Henry VIII . part I

Henry VIII was a handsome, well proportioned youth who, also because of his exceptional height, easily commanded authority at an early age. He was well educated, proficient in Latin, fluent in French and profoundly interested in theology, scholarship and music. It was said that a single meeting with the young king left a lasting impression. Indeed a Venetian in London correctly predicted that 'the whole world will soon be talking of him', but no one anticipated the colossal, compulsive despot that he was to become.
Niccolò Machiavelli, however was shrewd enough to already judge him 'rich, ferocious and greedy for glory','  even though he had never met the young king.

Henry's first wife was Catherine of Aragon, (Catarina d'Aragón). In November, 1501, he thus fulfilled his father's dying wish by marrying this small, dainty and attractive Spanish noblewoman and ambassadress. The splendid coronation and the banquet in Westminster Hall was described as 'greater than any Caesar had known'. Henry himself was indeed rich and splendid. He had inherited more than eight grand residencies, three of which were in London, where he also planned to have additional properties built.

Catherine too was happy at this early stage : 'Our time is spent in continuous festival',  she wrote to her father. The king was gay, athletic and actively enthusiastic enough to exhaust his horses in hunts, as well as his opponents in tennis matches. There was nothing he couldn't do well. He was even a better archer than most of his own company of archers, and there was no one who could out-drink him. He was learned enough to hold conversations and win arguments with most, and would always be the first to lead off in the jousting tournaments.

His lusty love of life and vivacious personality contrasted enormously with the gloomy image of his father, the former king, so that very soon he enjoyed immense popularity.
Young king Henry, wishing to become more learned, would confer with Thomas More and Erasmus on astronomy, divinity, geometry and other subjects. Catherine was quite at ease with the well educated, as she had benefited from an excellent education from the most eminent humanists of Spain.

When she became queen, her household amounted to a hundred and sixty courtiers and servants, only eight of whom were Spanish.
The king's staff totalled five hundred. The royal guard, three hundred.
The following is an example of a banquet arranged by the cooks and kitchen staff at this epoch, as described by another Italian:

'The guests remained at table for seven hours by the clock. All viandes placed before the King were borne by an 'elephant' or by 'lions', or 'panthers' or other 'animals', marvellously designed (...) The removal and replacing of dishes the whole time was incessant, the hall in every direction being full of fresh viandes on their way to the table. Every imaginable sort of meat known in the Kingdom was served, and fish in like manner, even down to prawn pasties. But the jellies of some twenty sorts perhaps, surpassed everything, being made in the shape of castles and animals of various descriptions, as beautiful and as admirable as can be imagined'.

Henry played the lute and most key-board instruments quite skilfully. He loved all forms of music and had a fine singing voice. This happy, opulent and carefree period is reflected in Henry's song:

Pastance with good company
I love and shall until I die
Grudge who will, but none deny,
So God be pleased this life will I
For my pastance,
Hunt, sing, and dance,
My heart is set,
All goodly sport
To my comfort
Who shall me let?

Youth will needs have dalliance,
Of good or ill some pastance;
Company me thinketh best
All thought and fancies to digest,
For idleness
Is chief mistress
Of vices all;
Then who can say
But pass the day
Is best of all?

Company with honesty
Is virtue- and vice to flee;
Company is good or ill
But every man hath his free will.
The best I sue
The worst eschew;
My mind shall be
Virtue to use;
Virtue to refuse
I shall use me.

His love of music determined the arrival of some of the best European musicians of the era, eager to benefit from his generous appreciation. The result was stimulating and inspiring. The music of Henry's court soon gained a very prestigeous European reputation. One of his preferred English musicians who had been granted the responsibility
of teaching the choristers, was Robert Fayrefax. But many great talents of the early 16th century came from Italy, (the Bassano family) Germany, France, Holland and Belgium.

Henry not only patronised and encouraged music, he patronised the arts in general, including painting and sculpture. The talents of renowned Flemish and Italian artists were employed, but the best of them all, and perhaps the best of all time regarding portrait painting and drawing of eminent and royal personalities, was Hans Holbein the Younger who settled in England in 1532.

Despite several initial miscarriages, very early in the morning of the 1st of January, 1511, at Richmond, Catherine of Aragon gave birth to a baby boy. Henry was overjoyed.
Free wine was offered in the streets of London, and great bonfires were lit. Everyone was delighted to welcome the arrival of an heir to the throne- Henry, Prince of Wales. Indeed the Heavens had smiled upon Henry VIII. A grand tournament was organised in honour of the birth of little Henry. It took place on the 13th and 14th February. The participants, both defenders and challengers who had accumulated the most points on each of the days, were generously awarded.
Every one was most relieved when the King himself won the challenger's award on the final day.

This preceded a lavish banquet, music and dancing at the White Hall palace where railed scaffolding had been erected for the benefit of spectators. Then there was an elaborate pageant in which Henry appeared as 'Coure Loyall'  with an entourage of five Knights : 'hose, caps and coats were full of posies and H. and K. of fine gold in bullion'. The king even invited courtiers and ambassadors to take the gold from the specially made garments, and eventually even the ordinary spectators joined in, by even going so far as to strip the king himself, as well as other lords and ladies. The King's guard took control without mishap, and the evening ended happily with yet another feast in the King's Chamber.

But the hope and joy of the King, his Queen and the nation, died nine days later. And this fatal tragedy was enough to provoke an unprecedented sequence of dramatic events that would change the whole course of history, determine the mould of Great Britain, and thus also effect the whole world.

(This abridged history of the life and reign of Henry VIII consists of a series of six
linking chapters, two of which will be posted each month until June, 2013.)

Henry VIII . part II
Text © Mirino. Sources include- 'Henry VIII and his Court' by Neville Williams, 'The lives of the Kings & Queens of England'  edited by Antonia Fraser. With many thanks. Top portrait of Henry VIII by Holbein the Younger. Portrait of Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536) oil on oak panel by court painter Michael Sittow. With thanks also to Wikimedia Commons. April, 2013

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