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



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Tantamount to a monarch’s maiestas, or the blend of dignity, magnificence and power, which was necessary to ensure both the obedience of subjects and the respect of fellow monarchs,62 was the reputation that preceded them. Just how skilled Henry would be in protecting, communicating and negotiating his own maiestas remained to be seen. He set about cultivating his own almost immediately and in various ways throughout the 15-teens and twenties by employing a system of calculated displays of opulence and majesty. Perhaps the strongest weapon in the Tudor public relations arsenal was the time-honored tradition of royal pageantry, or the series of traditional displays that accompanied the reign. This “language of symbolism” was universal and vital to Henry’s communication of his authority.63

The height of Tudor pageantry, with its stunning “magnificence, symbolism and image projection,” was the coronation.64 Henry’s, which Sir Thomas More described as “the beginning of our joy,” did not disappoint.65 True to form, the king exploited fully the festivities and imagery that accompanied his coronation, which serves as the first model for the pageantry that would occur throughout his reign. Polydore Vergil remarked that “a vast multitude of persons” flooded London when the date of his coronation was announced. “[E]verybody loved him,” Vergil wrote of the ceremony, likening Henry to Edward IV “the most warmly thought of by the English people among all the English kings...and for that reason [Henry] was the more acclaimed and approved of by all.”66 On 23 June, “color, magnificence, symbolism and images were all present, projecting the crown’s wealth, power and territorial claims”67 as the young king, flanked by nine riders bearing trappings representative of England’s territories, travelled from the Tower to Westminster Palace the day before his coronation. He was dressed in ermine-trimmed crimson velvet, a coat of gold, and dripping in diamonds, rubies, pearls and other precious stones.68 Days of feasts and celebrations followed. The first of an endless stream of poems and songs praising the king’s honor and virtues, imbuing him with chivalric ideals, began in this period. John Skelton’s poem “Laud and Praise Made for Our Sovereign Lord the King” identified Henry as, “the prince of high honour” and “as king moost soverein that ever Englond had.”

The king’s noble attributes had to be communicated in more than the words of court flatterers. Henry saw to it that his majesty, power and right to the throne were clear through various, more permanent forms of art and architecture as well. Down to the present day, his palaces are shining examples of his use of iconography as a means of communicating the Tudor brand and his own power. Prior to Henry and Anne Boleyn’s entwined initials, the royal palaces of England displayed Catherine's badges caught up with Tudor roses and crowns. During the elaborate coronation tournaments staged at Westminster Palace in June 1509, “a great Croune Emperiall” was displayed everywhere throughout the architecture of palace.69 When Charles V visited London in 1522, Henry demonstrated his love of historical allegory. He made sure to bring the emperor to Winchester Castle to see King Arthur’s Round Table, dating from the reign of Edward I (1272-1307), which Henry had painted “with the figure of a robed and bearded king in majesty” holding orb, sword and imperial crown. Though labeled “Kyng Arthur,” the visage was that of Henry himself signifying his authority, honor and himself as heir to a great English king of legend.70

Large, elaborate palaces were also a symbol of the strength and staying power of the monarchy. Henry VII’s palace at Richmond was built to symbolize the permanence of the Tudor dynasty.71 Consequently much of Henry VIII’s reign was spent building and rebuilding the various homes he had inherited from his father. “No English sovereign ever owned as many houses as Henry VIII, and spent so lavishly on a lifestyle deliberately calculated to enhance his own prestige.”72 When little could be done to help Westminster and the White Tower’s cold and bleak accommodations, Henry began to acquire and build new royal residences. Between 1519-1523, the king purchased or converted four new royal residences including Beaulieu and St. George’s Chapel at Windsor. Not to mention the temporary palace erected upon the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520, which was both a spectacular display abroad and egregiously expensive. From Cardinal Wolsey Henry obtained Hampton Court and Whitehall, both of which were transformed into “magnificent settings in which he could strut before an admiring English elite and the Ambassadors of Europe,” whose dazzled reports home strengthened his international reputation.73 The shrewdly discerning Nicolo Sagudino, secretary to the Italian ambassador, commented during a visit from the French that “his Majesty exerted himself to the utmost, for the sake of the ambassadors...that he may be able to tell his King Francis what he has seen in England, and especially with regard to his Majesty’s own prowess.”74 The acquisition of these and many more residences was not simply for the purpose of comfort or avarice. They were, chiefly, the staging ground for Henry’s public relations campaigns and projections of various images for the benefit of both foreign and native audiences alike. The palace and the court became the podium from which Henry, with the aid of various props, music and dance, could perform the pageantry of kingship both literally and figuratively. He was a veritable male peacock, unfurling his tail of wealth and prestige to a dazzled court on almost every occasion.

The king certainly enjoyed literal playacting in his youth and even into his later years, always taking on the role of most virtuous, honorable, chivalrous or desirable. It was during one such masque performance that one theory suggests he met Anne Boleyn. In a March 1522 pageant staged for the Imperial ambassador at York Palace, Henry, in the role of “Ardent Desire,” along with friends, endeavored to rescue eight imprisoned maidens representative of various virtues guarded by those of folly, bearing names such as Scorn and Disdain. The Lady Anne Boleyn, in the befitting role of Perseverance, is said to have been among those maidens who needed rescue.75 Naturally, the masque ended with victory for the king and his mates and concluded with much dancing. In figurative terms, Henry’s lavish palaces and court provided the ideal atmosphere of fanfare and grandeur to communicate and manipulate his image effectively. After all, the epicenter of Tudor public relations pageantry lay in the court. Without question it was the single most essential tool that the Tudor dynasty wielded in communicating their legitimacy and authority across generations on the throne of England. The “fast communication network” it contained made it the most effective launching pad for Tudor authority.76 Rumor ran rampant at court and rapidly spread to the countryside from those who lived in this information hub via letter or royal proclamation. One of its primary functions was to act as the vehicle through which the monarch maintained their maiestas. Henry worked tireless to protect this maiestas as the essence of his rule and essential to both the nature and successes of his domestic policies and to the outward, national expression of these successes.77

An examination of the various ways that Henry communicated his authority and bestowed favor upon his favorites like Boleyn requires an understanding of the nature of this court. Revolutionized and modernized under their rule, the court was the lifeblood of Tudor innovation and power, which Henry VIII used to his full advantage. While the court was a center for outward dissemination of the king’s campaigns, part of its success was also in its inward attraction. Perhaps the most crucial weapon in the Tudor branding arsenal was the system of personal monarchy, which made the court and the presence of the monarch the center of wealth and advancement. This power was exercised by direct, personal delegation from the ruler and was a hot commodity for his courtiers. The king had “a way of making every man feel that he is enjoying his special favor,” More commented to John Fisher. With all the skill of a puppeteer, Henry kept his subjects at chase. First jesting, then charming, then commanding, he dazzled them with his majesty and drew them ever closer with his charms. The nature of personal monarchy, which capitalized on social anxiety and desire to be near the king’s majesty, allowed for more effective control of his authority and image. Policy was what he decreed it to be; advancement and honor were his gifts and at his disposal due to his authority, wealth and the admiration he inspired. For example, Henry created 37 peerage titles during his reign. Essentially, the monarch’s person personified the court community.78 This personal monarchy was a unique theme of all Tudor reigns and was an essential lubricant of the process of government.79

This social and political structure played an essential role in facilitating the king’s public relations campaigns, like the making and unmaking of Boleyn. Personal monarchy meant that to courtiers the king’s authority was synonymous with royal favor. Royal favor also played a major role in the delegation of power and position. The king gave power to the men he liked and trusted and they in turn acted to maintain his favor and trust.80 The lifeblood and currency of the English court was royal favor, a system established by Henry VII and fueled by the fear of over mighty nobles. This form of currency made any and everyone who hoped for power and advancement beholden to the monarch. Whether received from the king himself or through a trickle down system from those who had his direct favor, it was the most desirable commodity in England. Having the king’s favor meant immeasurable opportunity for power, wealth and influence. Competition and factionalism were further consequence of personal monarchy. The power struggle that centered on the monarch’s favor sparked a power struggle between courtiers around monarchs themselves, making “the ritual of petition and response...part of the liturgy of politics.”81 The consequences that flowed from this personal monarchy determined the shape of courtiers’ lives. As Eric Ives suggests, politics were court politics, decisions were court decisions and promotion and advancement could only be achieved at court. Understandably then, Anne Boleyn was first and last, a phenomenon of the court.

The extension of the court was the royal progress, a vitally important instrument of Tudor government and in communicating Tudor authority to the laity who were not in London’s central axis. “By visiting the localities, a monarch reinforced his authority and was presented to his subjects against a background of ceremony and ritualised splendor.”82 In fact, the institutionalized court of Henry VIII’s time was a direct descendent of medieval kings’ nomadic courts which progressed throughout the kingdom almost constantly. These mostly took place in the summers and were distinguished by the lodging where the monarch took residence (Henry’s movements amongst his various official royal homes was not counted as a progress). Only those in which significant political calculation was taken in having the monarch stay at his nobles’ residences and religious houses counted as an official royal progress. They were more than a mere travelling caravan of the royal court, but rather “the showing of a Prince to win men’s hearts.”83 The progress had been a much-utilized tool of Henry VIII’s father to win the loyalty of his people following Bosworth. For his first progresses in 1510 and 1511, Henry embarked on impressive and wide-ranging travels to the midlands and north of England, an unusual feat for a monarch to travel so far afield of the court.

Progresses centered on the hunt and tournaments, the king’s favorite pastimes, but they were not conducted merely for the king’s pleasure or purely for display. Henry never did anything with a single motive. It was through these mediums that he enacted some of the most important acts of kingship. He entertained and met with the most prominent men in the region by having them join him on a hunt or rewarding them with the most liberal spoils of the day. Allowing this prestigious and fleeting experience of becoming the king’s boon companion secured the admiration and loyalty of the men who enforced Henry’s authority in the provinces. The ritual of the hunt was Henry’s own way of communicating with his subjects his prowess as a man and monarch as well as exacting loyalty, making it a vital aspect of patronage.84 Progresses were also a calculated way to keep Henry’s nobles properly subdued via the considerable financial strain of hosting the royal court. This was both a great honor and burden as noblemen spent large sums of money making ready for the monarch’s arrival. This too further nurtured the system of competition born of personal monarchy as nobles vied for the attentions of the sovereign. Perhaps most importantly of all, Henry’s progresses served to strengthen the bond between the monarch and his localities, ensuring that all of his subjects bought into the Tudor brand.

A cultivated prince also knew that he was only as good as those with whom he was surrounded. Henry spent significant amounts of money patronizing some of the greatest thinkers and artists of the age, whose writings and depictions of him only served to inflate his carefully cultivated image and reputation. Although his close relationship with the famous artists like Hans Holbein would come later in the reign (post-1526), discussed in further detail in Part II of this work, there are a handful of portraits of the young Henry by unidentified artists. One 1520 piece shows the king placing a ring upon his right hand, a symbol of his devout piety. Another in 1513 depicts the Battle of the Spurs with Henry at the center, accepting the surrender of a French lord, communicating the king’s military prowess. In 1525, Henry demonstrated his patronage savvy when he persuaded the whole Horenbout family of artists, the inventors of portrait miniatures, to leave the service of Margaret of Austria for the court of England, quite the triumph and scandal of the time.85

Aside from his appreciation of the arts, Henry also fancied himself a humanist scholar and desired to be recognized as such by learned men. In May 1509, he lamented to Lord Mountjoy that he longed for greater knowledge, to which Mountjoy replied that this was not his concern, rather he should focus on patronizing learned men. Henry fervently responded, “Certainly; We could hardly live without them.”86 As such his gifts to Cambridge and Oxford were substantial and he often took pupils of particular promise into his fold. During his reign Henry appointed the Oxford scholar and mathematician John Robyns as his chaplain and would ultimately turn to the authority of university men over the Church for a final verdict on his divorce. Highly educated in the classical, humanist fashion, Henry’s effortless talent for intellect was the joy of Thomas More, Erasmus and others like them. “The King’s Majesty has more learning than any English monarch possessed before him,” More declared.87 True to his humanist education, Henry was also uncommonly talented in music, being a gifted composer and singer as well as player of the flute, harp, and lute among others. Italian ambassador Sebastian Giustinian reported to Venice that the King of England “plays well on...almost every instrument; sings and composes fairly.”88

As a result of Henry’s own talents and interests, the English court hosted some of the most famous musicians and composers of the age during his reign. The king’s favorite and one of the most prestigious, the Dutchman Philip van Wilder, was appointed a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber in recognition of his talents. In addition, the writings of poets like John Skelton, who in “The Douty Duke of Albany” compared Henry to the likes of Hercules, King Solomon and Prince Hector of Troy, further supported Henry’s own claims of prestige, honor and magnificence. This patronage contributed considerably to Henry’s personal image as a cultured monarch, attracting not only accomplished musicians, but also sculptors, architects, and painters from across the Continent. It was not long into his reign before the Tudor court was competing with the cultural centers in Europe.

Though Henry’s ascent to the throne had gone relatively smoothly, he would soon learn the sophisticated nuances between being crowned king and the day-to-day demands of kingship itself. Certainly by 1512, the beginning of lifelong sporadic warfare with France, Henry found himself at a pivotal crossroads when it came to the tone and legacy of his reign. A decision between being a peaceful, diligent king who set his sights on building a secure and prosperous England like his father or an ambitious conqueror like his idol Henry V before him, demanded settlement almost immediately. Ultimately Henry’s choice was not simply between peace or war, rather it was between new and old.89

The Warrior King


One of the most important aspects of Tudor reigns and a king’s maiestas was the age-old tradition of militarism. Consequently, Henry VIII was expected “to be, or to have been, an active leader in war.”90 Victory in warfare was essential to a king’s honor, a fact that ensured that the first twenty years of Henry’s reign were dominated by foreign affairs. It was here that the king looked for his fulfillment and authority as a ruler. The years from 1509 to 1518 in particular saw Henry modeling himself as a young warlord. According to several contemporary sources, the first thing the new king had done was to announce his plans to resume the Hundred Years War with France. In doing so “Henry would lead England back into her past,” away from the quiet prosperity it had known and back into the messy squabbles of Europe.91 The young king squandered many of his father’s achievements in the process. Henry’s desire for martial glory would cost England much; monetarily, as his foreign escapades soon drained the enormous fortune Henry VII had amassed in the royal treasury, and diplomatically, as the new king’s international ambitions reignited tensions with the Scots whom his father had successfully pacified through the marriage of Henry’s sister Margaret to James IV in 1503.

Since antiquity the image of a king was characterized by victory in war.92 A mere two generations before him, the kings of England were shining examples of this ideal--invading and ruling almost the entirety of France. Only a few decades removed from the legend of these glorious French campaigns, for Henry the memory of the Black Prince and Henry V’s military prowess were fresh, and more importantly, attainable once more. He certainly fashioned himself after the likes of Edward I, Edward III and Henry V, even commissioning the translation of a work detailing the early life of the latter. Though a student of humanism, which championed peace and justice as the marks of a true Christian prince, Henry and his nobles remained “a hereditary military caste nourished on the cult of war and chivalry.”93 While Henry would become a supporter of these humanist ideals in the coming years, early in the reign the new king was fixated on the world of King Arthur and his knights and the promise of Camelot. This world praised heroism, chivalry and military prowess above all. A medieval king, the likes of the heroes Henry so admired, was marked by his chivalry and spectacular military prowess. This social and political construct, combined with the echoes of England’s former glory of a lost kingdom and throne, urged Henry across the Channel in 1513.

Henry VIII carried on the tradition of English kings since the twelfth century by calling himself king of England and France as Edward III had first done in 1340. Naturally, this did little to ease the tensions between the two nations over the next two hundred years. As the Venetian ambassador aptly noted in May 1509, the new king was “liberal and handsome, a friend of Venetians and enemy of France.”94 Henry would war with France throughout his reign with conflicts arising in 1513, 1522-23 and 1544. His coveting of France had a two-fold agenda: it was a communication of his honor in a just war to reclaim his inheritance of the French throne, as well as a ripe opportunity for “a personal expression of a macho-martial king.”95 His campaigns there were certainly chiefly about dynastic acquisition, but also very much about demonstrating Henry’s personal honor, chivalry and courage as a warrior king and heir to historical legend. The king’s vested interest in warfare also ran parallel to the reputations and strivings of his fellow rulers. Thanks to his father’s inward-facing policies, England was behind the curve on the European stage when Henry ascended as the young lion amongst the more established and experienced monarchs of Europe. The formidable Louis XII of France and cunning Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian had spent their lives absorbed in war-making and Henry was determined that he, and England, would compete with them on the international stage. The approval and respect of his peers was also essential to Henry’s legitimacy and establishing a glorious international reputation. This made him determined that “more than anything else, he would be one of them.”96

Henry’s natural ally against France was his wife's Spanish homeland, a formidable friend for it had been Catherine’s parents Ferdinand and Isabella who had finally unified the Spanish kingdoms. In November 1511, Anglo-Spanish forces moved to conquer Aquitaine, though it was not until the arrival of an English envoy at the court of France in April 1512 announcing a formal declaration of war that a career of military disappointments officially began for Henry. He would spend the next several years as a pawn of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, aligning with both to attain his dreams of conquering France and restoring honor to England once more. Spain would repeatedly leave England to flounder in military fiascos while Maximilian's self-serving machinations would dissuade Henry from taking Normandy in 1513 after winning Tournai. Still, Henry pursued France with a single-minded determination. In a joint effort with the Empire, Henry landed in Calais at the helm of his first royal campaign in June 1513. Henry would taste his first military victory at the Battle of the Spurs at Therouanne that August. Though not particularly glorious (it was merely a horse chase of the French, who miscalculated the English position and fled), Henry collected hostages in the form of a duke, a marquis and the vice-admiral of France from the debacle. From here, Henry went on to take the town of Tournai, a French stronghold on the Netherlands-French border, in lavish fashion. His continental successes were lauded as the first English victory in France in seventy-five years. These victories coupled with Catherine’s defeat of the Scots at the historic Battle of Flodden during that same summer, where most of the Scottish aristocracy, noted clergymen and King James himself were killed in a crushing defeat, put the young king well on his way to redeeming England’s military reputation. Henry had proven himself on the field of battle, led an army, laid sieges and occupied cities, and had been acclaimed and honored by the Church, the giver of God’s, and therefore, royal authority. Most importantly, he had won the respect and acknowledgement of an Emperor, who now called him son and brother. When Tournai fell, Maximilian allowed Henry to enter first, following behind him a few days later in a sign of deference. Henry wrote to Margaret of Savoy that the Emperor was as kind to him as if he were his own father.97 It was gratifying for a young king to be treated this way by an established fellow monarch.98

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