Henry IV: Fatherhood, Masculinity and International Sovereign Status

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In the last decade of their reigns, a series of legal disputes arose between Francis and Henry which seem oddly trivial and unnecessarily prolonged to the modern observer. Yet, there was an earnest tenacity about them. The apparent issue in each was the respect for the legalities of treaties between them, and particularly honouring the financial obligations each had to the other. At heart, however, they were really about their respective claims to personal honour as kings and brothers. Having competed, although never at close quarters, as warriors and as material patrons, and now constrained by the power of Charles V from breaking with each other strategically, Henry and Francis began rivalling each other as governors in the administration of royal justice in the international sphere. As we have noted, trustworthiness and reliability were seen as crucial aspects of public manhood in the early modern period. In line with this view, each king asserted that he had always honoured his obligations to his brother monarch, and his subjects, under the terms of agreements between them. The corollary was that the other had failed to do so, that he was not therefore the king he claimed to be. In other words, that he was not demonstrating a virtus or manliness that deserved honour and respect in the international community of kingship and nobility – a highly personal and damaging allegation.

The first of these disputes arose in April 1537 when Cardinal Reginald Pole, the king’s cousin, arrived in France from Rome, ostensibly to sponsor some kind of Franco-Imperial and Scottish action against Henry, the exact nature of which remains undetermined, and for which there was no real appetite. He made a formal entry to Paris and was welcomed at the French court. The English king demanded that he be apprehended as a traitor, under the terms of the Eternal Peace agreement of 1527. Sir Francis Bryan was despatched to secure his arrest and, with Stephen Gardiner, the resident English ambassador, to press for a resumption of the French pension debts to Henry. Francis received Pole politely but then sent him away from his court and maintained that the two English envoys had not formally requested his arrest and certainly not had him ‘by some means trussed up and conveyed to Calais’ as Henry had wanted. This assertion was deeply resented by Henry who bided his time. Returning from this mission, Bryan brought with him evidence of an apparently libellous poem about Anne Boleyn written by a servant of the Bishop of Tarbes. Henry demanded that Francis explain why he had not suppressed it.

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This was followed by one of those sudden re-flowerings of friendship when, in October 1537, Jane Seymour gave birth to Henry’s longed-for male heir. The proud father received the congratulations of Francis, telling him in response that his joy was mingled with sadness at the death of Jane. Henry now saw his dynasty as secured. Henceforward, the one-time chivalric warrior increasingly regarded himself, and was portrayed, not just as the father of his own heir, but of the whole English people. To some extent the king as father was a familiar trope in royal propaganda across the period, but it had a very particular force in Henry’s England, and beyond. Perhaps the most famous image of Henry, the mural portrait made by Hans Holbein for the king’s Privy Chamber at Whitehall sets out this vision of royal fatherhood and masculine power in heroic terms. The king is pictured with his parents Henry VII and Elizabeth of York and with Jane, the mother of his son. A plinth in the centre of the painting proudly declares in Latin:

If it pleases you to see the illustrious image of heroes, look on these: no picture ever bore greater. The great debate, competition and great question is whether father or son is the victor./For both indeed were supreme./The former often overcame his enemies and the conflagration of his country, and finally brought peace to its people./The son, born indeed for greater things removed the unworthy from their altars and replaced them by upright men.

The iconography of the painting emphasises Henry’s fertility and legitimacy as ruler and makes explicit claims for him as a greater man and monarch than his father, the founder of the dynasty. The mural would have been seen by comparatively few people but some French envoys who were close courtiers of Francis were certainly among them.

The physical reality behind Holbein’s splendid image of the king was rather different. During these years, Henry suffered several hunting and jousting accidents with deleterious effects on his health. The most serious injury had come in 1536 when he lay unconscious for some two hours. His ulcerated legs restricted his mobility and without any changes in his diet, precipitated the obesity and further medical problems that thereafter beset him. In 1541 the French ambassador Marillac, reported that Henry was ‘very stout and marvellously excessive in eating and drinking so that people with credit say he is often of a different opinion in the morning than after dinner’.

Soon after Jane Seymour’s death, Cromwell told the English ambassador in France that Henry, following the good advice of his council, was determined to marry. A farcical search for a bride among French noblewomen, including Marie de Guise duchesse de Longueville, ensued with Henry at one point suggesting that a group of them should be assembled at Calais so he could make his choice. The French king regarded this suggestion as ludicrously ungallant. Louis Perreau, seigneur de Castillon, Francis’s ambassador in England was told that:

Francis laughed greatly at the language used to his ambassadors, saying that it would seem they [the English] meant to do with women there as with their geldings, collect a number and trot them out to take which goes best.

Henry dithered over Marie, but nevertheless expected that Francis would give her to him when he finally determined upon her for his bride.

He was, however, rebuffed not just by Francis but it seems by Marie herself, and was outflanked by his fleet-footed nephew James of Scotland. In the autumn of 1536 James had joined the French court, then in mourning for the dauphin François who had died in August. On 1 January 1537, he had married Francis’s daughter Madeleine at Nôtre Dame in Paris, thereby greatly strengthening the auld alliance with France. Tragically, Madeleine died on 7 July, barely two months after her arrival in Scotland. By the start of the following year James was seeking the hand of Marie de Guise for himself. He had congratulated his uncle on the birth of Prince Edward in October 1537, but thereafter showed total indifference to his English uncle’s new matrimonial ambitions. While Henry looked elsewhere, James secured a marriage contract that brought him a dowry for 100,000 livres tournois. He and Marie were married by proxy on 9 May 1538 and she arrived in Scotland the following month, received with great celebrations, including a tournament and banquets, held at St Andrews.

Even as this all played out, a disappointed Henry attempted to interpose himself as mediator of a new settlement between Charles and Francis who had been at war since 1536. Far from being in any way marginalised by the break with Rome, Henry now saw himself as able to lead his fellow kings, to warn and alert them to the dangers to their authority posed by the papacy. He urged both to reject Pope Paul III’s offers of mediation in favour of his own. He instructed Sir Thomas Wyatt, his ambassador with the emperor, to remind Charles just how obligated he should feel towards Henry: he could not choose a mediator of more honour than Henry, ‘nor one to whom he has more cause to show gratitude’. While Henry understood that Charles’s familial affection for Queen Katherine had led to a regrettable rupture between himself and the emperor, now she was dead, and ‘the cause of affection being removed, he trusted to have the former amity revived’. Charles, Henry went on, ‘should ponder whether he or the bishop of Rome could best serve him’. These efforts turned on a new, possibly Imperial, or French, wife for Henry and a husband for Princess Mary. They came to nothing as Henry dithered further about which potential bride to choose from the several still remaining on offer in France.

The two continental rulers eventually met at Aigues-Mortes in July 1538 and reached a form of entente-cordiale, guided by Paul III and without Henry’s advice or assistance. There followed two years of difficult but earnest efforts by both sides to show trust and confidence in each other. Henry sought ways to break up their apparently cosy consensus, fearing that it presaged some form of action against England, particularly after the suppression of the Pilgrimage of Grace and the despoliation of the tomb of St Thomas Beckett at Canterbury. A range of issues from the seizure of English bibles printed in France, various maritime disputes and demands for extradition occupied both regimes in seemingly endless bickering and point-scoring about royal honour. As in the Cardinal Pole case, these controversies still seen by the counsellors of both kings as a vital expression of their sovereign’s status because they touched upon his authority as judge or governor of his realm.

By January 1539, Henry was convinced that an attack on him was imminent. In February, the French ambassador Castillon suddenly quit his post saying that Henry had ‘neither reasoning nor understanding left’ and that he was fearful of being taken hostage amidst deteriorating relations with France. This only heightened Henry’s anxieties further. He began the fortification of the southern coasts of England and Wales, from Lincolnshire and Essex around to Milford Haven and increased naval preparedness. Playing on the theme of Henry as father of the nation, the royal propagandist Richard Morison also praised him as the good shepherd (a figure of Christ himself of course) who would ‘diligently watch that we may safely sleep’ protected from the, presumably malign, designs of foreign powers. Henry was certainly very actively governing his kingdom’s life that year. As well as the defensive works he undertook, the Great Bible in English (into which some elements of the French-printed Matthew’s Bible had found their way) was published. As Sharpe and many others have discussed, its frontispiece showed Henry as a David of the Old Testament, priest, prophet, and king, distributing the Word of God to his people at all social levels and being thanked profusely by a grateful kingdom.

As all of this went forward, Charles V, then in Spain, received news that part of his dominions appeared very ungrateful to him indeed. In August 1539 there was an uprising in his native city of Ghent. The emperor was determined to go there personally to restore his authority. Surprisingly perhaps, Francis accepted Charles’s secret request to invite him to travel from Spain through France to Flanders. Although the prospect greatly worried the emperor’s council, it was his initiative. It also worried Henry lest it betokened an increased prospect of joint action against him. The emperor entered France in late November and was fêted by his French hosts as he made his way up from Bayonne to the Loire Valley, thence to Fontainebleau where Charles spent Christmas. On 1 January 1540 he was formally received into Paris.

Henry’s image was being yet again re-packaged at this time as he took a major personal and strategic decision, to marry Anne of Cleves. Against the background of the apparent Franco-Imperial rapprochement, Henry sought allies. Influenced, if not entirely guided, by Cromwell’s advocacy of an alliance with Johann the duke of Cleves, Henry saw himself and his prospective queen as defending an England reformed in his own image, just as he had once hoped to have done with the first Queen Anne of his reign, and in a way that the Whitehall portrait and the front page of the Great Bible in English now proclaimed him to be doing. Although worried, Henry was determined to be on the front foot once more. By this dramatic volte-face in the conventional pattern of alliances, he hoped to disconcert his two great rivals as well as the pope, and everyone else into the bargain, and to force himself into the reckoning once more on the international stage, just as he had first done in 1514. Anne was received in Calais in early December but, famously, Henry’s first horrified glimpse of her at Rochester on New Year’s Day 1540, the same day the emperor entered Paris, presaged all that followed. A desperate search for loopholes ensued but with none found, the marriage went ahead. A forlorn and angry Henry had no choice but to have it annulled in July on the humiliating grounds of non-consummation, with the necessarily embarrassing details of his impotence in the marriage bed read into the transcript of the case put before Convocation - albeit in a way that imputed the fault to the confused bride’s unappealing physicality and immature sexuality rather than the king’s incapacity, and this is the way it was explained internationally.

By the summer of 1540 Henry was asserting that he had only ever sought to steer a ‘middle way’ in religion at home, presenting his realm as righteously reformed and still theologically orthodox and therefore undeserving of papal censure, or worse. And this he had been doing by the time of Cromwell’s fall from power and his execution for treason in July 1540. Indeed, it has been argued that this was what precipitated that fall, as Henry sought to rid himself of the minister responsible for the Cleves debacle and one who could now be characterised as a dangerous sacramentarian from whose malign influence Henry had freed himself, and who was justly brought to the block. Imperial and French ambassadors in turn eagerly welcomed Cromwell’s death, assuring Henry that the minister’s removal was the surest means to a return of good relations with their respective masters.The French were indeed by then much more interested in an alliance with Henry, as was Charles.

Henry’s reputation was not exactly enhanced by his next marriage, to Catherine Howard, in July 1540. He was rejuvenated in mind and soul at least, and perhaps in body, by Catherine and as the French ambassador Marillac reported Henry was ‘so amourous of her that he cannot treat her well enough and caresses her more than he did the others’. Unfortunately, Catherine’s admitted sexual, or at least romantic, interactions with several young men before her marriage and those with Thomas Culpepper as she accompanied Henry on his extended progress to York in 1541, left him cuckolded and once more humiliated. The queen’s transgressions brought her to the ultimate punishment. Its imposition saved Henry’s face and he portrayed himself domestically and internationally as the victim of ill-intentioned females, but that hardly improved his standing measured against contemporary patriarchal expectations of male control over women.

The courts of Europe doubtless sniggered behind their collective hands over Henry’s latest matrimonial antics but the fragility of the Franco-Imperial entente that had so demoralised him in 1538-9 had become apparent by surprisingly early in 1540. In April, Charles announced that he would invest his own son Philip with the duchy of Milan, in flat contradiction of his ‘understanding’ with Francis that he would give it to one of Francis’s two younger sons. This, despite the extravagant hospitality he had received, and assurances he had seemed to give, while in France the previous winter. The English ambassador in France, Sir John Wallop urged senior courtiers including Marguerite de Navarre and Anne de Heilly, Madame d’Etampes, the king’s mistress, to persuade Francis to be reconciled with Henry. David Potter has demonstrated that, like Marguerite, Madame d’Etampes had an ambiguous, perhaps even ambivalent, attitude towards relations with England, but was broadly anti-Habsburg and was carefully courted by English ambassadors in the early 1540s. Katherine Wellman has confirmed that her influence over Francis in these years worked generally in English interests insofar as she opposed Montmorency’s policies, promoted his rivals at Francis’s court and favoured maintaining cordial personal relations between the two kings.

War broke out between the emperor and Francis in 1542. Faced, delightedly, once more with conflict between his rivals, Henry chose to back the imperial side, as he had done twice before in his reign. He agreed an alliance with Charles in 1543 that committed him to a war that began with the invasion of France and the siege of Boulogne in July 1544. The king hauled his huge bulk into a carapace of armour and directed the operation, re-living to the extent that his disabling obesity allowed him, the excitement of personal warfare that he had first experienced in 1513. Henry entered the conquered city on 18 September. He knighted a number of his commanders and, in poor health, quickly withdrew to England. The successful siege was supposed to presage a joint attack on Paris, but meanwhile Charles, rapidly running out of money, had abandoned Henry in the field and signed a hastily agreed peace, of Crépy, with Francis. This freed Francis to turn against England the following year. Henry’s successful defence of Portsmouth and Southampton (despite the loss of the Mary Rose) against a French invasion fleet in July 1545 was the final military achievement of his reign.

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Henry IV: Fatherhood, Masculinity and International Sovereign Status. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/henry-iv-fatherhood-masculinity-and-international-sovereign-status/
“Henry IV: Fatherhood, Masculinity and International Sovereign Status.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/henry-iv-fatherhood-masculinity-and-international-sovereign-status/
Henry IV: Fatherhood, Masculinity and International Sovereign Status. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/henry-iv-fatherhood-masculinity-and-international-sovereign-status/> [Accessed 21 Jun. 2024].
Henry IV: Fatherhood, Masculinity and International Sovereign Status [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 15 [cited 2024 Jun 21]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/henry-iv-fatherhood-masculinity-and-international-sovereign-status/
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