Understanding the Man: Henry VIII (Part One)

As many of you may already know, King Henry VIII is my favorite monarch of the Tudor dynasty. If it wasn’t for his reign I do not believe the Tudors would be as popular as they are today.

With the creation of Showtime’s THE TUDORS, many of us were aware of the name Henry VIII but really didn’t know much about him. In the show we were able to see that there was more to the man than the execution of two of his six wives. While I understand that THE TUDORS tv program had a bunch of historical inaccuracies, it also got people (like myself) to look deeper into the history by reading and absorbing as much as we possibly could. Over a decade later I feel like I have a fairly good grasp on the infamous king and would like to share my understanding of him with you all. Henry VIII was a man, well…maybe a man-child, but he wasn’t just the tyrannical ruler that many see him as today. There was much more to him than most understand. I hope with this series on his life that you will look at Henry in through new eyes.

Understanding the Man: Henry VIII

As stated previously, many of you may already know that Henry VIII is my favorite of the Tudor monarchs. My opinion isn’t always in the majority and I’m okay with that. Henry ruled England from 1509 until his death on the 28th of January 1547 and has helped to make the Tudors as popular as they are today.

As the second son of King Henry VII, young Henry was not expected to become King of England and so he was sent to Eltham Palace to be raised with his sisters. While at Eltham, Henry would have most likely had constant contact with his mother, Elizabeth of York.

When you consider Henry’s relationship with women in his life one must wonder if he was constantly on the search for a woman like his own mother. Elizabeth of York had a great influence on her son and may have helped educate her children during her lifetime.

Born at Greenwich Palace on the 28th of June 1491, Henry Tudor was the third child and second son of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. His parents marriage had put an end to decades of fighting between the Yorks and Lancasters in what we know as the Wars of the Roses.

For the most part, Henry’s childhood would have been idyllic, but not without occasional bits of drama. The fact that Henry’s father claimed the throne on the battlefield against Richard III did not sit well with supporters of the Lancasters…and for that matter the Yorks were not pleased either.

In 1487, a young man named Lambert Simnel was coerced to play the part of Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick to raise arms against the new Tudor king, Henry VII. At the same time, the real Edward Plantagenet was sitting in the Tower of London. It did not take long before Simnel was discovered as a pretender.

At some point around 1494, Perkin Warbeck came on the scene. The reason I say 1494 is because in 1494, young Prince Henry was given (by his father) the title of Lieutenant of Ireland.

This would not be the last time that Henry VII gave a title to his second son in an attempt to show control.

In July 1495, Warbeck took fourteen ships, funded by his supposed aunt, Margaret of York, along with 6000 men across the channel to England in hope that he could claim the throne of England. Things didn’t quite turn out the way he had planned and he and his men fled to Ireland. Before long they had moved to Scotland where Warbeck gained the assistance of King James IV of Scotland.

Warbeck was claiming to be one of the lost princes in the Tower, the younger of the two brothers, Richard, Duke of York. Many believed he was truly the young prince and that the throne of England should be his by right.

Henry VII would not have another pretender using a title that was meant for his son, and in 1494, three-year old Prince Henry was titled as Duke of York. There could not be two and Henry, at the moment, was the true title holder, not Warbeck.

At a young age Henry would have known that a monarch’s throne is never 100% secure. It also must have been a bit confusing for him and his sisters to understand that some of their mother’s family wanted to remove their father.

Everything changed in April 1502 when Henry’s older brother, Arthur, died unexpectedly at Ludlow Castle. Henry went from a mostly carefree childhood to a life that led to him being overly protected as sole heir to the throne of England. Gone were the days when he could run “freely” and have unrestricted fun – to feeling like a prisoner of his father’s.

Henry had been betrothed to Katherine Aragon in 1503, he was twelve years old. As stated previously, Henry’s life, once Prince of Wales, was thoroughly controlled by his father, the King. The betrothal to the dowager princess of Wales was something that would evolve with the ever-changing politics of the day.

While his brother Arthur had been, practically from birth, trained in the ways of kingship, Henry’s training did not begin until he was eleven years old. The young Prince of Wales was not used to the rigorous training he received to prepare him for the throne and he only had seven-year to cram for the biggest role of his life.

At Richmond Palace, on the 21st of April 1509, King Henry VII died. He was fifty-two years old. His son, who was only eighteen years old was now King of England.

When he came to the throne, Henry VIII was described as exceptionally tall, well-proportioned, had the features of a Greek god and moved gracefully. His complexion was fair, had auburn hair and a rounded face with the features so delicately formed that they ‘would become a pretty woman’. This new, young king naturally commanded attention and authority by appearance alone.

Henry had always been fascinated by Katherine. She was beautiful and he was enchanted by her. After the death of his father, Henry decided that he would marry Katherine of Aragon. And he would claim it was his father’s wish, on his deathbed. The couple was married six weeks after Henry accession at the chapel of the Franciscan Observants at Greenwich. Henry would also be quoted as writing to her father, Ferdinand of Aragon that, “If I were still free, I would still choose her for wife before all other”. They would have a double coronation, or crowning, thirteen days later, on Midsummer Day, 24th of June 1509.

It was the coronation that set the tone for Henry’s reign – it was the beginning of the Renaissance period in England. It had also been a long time since a King came to throne with such approval and adoration. It was a new era – one of education, music, jousting and overall fun. The court was full of young people, which was the opposite of the reign of his father. Henry was eager to open his father’s coffers (which were overflowing) to celebrate his new role.

Lord Mountjoy wrote to Erasmus only weeks after Henry’s accession and had this to say:

If you could see how everyone here rejoices in having so great a prince, how his life is all their desire, you would not contain yourself for sheer joy. Extortion is put down, liberality scatters riches with a bountiful hand, yet our King does not set his heart on gold or jewels, but on virtue, glory and immortality. The other day he told me ‘I wish I were more learned’. ‘But learning is not what we expect of a King’, I answered, ‘merely that he should encourage scholars’. ‘Most certainly’, he rejoined, ‘as without them we should scarcely live at all’. Now what more splendid remark could a prince make?

William Roper, the son-in-law of Thomas More also remembered how the young King was eager to learn. He recalled how More and the King would discuss astronomy, geometry, divinity and other worldly affairs all hours of the night. Henry truly enjoyed conversing with More and enjoyed learning from him and having discussions with him as well.

Henry VIII wasn’t always the tyrannical monarch who would execute you if you looked at him wrong – at the beginning of his reign he relented to public outcry against his father’s tax collector, Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley. While the public wanted to see the men put away Henry was eager to spend the fruits of their labor.

The mood at Tudor court had changed drastically since the changing of the guard – now there was laughter in the corridors at court and continuous festivals to enjoy. Under the new administration both high-born and low-born men had the same opportunities. While Henry understood the importance of having men of noble birth and experience in key positions he also appreciated men of ambition, like Thomas Wolsey – a man who would soon become pseudo king.

That’s where we’ll end Part One of this series on Henry VIII – next we will continue you on with the story of the life of Henry VIII and understanding him a bit better in Part Two.

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Clearing up the Portrait Confusion: Arthur and Henry

Arthur and Henry Tudor were brothers, so inevitably they looked alike. Today’s topic is clearing up the confusion between which portrait is Arthur and which is Henry.

The question really circulates around one portrait, the one of young Henry VIII at the beginning of his reign. This is the one that many people, when posted or shared online will say, “That’s a portrait of Arthur, not Henry!” I usually follow those comments by sharing the confirmed portrait of Arthur and explaining that they were brothers so they look a lot alike, but the portrait of the young King is indeed him.

Arthur (Left) and Henry (Right) Tudor side by side

Henry Tudor, King of England

I’m hoping by sharing this with you that this will clear up any confusion there may be.

This unusual portrait of a slender, beardless Henry VIII (reigned 1509-47) was painted when the young king was about twenty-two. It is the earliest known portrait of him as king. The image matches the description given by an Italian ambassador to the English court: “His complexion is very fair and bright, with auburn hair combed straight and short in the French fashion, and a round face so very beautiful, that it would become a pretty woman, his throat being rather long and thin.” He is shown wearing a red gown with brown fur edges, with the sleeves slashed to reveal cloth of gold beneath. Around his shoulders is a chain of balas rubies (a red gemstone found in present-day Afghanistan) surrounded by clusters of pearls. On his black cap is an enseigne, or cap badge. Enseignes often depicted scenes from the Old Testament. Many people wore them on their caps, but only the king’s was allowed to be gold. As with his father’s portrait, the young Henry holds the Tudor rose, symbolizing his continuation of the dynasty. – Berger Collection

English School, Henry VIII, ca. 1513, Oil on panel

Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales

When this portrait was discovered it was described by Catherine MacLeod, curator of sixteenth and seventeenth century portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, as ‘the only surviving portrait of Arthur that could have been painted within his lifetime’.

From looks of Arthur’s age it is apparent that this portrait was made near the end of the marriage negotiations with the Ferdinand and Isabel (Katherine of Aragon’s parents), and has been dated c.1500. It is extremely likely that this was around the conclusion of the marriage negotiation since he is holding a white gillyflower – which traditionally stands for betrothal and purity.

The is the only confirmed portrait of Arthur, Prince of Wales

The following portrait is often said to be Arthur but it is not confirmed as him. As you can see from the portraits, the brothers had very similar features – this is why there is often confusion when they are shown separately.

In this portrait the sitter is not holding a flower (which would indicate he is married) and on his red cap is a gold St. John the Baptist enseigne or badge. If the snippet above about only king’s being allowed to wear gold badges on their cap is correct then this portrait cannot be Arthur – it would have to be Henry right? But then there is the date of the portrait…it’s dated c. 1501 and Henry would only have been ten years old. So, there’s that.

I don’t  want to start an uproar about this portrait, just some food for thought. This article is a focus on the two above portraits and distinguishing between the two. If you know more about all these portraits I would great appreciate your feedback in the comments. Thanks!

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Henry VIII turns on Katherine of Aragon


When Henry VIII believed that Katherine of Aragon would no longer be able to give him a male heir he began to look for ways out of the marriage. Whether he truly believed his own statements, or if he was just looking for a way out, only he and his closest advisers would know. Henry’s biggest concern was that Katherine’s marriage to his older brother Arthur must have been consummated and that is why he had not been able to conceive a surviving son and male heir with her.

While reading Sarah Gristwood’s newest book, “Game of Queens” she discusses two different debates regarding Henry’s concern with his first marriage.

In the book of Leviticus, the Bible says, “If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing: he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness. Thy shall be childless.”

In Henry’s mind this meant not without child, but without male heir. Clearly he interpreted things the way that would benefit himself. However, in the book of Deuteronomy it contradicts Leviticus saying that a man has a duty to marry his deceased brother’s widow and to ‘raise up seed for his brother’. So…which was it? Was Henry supposed to marry his brother’s widow or was he not?

The ultimate question was whether or not Katherine of Aragon and Arthur, Prince of Wales had consummated their marriage. When the papal legates (Campeggio and Wolsey) visited Katherine and tried to convince her to join a nunnery she refused. They told the Pope, ‘Although she is very religious and extremely patient, she will not accede in the least.”  Katherine swore on her conscience that she and Prince Arthur had never consummated their marriage, and declared that ‘she intended to live and die in the estate of matrimony to which God had called her.’

Cardinal Campeggio attempted to sway the queen but she would not listen. Wolsey warned her to yield to the King’s displeasure – she snapped at him saying:

Of this trouble, I thank only you, my lord of York! Of malice you have kindled this fire, especially for the great grudge you bear to my nephew the Emperor, because he would not gratify your ambition by making you Pope by force!

Wolsey then went on to excuse himself. He stated that it had been ‘sore against his will that ever the marriage should be in question’ and he promised, as legate for the Pope to be impartial. Katherine did not believe him as she knew Wolsey to be the closest adviser to the King.

On the 26th of October 1528, by her request, Campeggio heard Katherine’s confession. She declared, upon the salvation of her soul, that she had never been carnally known by Prince Arthur. Campeggio believed she was speaking the truth but continued to push for her to go to a nunnery.

In 1531, Katherine was still declaring herself Henry’s true wife. Henry was attempting to force Katherine to sign his Act of Supremacy. She refused, stating that the Pope was ‘the only true sovereign and vicar of God…’ She went on to say:

I love and have loved my lord the King as much as any woman can love a man, but I would not have borne him company as his wife for one moment against the voice of my conscience. I am his true wife.

From all that we have read and learned about the relationship of Arthur, Prince of Wales and Katherine of Aragon it appears that they had not consummated their marriage. Most believe it is because Arthur was in such poor health at the time. I believe that Katherine would never have lied in confession.

What do YOU believe?


Gristwood, Sarah; Game of Queens; page 129

Weir, Alison; The Six Wives of Henry VIII, pages 177, 190, 191, 227



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Arthur and Katherine Sent to Ludlow Castle


Merely three months after their marriage, Arthur and Katherine, Prince and Princess of Wales were sent to Wales to reside at Ludlow Castle to preserve ancient customs (as the letter states).

Here is a letter from Henry VII to Katherine’s parents (Ferdinand and Isabel) letting them know that Arthur and Katherine were sent to Wales to reside at Ludlow Castle.

The young couple were married on the 14th of November 1501 – this letter was dated the 20th of February 1502.

Little did Henry VII know, two months after he sent this letter, his son would be dead, and Katherine a widow. All the hard work it took to see the marriage to fruition ended so abruptly.

Prince and Princess of Wales – Ludlow

Henry VII to Ferdinand and Isabella
[“Court and Society from Elizabeth to Anne,” Vol. I]

Richmond, February 20, 1502

To the most serene and most puissant Prince and Princess, the Lord and Lady Ferdinando and Isabel, by the grace of God King and Queen of Castile, Leon, Arragon, Sicily, Grenada, &c., our well-beloved kinsfolk and cousins, we Henry by the same grace, King of England and France, and Lord of Ireland, send greeting and ever-increasing good fortune.

Ludlow Castle with Dinham Weir, from the South-West Samuel Scott1765 to 1769
Ludlow Castle (Wales); Samuel Scott 1765 to 1769

That we might observe the ancient customs of our realm, we recently despatched into Wales the most illustrious Arthur and Catherine, our common children. For though the opinions of many were adverse to this course by reason of the tender age of our son, yet were we unwilling to allow the Prince and Princess to be separated at any distance from each other. Thus much we wished to show unto you by this our letter, that you may understand our excessive love which we bear towards the most illustrious Lady Catherine, our common daughter, even to the danger of our own son.

But the said most illustrious lady has with her a venerable man, Alexander Geraldine, her principal chaplain, for whom we have the greatest regard, partly by reason of his virtues, shown unto us in many ways, partly because he has been the said lady’s preceptor, and for a long time your Majesties’ servant, and we doubt not that he will, in his letters, give a true report unto your Majesties of the well-being and tranquility, as well of ourselves and our realm, as of the most illustrious lady his own mistress. Wherefore we shall not a present write at greater length.

Letter Source:

Arthur, Frank; “The Youth of Henry VIII, A Narrative in Contemporary Letters”; page 24-25

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