Was Henry VIII Easily Manipulated?

The famous Holbein Portrait of Henry VIII. 

Originally painted close to life-size, it depicts him as a strong, dominant king, his broad shoulders and firmly planted legs showing steadfastness. He makes eye contact with us through his fixed gaze and puts us in no doubt that he is in charge of his kingdom and that his word is the law. 

After Hans Holbein, Henry VIII. Public Domain

But could it be that this Henry was, in fact, easily manipulated by court factions? That he made decisions based on what others had told him and didn't question the facts for himself? That he could be influenced in major decisions of state by shiny trinkets and flattery? 

We tend to look at historical figures in one dimension. 

Henry VII was the miserly, introverted king who made good, sobre decisions and checked off the accounts in his books every night. But then we also know that he spent millions of pounds on clothes for himself and his family. Mary I was the troublesome and severe 'Bloody Mary', who executed hundreds of protestants, incessantly argued with her family over religion and locked her half-sister up in the Tower, for safe-keeping. But then she also pined for her often-absent husband, Philip II of Spain, and longed to be a mother to children of her own. And then there's Henry VIII. The debauchery and bawdiness of his court, beheading advisers and wives left, right and centre and bedding every maid of honour that catches his eye in the palace while throwing half-nibbled chicken drumsticks over his shoulder. 

Henry wasn't the one-dimensional character history has painted him as. In actual fact, he had only a handful of mistresses during his 38-year reign. He ate with ceremony and had good table manners. He showed moments of compassion, rewarding faithful servants with expensive gifts and promotions and paying compensation in 1530 (10 shillings - the equivalent of £220 today or sixteen days' wages) for a cow that had been killed by royal dogs.(1) But it's certain that he had a soft side and regarded the words of corrupt ministers and plotters with more seriousness than he perhaps should have. He switched decisions quickly, accepting the word of quick-witted courtiers who knew how to influence him. 

Historians have scratched their heads for centuries over Henry's decision to execute Anne Boleyn for treason in 1536. His queen, a woman he waited at least six years to marry - and two weeks before she was arrested, was writing to his ambassador of her that 'God will send us heirs male [by] our most dear and most entirely beloved wife, the Queen.'(2) 

The charges against her could be largely unproven - the dates and locations of her alleged infidelities do not match with the Queen's public movements at the time - and those watching her trial believed the charges so flimsy hat she would certainly be acquitted. She protested her innocence until the end, risking eternal damnation on her soul. And yet, she knelt at the scaffold on 19th May 1536 and had a swordsman cut off her head, on the king's orders. 

How could a man do such a thing to a woman he had loved and had a nine year relationship with? And why did he assume immediately that Anne was guilty? Why did Anne need to be killed? Wouldn't a simple divorce work, as before, if he was only wanting to remarry? Anne had fewer allies than Catherine of Aragon and divorcing her would be much easier. 

Alison Weir, in The Lady in The Tower, makes the convincing argument throughout the book that, working on the premise that Henry was already growing tired of Anne's attitude to him and the lack her promise to him  - a living male heir, it was plotting within the court that led to her downfall. She places the blame on everyone from the Seymours, Lady Rochford, Elizabeth Browne, the Princess Mary, Sir Nicholas Carew and Eustace Chapuys as instrumental in her decline - with Cromwell at the top, as chief orchestrator. Chapuys even writes to the Emperor saying that 'he (Cromwell) had thought up and plotted the affair.'(3). She also makes the case that Cromwell needed to get rid of Anne as they had opposing views on matters including religious reform - and her whispers in the king's ear influenced Henry to her will much more than Cromwell's, leading Henry in a different direction than Cromwell would have liked. This certainly explains why some of the powerful and influential men accused with the Queen seemed hand-picked to meet their death - Weir demonstrates how Cromwell would have gained from their fall. Her research paints the picture of a nervous and panicking Cromwell very soon facing his own ruin as he fell from favour - bringing the Queen down to save himself. 

Just as Cromwell is said to have instigated Anne's eventual decline in 1536, so, according to David Starkey, the Boleyns and supporters of Catherine of Aragon connived to create Wolsey's fall in 1529. He writes that they, with the nobility,

'sank their own fundamental differences and went into alliance against him. Together they worked on Henry's temporary disillusionment with his minister, and the pressure, coupled with Anne's skilful management of her lover, was enough to break the trust of almost twenty years, and destroy Wolsey.'(4)

We're seeing a pattern emerge. Intervention from the court broke the twenty years of trust Henry had with Wolsey, and court accusations broke the six years of his trust with Anne Boleyn. 

And it goes on. Similarly, the fall of Cromwell - who had served Henry for a loyal eight years - can be traced back to the Duke of Norfolk and Stephen Gardiner. Starkey states that the 'fiasco of the Cleves marriage, which Cromwell had engineered, played into their hands and they struck home by accusing the minister of the sacramentarian heresy...'(5)

If Henry was aware of these paranoid and snake-like court factions, he did little to stop them, but gave them a willing ear.

And it could be made more willing by treading carefully, and appealing to the king's better nature. It's no wonder that Wolsey had Henry's Groom of the Stool, William Compton, sent away in 1523 and then replaced with his own man, Henry Norris. The post, far more than arranging the king's bathroom time, was a deeply desirable one. The Groom of the Stool was in charge of the Privy Chamber, the king's most inner sanctum of associates who would clothe the king and have his rooms ready, among other duties. The Groom was in a good position to control who got closest to the King, whisper in his ear or put in a good word for a member of the court. 

Even so, advisers and politicians knew that if they were going to influence Henry properly, they needed to treat him gently, to get on his good side first. Wolsey was known for this. According to Polydore Vergil,

'Every time he wished to obtain something from Henry, he introduced the matter casually into his conversation; then he brought out some small present or another, a beautifully fashioned dish, for example, or a jewel or ring or gifts of that sort, and while the King was admiring the gift intently, Wolsey would adroitly bring forward the project on which his mind was fixed.' (6)

The king's physician, William Butts, knew too how to influence Henry. In intervening to help preserve the career of Richard Turner, one of Cranmer's men in 1544, he, 'spying a time when the King was in trimming and washing... he pleasantly and merrily beginneth to insinuate unto the King the effect of the matter'. The king immediately changed his mind and commanded Turner be kept in service after all. (7)

It's impossible that Henry was unaware of the back-stabbing machinery of his court. He knew the personalities and the lengths ambitious courtiers would go to rise in power. The fact that he didn't judge the accusations against his last wife, Kathryn Parr, in 1546, as hastily and with the force of others before her indicates that he was tired of these games. He sent the accusers away angrily, in the presence of the Queen, with the words 'arrant knave, beast and fool'.(8) But there seems to be evidence that during his reign he allowed himself to be manipulated by others, either through the women that were planted in front of him by wealthy families at court, the whispers in his ear while he was shaving or the pretty dishes brought out to massage his ego. Like anyone, Henry VIII wasn't a one or two-dimensional human being. And there was another side to his omnipotent, axe-wielding character. 

What do you think? Do you think Henry was easily manipulated? Do you think he paid too much attention to the will of his courtiers? Let me know in the comments below. 

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1. Henry VIII, Letters and Papers, 1530 vol.5, f37
2. Alison Weir, The Lady in the Tower, Vintage Books, 2009, page 117
3. Alison Weir, Ibid., page 85
4. David Starkey, The Reign of Henry VIII. Personalities and Politics. Vintage, Random House. 1985. page 81. 
5. Ibid., page 99
6. Ibid., pages 44-45
7. Ibid., page 115
8. Ibid., page 120


  1. I don't know enough about this era to comment, but it's an interesting line of thought.


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