The politics of public relations: concepts of image, reputation and authority in henry viii’s england

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Like his father before him, Henry drew heavily on piety and historical allegory as the source of much of his authority as king. As a young ruler who had succeeded to the throne without challenge, he modeled himself after the great kings and warrior legends of the past to establish much of his majesty and honor. He drew upon the Church and pious tradition to establish his authority and sovereignty as an anointed, unquestionable king of England. Henry ruled in a time when it was increasingly important for a king to be both warrior and a man of learning. Traditional royal virtues of bravery, chivalry, justice and piety remained an essential aspect of Henry’s maiestas but the advent of the Renaissance and Reformation demanded the evolution of the Christian Prince, making the world and a king's role in it a very different place from the one in which his father ruled. Where Henry VII laid the groundwork, his son’s advancement of the art of representation and new styles of self-projection and publicization “fundamentally transformed the culture of authority and the monarchy itself.”136 Whatever monsters were to come, Henry had wasted no time establishing and presenting himself to the world as “a prodigy, a sun-king, a stupor mundi.”137 The very early years of his rule saw a king presiding over a world of romance, mythology and lavish allegory.138 Soon enough the displays of his wealth and the prestige that he took such personal joy in, would become colored by political his agenda, but early in the reign the world was a lighter, merrier place. Court pageants portrayed the roses and pomegranates of England and Spain united, reflecting the devotion of a young king to his queen. He dripped in wealth and majesty and charmed almost all who encountered him. The new regime was utterly stunning.

What the new king would become would prove equally stunning to his subjects. For all his charms, Henry harbored a dark side. His great charm could give way all too easily to rages and shouting, these most often fell on those he once claimed to love. Lord Privy Seal Thomas Cromwell was well advised by his predecessor and Henry’s one-time friend and mentor Thomas More in 1532 that he should “ever tell him (Henry) what he ought to do, but never what he is able to do,” for “if the lion knew his own strength, hard were it for any man to rule him.”139 More was imprisoned in 1534 for refusing to swear the Oath of Succession. As an example of Henry’s arbitrary wielding of the law, More was executed for treason for rejecting the king’s new title as Supreme Head of the Church after Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy in November 1534. Based on the Treason Act of February 1535, More’s words and deeds were punishable by death. Yet, how could he be charged with a crime that had not been made a treasonable offense until after he had committed it?

In addition to this charming knack for fabrication and single-minded determination, Henry was highly-strung, unstable and possessed an alarmingly ruthless streak of cruelty. As psychoanalyst J.C. Flügel suggested, he may have also suffered from an Oedipus complex, resulting in a desire for, and yet horror of incest, which will be key in discussing Boleyn’s downfall. All of these attributes, good and bad, came together to form a king as formidable as he was captivating, who wore his regality with splendid conviction.140 These same convictions would serve the king of England well in his efforts throughout the reign to assert and maintain his image and authority, which he would wield most frightfully on those closest to him. Still Henry’s greatest feat was perhaps keeping the general loyalty of his subjects. Though rebellions would arise and subsequently be crushed, for the most part Henry’s popularity did not wane in the face of his reforms and cruelties. His subjects still revered him as a great king who had England’s interests at heart.141
As the saying goes, “well-behaved women seldom make history.” Cliché these words may be, but there is no denying their truth regardless of time and circumstance. The sixteenth century would produce more remarkable women in Church and State than any prior to it, the majority of whom rose to recognition because of their inability to simply fall in line. Anne Boleyn is certainly among the most remarkable of this sisterhood. She was hardly the first or the last of her kind when she rose to power in the late 1520s. Henry would entertain a string of alleged and confirmed mistresses throughout his reign, but none would be as significant as Boleyn. Unlike her predecessors at Henry’s court, she was the archetypal elite royal mistress, who not only consorted with a king, but changed history in the process, joining the ranks of Katherine Swynford (founder of the Tudor line through the Beauforts) and Alice Perrers (mistress to Edward III and the living prototype for Chaucer’s Wife of Bath). Though in substantial company, Boleyn’s feats would surpass them all when in May 1533 she became the first mistress in history to take the place of an anointed, living queen, proving if nothing else, that she was a pioneer. This precedent was nearly a decade in the making, the process of which shall be discussed in further detail here. Having established Henry VIII’s formidable talent for image manipulation and communication to establish and maintain his own authority, a thorough examination of the public relations methods through which he justified his quest for, made and destroyed his mistress-Queen is necessary to the argument of this thesis.

First, an introduction to Anne Boleyn, and her formative years is appropriate. As one of three children of Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard, Boleyn was born in Norfolk to a well-off family with ties to the formidable house of Howard, one of the oldest and most powerful English noble families. There is much contention among historians about the year in which she was born and in what order she and her siblings George and Mary came into the world. Ives’ theory of 1500 as her birth year, behind Mary and before George is the most likely and generally accepted. This birth date is based on Boleyn’s brief placement as a maid of honour in 1513 to Margaret Habsburg, Archduchess of Austria.142 As she would later prove, the Boleyns were of ambitious stock. Her father’s position as a successful courtier and diplomat, serving first as ambassador to the Habsburgs and then to France, afforded his children exposure to the very best that Europe had to offer in the way of education and opportunity. Anne Boleyn’s dispatch to the Habsburg court in summer 1513 would alter the course of her life. Though she spent only a year there, it was a deeply significant one. Margaret’s court was the hub of decorum, elegance and art in Europe, and Boleyn was a quick study. It was at this worldly court that she learned the French language, wit, charm, grace, and developed an appetite for the arts that would later carry her to the English throne. Like her future husband, Boleyn was an exceptional child, precocious and charming. Those who encountered her during her youth recalled quite vividly that she learned quickly and was the ideal student in all ways of the court. After only a brief time with her, Margaret herself wrote glowingly of “how bright and pleasant for her young age” she found Boleyn and that she was “more beholden to you [Thomas Boleyn] for sending her to me than you are to me.”143 The most important aspect of Anne’s education under Margaret of Austria was the access to culture. For a century Flanders had been the cultural heart of northern Europe, a situation from which Boleyn greatly benefitted, being immersed in a world of art, books, music, and learning. Boleyn’s training here facilitated her endeavors throughout her life and her future achievements can in many ways be directly linked to her experiences in Burgundy.

A typical shift of Henry’s diplomatic aims forced Boleyn to leave Margaret’s court in August 1514 for France to serve first Mary Tudor in her brief marriage to the Dauphin and later the French queen, Claude. In France, Boleyn received invaluable lessons in the art of observation and imitation. It was here, at Europe's most notoriously erotic court that she acquired one of her most appealing qualities: a disarming and overt sexuality and gift for flirtation. At the sophisticated and promiscuous French court, her skills were refined so that by the time she was recalled to England in 1522, her famously cultivated European persona was complete. Without a doubt her continental education provided Boleyn with the tools needed to take the English court and the king himself by storm.

Upon her return to England it became increasingly clear that coquettish sexuality was not the only weapon in Boleyn’s arsenal. It was often commented upon by her peers that her mannerisms were distinctly French rather than English, providing her with an exotic allure that set her apart from other ladies so that “no one would ever have taken her to be English by her manners, but a native-born Frenchwoman.”144 There was simply no one at court who could rival her intellect and polish. Though she was not considered a traditional English beauty (fair and blonde), Boleyn was swan-necked with powerfully expressive eyes that “invited conversation,” which she “knew well” how to use, and lovely dark hair that nearly made up for her sallow complexion.145 Her allure was not based in looks, but rather in personality and intelligence. Her continental education had given her an irresistible style all her own. Also in terms of style, not much has changed in the last 500 years. The French court in the sixteenth century was a fashion hub with clothing distinctly different, more lavish, and impressive than any other court in Europe. The French had reputation for extravagance and excess, particularly in style of clothing. Anne wore her dresses and hoods cut in the French fashion, drawing even more notice to herself at the English court. Lancelot de Carles once described her as inferior to many in beauty “but for behavior, manners, attire and tongue she excelled them all.” Based on Ives’ timeline, Boleyn would have cut quite the figure when she arrived again on English soil as a 22-year-old in the flush of youth, dressed to kill, and with a charming French lilt to her speech. She was a true Renaissance woman and one who did not go unnoticed.

Boleyn was initially brought home to wed her Irish cousin James Butler, her family’s rival for the earldom of Ormonde. Their union was to mend the feud by marriage, though the arrangement never came to fruition and she remained in England where she soon attracted a slew of admirers, first the married poet Thomas Wyatt and later Henry Percy, future earl of Northumberland. Most historians agree that Wyatt’s love in particular, though ardent, was unrequited. In his poem “Whoso List to Hunt,” he writes of Boleyn as a deer being hunted down (by Henry) and out of Wyatt’s own reach because she declares “Caesar’s [the king] I am.” Whether Boleyn flirted in return is uncertain, but the general consensus remains that Wyatt loved her from afar. Things did get particularly messy when it came to Percy however, as he was already betrothed to Mary Talbot, though this did not stop him from binding himself to Boleyn as well.146 Though the rumors that they consummated a secret marriage have not been proven, it is clear that there was some sort of inappropriate affair between the two and at Henry’s command, Wolsey, who kept the young Percy in his household, refused to allow him to break the original match. Percy was eventually berated by his patron for his “peevish folly”147 and sent home to his father to find his wits once more. This, according to George Cavendish, marked the beginning of the enmity between Wolsey and Anne Boleyn.148 This debacle would come back to haunt Boleyn in 1532 when Mary Talbot petitioned for a divorce on the basis of Percy’s dalliance with the then soon-to-be queen Anne. If these early suitors and those later accused of adultery alongside her were any example, any man who loved Boleyn met with heartache and great troubles. Whatever trifles she may or may not have been involved in upon her return to England, it is clear that by 1527 the king so fancied her that “almost everything began to grow out of frame and good order.”149
“The Concubine” and the Beast
It is impossible to map an exact timeline of Boleyn’s rise in Henry’s affections. Though the “when” of the story remains a mystery, the “how” is more easily deciphered. An understanding of the king’s mindset and circumstances in the mid-1520s can provide a good starting point. Having firmly established himself as the King of English Hearts, Henry grew increasingly restless as he approached middle age. His years as peacemaker of Christendom had proven tiresome and perhaps more trouble than they were worth and the king began to look toward new pursuits. These often involved the various ladies of his court, as the king was prone to the “overmuch love of women.”150 Henry’s turn as “Sir Loyal Heart” had been short-lived and not much missed. Though rumors of paramours had surrounded the king since his first campaigns in France, the exact moment when Henry strayed in his marriage is unknown. No doubt it was within the first five years of his union as he took up with Elizabeth Blount, Catherine's lady-in-waiting, shortly after the New Year 1514. She bore the king a son, Henry Fitzroy, in 1519 before being neatly and quietly married off. Mary Boleyn soon followed in 1521. She likely carried on with the king until 1526 and may have borne him yet another bastard son.151 Whatever happened prior to Boleyn’s arrival, it was common knowledge that the king “never spared a man in his anger nor a woman in his lust.”152

Henry had tired of his marriage rather quickly, and Catherine was helpless to remedy the situation as she could provide no male heir. From 1524 onward, Henry and his advisors had become increasingly anxious about the matter of the succession. This was particularly so following a jousting accident in March when the king came within an inch of dying without an heir, bringing terrifying flashbacks to the civil wars of the previous generation. By this time Catherine was in her late thirties and had not had a pregnancy in five years following several stillbirths, miscarriages and the death of an infant prince in 1511. Their sole living child was Princess Mary, a girl who could not hold the throne. For all these reasons, Henry had been secretly questioning the validity of his marriage since around 1522.153 If Catherine had produced an heir, no doubt Boleyn's story would have been very different as noble women, particularly queens, were only as powerful as the sons they bore and the successions they secured. As one of her predecessors Elizabeth Woodville, married to the rapacious Edward IV, had demonstrated, fertility and a wealth of sons secured one’s unrivaled position as queen.154 A son was demanded and on this front Catherine had failed. By 1525, there was a real fear of dynastic crisis and the resumption of civil war, making the king and his council increasingly desperate. Boleyn could not have timed her ascent more aptly.

All of this put the king in the perfect mindset for Anne Boleyn, who out of ambition or virtue (perhaps both), refused to become his mistress. This did not deter the king in any way as evidenced by Henry’s appearance at the joust on Shrove Tuesday 1526 in the guise of a lover tortured, his costume emblazoned with a man’s heart engulfed in flames bearing the phrase “Declare, I dare not.” 155 As Alison Weir suggests, the king, by all appearances, had fallen in love for the first time in his life. His early boy-like awe of Catherine was eclipsed by a passion that only Boleyn could awaken in him. Henry’s devotion to Boleyn has often been dismissed as simply a randy and arrogant king who was unable to resist being denied. The “chase” was certainly a strong factor in Henry’s devotion, but evidence also suggests that there was a substantial relationship and compatibility between the doomed couple. The two were temperamentally very similar. Perhaps in the end, they were far too alike. Like Henry, Boleyn was more than intelligent, she was an intellectual. She had cut her teeth on the works of some of Europe's most influential scholars and evangelicals during her time in France. She grew up reading the commentaries of Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples and the poetry of Clement Marot. She was also greatly versed in the humanist genre, owning an early French translation of the Bible by Jean de Rely. While in France she kept company with women of the highest moral standards, learning and theological opinion. She was mentored by Margaret, Queen of Navarre, who famously used her position as queen to further the new religion that was spreading throughout Europe.

Aside from the scholarly and theological pursuits that would make them a formidable partnership in the coming years, the king and his mistress also shared the same talents and interests. How could Henry, a man known for his love of hunting, sport, games, and dancing, not be charmed by a woman who was his match in these in every way. Boleyn’s skills and grace as a dancer “rivaled Venus” reported the French chronicler Pierre de Bourdeilles Brantôme.156 She was also “imbued with as many outward good qualities in playing on instruments, singing, and such other courtly graces as few women were of her time.”157 Unlike Catherine, who had been reared under strict piety, which called for a woman to be seen and not heard, Boleyn enjoyed revelry, hunting, riding and card games. Trained as a courtier, not a queen, who need not learn the art of flirtation as most of their matches were made while still in the cradle, Boleyn was quick, witty and socially savvy. Her exceptional education and intellect almost commanded that she engage in not just superficial banter, but debate, with the men of Henry’s court, setting her apart from many women of her rank. “Her wit and intelligence marked her out” to the king and “her very difference was a challenge” to the notoriously competitive Henry. Still, the king’s attraction to Boleyn certainly went beyond sexual desire to include “common enjoyments, compatible interests, intellectual stimulation and shared political purpose.”158

With a clear picture of why Henry pursued Boleyn, it is important to understand how she advanced to such heights. Various theories surround the nature of Henry and Boleyn’s relationship. Joanna Denny posits that she was forced into courtship and a marriage that was a calculated and necessary evil in her aims to bring the true religion to England from her new seat as queen.159 Then there is the ambitious and unfeeling Anne Boleyn who heartlessly unseated a queen and drove a king to madness for her own selfish ambitions.160 And finally, there is the image of a young woman who was swept away in a passionate love affair that would lead to her undoing by her murderous tyrant of a husband.161 Truth lies somewhere within each of these theories. What is clear is that the king had tired of his wife and settled on an annulment shortly before or just as Boleyn entered the picture. Though she was not the cause, her presence provided an ever more appealing incentive for divorce. Here too, Henry was wholeheartedly committed to his beliefs. The king passionately felt that he had sinned against God in marrying his brother’s widow and as a result their union had not been blessed with male issue, and more importantly, never would be. And as Henry had demonstrated time and again, once he set himself on a course of action, nothing would deter him. On 22 June 1526, he went to Catherine’s chamber to announce his plans to petition the pope for an annulment, definitively opening the Pandora’s Box that would be known as “the King’s Great Matter,” and a match of wills between two very stubborn women.

The key to Boleyn’s rise was the fact that the court of England had long been modeled after those of the continent. In order to produce an appearance of prestige, the English court deliberately utilized elements of extravagance blended with chivalry, arts and culture. Thus, there was a demand for charming, adept courtiers with an air of European sophistication, something Boleyn had in ready supply and is well documented as using to her advantage. It was this complex socio-political system that facilitated her meteoric rise. Women were often the currency by which advancement was gained at court. Thomas Wyatt suggested that in order to gain position and favor, a man must be willing to provide “thy niece, thy cousin, thy sister or thy daughter.”162 Anne Boleyn the woman is synonymous with this system of currency at Henry VIII’s court, for it was her arsenal of wit, charm and grace that allowed her to work the system to her ultimate advantage. By 1527 Henry was utterly besotted with Boleyn and “so swayed by his passions,” that he intended to replace Catherine with her.163 But the more Henry pursued her, the more Boleyn resisted his advances. Henry, used to getting what he wanted by any means necessary, was nearly driven mad by this apparent stringing along. The seventeen surviving letters he wrote to her during their courtship attest to the king’s apparent madness that Cavendish earlier alluded to. “My heart and I surrender ourselves into your hands,” the king wrote in one, while in another he hurriedly closes, “no more for fear of tiring you.” Henry’s affections only escalated with time so that soon he liked and trusted “above everyone, the mademoiselle Anne” reported French ambassador Jeanne du Ballay. Henry soon realized that his dual interests met in Boleyn: final possession of his mistress and a new queen with whom to make legitimate sons. Henry’s desire for a divorce went public in early 1527. Soon after the king proposed marriage to Boleyn, who agreed and completely changed her tactics by summer of that year. The king applied for papal dispensation in August.164

Since Henry would not be deterred from his new love and he was determined that his marriage should end, the king needed to ensure his will was achieved and above all, accepted without question. He took the first steps toward the most significant public relations campaign of his reign in 1527 when his intentions were made known and quickly became “the scandal of Christendom.” Unbeknownst to all parties involved, Henry and Boleyn’s ill-fated marriage would not take place until 1533 and would come at a much higher price than anyone could have imagined. Henry certainly did want to be free of Catherine and able to marry Boleyn, but he was bent on keeping his carefully cultivated image unharmed in the process. He wanted it declared and acknowledged that it had not been right for him to marry Catherine and understood that he wanted to take another wife “not for any carnal concupiscence, nor for any displeasure or like of the Queen’s person or age,” but because of a “certain scrupulosity that pricked my conscience.”165 Ever concerned with his reputation, Henry sought “legitimacy and exoneration” above all.166

This thesis will explore three interwoven campaigns of Henry’s in detail: first, his justification of the divorce, and later his campaigns for the Supremacy, and third, his legitimization of Boleyn. All three campaigns championed the same notion and image: “Henry VIII as a humanistic…philosopher king, a learned and temperate ruler who solicits the counsel of wise men assembled at his court, in the universities, and in the two houses of Parliament,” “displaying an image “designed to assure the realm that such a king, guided by such good counsel, was directing the government’s actions in what everyone recognized were dangerous times.”167 Furthermore, this approach suggested that Henry was moral and conflicted, welcoming open debate and truthful counsel rather than “encouraging his subjects not to think him a tyrant.” In reality, this discourse was extremely limited as Henry saw to it that stipulation after stipulation were set in place for challenging his belief. Not just anyone was allowed to participate in this discourse. Only court counselors and those legitimately connected to the king and his interests were taken seriously. And furthermore, only “philosophical inquiry into a general question” would be accepted in discussing the king’s matter, which “diluted criticism’s of the king’s specific actions.”168 Whatever his claims, Henry left little room for opposition.

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