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

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That same weekend Boleyn argued with another one of her other favorites, Henry Norris. She questioned Norris as to why he had not recently gone through with his marriage, to which the gentleman replied he would “tary a time.” Boleyn then reprimanded him saying that if the king died,319 he “would loke to have me.” Norris swiftly replied that if ever any thought crossed his mind he would rather his head struck off. Boleyn then threatened that “she could undo him if she would” and the two “felle owt.”320 This challenge to Norris was “provocative, unseemly, and indiscreet” behavior for a queen and was referenced and exaggerated in her indictment, suggesting that Boleyn “conspired the death and destruction of the king, the queen often saying she would marry one of them as soon as the king died.”321 George Walker suggests that Boleyn knew she had gone too far in this exchange and her threat to undo Norris was a self preservation tactic of the “if you tell anyone I will take you down with me” nature; this is further supported by the fact that Norris went to swear on the queen’s honor only hours before he was arrested after the argument.322 Boleyn’s exclamation upon being imprisoned supports this theory: “O Norris, hast thou accused me? Thou art in the Tower with me and thou and I shall die together!”323 Norris was arrested on 1 May following an abrupt departure from the May Day festivities with the king who had invited him to ride back to Whitehall with him. Henry accused Norris of adultery with the queen upon their arrival at the palace. Norris vehemently denied it, even when Henry offered pardon if he would simply tell the truth. This indicates that it was indeed Henry who was at the helm of these investigations since he would be so bold as to confront and interrogate Norris himself.324 These were not the actions of a passive king who had placed control of the situation in his advisors’ hands. Up until this point, Henry had set Cromwell with the task of sniffing out evidence and had quietly rearranged his diplomatic plans accordingly, but this conversation with Norris, coupled with Smeaton’s confession, appears to be the tipping point. The next day, 2 May, Boleyn and her brother George were summarily arrested. The queen had spent the morning at Mass and leisure when a messenger arrived demanding her to report before the King’s Council. From there she was interrogated and then sent to the Tower.

Once imprisoned, she relayed a similarly inappropriate conversation with Francis Weston in which he confessed he loved neither his wife nor Boleyn’s cousin Madge Shelton. Instead he loved “wone in hyr howse better then them bothe.” When the queen asked who, he replied “It ys yourself.”325 These conversations with her male subjects “appear improper” as Boleyn’s “hunger for romantic admiration is more than usually evident.”326 The rules of courtly love dictated that Boleyn graciously receive male adoration, not actively seek it. Here was her fatal mistake. The queen had “conducted herself badly, encouraging compliments and attentions, and delving too deeply,” into the private lives of her male admirers.327 This overzealous play at courtly love made the accusations of multiple affairs brought against Boleyn seem far more probable than they actually were. Furthermore, as the investigation continued with manic fervor, new details emerged. The queen was said to joke openly with her favorites about the king’s shortcomings, particularly his sexual inadequacies. She allegedly told her brother that the king had neither virtue nor vigor in bed.328 She was eventually charged with adultery, incest and plotting to kill the king and his children. These charges may seem fantastic to the objective observer, but in Henry’s mind, “no crime was unthinkable in a woman who could betray him.”329 In his eyes, Boleyn was a loose cannon, unpredictable in effect upon the crown’s authority, and now clearly a direct threat to the royal family’s life.

According to Cromwell, Boleyn and her co-conspirators were discovered when their actions became so outlandish they could no longer be ignored.330 His assertion that all parties were guilty must be taken with a grain of salt due to his own biases against the queen, but the assertion that her behavior was so flagrant that it could not go unnoticed seems plausible based on Boleyn’s prior history of inappropriate public outbursts. Rumor undoubtedly had an enormous impact on personal reputation.331 The queen had failed utterly to take Castiglione’s advice that an honorable female courtier be “circumspect, and...careful not to give occasion for evil being said of her, and conduct herself to that she may not only escape being sullied by guilt but even the suspicion of it.”332 Boleyn’s careless public conduct tainted her image and more importantly, the image of her husband. The news of her alleged infidelities wounded Henry in two crucial ways: by indicating his inability as a man to satisfy his wife and by extension, his prowess as a king.333 Furthermore, it endangered the very fabric of England as “adultery in a king’s wife weigheth no less than the wrong reign of a bastard prince, which thing for a commonwealth ought especially be regarded.”334 Most damningly, women’s adultery upset the social order and gender hierarchy upon which society was based, suggesting that the very glue of society rested upon male potency.335 If such a shortcoming were found in a king, the effects could be devastating. Lipscomb suggests that in the early modern mind governance of one’s household was closely linked to governance of the realm, for “it is impossible for a man to understand how to govern the commonwealth, that doth not know how to rule his own that he that knoweth not to govern, deserveth not to reign.”336

This concept was, in Henry’s mind, the last definitive strike against Boleyn. He surely recognized that he had erred in marrying her and needed to salvage his fragile reputation as a capable man and king to his subjects and the wider world who were always watching. Henry’s carefully cultivated image of authority, and the Tudor brand itself, now stood in grave danger. A king could not be seen to make mistakes, be cuckolded, and certainly not have his authority challenged by his own wife. Anne Boleyn had been for years, but perhaps only just now did the king see, the great scandal of his reign. Even Thomas Cranmer in a letter in defense of Boleyn to the king conceded, that “your honor is highly touched” and that “God had never sent you a like trial.”337 Furthermore, Cranmer assured his wounded sovereign that the queen's actions were “only to her dishonor, not yours.” But on the contrary, Boleyn’s alleged infidelity sorely wounded her husband’s honor as “above everything else, it was a man’s business to avoid being made a cuckold.”338 Cranmer’s letter alone stands as testament that the risks were too great for Henry to ignore. As previously outlined, an honorable man displayed characteristics of “masculinity, upholding patriarchy, controlling women and defending one’s good name.” Boleyn had wounded Henry’s masculinity in her alleged straying in their marriage, which by extension threatened his ability to uphold patriarchy and order by controlling and satisfying his wife. The only bit she had left to him in this equation was the ability and duty to defend his good name, which the king did to the fullest extent. Furthermore, Henry was aware that she was widely unpopular and her removal would meet with public approval. This guarantee of little political backlash made the decision that much easier to make. Unlike his long campaigns to justify Catherine’s removal, Boleyn could be dealt with neatly, quickly and with no great public outcry, a public relations crisis’ dream.

What had become clear by April 1536 was that Henry’s marriage to Boleyn was synonymous with his own human frailty (in many ways of her own doing, but in others out of her control) in an arena where a monarch must be either a force of nature, God-like in authority and regality, the epitome of manly prowess, or nothing at all. In sixteenth-century England, one’s honor was essentially one’s brand. As in modern public relations, this brand was a major component of one’s public image and fiercely protected. For men it was essential to maintaining control; for women it could be a matter of life and death. The defense of royal honor was a driving force and “one of the motivating principles in Henry’s life.”339 Prior to Boleyn, Henry had already demonstrated the extreme lengths to which he would go to defend his honor. In 1519, on the urging of his council, he had dismissed in disgrace some of his most intimate boon companions after many became convinced that they were responsible for Henry’s “incessant gambling, which has made him lose of late a treasure of gold.”340 Their raucous behavior had also proven a diplomatic embarrassment in 1518 while in France as they rode wildly through the streets of Paris with the French king harassing the population.341 When this threat to his honor was revealed to him, Henry dismissed those closest to him who threatened his royal image, proving his treasuring of his honor above all, even those he claimed to love.

The fall of Anne Boleyn was certainly a crisis in gender relations that was the impetus for a larger-scale public relations crisis as her actions upset not only interpersonal gender relationships (calling into question her husband's honor), but also jeopardized the way Henry was viewed by the public, thereby threatening his authority as a monarch and drawing into question his ability to rule. Boleyn’s utter failure to conform to the new role she had ascended to as Queen of England had brought dishonor upon her husband, besmirching a royal image that was nearly 30 years in the making, and thereby threatened the fragile hold he had on a kingdom rife with religious and political strife. A series of events beginning in January 1536 with the king’s fall and the miscarrying of their son were finally tipped over by the public relations crisis born of Boleyn’s unseemly conduct with her male admirers. Henry did not invent the charges, but was rather shocked, devastated, and persuaded by the accusations, accounting for his ruthless pursuit of her death. Though there were barely sparks, let alone a fire, there had accumulated in the queen’s household enough smoke by late April 1536 to substantiate claims of adultery--in the queen’s joking at Henry’s sexual inadequacies with her brother, in her threats against Smeaton, ill-timed with his pending arrest and confession less than twenty-four hours later, and most damningly in her brazen talk of the king’s death with Norris. The threat to Henry’s maiestas was far too imminent and Boleyn’s last offense far too great as the king, like all men of the age, prized his honor and the public reputation it upheld, above all else.

The reign of Henry VIII produced some of the most magnificent and enduring figures in English history. During the years from 1509-1536, the whims of a king saw the rise and fall of two queens, the creation and destruction of three ministers (Wolsey, More, and Cromwell), and arguably the most significant religious, intellectual, and political controversies of the sixteenth century. It was the age of humanism, reformation, and the birth of modern political theory and practice. It also saw the rise of primitive public relations, branding, and marketing theory and the ways in which those in power negotiated and influenced mass opinion “by a deliberately crafted image of the king.”342 The divorce crisis and defense of Anne Boleyn marked the king’s “first prolonged attention to public affairs”343 and revolutionized the deliberate usage of imagery, allegory and display as a form of active image manipulation and control that could be wielded as a tool to obtain what Henry most desired.

The King’s Reformation brought about a crisis of representation. In breaking with Rome Henry divided the realm and discredited a vital traditional discourse and image of kingship: the monarch as a figure of piety, orthodoxy and protector of the Catholic Church and defender of the faith.344 Kings might be the Lord's Anointed, but it was only through the Church that one could reach the Lord. It was the Church that lent increased sacred and secular authority to kings. Thus Henry was faced with the formidable challenge of “restructuring and redefining his royal position as well as re-presenting his authority, of rewriting and refiguring his kingship, and kingship itself.”345 He cultivated new constructs of authority based on biblical theology, which supported his claims of the divine right of kings who drew their authority not from a pope, of whom there was no mention in Holy Scripture, but directly from God himself. Henry’s quest to provide his dynasty with an heir and consequently, to “re-script and re-present kingship” through sophisticated public relations campaigns are his legacy. Out of necessity, he “systemized” governmental arts into “a program of representation that was novel in intensity and kind.”346 With the assistance of advisors and impresarios alike, Henry redefined statecraft, making the art of ruling and communicating one’s authority a rhetorical and spectacle performance. He understood the sophisticated and vital relationship between image communication and authority so much so that he once warned: “I shall look on any injury offered to the painter [Holbein] as [an injury] to myself.”347

Placing himself at the helm, Henry masterfully navigated the stormy seas of divorce, supremacy and cuckoldry with steely determination and shrewd business savvy. He wrote treatises arguing for his divorce and Supremacy, ordered sermons preached throughout the land upholding his own authority as God’s Lieutenant, commissioned poets, artists, theologians and historians to justify his actions and authority in their written and artistic records of his reign, “his ministers encouraged playwrights to ‘set forth and declare lively before the people’s eyes the abomination and wickedness of the bishop of Rome…and to declare and open to them the obedience that…subjects by God’s and men’s laws owe[d]’ the king.”348 In addition to proclaiming his own agenda, he effectively neutered opposition by controlling the early press through the use of the royal printer and censorship so effective that Chapuys complained that no one was permitted to preach at Paul’s Cross save those who were loyal to the king’s cause and pushed his agenda. He made and unmade those around him as their goals and positions aligned or fell out of alignment with this hard won and carefully maintained authority.

The tragic figure of Anne Boleyn is synonymous with this defining period of Henry’s reign, and is much responsible for helping construct the popular image of Henry known to modern audiences. Her bid for queenship and later swift destruction demonstrate some of Henry’s most skillful and calculated public relations efforts. Undoubtedly, it was significantly easier and more expedient for Henry to undo her than to make her popular. Traditional interpretations of Boleyn have made her the victim of tiresome vacillation between the polar ends of the female archetype of either whore or angel. In reality she was an amalgam of the two: a woman of passionate conviction and erudition, but also one fatally flawed with rash vindictiveness and disregard for the subtleties of monarchy. Her shortcomings as a dutiful queen, both politically and personally, fatally intersected with her husband’s championing of the honor and authority he so fiercely and painstakingly constructed, communicated, and maintained at all costs. As the evidence suggests, no one person can be blamed for plotting to overthrow her, but rather a systemic, aptly timed crisis in both gender, and by extension public relations, resulted in her death in 1536 and the turning point in Henry’s career as a monarch and image communication aficionado. There is a marked shift in the mode and methods of communicating a new, hyper-masculinized image of Henry VIII directly resulting from the blow to his honor caused by his late queen. The year 1536 and the destruction of Anne Boleyn marked the end of an era and the beginning of a new and more frightening one in both Henry’s reign and his use of public relations methods to ensure his authority as king.

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