I am pleased to welcome Judith Arnopp's return to my blog today. Her post on Margaret Beaufort cast an intriguing new light upon Henry Tudor's mother in much the way I expect Judith's new book, A Matter of Conscience, will make us all think a bit differently about Margaret's grandson, Henry VIII.
The Physical Prowess of Henry VIII
A Guest Post by Judith Arnopp
The popular modern view of Henry VIII is as a fat despot who happily murdered several of his six wives. We enjoy being scandalised by the goings-on of this long dead philandering monarch, with his stinking ulcerated legs and his penchant for young brides. If you were to ask the average person for four words to describe him, I’m pretty sure that ‘fat’ ‘cruel’ ‘butcher’ and ‘womaniser’ would be among them. Henry has become so familiar to us that we have forgotten he was a human being, and he has become little more than a figure on a postcard, the historical ‘fat’ joke.
“His Majesty is the handsomest potentate I ever set eyes on; above the usual height, with an extremely fine calf to his leg, his complexion 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 thick. He was born on the 28th of June, 1491, so he will enter his twenty-fifth year the month after next. He speaks French English, and Latin, and a little Italian, he plays well on the lute and harpsichord, sings from book at sight, draws the bow with greater strength than any man in England, and jousts marvellously. Believe me, he is in every respect a most accomplished Prince;”
Unfortunately, Holbein wasn’t around to record Henry in his youth, all we have are a few unremarkable panel portraits that do little to hint as to his character or confirm reports of his physical prowess. For the formative years of Henry’s life we have only written descriptions to draw upon, many of which refer to the sporting activities he took part and excelled in. The Venetian ambassador witnessed Henry indulging in one of his favourite activities.
“He is extremely fond of tennis, at which game it is the prettiest thing in the world to see him play, his fair skin glowing through a shirt of finest texture.”
This presents an image of a vital, energetic young man. Henry also enjoyed jousting, sword fighting, wrestling, fencing, archery and bowling. These activities, together with his regular hunting trips, his love of dancing can only have resulted in a strong supple physique.
When Henry was in his twenty-eighth year Guistinian made a statement that would have delighted the king had he ever come to read it. The Ambassador stated that Henry VIII was:
‘much handsomer than the king of France. He is very fair and his whole frame admirably proportioned. Hearing that King Francis wore a beard, he allowed his own to grow and as it was reddish he … got a beard that looked like gold.’
He sounds like a virtual Midas! The Ambassador goes on to describe Henry’s piety, his love of hunting in which he tired ‘eight or ten horses which he causes to be stationed along the line of country he means to take.’
Henry not only wore sumptuous clothing but adorned himself with impressive jewels. One diplomat remarked that the king wore a diamond as ‘big as a walnut.’
And this was all before he engaged Holbein to paint the series of what I like to call Power Portraits; the familiar images that exude Tudor permanence and dominance.
Descriptions made when he was around the age of forty still sound impressive.
‘His face is angelic rather than handsome; his head imperial (Cesarina) and bald, and he wears a beard, contrary to English custom. Who would not be amazed when contemplating such singular corporal beauty, coupled with such bold address, adapting itself with the greatest ease to every manly exercise.
He sits his horse well, and manages him yet better; he jousts and wields his spear, throws the quoit, and draws the bow, admirably; plays at tennis most dexterously; and nature having endowed him in youth with such gifts, he was not slow to enhance, preserve, and augment them with all industry and labour. It seeming to him monstrous for a Prince not to cultivate moral and intellectual excellence, so from childhood he applied himself to grammatical studies, and then to philosophy and holy writ, thus obtaining the reputation of a lettered and excellent Prince. Besides the Latin and his native tongue, he learned Spanish, French, and Italian. He is kind and affable, full of graciousness and courtesy, and liberal; particularly so to men of science (virtuosi) whom he is never weary of obliging.’
Of course, all these descriptions were made before his accident in 1536 that marked the beginning of both his physical and mental decline.
In that year he was unhorsed during a joust, reports say he was unconscious for up to two hours and suffered a chronic leg injury. In the years that followed, recurring ulcers perplexed his physicians and restricted his physical activity.
In 1540, the French ambassador, Charles de Marillac described Henry rather differently.
'This Prince seems tainted with three vices; the first is that he is so covetous that all the riches of the world would not satisfy him. Thence proceeds the second, distrust and fear. This King, knowing how many changes he has made, and what tragedies and scandals he has created, would fain keep in favour with everybody, but does not trust a single man, expecting to see them all offended, and he will not cease to dip his hand in blood as long as he doubts his people. The third vice lightness and inconstancy.'
After the jousting accident, due to his hearty appetite and little exercise, his weight piled on and as his size increased, his temper declined. Henry ended up a disappointed man, too aware of his failure to live up to the promise of his once glorious golden image. But the decline was slow and Henry fought against it for as long as he could, even going so far as to ride to war against France in 1544, three years before his death.
During the course of writing A Matter of Conscience: Henry VIII, The Aragon Years, I have paid a great deal of attention to the ambassadors. Even if we consider the requirement to flatter Renaissance monarchs, the early glowing descriptions are as convincing as the latter, and we should remember that these reports were not written for Henry’s eyes.
It has been an honour to walk beside the young Henry who, it seems, really was a strong, god-like king who could have stepped from the pages of the story books. In this book of course, he is still in his prime and only just showing signs of the man he would later become. The next book in the series that will cover his middle years, might be more tricky and it is doubtful if we shall get along so well.
A Matter of Conscience: Henry VIII: The Aragon Years
On the unexpected death of Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales, his brother, Henry, becomes heir to the throne of England. The intensive education that follows offers Henry a model for future excellence; a model that he is doomed to fail.
On his accession, he chooses his brother’s widow, Catalina of Aragon, to be his queen. Together they plan to reinstate the glory of days of old and fill the royal nursery with boys.
But when their first-born son dies at just a few months old, and subsequent babies are born dead or perish in the womb, the king’s golden dreams are tarnished.
Christendom mocks the virile prince. Catalina’s fertile years are ending yet all he has is one useless living daughter, and a baseborn son.
He needs a solution but stubborn to the end, Catalina refuses to step aside.
As their relationship founders, his eye is caught by a woman newly arrived from the French court. Her name is Anne Boleyn.
A Matter of Conscience: the Aragon Years offers a unique first-person account of the ‘monster’ we love to hate and reveals a man on the edge; an amiable man made dangerous by his own impossible expectation.
Connect with Judith
A lifelong history enthusiast and avid reader, Judith holds a BA in English/Creative writing and an MA in Medieval Studies.
She lives on the coast of West Wales where she writes both fiction and non-fiction based in the Medieval and Tudor period. Her main focus is on the perspective of historical women but more recently is writing from the perspective of Henry VIII himself.
Her novels include:
A Matter of Conscience: Henry VIII, the Aragon Years
The Heretic Wind: the life of Mary Tudor, Queen of England
Sisters of Arden: on the Pilgrimage of Grace
The Beaufort Bride: Book one of The Beaufort Chronicle
The Beaufort Woman: Book two of The Beaufort Chronicle
The King’s Mother: Book three of The Beaufort Chronicle
The Winchester Goose: at the Court of Henry VIII
A Song of Sixpence: the story of Elizabeth of York
Intractable Heart: the story of Katheryn Parr
The Kiss of the Concubine: a story of Anne Boleyn
The Song of Heledd
The Forest Dwellers
Judith is also a founder member of a re-enactment group called The Fyne Companye of Cambria and makes historical garments both for the group and others. She is not professionally trained but through trial, error and determination has learned how to make authentic looking, if not strictly HA, clothing. You can find her group Tudor Handmaid on Facebook. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram.