BPL Book Review: "Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him "


By Mary Anne Ellis | Librarian I in Southern History Department, Central Library 

 Many discussions of King Henry VIII of England begin and end with his six wives and the famous mnemonic of “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.” This litany and the Holbein portrait of Henry in later life tend to be all that lives of this king in popular imagination. However, author Tracy Borman takes a different and refreshing approach. In Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him , Borman carefully examines the influence of various male figures who influenced Henry from birth to death and shaped him into one of the most complex rulers in world history. 

No discussion of Henry’s male role models would be complete without an assessment of how much he was molded by his own father. Henry VII, after gaining the throne of England by conquest at the Battle of Bosworth, could hardly have been more different from the son who bore his name. Henry VII was a careful and prudent man who oversaw the business of his government from morning until night and let very little take place in his realm without his personal stamp of approval. His son Henry, however, was cast more in the mold of his maternal grandfather Edward IV, who had been a golden and heroically handsome Plantagenet king, irresistible to women and preoccupied with the pleasures of life. 

There were inevitable clashes between the slight and sober-minded Henry VII and his strong-willed son, especially since Henry was the “spare”; his older brother Arthur was firstborn and heir to the throne. But Arthur’s death in his mid-teens catapulted Henry into the limelight and forced his father to include him in policy-making and instruct him in the business of governing the realm.  

 This late introduction to the tedious daily business of ruling helps explain the enormous influence of another famous man in Henry’s life—Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Wolsey, a commoner, was gifted with an exceptional intellect and graduated from Oxford by the time he was fifteen, at which time he pursued a theology degree from Magdalen College. But his ambitions were by no means confined to the church.

Quick to spot noble patrons who could advance his career, he worked his way into the court of Henry VIII and eventually became Henry’s chief counselor, taking upon himself many of the details of the government in which Henry showed little interest—still young and absorbed by the delights of his position as king, Henry would rather have been hunting and hawking, composing music, dancing, singing, and playing tennis than seeing to diplomatic decisions.

The Cardinal’s influence was profound while it lasted, but after his catastrophic fall from power when he was unable to help Henry secure a divorce from Queen Katherine of Aragon, Henry was never again to entrust quite so much power to a counselor. He still did not have his father’s tendency to sit all day at the business of governing, but over time Henry learned to play off his advisers against one another to keep them off balance and prevent any one of them from gaining too much influence over him. 

He was heard to observe that “if I thought my cap knew my counsel, I would throw it into the fire.”   Probably the only man who approached the same level of influence over Henry was Thomas Cromwell, who had previously served in Cardinal Wolsey’s household and who, after the Cardinal’s fall, secured a place in Henry’s court. 

Another commoner, Cromwell did not allow his origins to stand in the way of a spectacular political career, and, as Borman notes, there was much gossip over King Henry’s tendency to choose men like these to advise him:  “It is interesting to speculate whether the rise of two men of such humble origins as Cromwell and Wolsey in Henry’s service was more than a coincidence.  Did the king consciously choose them because of their backgrounds, rather than in spite of them? . . . Perhaps, too, there was an understanding between Henry and the men he promoted: they knew that just as he had raised them, so might he destroy them.”   

 Cromwell, like the Cardinal before him, was emphatically destroyed and once again, the issue was one of the King’s marriages. In an attempt to form what he considered important political alliances, Cromwell was largely responsible from the negotiations that ended with Henry’s brief marriage to Anne of Cleves, whom he disliked on sight and for whom he claimed he felt such personal revulsion that he could not possibly have sex with her. Such was the king’s displeasure with his ill-fated adviser that Cromwell was executed for treason, but only after having had a profound influence on his king and country that was equaled by very few other men, even those of noble birth. 

No discussion of the men in Henry’s life and career would be complete without a look at some of the men who had been his friends from this youth and would be with him for most of his life, such as Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. Slightly older than Henry, Brandon resembled him to such a degree that people joked about Brandon being Henry’s “bastard brother.” Their long acquaintance meant Brandon enjoyed an extraordinary freedom in his king’s company and their friendship even survived such stresses as Brandon marrying Henry’s sister without permission. Henry was furious and banished his old friend from court for a time, but since the Duke could have been executed for this act, he escaped lightly and eventually returned to court, dying only a short time before Henry.  

 These are just a few of the relationships Borman examines and this list is by no means complete. For anyone who is fascinated by all things Tudor and by this monarch in particular, Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him is a must-read and is highly recommended.