CHAPTER V. HENRY VIII (i), 1509-27 - EGO ET REX MEUS

[Europe in 1509]

Roughly speaking, the forty years preceding the accession of Henry VIII. had witnessed the birth of modern Europe. The old feudal conception of Christendom had passed away: the modern conception of organic States had taken its place. The English Kings had for some time ceased to hold sway in France, whether as claimants to the throne or as great feudatories. France herself had become a united and aggressive nation; the fusion of the Spanish monarchies was almost completed: the Emperor was no longer regarded as the titular secular head of Christendom, but was virtually the chief of a loose Germanic confederation. The Turk, finally established in Eastern Europe, was shortly to find himself regarded as a possible ally of Christian Powers; Christendom still reckoned the Pope as its spiritual head, but the cataclysm was already preparing; and the enterprise of daring seamen had but just rent the veils that had hidden from the nations of Europe the boundless possibilities of a new world in the West and an ancient world in the East, converting the pathless ocean into the great Highway.

[England's position in Europe]

Since the death of the conqueror Henry V., England herself had been rent and torn by internal broils. For many a long year she had taken but little share in the affairs of Europe. But it had been the part of the first Tudor King to win for her breathing time; to secure a period for rest and internal recuperation, which should fit her to hold her own in the counsels of Europe should her interests demand it. The civil broils were ended; trade had revived; wealth had been accumulating. Henry had not sought military glory, but he had played the game of diplomacy with acuteness and finesse. When he ascended the throne, the princes of Europe had regarded England as a Power that might safely be neglected unless she could be used as a cat's-paw; but before he died they had learned that they could no longer negotiate with him except on equal terms. In a sense, perhaps, it is true that England was still reckoned as no more than a third-rate [Footnote: Cf. Brewer, Reign of Henry VIII., i., p.3; Creighton, Wolsey, p. 11. The estimate, however, seems to be rather the outcome of an inclination to magnify Wolsey's achievement.] power, since her military prestige had fallen and the chances of its restoration were untested, while her interests would not naturally lead her into active participation in European complications; but she had at least achieved sufficient importance for the Powers to desire her favour rather than her ill-will, and for herself to be able to put a price on her support when it was asked.

[The new King]

So far, however, it was rather respect for the personal ability of Henry VII. than a high estimate of the English nation that had secured the English position; and when the astute old monarch was succeeded on the throne by a frank, high-spirited lad of eighteen, the Princes of Europe flattered themselves that England would revert to the position of a cat's-paw. From this point of view the first beginnings of the reign were promising. Europe, however, was soon to be undeceived; to discover that the young King had an unfailing eye for a capable minister, a sincere devotion to his own interests, and an unparalleled power of reconciling the dictates of desire and conscience.

At home, circumstances combined to render Henry extraordinarily popular. Handsome, endowed with a magnificent physique, a first-rate performer in all manly exercises, gifted with many accomplishments, scholar enough to be proud of his scholarship, open of hand, frank and genial of manner, with a boyish delight in his endowments and a boyish enthusiasm for chivalric ideals, all English hearts rejoiced in his accession. The scholars looked forward to a Saturnian age; his martial ardour fired the hopes of the fighting men; the populace hailed with joy a King who began his rule by striking down the agents of extortion to whom he owed the wealth inherited from his economical sire. Henry in fact was blessed with the most valuable of all possessions for a ruler of men, a magnetic personality, which made his servants ready to go through fire and water, to stifle conscience, to forgo their own convictions at his bidding.

When he ascended the throne, however, none had the glimmering of a suspicion whither that imperious will was to direct the destinies of the nation: his earliest acts gave little indication of the later developments of his character and policy.

[1509 Marriage]

His first step was to complete the marriage with Katharine of Aragon, to whom he had been betrothed, under the papal dispensation, on the death of his elder brother, her husband. It is not without interest to note, in view of a plea put forward against the "divorce" in later years, that the bride was arrayed for the wedding as one who was not a widow but a maiden. Shortly afterwards Empson and Dudley, his father's unpopular agents, were brought to the block after attainder on a not very credible charge of treason, [Footnote: Brewer, i., p. 44; L. &P., i., 1212.] since the misdeeds of which they had been guilty could hardly be construed into capital offences.

Now, however, events on the Continent were to offer a field for Henry's ambitions, and incidentally to disillusion, at least in part, his young enthusiasms.

[The Powers: 1509-12]