromwell murdered, and then having to put up with the odious self interested men who had replaced him. Henry shut himself away in Hampton Court, away from all his councillors and Catherine Howard. Emerging to go on a progress of the north, he returned to London to find his son ill, and Archbishop Cranmer making accusations about Catherine Howard having an affair. Henry was by now physically unattractive, probably repugnant, and young Catherine through boredom and loneliness seems to have turned to one of her former lovers, Francis Dereham. Catherine was beheaded in February 1542 and Henry fell into even worse depression.
House at Lavenham, Suffolk
Out of this dark period came, sadly, a desire to return to the silly military fantasies of his youth. The plan was to deal with Scotland by placing an English governor there following the sudden death of Scottish king James V. Henry also wanted to marry his son Edward to James's daughter Anne. These plans all came to nothing. Scotland recovered from the death of its king and renewed links with France. Even with Scotland still posing a threat Henry threw what energy he had left into military adventures in France. 1544 saw a muddled campaign, in which Boulogne was captured, a prize that English troops were not keen on defending. Between 1542 and Henry's death in 1547 roughly two million pounds was spent on warfare, a huge sum at the time. The English coinage was debased in pursuit of a quick profit, regardless of long term consequences. Taxation was heavy, and trade with Europe disrupted. As a result England's vital wool industry was destroyed, as demonstrated by the fate of Lavenham, a wool town in Suffolk. The wonderful Field of the Cloth of Gold was a distant memory in these final years. The one thing that helped lift the gloom was marriage to Henry's last wife Catherine Parr. This intelligent, pleasant woman did much to make Henry more comfortable, even if she did tend to nag him about not being protestant enough. Some of the odious aristocrats tried to use Cartherine's lectures to have her taken to the Tower and executed, but finally Henry refused to be led. Even though there was a period when he seemed tempted to listen to his councillors, when it came to it he protected Catherine.
In 1545 the Mary Rose, the Royal Navy's biggest ship, capsized and sank in Portsmouth harbour with Henry watching from the shore. The sinking of a grand but top heavy ship is a strikingly fitting symbol of what Henry's government had become. The king's health worsened. Sores covered his bloated body. Mechanical devices were made to get him up stairs. Henry VIII died in Whitehall on 28th of January 1547.
Henry VIII, standing outside the Mary Rose Museum at Portsmouth Dockyard
The reign of Henry VIII can be explored today through the architecture of the time. Sixteenth century palaces reveal a nervous man wanting symbolic buildings grand enough for a man who was now both religious and secular leader to his people. Although Henry's palace at Whitehall has gone, his tiltyard where he indulged in the knightly fantasy of the joust can still be seen at Horse Guard's Parade. Portions of his St James's Palace survive. Some of the Tudor Hampton Court survives intact, and is perhaps the greatest memorial to Henry's new aspirations in the world. Henry's effort to break with Catholicism led to fears of external invasion and internal division. These fears can be appreciated at Henry's south coast forts most of which survive. Forts can be seen at Camber Castle in East Sussex, Walmer Castle, Deal Castle, and Sandown Castle in Kent, Southsea Castle at Portsmouth, Hurst Castle and Portland Castle in Dorset, Calshott Castle at Southampton, Yarmouth Castle on the Isle of Wight and the sister fortifications of Pendennis Castle and St Mawes Castle in Cornwall. At Portsmouth Dockyard, where Henry's Royal Navy had one of its major bases, the remains of the Mary Rose can be seen, sitting like a ghost in a mist of preserving water spray.
Finally in thinking about Henry I keep coming back to the Field of the Cloth of Gold. It was such a dramatic celebration of peace. I'm sure many people who were there must have thought a glorious new dawn had come. Then of course, after the shortest of pauses war and conflict went on as before. There seems such a strong parallel with our own times when during the 1960s many might have felt that a new time of peace was about to start. They were disappointed of course. At the end of the Sixties John Lennon wrote Imagine in which he seems to imagine a better and more peaceful future. In reality he is suggesting that imagination is itself restless, dreaming of things it does not have. Imagination is not peace. Alongside our dreams there has to be a measure of acceptance of the world we already live in. Perhaps many of the 1960s idealists did not realise this. Neither did Henry VIII.