The politics of public relations: concepts of image, reputation and authority in henry viii’s england

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Wedged between two of England’s most notorious monarchs--Richard III and his own son, Henry VIII, the significance of Henry VII’s reign is often overlooked. His rule was a period of transition in which the bloody instability of the fifteenth century gave way to a gloriously peaceful time of renaissance and reform. These dawning years of the Tudor dynasty set the stage upon which Henry VIII would later dominate. Understanding the reign of Henry VII reveals much about the house of Tudor and the family that would define England’s true Golden Age.22 Still, and most importantly for the sake of this thesis, Henry VII’s reign faced troubling questions from the outset regarding his right to the crown. The tactics he employed in order to hold on to it are of great importance. The new king struggled to maintain order over a restless nation still healing from political trauma and war, all while failing to eradicate questions of his own legitimacy as king. His marriage to Elizabeth of York united the warring houses of York and Lancaster, ending the civil wars of the previous decades. His victory at Bosworth effectively wiped out his fugitive past as an exile in France due to his indirect, but still existent, claim to the throne. Now known as Henry VII, Tudor appeared out of nowhere as the rightful king come home to reclaim his throne. Thus began the great masquerade that would be his reign.

With no large family to support him, little land of his own, even less governmental experience and reliant on the flimsy loyalty of Yorkists whose true allegiance lay with his wife, Henry, though king in name, was in a most precarious position. He clung to the hope that if he “looked, behaved and ruled like a king, perhaps the exhausted, traumatized country of England would come to believe he was one.”23 Unlike his son after him, Henry VII was constantly haunted by the threat of civil war, real and imagined, weathering several rebellions throughout the 1490s. His mistrust of the nobles, who had for decades wielded their own independent power and wealth with devastating results for the monarchy and country, pushed him to seize more power for the crown. This along with his sophisticated network of spies and exclusive privy chamber placed Henry VII less as subject to the law and took legislation more and more under his own personal control. His reign redefined what power and status meant, laying the foundation for his son’s own policies.

Henry VII provided the model after which all other Tudor monarchs fashioned themselves. His greatest achievement was in making the court the hub of his authority, the central office of his campaigns. Unlike his less successful predecessors, he made his court the center of power in England, more specifically power centered on the king himself. This early form of personal monarchy and display would be one that Henry VIII would perfect during his own reign. Unlike the loose standards employed by the Yorkists before him, Henry VII was determined to preside over a court of dignity and splendor conducted without slackness or informality. “Rules should be rigidly observed and the royal person revered and respected.”24

Rather than the traditional image of Henry VII as a money-hoarding cheapskate, new studies of the first Tudor king reveal him as a great lover of display who spent copious amounts of money on the joust, the hunt and other representations of royal prowess and wealth when it suited his needs.25 Henry quickly realized that the crown came with a certain expectation for ostentation, and as a “a king by conquest rather than by descent,” he obliged in the forms of elaborate displays at feasts, tournaments and other forms of pageantry in order to uphold his legitimacy and reputation.26 In these times, Henry laid his notorious frugality aside in the interest of preserving royal prestige as he paid great attention to outward image communication. For example, his wedding feast was of a caliber that none of his predecessors could have hoped to better. Elizabeth's coronation in 1487 was yet another opportunity for Henry VII to demonstrate to the country that “he could successfully emulate the pageantry of the Plantagenets” from whom he had taken the throne.27

Despite failing to inspire love, Henry was particularly successful in the employment of imagery to negotiate authority. His concern with public display was in direct relation to his dynastic insecurities.28 He made great efforts to demonstrate prestige through the rituals of church and state: Elizabeth of York’s elaborate coronation and the sponsoring of elaborate jousts, progresses and feasts. “The early Tudor court was designed to impress and it succeeded,” even if it was “a confidence trick.”29 Henry VII launched extensive campaigns in an effort to overcome the insecurities and questions of legitimacy about his reign by stamping virtually everything from books to architecture with images of the dynastic badge.30 He gave thirteen tournaments in the last years of his reign and was known for his gilded armor, bejeweled trappings and outfits festooned with red and white roses that subtly constructed and displayed Tudor brand identity and authority at such events.31 Often called the Union Rose, the Tudor’s crest was created and adopted by Henry VII upon his marriage to symbolize the union of the White Rose of York and the Red Rose of Lancaster. Henry was also the first English king to incorporate the enclosed, imperial crown in his imagery. First appearing on the sovereign of Henry VIII in 1489, it was borrowed from the Holy Roman Emperors who had used the image since the 1000s. Kings of England had been using the closed crown since the fifteenth-century, but Henry’s use of it on his coinage brought it before the public in an unprecedented way. It effectively branded England as an empire and world power, an identity that Henry VIII would manifest early in his reign and one that would become the very fabric of Britain in the coming centuries.

Undoubtedly, the first Tudor presided over “a reign in which public display was integral.”32 Henry VII, like his son after him, also employed great displays of wealth and prestige through architecture. The king built numerous chapels during his reign, but the crown of his architectural splendor was the palace of Richmond, formerly Sheen. Henry made it “by far the most magnificent of all royal residences,” when it was rebuilt following a fire in 1499.33 Despite Henry’s well-documented displays of authority, they pale beside the later Tudors’ magnificent pageantry. As the originator of the personal reign and innovator of communication of authority and image manipulation, Henry VII’s political and economic tactics provided a firm springboard from which Henry VIII launched himself into a greatness that all but eclipsed his father.

The King of Hearts
Having set the backdrop upon which Tudor theatrics would unfold for more than a century, it is essential to examine the nature of Henry VIII’s accession and character during the years leading up to 1526, or Henry and his image and reign pre-Anne Boleyn.34 A young King Henry VIII was concerned with only two things: entertaining himself and establishing a glorious international reputation. As the king’s tutor, William Blount, Lord Mountjoy wrote to Erasmus in the first months of Henry’s reign, “[o]ur king’s set upon virtue, reputation and eternal renown.”35 How Henry went about establishing that reputation is of vital importance. First, an understanding of the applied theory and methodology of this study is necessary. For the purposes of this thesis, an application of the “post-modern” to the “early modern” is necessary. Nineteenth and twentieth-century historians have long thought of political history strictly in terms of “affiliations, struggle for place and ideological contests.”36 Dismissing the modern political experiences of “carefully crafted rhetoric, posed images, and choreographed spectacles,” as subjects of intellectual and cultural history, if not other disciplines entirely, has severely limited the scope and depth of the study of political history.37 If the present has much to learn from the past, certainly modern cultural constructs can better inform events of the past. A habitual aversion to presentism within the field has limited the possibility that “present experiences may open questions about and perspectives upon the past that lay unasked or unexplored by earlier generations.”38 Nowhere is this more apparent than in the nuances and complexities of political history. This thesis demonstrates that a dialogue between present and past is, and has always been, essential to the study of history.

The meanings of several terms as applicable to this thesis must be outlined. The “public relations” referred to in this research is a combination of the following definitions: it is both “the strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics” and “the professional maintenance of a favorable public image by a famous person.”39 In the case of the Tudors’ public relations efforts, this means they strove to communicate strategically a favorable (legitimate and authoritative) public image to their publics (subjects) in order to establish, and later maintain as favorable, the ancient working relationship between monarchs and their subjects. An essential component of authority, honor, legitimacy and any of the other characteristics that allow kings to rule is that of customer buy-in. Monarchy was certainly nothing if not a business transaction. In order for a king to maintain the authority he claimed to have, his subjects must be complicit in the relationship by allowing him to exercise it. Henrician citizens were certainly not aware of this social construct, and this thesis in no way argues this. But Tudor rulers were, to varying extents. The civil wars preceding their rule aside, the revolutions of the seventeenth century demonstrate clearly what results from a breakdown in this ambiguous and vital relationship. This argument in no way places all of the power on the subjects of Henrician England or oversimplifies what led to the seventeenth-century civil wars. The king was still the king and his authority was not questioned. Rather the English civil wars are an example of what can happen once a king has lost authority, and by extension, legitimacy, in the eyes of his people. Certainly as the Tudor dynasty continued, the early anxiety that will be discussed below lessened with each new succession, but early Tudor rulers were acutely aware of their power and legitimacy being tied directly to the acceptance and loyalty of those over whom they ruled. Why else, as this thesis will demonstrate, did Henry VII go to such great lengths to obtain the loyalty of his nobles, the support of the Church and to establish himself as embodying all the glorious characteristics of kingship?

Applying modern theories of public relations to Henry VIII’s reign also allows for the assertion that communication of Tudor authority was heavily reliant on an early culture of consumerism. Much like the modern culture of capitalism relies on securing compliance, via subliminal advertising and public relations campaigns used to persuade consumers to purchase a product, cultural politics of the past allowed the Tudors to secure compliance from their subjects by persuading them of their authority as monarchs. The effectiveness of such campaigns weighs heavily on the success of branding, or the culture or feeling that a product or company projects to its customers. For the purposes of this study, think Henricus Rex L.L.C. The nature of branding dictates that it is not controlled by the company itself, but rather by its consumer, meaning the effectiveness of a brand is only as good as the customer’s feeling about the person, product service, or company. Much like one’s personal reputation might lie largely outside of the individual's control, so does a company’s, or in this case a ruler’s, brand. The Tudor brand, or the feeling that Henry’s subjects would have towards his authority and rule, is “not what you say it is--its what they (consumers or subjects) say it is. The best you can do is influence it.”40 This influence is essential as a brand is a promise to the consumer, establishing what they can expect from the company and it also differentiates a particular brand from its competitors. For example, the Tudor brand needed to be differentiated from the Plantagenets as the lawful and true kings of England with the sole authority to sit on the throne. A brand is constructed in equal parts by iconography (logos, design, imagery, i.e. crests and portraiture) as well as emotional buy-in (the manipulation of both social anxiety and desire, i.e. patronage and personal monarchy) to create a sense of compliance and loyalty among the masses. Essentially, “the Tudors had to persuade the subjects of England...of their right to rule.”41 Using this modern context defines “early modern authority as a negotiation rather than an autocratic enactment.”42 And if the coming revolutions of the next centuries in both England and France were any indication, it would appear that kings, like companies, served at the pleasure of their customers.43

Thus power and authority were no longer simply the weapons of a king, but rather the product of “complex negotiations between rulers and subjects.”44 As Sharpe’s theory of cultural politics (the idea of power and authority as a cultural phenomenon rather than a force outside of or dominant over a culture) suggests, power and authority were not something that rulers simply possessed by right, but rather communicated to their subjects through cultural constructs of display such as progresses, festivals, tournaments, coronations, portraiture and writing. Henry’s subjects in turn, recognized and accepted Tudor authority, making them “not merely subject to but the shared authors, that is makers, of power.”45 In order to remain on the throne, the Tudors secured “the compliance of subjects through careful acts of representation--in words, images and spectacular performances that did not simply reflect or enact power but helped to construct it.”46

Presenting and maintaining an image of legitimacy was essential and foremost in the mind of Henry VIII. An understanding of his accession and the very early years of his rule is the foundation for interpreting the rationale behind many of Henry’s actions throughout the rest of the reign. Like his father before him, he was a most consummate public relations man. As demonstrated by his father’s reign, this Tudor proclivity for image cultivation was born of necessity. In fact, the first of Henry’s public relations campaigns centered on touting his father’s image as the heroic king who brought justice, order, and peace to war-torn England, as well as placing the crown on sound financial footing. He was determined to protect his father’s reputation while simultaneously forging his own. In reality, the first Tudor monarch was a deeply troubled, suspicious and paranoid man whose reign was marred by oppression, extortion and terror by an avaricious ruler who inspired fear rather than love.47 Despite the Tudors’ best efforts, this romanticism veils a “dark prince,” as his first biographer, Francis Bacon described him. The last decade of Henry VII’s rule saw the claustrophobic reign of an ageing and paranoid king in stark contrast to his promising young son.

Understandably then, Henry VIII’s ascension in 1509 was hailed as a new beginning, a springtime, after the winter of his father’s suspicion and paranoia. Certainly countless new reigns had been welcomed with exuberant expectations, yet this one was particularly joyous for both subjects and king. For Henry, it marked the end of a long and stifling childhood spent under the oppressive thumbs of a severe father and grandmother, releasing him into the intoxicating arena of power and freedom for the first time in his seventeen years of life. He inherited a throne made miraculously secure by his father, a fortune greater than any English monarch before him, and the most war-weary and obedient subjects in all of Christendom. These same subjects rejoiced in the first stable succession of an adult male heir in a century. England, and Henry too, breathed a collective sigh of relief as it stood on the precipice of abundance, peace and prosperity for the first time in generations. The “magnificent, liberal and bullish” Henry VIII’s early reign was characterized, at least initially, for its perceived glory and splendor in comparison to the long, clouded years of his father’s.48 Henry did not disappoint. He shone like the sun emerging from eclipse, taking even the few who knew him well by surprise at the sudden turn in his character. Though always charming and charismatic, he had been more reserved during his father’s iron-gripped reign. This newly unleashed Henry was wealthy, determined, and brimming with youth. He was also dazzling in physique and appearance, incredibly well educated and, at least at the start, a man determined to be a just and legendary ruler. William Blount, Lord Mountjoy, wrote with breathless glee to Erasmus in 1509 describing the new reign as the Promised Land flowing with “milk and honey and nectar.”49 The new king, however glorious, was also an unlikely one. The death of his brother Arthur in 1502, mere months after his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, “transformed Henry’s condition.”50 The often-overlooked second son was propelled into the sunny brilliance of heir apparent almost overnight.

Emerging from beneath the towering shadows of his father and brother fueled Henry’s early approach to his rule. His father had wasted no time in promoting the legitimacy of his reign by claiming the texts upon which authority in early modern Europe was validated: “scripture, law, and history.”51 His son would follow in his footsteps, placing great value on historical references, traditional laws of kingship and authority, and scripture. From the start it was clear that he would be a king very much concerned with forging his own image and reputation, which he set about cultivating almost immediately through “officially sponsored...royally generated media.”52 As the first stable successor to the throne in nearly a century, Henry was the proverbial guinea pig in terms of carrying on a lasting dynasty. Filling his father’s shoes while still making his own way was vitally important to the young king. Not only did the new reign promise wealth and prosperity, Henry VIII also came into his new position determined to meet some of his own personal expectations. A sixteenth-century monarch was required to be many things. Henry’s desire to appear to the world as “the cultivated prince, the warrior king, the chivalrous knight, the caring Christian and God’s anointed lieutenant,” at varying times throughout his rule, each of which will examined in further detail, fueled his passion and talent for effective image projection.53 Henry would wholeheartedly commit to each of these roles throughout the course of his reign. Though the parts he played were inevitably fleeting, “there was nothing insincere or halfhearted in his performance” of each.
The Cultivated Prince
While something of an enigma upon coming to the throne, Henry was not wholly unprepared for the demands of a personal monarchy. Like a human firecracker, he was stunning, bright, impossible to miss, but also quite unpredictable and dangerous, especially to those who drew too close. Most notably, one of the new king’s first acts of policy was to clean house politically. In July 1509, Henry ordered a number of high-profile commissions to investigate the actions of his father’s political advisors. The king claimed to have received word that English law had been subverted and that the good governance of his realm hung in the balance. He readily appointed high-ranking officials, many of whom had served Henry VII, to investigate further. Ironically, the old king’s counselors were now responsible for rooting out offenses for which they themselves were responsible.54 Certainly a scapegoat was needed. Among the first to be called into question were the doings of his father’s most valuable financial advisors, Edmund Dudley and Richard Empson. Uncovering details of the innermost workings and offenses of the old reign would prove problematic for the accusers and present a less than favorable image of Henry VII himself, something no one wanted to uncover. The commissioners grappled with how to make a fabricated charge stick without soiling their own reputations. In a brilliant stroke of pragmatism, Empson’s and Dudley’s indictments were conveniently not based on any offenses committed under the old regime, but rather on “scraps of circumstantial evidence…distorted into highly speculative charges of treason” surrounding the succession.55 Essentially the two were accused of plotting to control the young Henry VIII, on pain of death, for their own purposes at his father’s passing. Following a law Henry saw passed through his first parliament in 1509, both men were eventually sentenced to a traitor’s death of hanging, drawing and quartering following futile defenses at farce trials. A series of others imprisoned without trial would soon follow throughout the remainder of this first year of Henry’s reign. Ironically, many of Henry’s closest advisors applauded the executions, blind to the glaring fact that even at seventeen Henry had demonstrated that when he wanted something, he got it, whatever the cost to procedure, details of legality or any other obstacle standing in his way.

Many overlooked this telling character flaw, focusing instead on Henry’s embodiment of “the Renaissance ideal of the man of many talents with the qualities of the medieval chivalric heroes whom he so much admired,”56 being highly intelligent; skilled in Greek, Latin and French as well as disciplines ranging from mathematics to theology. He was also particularly gifted in music and other courtly graces, and as his contemporaries report, was a conditioned athlete and formidable martial opponent. Most importantly, he also possessed the famous Tudor penchant for skillful image manipulation and communication and was widely admired in diplomatic circles for his “talents and virtuosity.”57

The young king was admired not only for his intelligence, but also his looks and impressive stature; standing at six feet two inches tall, he towered over most men of his time. The Venetian ambassador described the young king in 1515 as “the handsomest potentate I ever set eyes on” with auburn hair, athletic build and catlike graces.58 This included his wardrobe, which often presented him dripping in jewels, cloth of gold, rich silks and satins in bold colors, and festooned with the feathers of exotic birds. Particularly in his early reign, the young king was characterized by extravagance, gross misuse of money on gambling and other sport, and a preoccupation with impressing everyone he came into contact with. A man of seemingly endless energy, Henry was quick to laugh, genial and idealistic, yet simultaneously vain, impulsive, high-strung and prone to emotional outbursts. He was also decidedly intractable. Though decision making did not come easily to him once he had decided upon something, nothing would deter his course, leading Thomas Wolsey to warn on his deathbed: “Be well advised and assured what matter ye put in his head, for ye shall never pull it out again.”59 Still, Henry was beloved of the English people immediately simply for his youth and charisma, although his popularity was far more under his control than previously understood.

Henry’s first concern in 1509 was not merely popularity, but security.60 Within days of his ascension, he openly declared his intention to marry his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon. What a new king needed more than almost anything, as a major aspect of royal power, was a secure dynasty through his male heirs. As a result of the Tudors’ precarious hold on the throne, nearly all their lives were defined by an obsession with meeting the vital need for an adult male heir to succeed them. In Henry’s case, this would come by extreme and unprecedented measures. A vital part of one’s manhood rested on the ability to produce sons. For kings this increased tenfold. Just as his own mother’s prompt fecundity had strengthened his father’s hold on the throne, Henry knew that a royal marriage and heirs would serve to support his own authority and prowess. For this a wife was immediately required. But not just any wife would do, for Henry in particular. The institution of royal marriage was a lucrative and calculated business in early modern Europe. Kings required not only a queen, but a queen of powerful position who would bring influential alliances between nations. Catherine brought with her ties to the formidable and wealthy Spanish Empire, lending Henry still more legitimacy and power in the form of a young and pretty queen who was adored by the court and the English people. Henry and Catherine were wed on 11 June 1509 at Greenwich, ushering in the honeymoon phase of his reign in which he played the role of devoted husband in the flush of youth and love. During these years England was governed by a young and capable king who adored his beautiful queen. Henry’s chief desire was to please Catherine and he was almost always with her--having the midday meal or dinner in her chambers, confiding in one another, and “taking his pleasure as usual with the Queen.”61 He wore their entwined initials on his sleeves at the joust and styled himself “Sir Loyal Heart.” Catherine, in turn, adored him.

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