at right were written by the Venetian ambassador to Henry's court.
They are among the most famous descriptions of Henry VIII and capture his
exuberance, vanity and wit.
Henry VIII was born on 28 June 1491, the second son of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. He was originally destined to be archbishop of Canterbury, but his older brother, Prince Arthur, died in 1502, shortly after marrying the Spanish princess Katharine of Aragon. And so Henry became king of England at the age of 18.
He was strong, handsome, athletic and very intelligent. The English people at first idolized him. His thirty-eight year reign, however, disabused them of their early worship. Henry married six times, executed two of his wives, was rumored to have poisoned one and secretly ordered the death of another. He was increasingly mercurial and tyrannical. He imprisoned or executed, or both, many of the great nobles; he also executed several religious and intellectual leaders, most famously Sir Thomas More.
Much of the drama and confusion of Henry's reign was caused by his pressing need for a male heir. His first marriage, to his brother's widow, Katharine of Aragon, lasted over twenty years but produced only a surviving daughter. In order to marry again, Henry eventually rejected papal authority in England and named himself supreme head of a new English church. This decision forever altered English history; it also threw the English people into a social and religious upheaval which superficially ended during Queen Elizabeth I's reign.
As king, Henry was as efficient as his father, though far more of a spendthrift. He effectively controlled Parliament and chose brilliant advisers (first Wolsey, then Cromwell.) His foreign policy was largely inconsequential, driven by his desire to interfere in continental affairs. He remains one of the most famous and influential kings in English history.
After dinner, we were taken to the King [Henry VIII], who embraced
us, without ceremony, and conversed for a very long while very familiarly,
on various topics, in good Latin and in French, which he speaks very well
indeed, and he then dismissed us, and we were brought back here to London....
[And later that year....] His Majesty came into our arbor, and addressing
me in French, said: 'Talk with me awhile! The King of France, is
he as tall as I am?' I told him there was but little difference.
He continued, 'Is he as stout?' I said he was not; and he then inquired,
'What sort of legs has he?' I replied 'Spare.' Whereupon he
opened the front of his doublet, and placing his hand on his thigh, said
'Look here! and I have also a good calf to my leg.' He then told
me that he was very fond of this King of France, and that for the sake
of seeing him, he went over there in person, and that on more than three
occasions he was very near him with his army, but that he never would allow
himself to be seen, and always retreated, which his Majesty attributed
to deference for King Louis, who did not choose an engagement to take place;
and he here commenced discussing in detail all the events of that war,
and then took his departure....