Primary Sources: 1515: A contemporary description of King Henry VIII

 

The accounts 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....
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, 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, 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 marvelously.  Believe me, he is in every respect a most accomplished Prince; and I, who have now seen all the sovereigns in Christendom, and last of all these two of France and England in such great state, might well rest content.

[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....
After dinner, his Majesty and many others armed themselves cap-a-pie, and he chose us to see him joust, running upwards of thirty courses, in one of which he capsized his opponent (who is the finest jouster in the whole kingdom), horse and all.  He then took off his helmet, and came under the windows where we were, and talked and laughed with us to our very great honor, and to the surprise of all beholders.
 

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