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



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This concern for his peers’ approval went far beyond the mere angst of youth, but rather to the core of successful monarchy. Henry came to his throne in his late teens and at a pivotal moment in European politics. Within the first decade of his reign the older generation of monarchs rapidly died out (Louis XII in 1515, Ferdinand in 1516, and Maximilian in 1519) giving way to a new generation of kings, all brimming with ambition and possibility. This bred tension over power and position between the three traditionally warring nations of Spain, France and England, each of which jockeyed for papal favor and power. Here again, it was essential for Henry to be seen as a worthy competitor. Henry’s principal rival by far was Francis I, the young king of France with whom he competed with until his own death in January 1547, with the French king beating him by remaining on his throne by just three months longer. Aside from Francis, Henry was particularly concerned with Charles I of Spain, later Charles V Holy Roman Emperor (to Henry’s great displeasure), darling of the Pope and ruler of vast lands including Spain and the formidable Hapsburg Empire. England would shuffle alliances between France and the Empire for decades afterward based on the more appealing opportunity. Henry’s dealings with these rivals would fuel English foreign policy in a deeply personal way, defining much of the early and last years of his reign. As we shall see, he would become particularly preoccupied in between.

Aside from his continental squabbles, Henry was also forced to turn an eye North to Scotland. The fragile peace that his father had solidified went to pieces almost immediately upon Henry’s ascension. Several politically damaging incidents ranging from snubs99 to murder100 weakened the Scots’ commitment to peace. Henry’s war against France was the final straw, leading to the strengthening of the traditional Franco-Scottish alliance and a Scottish invasion while the king was on campaign in 1513. Their defeat added yet another jewel to Henry’s prestigious crown as a ruler fully capable of occupying a hostile region and staving off an invasion.

This lust for military glory, though appearing dormant at times as more advantageous directions presented themselves to him, would stay with Henry for his entire reign. One might say this was his true calling, surviving his better known interlude as theologian and peacemaker in the 1530s, Henry would finish his reign as he had begun it, at war.101 No matter how much time passed, it appeared that “the image of the royal warrior could not be separated from the sensitive royal honor.”102 Henry displayed this honor in two ways: internationally as the great general and domestically in his prowess on the jousting pitch and, as we have seen, in theatrical entertainments.103


The Chivalrous Knight
In tandem with his dreams of military lordship, the medieval ideal of the virtuous knight appealed most especially to Henry. When they could not be slaked in actual combat, his youthful energies found satiation in the outlet of the idealized world of knight errantry. He presided over a reign that “witnessed the Indian summer of the age of chivalry.”104 The king’s favorite display of chivalry was the joust. As a result, chivalric tournaments rose to new levels of frequency and extravagance during his reign. They became glittering social events that allowed Henry to display his prestige and wealth. Days of tournaments and games followed Henry’s coronation in 1509, providing yet another opportunity for Tudor branding. Green and white roses and pomegranates (symbolizing Henry’s marriage to Catherine and England’s union with Spain) decorated the battlements and lozenges of Westminster Palace throughout the festivities.105

Tournaments served the dual purpose of entertaining the court and communicating to the public images of England’s honorable and chivalrous king. In early 1510, the king made his official debut in the lists. He quickly established a stellar international reputation in this arena. He excelled at horsemanship, falconry, wrestling, tennis and dancing as reported by various sources. In archery and hand-to-hand combat, he knew no match. While on his first military campaign in Calais in 1513, Henry put the archers of his regiment to shame, having “surpassed them all, as he surpasses them in stature and personal graces.”106 When Tournai surrendered on this same campaign, Henry staged a dazzling tournament in which he provided a display of personal horsemanship that impressed many foreign nobles, including Margaret of Savoy. Henry jousted “marvellously” reported a Venetian ambassador in 1515, a result of the relentless training for the competition, and was as Alison Weir suggests, “literally obsessed” with the chivalric sport.107 For the next fifteen years his personal prowess at the tournament would be a hallmark of his image. His success in this area also partially compensated for his lackluster performance in real warfare.108

The tournament was “the ultimate theater of chivalry,”109 an outgrowth of warfare itself and a major aspect of Tudor court politics. The court was the hub of chivalry, sport and festivities and Henry was wholeheartedly committed to all of these. His personal involvement and enthusiasm for the tournament and joust were renowned throughout Europe, making the events an integral part of England’s international prestige. They were often accompanied by much allegory and pageantry. On one occasion, Henry arrived at the jousts dressed as Hercules himself. Achieving honor at the joust was nearly as prestigious as attaining glory in battle and success at the lists was almost synonymous with royal favor. To drive the point home, participants in the games literally entered their names in the competition upon a “Tree of Chivalry.” Chivalry was “a potent force in the symbolism of monarchy, and in the intense competitiveness of the dynasties of western Europe.”110 No Tudor monarch exercised the power of chivalry within court politics more effectively than Henry VIII. He also greatly enjoyed the tradition of courtly love, “an integral element in chivalry,” that was “central to the life of the Tudor court and elite.”111 This social construct too had its place in the tournament. Jousts were typically held in honor of the ladies of the court, who gave favors to their chosen knights to wear at the lists. At the conclusion of the day’s competitions, the champion received accolades from the Queen or the highest-ranking lady present, pitting men against one another for the recognition of a desirable woman. This system of relations between the sexes on a public stage will be vitally important when discussing the fall of Anne Boleyn.

Chivalry certainly involved its fair share of frivolities, but above all it was an institution built on the marriage of Christian virtues such as modesty and self-restraint and the traditional heroic ideal.112 As a “moral champion” the chivalric knight was far more than a mere warrior. Projections of courtesy, piety and justice were also essential to his honor. Perhaps the ultimate embodiment of this man were the heroes of antiquity whom Henry emulated at seemingly every opportunity. The tradition of the Order of the Garter, England's highest and most coveted order of chivalry, was an example of the power of chivalry in the politics of personal monarchy. “Henry VIII with his passion for ancient chivalric values and his policy of accentuating his own magnificence” was a champion of this traditional order, which had been revived during his father’s reign. The Order comprised twenty-five Knights Companions who could be appointed by the king alone at annual meetings at court. These were conducted with much pomp and ceremony. Seizing any and all opportunities for branding and image communication, Henry’s Knights dressed in “a blue velvet mantle with a Garter on the left shoulder”113 and silk garters embroidered with Tudor roses about their legs marking them as the king’s men and identifying Henry as the fount of honor. The king additionally decreed the official collar worn by the Knights to consist of twelve Tudor roses set within blue garters and interspersed with twelve tasseled knots. Receiving the Order was a mark of great honor but also a sign of personal friendship with the king. It was subsequently coveted by many nobles of the court. Henry knew all too well that an honorable king was accessible to his subjects when necessary. It was his duty to placate the peerage to a certain extent, and the Order served as one of his chief vehicles through which to reward his favorites and pacify grumblings.

A good king was also merciful, taking his responsibilities as a “good lord” as outlined by chivalric code seriously. Good lordship was essential to the process of authority. In exchange for the deference and loyalty of their subjects, kings were expected to not only interpret and enforce the laws of the realm, but also to call his leading nobles to counsel, mediate their quarrels and to employ and reward their services.114 Most of these functions, like all other aspects of Henry’s reign, were carried out on the public stage. With the skill of a media mogul, Henry began his rule by issuing a general pardon to all offenders except those charged with treason, murder and felony on 23 April 1509, making his first image to his people that of a just monarch. He also famously offered a very staged (a plea for mercy was given by Queen Catherine on bended knee with unbound hair) and public pardon to rioters in London following “Evil May Day” 1517115 for which the king was again lauded as merciful and loving. Henry prided himself on his abilities to appear both merciful and fearsome, charming and unnerving in his majesty, and above all, the very definition of an educated, talented and chivalrous knight. In short, prior to 1521 at least, Henry was “a youth wholly absorbed in dance and song, courtly love and knight-errantry.”116
The Godly Prince
If Henry “began his reign as a warrior...bent on the splendid and heroic,”117 a significant shift occurred around 1517 as the king also relished in his reputation as a godly prince. By the late 1510s, Henry may have found warfare to be not nearly as glorious as he had had imagined. It was in fact extremely expensive, easily frustrated by the ever-fluctuating balance of European politics and was all around more trouble than it was worth. Thus, “the king changed his persona.”118 This change was solidified by the Treaty of London signed in 1518 when, “on a stage prepared by Wolsey, he [Henry] stood forth as the peacemaker of Europe, amidst a blaze of high diplomacy, banquets, revels and pageants.”119 Still, this new Henry was no less egotistical or competitive than the old. His lust for establishing his own glory and magnificence had never wavered through the years of being the chivalrous knight and warrior king, but rather warlike means no longer served Henry’s end. If as Michael Graves suggests, England could never really compete with the wealth and sheer size of its continental counterparts in France and Spain, it could, with Henry as its figurehead of course, cultivate an image of power through appearing as mediator and the king the Christian peacemaker between the two nations.

A significant occurrence in European politics had created the ideal opening for England once again to assert itself on the international stage. The merger of the Spanish and Holy Roman Empires when Charles V was crowned emperor in 1519 leveled the playing field in Europe substantially and placed England in a powerful new position. Prior to the merger, there had been four competing powers in Europe; after there were only three--England, France and the Empire, which now included Spain. Though England could not compete with either independently, France and Spain were equally matched in wealth and power. This made England the new table turner in the balancing act between the two nations and meant that England’s, and Henry’s, friendship was now a highly valuable commodity. It was into this new political arena that Henry introduced the new, peaceful facet to his image.

To this point in the reign, Henry successfully established an honorable and impressive reputation at home and abroad, but he had not done it alone. It is during this phase of Henry’s rule that the formidable Thomas Wolsey emerged into prominence. Wolsey would be instrumental in aiding Henry in transforming his image. He was appointed Lord Chancellor in 1514, a position he would hold until 1529. With Wolsey’s advent and his own maturation as king, Henry’s foreign policy shifted from open warfare to political wheeling and dealing in which England appeased both players, Charles V and Francis I. As a new “erstwhile devotee of peace,”120 Henry diligently and wholeheartedly preached it from 1518-21 as he found this new image as popular in Rome as powerful as that of the accomplished warrior and sportsman. He recognized Wolsey’s talents and accomplishments as yet another feather to garnish his many public relations hats. Though Henry had the luxury of Wolsey’s expertise and the ability to pick and choose when he would be heavily involved in matters of state, he was by no means a puppet king or even an uninformed one. The young king who so often only wanted to dance and hunt rather than assume royal duties was also “a man who, time and again, could show a detailed grasp of foreign affairs, and hold his own with, if not out do, foreign ambassadors; pounce on something Wolsey had missed, assess a situation or proposal with steely swiftness and exactness and confidently overrule his minister.”121 Wolsey was his most trusted and capable advisor, but Henry was certainly aware of the major business of the kingdom even at the height of his youth and impetuosity. As he matured in his crown and as a man, Henry would take more and more of his realm’s business into his control. This is not to discredit the widely held theory that prior 1521-2, Henry was only sporadically interested in the day-to-day running of his kingdom. He certainly let Wolsey take the lead, though he never surrendered full control.

The king’s chancellor was, above all, wholly bent on making peace with France and worked tirelessly to achieve it during his time in favor. A shaky peace between France and England had fallen apart when Louis XII died in 1514 due to tensions surrounding the rise of Francis I. Still, Wolsey pressed and by January 1518, the chancellor and his king hatched the mutually satisfying Treaty of Universal Peace that would not only solve all squabbles on the continent, but would crown Henry as the architect and Prince of Peace to all of Christendom. The plan, introduced in October 1518, bound all the great powers of Europe to “universal and perpetual” peace on pain of total warfare in which all other signees would unite against any party that broke this agreement. It was sealed by the aforementioned Treaty of London, which was celebrated throughout Europe. The culmination of England’s new friendship with France resulted in one of Henry’s most memorable and spectacular instances of pageantry, the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1519. Though very little of political significance was actually achieved (France and England were back at war within three years), Henry’s contemporaries hailed the Field of Cloth of Gold as the eighth wonder of the world. A stunning display of England’s opulence, grandeur and honor, the meeting was designed to “bring the chivalries of two nations together to joust and tilt, feast and dance--instead of to fight.”122 Furthermore, the meeting “proclaimed the new man” Henry had become “yet more loudly.”123 This rapproachment between the nations of England and France was a turning point in Henry’s career and solidified his new image as peaceful Christian king. “For the warrior-king of England, heir to Edward III and Henry V, to kiss Francis on the cheek was a significant act.”124 Henry towed the line of peace diligently and determinedly for three years before the open aggression between Francis and Charles once again drew England off the sidelines in 1522.

“No one could have been a more dutiful son of the Church than Henry VIII in 1521.”125 Henry valued the support and approval of Rome as the source of much of his honor and authority. The pageantry of his court revolved around religious devotion. Several of the most important court days were pulled directly from the Christian calendar, including Michaelmas, Christmas, Twelfth Day and Easter. He also insisted upon courtiers using the triple bow (signifying the Holy Trinity).126 With Wolsey at the helm, Henry became the golden child of Christendom in the early 1520s. From 1519-20 he strove to appease the Church in earnest. Following the prestige of the Field of Cloth of Gold, and the later collapse of these treaties, Henry’s appetite for glory and authority had to be satiated elsewhere. This time, he turned to the Church.

The Catholic Church was the ultimate authority, even above kings, in early modern Europe. The Pope, as Christ’s vicar on earth was the head of all Christian kings. The Church was also the giver and taker of salvation, as the common belief was that the road to heaven only lay through Catholicism. The Church was the very pillar of society and the final source of power and authority in Europe. Religion pervaded society from the lowliest of the population to its highest seat, royalty. It is particularly significant that only a representative of the Holy See could ordain royalty at their coronation in a Catholic Church. This simple act summarized the relationship between kings and the Church, as Rome was the founder and reinforcer of royal authority. The ritual of the coronation was a sacred one as a ruler was consecrated as divine only after this ceremony had taken place. This holy right, given by God himself and only bestowed upon a ruler by the Church, was the essence of authority in sixteenth-century Europe. A major factor in the deference paid to kings by their subjects lay in the overarching and pervasive power of the Church and ultimately the salvation of one’s soul. To disobey an order from the only vehicle through which an afterlife was offered meant eternal damnation. Rebellion or questioning a ruler or the Church’s authority was a sin against God. In short, Catholicism decreed that it was the will and law of God that kings be sovereign and unquestioned rulers.

Henry recognized that he was beholden to the Church, for his legitimacy and authority like his father before him. In line with his new image, the king of England began in earnest to win the approval of Rome. In 1519 he announced in an elaborate letter to the Pope himself that he would venture on a crusade.127 Under humanist tutelage, in 1521 Henry was named Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith) by Pope Leo X based on his work Defense of the Seven Sacraments, which in an ironic turn of foreshadowing, affirmed the Church’s authority. Henry’s talent for expressing his views on religious law would prove to be valuable in the later dissolution of his first marriage and the subsequent defense of his own religious policies. His use of the printed word was invaluable to securing his image as both a godly prince and God’s lieutenant later in the reign.
God’s Anointed Lieutenant
This persona is significant to arguments made in the second half of this thesis and will be discussed in greater detail there. Following his break with Rome, Henry would be cut off from this traditional source of authority. His very identity as a ruler demanded reevaluation. The ways in which he would reconstruct his authority and honor are of great significance to the legacy of his reign. It also marks the start of the period of Henry’s reign for which he is best known. While this aspect of his identity, as God’s anointed, was certainly existent and important throughout his entire reign, he began to communicate this image in earnest with the advent of Anne Boleyn and the English Reformation which resulted from the political conflict their relationship created. The years of peace, without their martial heroics, left Henry “restless, if not aimless.”128 This was something to be feared in any man, let alone a king, and particularly Henry as he approached middle age. As England would soon learn, this overflowing and unchanneled vitality would lead its king down unusual and controversial paths.

Initially Henry would use his authority to act in defense of the Church when Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses appeared on the theological scene, essentially sparking the Great Schism of the Reformation. By 1521, Lutheranism had spread to England where it took root in universities and amongst those of humanist learning. Soon heretical (according the Church) texts and pamphlets were circulating in England despite the authorities’ efforts to suppress them. Henry, theologian and scholar that he was, felt compelled to engage Luther in his A Defense of the Seven Sacraments. This engagement took place in defense of Henry’s own image and authority. He believed kings could not allow heretical movements such as Lutheranism to take root because they encouraged social division, and even revolution, which severely undermined the “the very body politic made up of Church and state”129 which shared a closely entwined relationship. More importantly, these new ideas “robbed princes and prelates of all power and authority,” threatening the very fabric of his rule.130

Sixteenth-century monarchs were perceived as semi divine beings, not mere men but the Lord's Anointed, His deputies on earth, and called by divine right to dominion over his subjects.131 Thus obedience to this established authority was a religious duty, according to the Church of Rome. Matters of theology were meant for the concern of those best qualified to interpret it (i.e. those in power such as kings, clergymen and other high ranking Church officials) and not the laity. The reformation’s egalitarianism in reference to religion was “a threat to the established concepts of order and hierarchy in a Christian society.”132 Henry’s work was also a self-serving bid to once again place himself amongst the elite ranks of the other kings of Europe. Both Charles V and Francis I had titles bestowed upon them by the Church, “The Most Catholic King” and the “Most Christian King” respectively, and Henry had been seeking his own since around 1512. While truly outraged by what he read in Luther’s works, he also saw them as his opportunity to procure his own title from Rome. As we have seen, he was indeed rewarded.

Publishing such a work in defense of the Church’s authority was the perfect combination of Henry's skill and the modernity that would prove invaluable to the king in the coming years. The Renaissance rocked European society and politics to its core. While an age of display, learning and advancement, it was also one of technological innovation. The advent of the printing press in 1440 changed the face of mankind forever. Aside from being at least partially responsible for the spread and success of the Reformation, the printing press also “transformed the presentations and perceptions of princes.”133 These early modern monarchs were some of the innovators of strategic dissemination of written and image-bearing communication, a cornerstone of modern day public relations. In contrast to modern times, early modern public relations professionals used these tools to negotiate their authority rather than necessarily presenting a likeable image. While his father too issued numerous royal proclamations in his time, Henry VIII was the first of the Tudors to establish authority based on the royal word, often directly intervening in print to challenges and criticisms of policies vital to his rule. From the outset of his reign in 1509 Henry used royal proclamations as a vital tool in communicating his policies to the common people. Later, he also wrote and circulated verses, songs and translations that publicized his policies and regal power and continued to write pamphlets in response to the teachings of Protestants for several years.134 For example, a March 1529 proclamation expressly forbids heresy in the form of unlicensed preaching and in heretical books.135 He would fully assume the role of God’s lieutenant later in his reign, after the rise of Boleyn. The pivotal importance of the printed word to Henry’s reign will be discussed in further detail post-1526.

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