The extent of Henry’s control over his own power, and therefore decisions, is an issue that has and continues to polarise historians. One division is over whether he was a master or prisoner of court factions in the years 1529 to 1547 – a timespan that begins with Henry VII’s attempts to annul his marriage with Catherine of Aragon, and ends with his death.
The issues surrounded by most contention during his reign include his execution of Anne Boleyn, the fall of Cromwell, and his own will – amongst others. The fall of Cromwell serves as strong evidence for the argument that Henry was a prisoner of faction.
Document A, while in favour of Cromwell’s fall, hints at the possibility that it came about as a result of the external influence of those surrounding the King, saying Cromwell’s plots against the king and his religious beliefs “were told [to] the king by those who heard them.”
This is further supported by the fact that the King promoted him to the position Lord Chamberlain just a month before his execution – indicating that the king was manipulated into making this decision by those members of the conservative faction who perceived Cromwell to be a threat.
However, Source B suggests that Cromwell was, in fact, going against the king’s decisions, and that he had good reason to execute him – “when […] new preachers […] were committed to the Tower of London for preaching and teaching against [the king’s] proclamations, Thomas Cromwell confirmed the preacher to be good.”
In this vein, many of the contentious areas of King Henry’s rule could be argued to be evidence for either side of the debate – the determining factor being the evidence and interpretation of it, and how much weightage would be granted to one piece of evidence over the other.
Chronologically, the first event during Henry’s reign in which the question of prisoner or master of court faction arises is the execution of Anne Boleyn. Having annulled his marriage to Catherine of Aragon on the official grounds that being unable to produce a male heir proved their marriage to be a violation of the law of God as stated in Leviticus, Henry married Anne Boleyn in 1533.
However, her beheading a mere three years later is a cause of much debate. Having been unable to produce a male heir herself, she was unable to fill the void her predecessor had failed to. Considering Henry’s intense need for strong male heir that was consistently evident so far, it could be argued that the fall of Anne Boleyn came about as a result of his anger at her failure.
This is further evidenced by the fact that Henry himself spread the rumour that Anne was guilty of adultery with “”, and even incest – a curious claim that anyone – let alone a king – would usually be ashamed to make. It is possible that the extent of his anger at the rumours he’d heard that Anne had been belittling his performance in the private chambers was so great that he was willing to put aside his own dignity for the sake of humiliating and shaming her.
His increased paranoia also led him to believe that the close relationship she had with her brother was something other than – more than – a connection between siblings, and this seed of doubt may have only been sown deeper by Anne’s sister-in-law Jane Boleyn claiming that the two had been sleeping together.
However Jane’s claim could also be evidence for the fact that Henry was, in fact, influenced by nobles with ulterior motives. Jane was a member of the Aragon faction, and it is possible that she was angry and bitter about Henry’s divorce of Catherine in order to marry Anne Boleyn – despite the official reason for the annulment being that their marriage was against God’s will.
Opportunists, having realised Henry’s disappointment in Anne Boleyn groomed Jane Seymour into the perfect woman Henry would wish for as a wife such that the faction could regain power – an endeavour that proved fruitful when the leader of the Aragon faction, Sir Nicholas Carew, was chosen to the Garter over the other candidate Lord Rochford, Anne’s brother. The argument that Henry was a prisoner of court faction is further evidenced by the fact that Cromwell – his minister and arguably the second most powerful man in England at the time chose to side with the religiously Catholic, politically conservative Aragon’s against Anne Boleyn despite them standing for everything he detested most.
His involvement made all the difference, as he substituted their original charges of bigamy with the far more serious accusation of treason on the grounds of multiple counts of adultery. This effectively got rid of her court and all its supporters, instead of leaving it partly intact as the original charge would have.
The argument that Cromwell was influencing the king in order to fulfill his own best interests is furthered by the fact that one of the men executed on accusations of sleeping with Anne – William Brereton – was an active enemy of the queen, but because he opposed Cromwell’s policies Brereton was accused of bedding the queen as a ploy to destroy him. Furthermore, there was no grounding evidence to suggest that Anne had committed adultery or treason, the only ‘evidence’ being the confession of Mark Smeaton having been likely gained through torture and therefore possibly not true at all.
Source E argues that “the chief explanation for Anne Boleyn’s fall and judicial murder is the obvious one. By 1536 [King Henry] hated her.” While this explains that the feelings Henry had towards her at the end of their marriage (and her life) were very different from what they were initially, but it isn’t a strong piece of evidence to support either side – as this hatred could have been Henry’s own, or could have been sown by other nobles to serve their own interests.
However, despite Cromwell’s influence affecting the severity of Anne Boleyn’s fall, the case for Henry being a master of faction in this case is strong, as it is understandable that he, removed from all outside influence, was responsible for her execution as she had failed to produce a male heir. Even if the rumours of her poking fun at his impotence or her adultery weren’t brought to his attention, it is safe to assume that he would have still wanted her disposed of.
Paranoia and distrust – factors that had and continued to have a bigger impact on royal affairs than anything else set the theme for many contentious times during the rule of Henry VIII – including the Exeter conspiracy, another event that leaves the question of master or prisoner of faction open to debate. By the late 1530s Henry VIII’s insecurity about threats to his rule verged on paranoia, despite the fact that Richard de la Pole, the last man to challenge him openly for the throne, had been dead for ten years.
This paranoia would have only increased when self-exiled Cardinal Reginald Pole released a scathing attack on the King, delivered in highly insulting terms in June 1536 – De Unitate – that openly incited rebellion and called upon France and the Empire to invade England, and overthrow the King. The release of De Unitate along with the Pilgrimage of Grace, a protest carried out in October of 1936 against Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and the policies of Cromwell, as well as other specific political, social and economic grievances would have only served to cement Henry’s paranoia.
The king, with Reginald Pole himself out of his reach, took revenge on Pole’s family for engaging in treason by word against the king, and leading family members – even Pole’s mother, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, were executed, and all their properties seized. The action destroyed the Pole family, and truly crippled the opposing faction.
The most contentious execution of all was the execution of Henry Courtenay, King Henry’s maternal first cousin who had “been brought up of a child with his grace in his chamber”, on charges of conspiring with his cousins the Poles against the King. Evidence for the fact that Henry was, in fact, the master of the quelling of this conspiracy was the fact that he was increasingly aware of the need to protect the throne for his infant son Edward VI to take over, and was afraid that the Exeters had too much power and influence.
This is further supported by the fact that Exeter was to be next in line to the throne if James V of Scotland were discounted as a foreigner, thus proving how much in his best interests conspiring against the king would be. However, the evidence for the fact that Henry was but a prisoner of Cromwell’s wiles and own interests is overwhelming. Courtenay, quite confusingly, remained a friend and favourite of Henry until shortly before his death, meaning that the king seems to have spuriously ordered the legal murder of a man who had been raised as though he were Henry’s brother, and had been a member of Henry’s intimate circle all his life.
This, contrasted to the fact it took months of arm twisting and direct evidence of treason to get Henry to order the execution another of his cousins, Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, in 1521, even though the king was not nearly as emotionally close to him raises the question of whether Henry was truly in control over his own actions.
It seems highly likely that Cromwell had something to do with influencing the King to execute the Marquess of Exeter as Courtenay was fighting Cromwell over the excessive Dissolution of the Monasteries because it was causing intense suffering for the people on Courtenay’s lands – a factor which may have pushed Courtenay into joining a planned rebellion in 1538. There was no proof, however, that Courtenay was an active member of the conspiracy against the king, and no concrete evidence of a plot against the King was found, thus proving that it was highly likely that Courtenay was executed in order for Cromwell to further his influence.
He may have strategically appealed to the King’s intense paranoia about his son’s succession, and fed him spurious, or harshly over-exaggerated descriptions of ‘plots’ against the king, and as Source B suggests, this is all the more likely as Cromwell “being a man of very base and low degree, has held the nobles of your realm in great disdain, derision, and detestation.”
On the surface the extremely questionable act of King Henry killing his own first cousin looks to be the result of paranoia and cruelty and heartlessness. However, on further inspection, it seems as though Thomas Cromwell was simply appealing to Henry’s paranoia in order to further his own gains, and that in the case of the Exeter conspiracy, Henry VII was a prisoner of faction and court politics.
Cromwell, thus far the one most likely to have been a marionette in previous situations, quite ironically was executed in 1540 for the “crime” of having followed the king’s orders and securing a marriage with Anna of Cleves – and even in this situation the question of master or prisoner or faction arises.
Was Thomas Cromwell executed by the king based on his own wishes, or was it a decision influenced by rival nobles and their factions in order to gain more power? The official charges against Thomas Cromwell included, at their core, treason – “confirm[ing] a preacher to be good” who was “committed to the Tower of London for preaching and teaching against [the king’s] proclamations” as mentioned in Source B and threatening to “take arms against [the king]” as in Source A; heresy, and bribery. However, most importantly, he was charged with plotting to marry Queen Mary, the King’s daughter.
While these could all have well been crimes he did commit, the most heinous crime – in Henry’s mind – and the one that was the unofficial but main reason for Cromwell’s execution was his arranging Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleaves, a marriage that proved to be a disaster for all parties involved. However, although Cromwell’s real crime was his support of the Anne of Cleves marriage and his failure to annul it, his ruin was not the Cleves marriage itself – his downfall had begun with religious differences, and was sealed by Henry’s passion for Catherine Howard.
Henry VIII now saw Cromwell as a threat to the king’s supremacy over the church – source E suggests that “perhaps [Henry] had decided that Cromwell was riding too high and the ennoblement a mistake.” Even more provocatively, Henry saw him as the barrier to Anne’s removal and Catherine’s coronation. Ironically, however, Cromwell was essential in procuring an annulment of the King’ marriage, as he was the only one in the King’s court competent enough to carry it out.
Cromwell may have well seen procuring an annulment as his last chance at redemption, and did so, but was executed nevertheless. Henry’s religious differences with him, and his displeasure at his marriage to Anne of Cleves, therefore, are strong arguments for the fact that Henry was a master of court faction with regards to Cromwell’s execution.
Furthermore, Henry was genuinely smitten with Catherine Howard – as he was with all his wives – so regardless of whether their introduction and the facilitation of their affair was a result of court politics, it cannot be denied that considering Henry’s temperament and past record, he would not have pursued her if he was not truly in love with her. However, Source A gives reasonable evidence to suggest that the King was influenced, in that “these plots [by Cromwell against the King and his] were told to the King by those who heard them.”
This leads one to question whether the grounds on which Henry executed Cromwell were legitimate, or conflated such that they’d anger an increasingly temperamental and sickly Henry. Henry’s marriage to Catherine Howard was extremely strategically important for the conservative faction – especially Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk – on two levels. Catherine Howard was his niece, and the king marrying her would return Norfolk to a position of power in the King’s court. Secondly, Norfolk and Cromwell were bitterly opposed to each other – both on ideological grounds, and rivalry for the king’s favour and therefore power.
This rivalry was only exacerbated when the King granted Cromwell the earldom of Essex, one of the most ancient and distinguished titles in the land. At the same time, he appointed him to the senior court office of lord great chamberlain and gave him extensive monastic lands – some of these lands coming from Norfolk estates. The promotion in itself is evidence that executing Cromwell was an action taken as a prisoner of faction, as Cromwell was clearly in the King’s favour just two months before he was cruelly and suddenly executed.
Apart from that, however, Norfolk was very actively promoting a courtship between Catherine and Henry, and Anne of Cleves was an obstacle to their marriage. Essentially, choosing Catherine over Anne was an indication of the King’s alliances, and both Cromwell and Norfolk were aware that their favour in court was based entirely on this factor. Seeing as this rivalry was so strong, it is possible to argue that Cromwell’s brief absence from court gave Norfolk a window of opportunity to poison the king’s mind against him, and therefore resulted in Cromwell’s downfall.
Furthermore, and most confusingly, within a few months, the king was bemoaning the death of “the most faithful servant he had ever had”. The evidence, therefore, for the argument that the fall of Cromwell was brought about by Henry being a prisoner of faction is overwhelming. Cromwell’s being promoted to lord great chamberlain and then being executed a mere two months afterwards, and Norfolk’s personal investment in his fall outweigh the fact that Henry was angry that Cromwell had arranged a marriage for him with Anne of Cleves.
Firstly, execution as a result of displeasure in marriage seems hardly proportionate, and secondly, there had always been religious differences between the King and Cromwell. That these differences should have become – or rather, been highlighted by Cromwell’s rivals as –an overwhelming issue at around the same time Henry started courting Catherine is further evidence for the fact that Henry was a prisoner of faction.
Following Cromwell’s fall, Thomas Cranmer – leader of the English Reformation – rose to a higher position of influence, having already been an important member of the King’s Court since facilitating the King’s annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The conservatives’ continued vying for power and attempts to cause rifts between non-conservatives in positions of power and the king inevitably lead to them plotting the downfall of Cranmer.
However, this case, the Prebendaries’ Plot, is one that almost surely an example of Henry being the master of faction, with most evidence supporting this argument. Having brought up charges of heresy against Cranmer, nobles of the conservative faction – including Gardiner – attempted to have Cranmer removed from power.
However, the king, possibly having realised after the falls of both Cromwell and Wolsey on factional bases remained supportive of Cranmer – even going so far as to give Cranmer the King’s own ring to prove their close relationship and loyalty to each other. It could be argued, on the other hand, that the King refusing to believe the conservatives and even executing Gardiner’s nephew, Stephen Gardiner for arresting Cranmer was evidence for the fact that Henry was a prisoner of Cranmer and his ideologies, and that Cranmer could have really been protecting heretics and guilty of the charges against him.
However, this argument is countered by the fact that Cranmer had no idea of the plotting against him that was going on in the Privy Council. If Cranmer was not aware of a plot against him, there seems then to be no reason for him to manipulate Henry into his favour, therefore making the King’s decision to protect Cranmer one that came about of his own volition.
The fact that Cromwell was Edward VI’s godfather could be evidence for either side of the argument – it could either be argued that this gave Cranmer leverage over the king, or that it proved Henry’s trust in him. Ultimately, the latter explanation seems stronger, as Cranmer quite realistically was the only member of court left who was competent enough to be trusted with the life and upbringing of the heir apparent were Henry to die an untimely death – proving that he was a master of faction in this situation.
The defence of Gardiner after his plot against Cranmer could lead to the question of master or prisoner of faction. It seems counter-intuitive that Henry would only execute Gardiner’s nephew, and not Gardiner himself despite the fact that they both committed the same crime. However, it could be argued that Gardiner had significantly more influence and power in court seeing as he was older, more experienced, and therefore would have been valuable to the king’s already extremely weak and sparse Privy Council.
The execution of his nephew would probably have served as a warning to Gardiner that if he stepped out of line one more time, he too would suffer the same fate, therefore ensuing his loyalty to the king. The counter argument is that it was common through Henry’s rule for him to pardon those who had access to him and were able to appeal to him before their executions and/or trials – an opportunity that Gardiner had.
The trend throughout the whole of Henry’s reign seemed to be that his decisions were influenced based on the person he’d spoke most recently too – and this is what gives rise to the question of whether Henry was a master or prisoner so often during his rule, and is evidence for how malleable and weak-minded the king truly was.
However, seeing as Gardiner was not named to the council of regency for Henry’s son Edward, it seems to be that Henry was in control of affairs – he defended Gardiner because he was an important asset to the Court, but didn’t grant him too much power so as to keep him in check. Had Gardiner been manipulating the king, it is very likely that he would have been named in said council. The Gardiner saga supports the idea in Source E that “Henry was master and his minister creatures to be ennobled and destroyed at will.”
Another significant figure with whom the conservative faction – at this point consisting mainly only of Stephen Gardiner and Lord Wriothesley and their families – took issue with Henry’s last wife Catherine Parr. They were, to put it mildly, not fond of her strong Protestant beliefs, and neither were they of her close relationship to the king, and long discussions of religion and theocracy that regularly took place between the Henry and her.
Fearing their religious and political usurpation, they tried to turn the king against her in 1546, issuing a warrant for her arrest on grounds of heresy. In their attempt to amass convincing evidence against her, they tortured and blackmailed Anne of Askew, another Protestant and on of Catherine’s Ladies in Waiting for damning evidence.
However, she refuses to give up any information and their plot fails. Another reason the plot failed was because knowledge of the imminent arrests and procured warrant was leaked to the Queen, giving her enough time to appeal to the king. Yet again, the idea that Henry was easily influenced crops up, as Catherine convinces him that her wrongdoings were committed only because she was “a silly poor woman so much inferior in all respects of nature unto [King Henry].”
She managed to convince him that she had no intent of trying to change his religion, or teach him, resulting in his anger at Wriothesley which lead to his harshly calling the Lord Chancellor an “arrant knave, beast, and fool” and commanding him “presently to go out of [the king’s] presence.” In this case, it seems as if though Henry is both a master and prisoner of faction – Catherine never really posed him any threat, and that the nobles’ accusations were most likely exaggerations and/or cherry pickings of evidence, however, he defends her not because of his independent conviction of this fact, but because Catharine seems to have successfully sweet-talked him into conviction.
The fall of the Howards was another example of King Henry being a master of court faction. Seeing Henry’s impending death, Sir Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey asserted that the Howards were the obvious regents for Edward VI, resulting in an increase of enmity between the Howards and the Seymours – two families that were rivals for power at the time.
Henry’s issue, King Edward, was the son of Jane Seymour, and therefore a most valuable asset to the Seymour family. They expected that he’d be the key to their continued power in England and Howard stating that he should be regent naturally threatened their position. The support for the argument that the king was manipulated by court factions is that the Seymours, threatened themselves by the Howards’ potential power, spread rumours and caused Henry too to be suspicious of and threatened by him.
Previously, Thomas Howard, Sir Henry Howard’s father and Duke of Norfolk had, without the King’s orders, negotiated with and pacified the protestors at the Pilgrimage of Grace, such that he wouldn’t have had to fight a force of people severely stronger than and outnumbering him. The Seymours interpreted it in such a way that the Howards had enough power to end a rebellion, and therefore was a threat to the king’s power, and by extension his son Edward.
They accused both Surrey and Norfolk of treason, and backed this up with evidence from Surrey’s sister the Duchess of Richmond that he was still a close adherent to the Roman Catholic faith. That these purported facts were made clear to the king only through the Seymours who very evidently had ulterior motives, is evidence that Henry was influenced by their self-interests, and was therefore a prisoner of faction. However, as Source E suggests, “Henry’s court […] was riven by intrigue and faction struggles.
But we must resist the temptation to make these […] explain too much.” It is very possible that the Howards were planning to usurp power from Edward after the King’s death, seeing as they had been considered heir apparent when the king had no issue. Furthermore, they belonged to the only remaining powerful faction within the King’s court until he married Jane Seymour and the Seymour’s newfound power threatened this position.
Source D claims that Surrey had told Sir Gawen Carew to “note those men which are made by the King’s Majesty of vile birth hath been the destruction of all the nobility of the realm” – suggesting that he had a distrust towards these new powers, and was disapproving of the fact that the King had appointed those of “vile birth” such as the Cardinal and Cromwell into power. His conviction that his father “was meetest to rule the Prince in the event of the King’s death […] both for good services done and for estate” was possibly strong enough to have convinced the King that he intended to take power himself.
Despite the fact that the Seymours’ claims against the Howards were most likely self-interested, there is also evidence to suggest that there was some basis to these claims, and therefore the decision to execute the Howards was a decision made by the king of his own volition, and exempt from factional influences.
Perhaps most intriguingly, it can be argued that Henry’s final will and testament was the true determinant of his control over the factions. There has been much debate about whether Henry’s will truly represents his final wishes – many historians believe that the contents of the will were a product of court conspiracy, a coup.
The argument is that the will was not signed when it was dated, and was later doctored to benefit certain members of court and not others and that this was all a result of the fact that Henry’s mental state had deteriorated to such an extent that these nobles were able to manipulate and bypass his authority.
In Henry’s last revision of his will, one of the main changes were to purge a considerable number of important conservative noblemen – some even previously nominated by him to make up the regency council – such as Stephen Gardiner and Norfolk from the will. It is possible that the reason for these purges was that he faced considerable pressure from the evangelical faction – some of whose notable members were the Seymours, John Dudley, Lord Lisle, and William Paget.
Henry’s widely known disdain for writing possibly had a large part to do in this. IN order to avoid having to sign countless documents, Henry had formulated a carefully controlled, well documented system of a Dry Stamp. Disparities in the dates entered to the log book for when this was used has led many historians o believe that his will was tampered with in order to, amongst other benefits, give “unfulfilled gifts” to members of the evangelical faction.
This arbitrary and undefined bequeathment gave the evangelicals the means of buying off potential objectors to their sudden and dramatic rise in power. However, the argument for the fact that the King was master of court faction is that the reason Gardiner and Norfolk were purged from the will was not a result of evangelical manipulation, but rather their own actions. The fall of the Howard’s and Gardiner’s previously discussed most likely angered the king, and made him feel as if he could not trust them to be part of Prince Edward’s regency and do what was beneficial for his son, rather than themselves.
While the Gardiner’s still remained on lukewarm terms with the King, it was no surprise that he would have wanted Norfolk off his will, seeing as he had ordered the Howards’ execution mere months before his death. There is still much debate about both the forensic and contemporary evidence supporting either of these arguments. However, one can reach a conclusion about Henry’s hold over power regarding his will even without evidence.
Gardiner’s and Norfolk’s removal from the will were very clearly not results of plots against them by the evangelicals, but rather their own falls from grace, therefore making Henry the master of this particular issue. However, the bequeathing of unfulfilled gifts to the Seymours is quite suspect in any situation – with or without tampering, it is possible to argue that the King was influenced to do so, as no one in their right minds would grant unconditional gifts to another. Therefore, it can be argued that in certain aspects of the will, Henry was master of his albeit controversial decisions, while in others, open to being a prisoner of court faction.
Overall, there is more evidence supporting the argument that Henry was a master of court faction than there is supporting his being a prisoner of it. While the falls of both Exeter and Cromwell may have been wrongly brought about by court politics, Henry’s execution of Anne Boleyn was not a result of factional politics, but rather his own wounded pride; the defence of Cranmer a realisation of the petty politics governing his court; the defence of Gardiner a nuanced understanding of power dynamics and control by using the evangelicals’ movements against him as a warning of sorts; and the fall of the Howards a recognition of the need to protect Henry’s succession and son.
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