Henry VIII died on January 28, 1547 … his father’s birthday.
The relationship between Henry VII and Henry VIII is a bit of a historical conundrum, inasmuch as there is little certainty about any of it. Henry VIII’s love for his mother and grief upon her death is well known and well documented, but what was his relationship like with his father? His father is portrayed as both coldly distant yet also as a medieval helicopter parent; was it loving or cruel within the context of time and place?
It’s impossible to get a grip on relationship of Henry VIII and his father without discussing birth and death. Henry was the second born, and seems to have been destined for the church so that (ironically) his lack of legitimate heirs would potentially prevent civil wars in the future. If this was truly Henry VII’s plan for his youngest son, it was a smart one and one that would have guaranteed Henry VIII a place of power, influence, and security without compromising the safety of any of Arthur’s children. But until Arthur’s unexpected death as a teenager, Henry VIII was raised more as a precocious child than a royal prince.
The first game-changer in the relationship between Henry VIII and his father was the death of Arthur, the Prince of Wales.
Arthur was on his honeymoon in Wales when he died unexpectedly on April 2, 1502. Details of his illness are scarce and the exact cause of his death is unknown. A contemporary source records that Arthur’s ailment was ‘the most pitiful disease and sickness, that with so sore and great violence had battled and driven, in the singular parts of him inward, [so] that cruel and fervent enemy of nature, the deadly corruption, did utterly vanquish’ the teenage prince. From the onslaught of the illness on March 27 to the final breath Arthur took was only a week, and it both shocked and devastated his parents.
Now the second son, a boy who could have been a cardinal, would have to be trained to be a king.
Naturally, Henry VII’s behavior toward his namesake would have changed with this new future to map. Any frivolity of childhood or laxness of structure would be eradicated in favor of a more severe, even draconian to the modern eye, method of teaching and care. Being a medieval monarch was a dangerous and risky profession, and the to-be Henry VIII would have to prepared for the rigors of kingship. Gone was Henry VIII’s happy times in the nursery and with his mother, and in it’s place was strict regimentation.
Less than a year later, while still reeling from Arthur’s death, Henry VII lost his beloved wife. Elizabeth of York died from childbirth complications on her birthday, February 11, 1503. The death effected her children and husband profoundly. The grief of Henry VII and his children over her death was so well-known that a manuscript from the early 16th century which was probably presented to the king contains:
A mourning figure of a young man (possibly Prince Henry, later king Henry VIII) beside an empty, black-covered bed in the background, together with two girls before a fireplace wearing black head-dresses (possibly the 13 year old Princess Margaret and the 7 year old Princess Mary) may suggest that the presentation was in some way associated with either the death of Arthur, prince of Wales in 1502 or more likely that of his mother, Queen Elizabeth, in 1503.
She must have been an amazing wife and mother to have inspired such love and devotion.
Henry VII was a very different man and monarch after Elizabeth’s passing. It was though after this second blow his grief burned away any residual softness in him, leaving only the hardened and cold dictator that he is typically credited as being. Holding on to the crown, which people forget sat tenuously upon his brow, had already made him ruthless; the death of his son and wife made him rigid.
As Thomas Penn wrote in his excellent biography of Henry VII, The Winter King, the king’s own advancing illnesses and age would “provoke even further his fierce obsession with control and obedience … he continued to pursue his subjects with an intensity even more savage than before”. This obsession extended to the life of his son, Henry VIII – a son who was showing himself to be the very opposite of hid father; a happy-go-lucky and a carless spendthrift. Not that Henry VII was the parsimonious scrooge he is typecast as. Contrary to common knowledge, Henry VII tipped his servants and courtiers “lavishly” and performed many “small acts of service and kindness, such as the twenty shillings given to the sergeant-at-arms who brought a bottle of mead” to his sovereign.
So how does a kindly and barbarous control freak get along with a cheerful and chivalrous future tyrant? Probably with difficulty and and an amazing amount of multiformity to match their complex personalities. No wonder the relationship between them is as impossible to sum up succinctly as the character of the men themselves.