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Henry VIII- the Wolsey years

Updated on February 1, 2012

Born the second son of the King

Henry VIIIth was the second son of King Henry VII. He grew up destined not to be king as his elder brother Arthur, some four years his senior, would take that role. Just before Henry’s 11th birthday his whole future changed with the death of his sickly brother Arthur and Henry became heir to the throne. Henry VII th proved to be a strict father limiting those who came into contact with the young prince and preventing him was speaking aloud to anyone but himself in public.

The King in Later life painted by Hans Holbein the younger
The King in Later life painted by Hans Holbein the younger | Source

King Henry VIIIth

On his father’s death Henry VIII acceded to the throne and proved to be a very different king to his father who had been a miser, but had left the country’s finances in a good position. At the time of his coronation young Henry was a tall, young man, well proportioned and fine looking. He was multi lingual speaking French, English, Latin and some Italian. He was talented musically playing the lute and harpsichord and was a fine singer. In the field his strong physique made him a man to be admired, his strength enabling him to draw a bow as well any other man and he was admired for his jousting skills. It may be that King Henry VIII’s merits and attributes were over emphasised to highlight the contrast with his miserly father.

On 11th June 1509 King Henry married Catherine of Aragon who had been married to his brother Arthur although the pope had given a dispensation that Henry and Catherine could marry.

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Michel Sittow. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. A contemporary painting of Catherine of Aragon.
Michel Sittow. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. A contemporary painting of Catherine of Aragon. | Source

War with the French and Rome

Henry’s first attempt at war was a disaster! With encouragement from Catherine’s father , Henry entered into an alliance with Spain and Rome against France. Henry had misread the actual aims of Spanish policy which was ultimately only the conquest of the territory of Navarre. When the English forces, commanded by the Marquess of Dorset, arrived in France, Spanish forces that were due to meet them did not come- they had been diverted to Navarre and occupied that territory. The English army returned the majority having sailed home without orders and hungry and penniless. In his later years a move like this would have had ramifications both in International policy and at home. In his early life the King felt humiliated but accepted the actions of his father in law, the King of Spain.

The King leads his forces into batte

Henry went into battle again in 1513 landing with his troops in France and leading them inwards into France from Calais. Henry was invited to lead, and to pay for, troops of the Holy Roman Empire . The forces besieged the town of Therouanne and when it fell, gave it to the Emperor as a gift. The Emperor berating the town for putting up a three week resistance had the town destroyed. The next town to fall , Tournai , fell in just over a week and the town was spared by the King who had no intention of seeing a rich town razed to the ground.

After some heady celebrations including tournaments and jousting, Henry returned home to England. On his arrival Henry found that it had not been at all quiet at home. The Scots under James IV had invaded the north of England being met by the Earl of Surrey at Flodden Edge where the English destroyed the Scottish army. The toll of that battle on 9th September 1513 was calculated to be 10,000 Scottish dead, including aristocracy, three bishops and King James. It is thought by tacticians that if the English had moved on after the battle at Flodden Field, with the Kings return, they could have captured most of Scotland and would have allies in the shape of the King’s sister Margaret, who was the mother of the infant James V.

Following the victory in Scotland

Why did King Henry not follow through his decisive victory in Scotland? Most historians agree that at this point Henry had all his thoughts on Europe. Henry had his sights on the crown on France and had tacit approval from the Pope. It had been heavily hinted to Henry that if he were to conquer France then the Pope might make a trip to France and crown him King, in Paris. It was at this point that Thomas Wolsey rose from almoner to the Kings right hand man.

Cardinal Wolsey by an unknown artist
Cardinal Wolsey by an unknown artist | Source

The King and Wolsey

The King and Wolsey were of a similar character, both greedy and ambitious with a ruthless and unethical streak. Wolsey had sat in, as almoner, on earlier meetings where the King was encouraged to attend to the minutiae of state-all the small details which he found boring. Wolsey’s view was quite the opposite in that the King should use his talents in other directions, in the field and in inspiring others to do his will. Wolsey and the King worked well together, Wolsey giving Henry exactly what he said he wanted, but leaving the small details to him so that the King was indebted to him. Wolsey became rich and by 1518 was a Papal Legate with palaces as if built for a king. Wolsey was occasionally overruled in the early years by the King but generally over saw the day to day running of the government and essentially the country’s foreign policy. Parliament was treated as a mechanism to raise money and was only ever called for that purpose by the King during this stage of his reign.

Peace with France

Wolsey had a wise head for International politics convincing the King that Spain and the Holy Roman Empire would change allegiance when it suited them and because of this attitude the French did not fear them. The French did fear the English; they had territory in France and had recent battle success in both France and the massive defeat of the Scottish at Flodden Field. The English turned quickly towards France, accepting their overtures of peace in return for the English retention of lands recently gained in France, a large amount of gold and the marriage of the kings sister Mary to Louis XII of France. Henry was delighted with Wolsey for arranging this and he received a very quick promotion to cardinal.

The Marriage of the King's Sister

Mary, the Kings sister, was rather unhappy about her proposed marriage but she went to France at her brother’s behest to marry the old French King, accompanied by Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. The marriage was not to last long, the old King died in the eleventh week of the marriage and Mary who had fallen in love with the handsome and charming Brandon, married without her brother’s permission. (Even today, members of the Queen’s immediate family need her permission to marry). Again the signs of the Kings later almost demonic wrath were not present. Henry was angry but by the time the couple had reached home he had calmed enough to attend a ceremony solemnising their marriage at the Royal Greenwich Palace. Brandon had been Henry’s other confidante and friend and his subsequent isolation from the court led to a further dependence on Cardinal Wolsey.

King Francis 1 of France
King Francis 1 of France | Source

King Francis 1- another young colt

The new French King, Francis I, was like King Henry, young, talented and very attractive. Like Henry Francis was keen to prove his military prowess. He had at his court, John Stuart the Duke of Albany who was heir to the infant James V of Scotland. Frances financed the Duke to go to France, taking control of the King and ensuring that his mother was separated from her child and forced to return to the English court. The next act of King Francis was to send his army into Italy where they won the “Battle of the Giants” at Marignano resulting in the annexation of Milan and the position of the Pope was reduced to that of a French vassal. The well known Tudor duplicitous foreign policy came to bear with King Henry through Wolsey offering the Emperor Maximillian and the Swiss money to fight against the French, which they did marching quickly into Italy and just as quickly out of the country. The death of Henry’s father in law, Ferdinand of Aragon ended his countries opposition to France with the Archduke Charles making peace with France and its young King. Despite taking the English money the Emperor signed a peace treaty with France in 1517, effectively leaving England alone on the side lines. Wolsey decided that the best place to be was to be in this unholy alliance that was built on very slippery foundations. England joined and the Treaty of London was signed in 1518 followed by a show of spiritual and diplomatic immunity. On 3rd October 1518 in St. Paul’s cathedral in London, Cardinal Wolsey sang a mass to the King and representatives from every major European country, including the papacy. After the service the King gave a lavish banquet and his delight and triumph was evident, the treaty of peace in Europe, the King as the figurehead living in the praise and the glory and Wolsey taking a more private glory that his plans had been successful.

The Field of the Coth of Gold

The Alliance held long enough for the meeting of the King with some of his allies. In May 1520, Archduke Charles, newly elected as Holy Roman Emperor came to England on his way to Holland. He was met by the Cardinal in Dover and escorted ashore to the imposing Dover Castle where he was to spend his stay. The King, on the news of his arrival rode the 30 miles from London to Dover at break neck speed in order to welcome the emperor. The next day they rode at a more sedate pace to Canterbury where a blessing in the cathedral cemented the relationship between the two countries. The visit was a short interlude in the Emperor’s travel plans and in a few days he disembarked from Sandwich in Kent, for Holland, whilst the King and Queen and most of the court sailed from Dover in a flamboyant flotilla aiming for an area near Ardres in the the Val d’or which has since been known as the “Field of the Cloth of Gold”. What a picnic! Cardinal Wolsey drew on his skills learned as an almoner and as a man with good organisational skills had arranged a magnificent celebration. Food had been crossing the channel for days complete with associated plate and drink. Thousands of men had been sent over to build the English Royal camp. As the King and Queen escorted by 5000 followers moved through Calais their progress was monitored by messengers, part of Wolsey’s magnificent organisation which resulted in the French King being the first to arrive and having to wait for the English King.

A meeting of reconcilliation

The meeting of reconciliation took place near Ardres marking the border between English and French territory in France. The two men detached themselves from their followers and met at a midpoint marked by a spear stuck into the earth. Here they embraced each other started two whole weeks of friendship, jousting and wrestling with Wolsey acting as Master of Ceremonies at this spectacular event. The Field of the Cloth of Gold was a success, relationships between the two Kings were friendly and they agreed to build a chapel on the site to mark the success of their bid for peace.

Still young but without a male heir

So passed the early years of King Henry’s reign. The King was still young, powerful and attractive with a wife who adored him and although she had not yet produced a living male heir, this did not yet disturb the king. Henry had waged war against the Scots and the French, and had spent the money left him by his father yet with the governance of Cardinal Wolsey he had forged his country a dominant and peaceful position in Europe.


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    • Just History profile image

      Just History 5 years ago from England

      Angela Brummer- Thanks for your visit- Thank goodness marriage is a lot more of an open choice

    • Angela Brummer profile image

      Angela Brummer 5 years ago from Lincoln, Nebraska

      Wow I am happy I didn't have to marry someone for political purposes! Very well writen. Thank you!

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Living right next door to History is so wonderful. Seems easier to do that in Europe than the US. Smaller geographical area and centuries more of History to stumble into. I loved out three years in Greece because we kept walking up to and into all the places I had read about. Simply wonderful. :)

    • Just History profile image

      Just History 5 years ago from England

      phdast17- thanks for your comment- I guess I got into this because Wolsey is buried literally 10 minutes down the road and when my girls were ittle there was a Wolsey factory on the corner of the estate! Weird reasons, I know!

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Nice History Hub - Not my area of history so I learned a lot. Before this I only knew about the middle aged Henry. Great pictures and graphics.

    • Just History profile image

      Just History 5 years ago from England

      Judi Bee- Thanks for your visit- I guess it did not help that as he got older he got fatter and ulcerous legs. I honestly think his father would have had a very severe word when he got to heaven ( if he did!) As always, thanks for your visit.

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judith Hancock 5 years ago from UK

      Henry is always portrayed as such a cultured, charming young man that it is sometimes hard to reconcile the early Henry with the complete and utter git he became in later years. I suppose that like many men he reached middle age and was frustrated by not having achieved his goal - in his case, a son - and this ate away at his soul and character.

      Interesting, as always - voted up.

    • Just History profile image

      Just History 5 years ago from England

      Eiddwen- Thank you for your visit- glad you enjoyed it. Will enjoy my day as long as it does not snow!

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 5 years ago from Wales

      Well presented,informed and intersting.

      Great work here.

      Take care and enjoy your day.


    • Just History profile image

      Just History 5 years ago from England

      viking 305, thank you for your kind comment, most articles spend time on his later life as there were so many more events!

    • viking305 profile image

      L M Reid 5 years ago from Ireland

      Very interesting part of King Henry V111 life. I have not read too much about the king when he was young so this was new information.

      Thanks, voted up