Read The Last Days of Henry VIII: Conspiracy, Treason and Heresy at the Court of the Dying Tyrant Online

Authors: Robert Hutchinson

Tags: #History, #Europe, #Great Britain, #Ireland

The Last Days of Henry VIII: Conspiracy, Treason and Heresy at the Court of the Dying Tyrant

For my beloved wife, Sally

The Last Days of Henry VIII
Conspiracy, Treason and Heresy at the Court
of the Dying Tyrant
Robert Hutchinson
Title Page
Author’s Note
A Dangerous Honour
God’s Imp
The Hunt for Heretics
The Final Quest for Military Glory
‘Anger Short and Sweat Abundant’
The New Levers of Power
The Plot to Burn the Queen
Protestants Ascendant
The Mystery of the Royal Will
‘Dogs Should Lick His Blood’
Sequel: ‘Tombs of Brass are Spent’
Dramatis Personae
Author’s Note

Henry VIII is the most famous king in England’s history, and you may think that the story of this psychotic and ruthless ruler is well known. However, it was during the last few years of his long reign that his uncertain health finally broke down, he mounted his final foreign military adventures and the conspiracies over politics and religion within his own court reached fever pitch. These years, 1543–7, were the defining moments of his time as king and sowed the poisoned seeds that were to bear bloody fruit when his offspring successively occupied the throne.

Such dramatic events require a new, detailed examination. Instead of forming the last pages of the many excellent published descriptions of the entire thirty-seven years of Henry’s reign written by a host of distinguished and learned historians, this study examines, in depth, the events of that short, tumultuous period. I have also endeavoured to convey a graphic sense of exactly how precarious an existence Henry’s courtiers and officials led during his final years in the whispering corridors of his sumptuous palaces, in the face of an aggressive, vengeful, cunning and pain-racked king.

This book also examines his all-important medical condition. Unknown to his cohorts of doctors – the best available at the time – the king was probably suffering from a disease that turned his waking hours into a paranoid nightmare, emotionally detached him from those he was fond of and threw him into troughs of melancholy from which only his faithful fool, or jester, could rouse him. Henry was no theatrical
caricature: he was a huge, devious man-mountain capable of remorseless cruelty – a true bully who was never afraid to exercise his total power of life or death over those he ruled, friend and foe alike. He must have been truly terrifying. In his moments of paranoia, he was certainly mad; he was undoubtedly bad and clearly dangerous to know.

This is a sad, violent story of a once splendid prince who could not cope with old age or the limitations that disease and pain put upon him. The sixteenth-century techniques of government – for example, the cynical use of propaganda and the isolation of the ruler from reality by a handful of largely self-seeking men – will seem familiar to us today, mirrored as they are in many contemporary regimes. So also will the harsh methods of his totalitarian state. In many ways, Henry’s character closely resembles those who held and wielded absolute power in the world in the twentieth century and who continue to do so in the twenty-first. Certainly that power corrupted government in the middle of the sixteenth century in England. None the less, Henry, for all his faults, did much to create the nation we live in today.


This book could not have been written without the help and active support of many friends and colleagues, not least my dear wife who has had to live with Henry VIII for many months.

In particular, I would like to thank Bernard Nurse, Librarian, and Adrian James, Assistant Librarian, of the Society of Antiquaries of London; the ever-willing and helpful staff at the former Public Record Office (now the National Archives) at Kew; the enthusiastic team at the library of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine; the manuscripts and rare-book departments at the British Library; Robin Harcourt Williams, Librarian and Archivist to the Marquis of Salisbury at Hatfield House; Julia Hudson, Assistant Archivist at St George’s Chapel, Windsor; Patricia Robinson of the Bodleian Library, Oxford; the Gloucestershire Record Office; Claude Blair for details of Henry’s armour and his new research regarding that worn by the king on the Boulogne campaign; Dr Seonaid Simpson for her kindness in helping with many details concerning the king’s medical condition; the Revd Father Jerome Bertram for much help with Latin translations; David Chipp for his helpful comments on the manuscript; Ian Drury of Weidenfeld & Nicolson for all his encouragement; Caroline Cambridge, Managing Editor, for much kindness and always willing help; Lisa Rogers for her painstaking care and considerable editing
skills; Celia Levett for her proofreading; Alison Waggitt for the index; and finally to Marcel Hoad for his invaluable support in so many ways.

To all these kind people, I would like to pass on my grateful thanks.

I must point out, however, that any errors or omissions are entirely my own responsibility.

Robert Hutchinson

The Pope has news from France confirming the death of the king of England and attaches great importance to it, saying this opportunity must not be allowed to slip without endeavouring to bring the country to submission again

Henry VIII – ‘by the grace of God, King of England, France and Lord of Ireland, Defender of the Faith and of the Church of England … on earth the Supreme Head’
– finally departed his long, troubled life, friendless and lonely, at around two o’clock in the morning of Friday 28 January 1547.
The golden glory of his spry, gallant youth had years ago faded away and the radiant European prince of the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520 had decayed into a bloated, hideously obese, black-humoured old man, rarely seen in public during his last months. The bloody-handed tyrant now lay lifeless in the magnificently carved walnut great bed in his opulent secret apartments in the sprawling Palace of Westminster. His unpredictable, dangerous moods and Tudor low cunning had at long last been neutralised by the omnipotent hand of Death. After thirty-seven years, nine months and five days of absolute
power, ruthless and rapacious government and the judicial murder of up to 150,000
of his hapless subjects – some his wives, best friends and distant relatives – Henry expired dumb and helpless, his cruel belligerence ultimately silenced. The royal hand firmly squeezed that of the faithful and obsequious Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, the only sign that he died ‘in grace’, secure in the faith of Christ. The ‘old fox’, as one French ambassador called him, was aged fifty-five years and seven months, a good age for those times
– particularly considering the king’s known fondness for gin,
his latterly sedentary existence and persistent overindulgence in entirely the wrong kinds of food.

Later that morning, as the huge, stinking corpse stiffened and grew cold, the members of Henry’s turbulent Privy Council, led by Cranmer; Thomas Wriothesley, his scheming Lord Chancellor; Sir William Paget, the king’s Chief Secretary and Sir William Paulet, Lord St John, Lord Steward of the Household, filed thoughtfully through the silent, darkened bedchamber, primarily to confirm formally that the royal life really had expired. They were also there to pay their respects to the monarch they had feared, maybe loathed, but to whom they certainly owed much for their considerable lands, income and status. These strutting dignitaries had all survived a precarious existence at Henry’s court, always living under the cosh of his erratic temper and overdeveloped ego. Dread of sudden disfavour had pervaded every corner of his many magnificent royal palaces and houses like an ever-present but invisible contagion. One moment, perhaps, they could be riding high in the king’s esteem; the next, arrested by the captain of the guard, accompanied by a file of halberdiers, on a trumped-up charge of treason or heresy. Life or death, poverty or wealth, could all hang merely on the irascible whim of a king both stricken with pain and frustrated by the immobility and limitations imposed by old age and his several ailments – or on the outcomes of the devious plots hatched by the politico-religious factions at his court in furtherance of their own quests for power and influence. As the always realistic courtier Sir Anthony Denny later told his friend Roger Ascham, tutor to Princess Elizabeth:

The court … is a place so slippery that duty never so well done is not a staff stiff enough to stand by always very surely; where you shall many times reap most unkindness where you have sown greatest pleasures and those also ready to do you much hurt, to whom you never intended to think any harm.

Watching the hushed figures as they moved slowly around the bed were Denny and Sir William Herbert, the two powerful Chief Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber who had efficiently guarded Henry’s isolation from the bustling world of his court and realm over the last years and months of his life and ministered even to the most intimate needs of his malodorous and diseased body.

Whether in sixteenth-century England or 500 years on in today’s sleazy authoritarian states, a change in regime is an uncertain, perilous time for those accustomed to the ample pleasures and comforts of authority. The small government of largely self-seeking men that Henry had left behind him now moved swiftly to sustain their precarious grip on power and to secure the person of his successor, the precocious and intelligent nine-year-old Prince Edward, the long-awaited legitimate son and heir provided by Queen Jane Seymour.

His uncle, Edward Seymour, the ambitious and conniving Earl of Hertford, and Sir Anthony Browne, Master of the King’s Horse, with a force of 300 mounted troops, rode post-haste to Hertford Castle where Edward was staying, later moving the prince, under close guard, to Enfield, Middlesex, where his half-sister Princess Elizabeth was living. Both were then told of their father’s death and due homage was paid to Edward as the new king.
From here, at around three or four o’ clock in the morning of 29 January, Hertford sent Paget the key to the small casket containing Henry’s recently revised last will and political testament. In a covering letter, he agreed that the king’s will

should [not] be opened until further consultation and that it might be well considered how much ought to be published. For diverse [reasons] I think it not convenient to satisfy the world [yet].

Hertford’s letter was endorsed: ‘Post-haste, with all diligence, for your life.’
As an additional security measure, England was sealed off from Europe by closure of the ports and the roads around London were also blocked by troops by government order.

For three days, news of Henry’s death was kept secret – even within the corridors of his own court – thereby maintaining the pretence of everyday normality. Francis van der Delft, the well-informed Spanish ambassador to London, wrote to his imperial master, the Emperor Charles V, on 31 January:

I learnt from a very confidential source that the King, whom may God receive in His Grace, had departed this life, although not the slightest signs of such a thing were to be seen at court, and even the usual ceremony of bearing in the royal dishes to the sound of trumpets was continued without interruption.

The same day, a Monday, still under Hertford’s close protection, Edward rode south through the City of London to the Tower, where he was publicly proclaimed king amid the roar of cannon firing salutes from the battlements and from ships moored in the River Thames. The arch-conspirator Wriothesley, his voice choking with emotion and insincere tears trickling down his cheeks, had that morning announced Henry’s death to a genuinely grieving Parliament. Paget then read out the salient terms of the king’s last will and Parliament was immediately dissolved.

Close by, as the power-broking and deals were done in countless behind-the-hand conversations in the galleries and darkened closets of the Palace of Westminster, the efficient bureaucracy was setting in train the elaborate arrangements for Henry’s obsequies. In 1547, as in 2002 with the funeral of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, the establishment knew how to put on a good show full of pomp and circumstance, splendour and pageantry. Every last detail of form and protocol had already been laid down in the Westminster
by the heralds of the College of Arms and according to rules established by the dead king’s
domineering grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, before she died nearly four decades earlier.

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