"The Handsomest Prince in Christendom"

In April, 1509 Henry VIII started his reign on a golden wave of adulation. It's hard to reconcile the initial reports of him as the "handsomest prince in Christendom," and the glowing reports of his piety, kindness, and charm with the obese, sociopathic monster he later became.

There was always celebration at the beginning of a new reign. As Elizabeth I later noted, people tend to worship a rising sun. But Henry's ascension to the throne really must have seemed like a dawning of a new era to the English people. Henry immediately signaled that he would be an entirely different kind of ruler than his father had been. He started by executing two of his father's hated tax collectors, Sir Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley, much to the delight of the people. As with later executions, Henry used the flimsiest of pretexts - the real reason was likely that the men were trying to exert power over the young king.

His father's court had been business-like and austere. Henry decided to raise the prestige of England in the eyes of the world by turning it into a bejeweled spectacle of music, art, sport, and pageantry. Because of his father's careful fiscal policies, Henry began his reign as one of the richest monarchs in Europe. Henry struck open the coffers and spent lavishly. He began a massive palace-building and renovation project that was still underway at the time of his death.

He announced his intention to marry his brother's widow, Katharine of Aragon, gallantly rescuing the princess from the isolation and penury forced on her by his father. It was a very popular decision, and the couple was cheered by massive crowds whenever they appeared in public. It was this gallant prince that Katharine fell in love with. It was a love she would profess until her dying day.

In the beginning of their marriage, Henry behaved very romantically toward his queen, riding in jousts wearing her colors, calling himself "Sir Loyal Heart." He wrote Katharine love songs with lyrics like, "I loved truly where I did marry." Henry played pranks where he would burst into her room dressed as a highwayman and demand to dance with the queen. Katharine always pretended to be surprised when he removed his mask.

The Italian ambassador, Sebastiano Giustiniani, wrote a description of Henry in the beginning of his reign:

His Majesty is the handsomest potentate I ever set eyes on; above the usual height, with an extremely fine calf to his leg, his complexion very fair and bright, with auburn hair combed straight and short, in the French fashion, and a round face so very beautiful, that it would become a pretty woman, his throat being rather long and thick. He was born on the 28th of June, 1491, so he will enter his twenty-fifth year the month after next. He speaks French, English, and Latin, and a little Italian, plays well on the lute and harpsichord, sings from book at sight, draws the bow with greater strength than any man in England, and jousts marvellously. Believe me, he is in every respect a most accomplished Prince ...


The young king had little interest in political or administrative matters. He left most of that to his ministers, who found they had to bring papers to him to sign while he was at mass, while they had a "captive audience," to to speak. Henry resented when the duties of kingship cut into his time for sport and "pastime with good company."

Four years after the first dispatch above, Giustiniani described Henry again:


His Majesty is twenty-nine years old and extremely handsome; nature could not have done more for him. He is much handsomer than any other sovereign in Christendom; a great deal handsomer than the king of France; very fair, and his whole frame admirably proportioned. On hearing that Francis I wore a beard, he allowed his own to grow, and, as it is reddish, he has now a beard that looks like gold. He is very accomplished, a good musician, composes well, is a most capital horseman, a fine jouster, speaks good French, Latin, and Spanish; is very religious,--hears three masses daily when he hunts, and sometimes five on other days. He hears the office every day in the queen’s chamber,--that is to say, vespers and compline. 
He is very fond of hunting, and never takes his diversion without tiring eight or ten horses, which he causes to be stationed beforehand along the lines of country he means to take; and when one is tired he mounts another, and before he gets home they are all exhausted. He is extremely fond of tennis, at which game it is the prettiest thing in the world to see him play, his fair skin glowing through a shirt of finest texture. He gambles with the French hostages, to the amount occasionally, it is said, of from six thousand to eight thousand ducats in a day.


Since the king always won his competitions, he considered himself an exceptional athlete. When he lost a wrestling match with another king, Francis I, the stunned Henry insisted Francis must have cheated.

Some of Henry's pursuits were intellectual. He studied Greek for a time, and discussed mathematics and astronomy with scholars. He was also interested in theology and was credited with writing a defense of the seven sacraments in response to Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses.

For this work, the pope awarded Henry the title of Defender of the Faith. Henry retained it even after he broke England's relationship with Rome and it passed down through the line of British monarchs. Queen Elizabeth II still uses the title today.

The Venetian ambassador, Ludovico Falieri, wrote:

In the 8th Henry such beauty of mind and body is combined as to surprise and astonish. Grand stature, suited to his exalted position, showing the superiority of mind and character; a face like an angel's, so fair it is; his head bald like C├Žsar's, and he wears a beard, which is not the English custom. He is accomplished in every manly exercise, sits his horse well, tilts with his lance, throws the quoit, shoots with his bow excellent well; he is a fine tennis player, and he practises all these gifts with the greatest industry. Such a prince could not fail to have cultivated also his character and his intellect. He has been a student from his childhood; he knows literature, philosophy, and theology; speaks and writes Spanish, French, and Italian, besides Latin and English. He is kind, gracious, courteous, liberal, especially to men of learning, whom he is always ready to help. He appears religious also, generally hears two masses a day, and on holy days High Mass besides. He is very charitable, giving away ten thousand gold ducats annually among orphans, widows, and cripples.


(The cynic might note that, based on the quote above this one, his charity equalled little more than the amount he is reported as gambling away in a day's time.)

For the first years of his reign, everything seemed blessed. Henry was charming and generous when things were going his way, but when life began to play out in a direction he did not like, the ugly side of Henry's personality took over. Military disappointments, his lack of a male heir with Katharine, aging and gaining weight...

Many have proposed it was his jousting accident in 1536 that changed Henry from an affable, genial prince to the paranoid tyrant, but the red flags were always there. Henry was always cruel and ruthless when he didn't get his way. It was just that in the first years of his reign, he faced little opposition.

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